SELF-OPENING ACTIONS

 

Self-opening systems are a British thing —  or so they say…And yet, one of the first if not the first self-opening mechanism was patented by Antonine Lebeda, Jr. It was used to assist the opening of Lefaucheux patent break-open guns, with the fore-end permanently hinged to the action body (systeme Lefaucheux). The self-opening part of the mechanism was a spring-loaded lever that acted on a lengthwise channel in the barrel lump.

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Self-opening mechanism on a Lefaucheux-type gun by A. V. Lebeda in Prague.

 

Then came Frederick Beesley (1846-1928), who began his gunmaking career as a stockmaker at Purdey’s and opened his own business in 1878. On January 3, 1880, he obtained the British patent №31 for «hammerless self-opening spring-cocking gun». Beesley wrote to Purdey about this invention even before the patent was granted — on December 18, 1879. By January 1880 they prepared an agreement, by which all rights under the pending patent passed to Purdey for 20 pounds and the royalty of 5 shillings for each of the first 200 guns. Purdey offered to pay 35 pounds of royalty in advance, and obtained full rights for a single payment of only 55 pounds. Then Beesley, as Purdey’s assignor, patented his system also in Belgium (patent №52603 of September 20, 1880) and the U.S. (patent №250189 of  November 11, 1881). The first gun on the new system was finished by Purdey in 1880.

Yet, Beesley did not invent his system completely from scratch. It was based on the principle of the rebounding lock. Rebounding locks first appeared on hammer guns, with two Wolverhampton lockmakers, Thomas Rigby and John Stanton, competing for the title of their inventor: there was only 3 days difference in dates between their 1867 patents! By the way, Beesley referred to Stanton’s patent in description of his own invention. Some time later Beesley, also as an assignor, obtained the British patent №823 of February 14, 1883, and the U.S. patent №10281 of February 6, 1883. These patents clarified some nuances of the system. It is not clear why he needed the «second edition» of the patents; probably it was only to extend the patent protection time.

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Frederick Beesley (1846 – 1928)

 

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John Stanton’s rebounding lock. Image by dogsanddoubles.com

 

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Image from Beesley’s patent.

 

 

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Fig. 1

 

From the point of view of mechanics, Beesley’s action is a system of a V-shaped spring and a tumbler that rotates around the axis A (Fig.1). When compressed, the spring acts on the upper pin on the tumbler with the force of P1, and since this force is applied at a shoulder L1, it creates torque of M1 = P1xL1 on axis A. The lower arm of the spring acts on the lower pin of the tumbler with the force P2, which creates torque M2=P2xL2 in the direction opposite to M1. When the spring, compressed by the cam (5), is released, the tumbler will turn around the axis A until the torques M1 and M2 are equal (Fig. 2). This simple principle is the basis of Beesley-Purdey action.

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Fig. 2

 

Figure 1 illustrates the moment when the lock has been fired. On Figure 2 you can see the moment after the gun has been opened. The mainspring is then set free and brings the tumbler to full cock. The mainspring is compressed with the gun is closed (Figure 3).

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Fig. 3

 

The lower arm of the mainspring is connected to the tumbler by an additional link, known as swivel (7). The swivel adjusts the trajectories of travel of the tumbler (1) and the mainspring (3), and also compensates for the fall in torque on the last part of the tumbler’s motion due to decrease of the mainspring’s pressure (the pressure is at maximum when the mainspring is fully compressed).

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The Beesley-Purdey system: 1 — tumbler, 2 — sear; 3 — mainspring; 4 — bridle, 5 — cam, 6 — roller; 7 — swivel; 8 — intercepting sear; 9 — sear spring; 10 — intercepting sear spring; 11 — mainspring pin; 12 — pads; 13 — cocking rods.

 

When the gun is closed, the barrel flats press on the pads (12) that protrude from the action flats. The pads go down, rotating around their axis, and push the cocking rods (13). The cocking rods act on the cams (5), causing them to rotate and compress the mainsprings. To decrease the friction, a roller (6) is fitted into the upper arm of the mainspring. When the gun is opened, regardless of whether the locks have been fired or not, the mainsprings produce torque that is transferred to barrel flats through the system of cam — cocking rod — pad, and ensures the self-opening effect.

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7-pin Beesley-Purdey lock with lightened bridle.

 

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7-pin lock on Purdey single shot gun.

 

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A variant of Beesley’s lock with interceptor, 1884. Image by http://www.steniron.com

 

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A 9-pin Beesley-Purdey lock. Image by http://www.hallowellco.com

 

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A 9-pin Beesley-Purdey lock with safety catch (12) locking the sear (11).

 

Purdey made three variants of Beesley’s action. Two are known as 9-pin locks, because they have 9 clearly visible ends of screws and pins of the locks on the external side of the lock plate. One of them did not feature an interceptor, but was fitted instead with a safety catch that locked the sear. There was also a 7-pin lock, without intercepting sears and with lighter bridle. This variant was also used on the company’s single shot guns; there were only 59 of them made. The modern range of Purdey’s includes also a «pinless» variant of the Beesley’s lock, that is, the lock where all pins except the tumbler axis are made integral with the lock plate.

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A pinless Beesley type lock. Image by holtsauctioneers.com

 

There have been numerous attempts to «improve» Beesley’s patent since its invention to this day. However, I do not know of any «improved» version where the changes actually altered the basic principle of Beesley’s action. They say that Henry Atkin’s version cocks more smoothly than the Purdey’s version, because Atkin allegedly improved Beesley’s system. As a matter of fact, Atkin’s improvements have to do with the ejector linkage: in Atkin’s guns the ejector is triggered by a separate lever that is acted on by the sear. The subjective feeling of «smoothness» probably results from the fact that Henry Atkin improved the shapes of conjoining elements of the lock.

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Henry Atkin’s lock. Image by http://www.vintageguns.co.uk

 

Another original design of ejector link can be seen on the gun made in 1927 by Joseph Defourney (younger brother of Antoine Joseph Defourney) for Louis Branquaert.

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A Beesley type gun made by Joseph Defourney for Branquaert (Brussels) in 1927. The ejector link (blue arrow) is pushed by a plunger (red arrow) that is acted upon by the tumbler. Image by http://www.steniron.com

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The ejector link in the original Beesley lock. Image by http://www.vintageguns.co.uk

 

 It is amazing, but even the greatest gun writers made mistakes in their description of Beesley’s action. For instance, both Greener and Burrard claimed that the system works because one of the arms of the mainspring is stronger than the other. Only in 1971 Gough Thomas (Godfrey Thomas) Garwood, in his Gough Thomas’s Second Gun Book, corrected this mistake. Mr. Garwood quoted Richard Akehurst’s Game Guns & Rifles (1969), which stated that Beesley’s action used the energy of both limbs of the mainspring at all times. This is quite evident, if you pay attention to the fact that the mainspring is free to rotate around its axis. Therefore, from the point of view of mechanics, the mainspring is an elastic lever.

With so many parts to be fitted, and so many parts that interact with each other, Beesley’s action requires the highest degree of precision in making. The mainspring is very difficult to make, due to its sophisticated geometry, and its strength has to be just right: strong enough to prevent misfires but not too strong to make worse the basic ergonomic incorrectness of having to overcome the tension of the spring when closing the gun. Still, the Beesley-Purdey system is a mechanical masterpiece that has been keeping its admirers in awe for over 130 years. Many gunmakers, including Belgian, were able to reproduce it, but only James Purdey & Sons Ltd. still makes it.

Frederick Beesley developed another self-opening system (British patent №425 of January 2, 1884, Belgian patent № 67064 of December 1, 1884, U.S. patent № 320040 of June 16, 1885).

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Drawing from Beesley’s patent №425 of January 2, 1884.

 

As far as we can judge from the description, Beesley’s idea was to simplify the action by replacing the cocking rod and the V-spring with an one-arm spring that would also cock the tumbler. Self-opening was a side effect of the mechanics of compressing the mainspring with closing motion of the barrels. Beesley used this system in his boxlock guns.

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A Beesley self-opening boxlock. Image from doublegunshop.com

 

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A Beesley system boxlock by Lancaster. Image from doublegunshop.com

Shotgun The Triuph of Crescent Fire Arms Co with the Beesley action.

 

Beesley’s patent rights were acquired by Charles Lancaster & Co owned by Henry Thorn. Under the license of Lancaster, the shotgun «The Triumph» was produced by the American company Crescent Fire Arms Co. Thorn’s gunmakers were able to adapt this principle to sidelock guns as well. Charles Lancaster & Co offered Beesley patent sidelocks, known as «Wrist-Breakers», until 1920s.

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Lancaster «Wrist-Breaker» gun

 

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«Wrist-Breaker» side locks. Image from doublegunshop.com

 

Another self-opening boxlock design was developed by Henry Tolley. He didn’t only patent his system (British patent №10101 of July 12, 1884; U.S. patent №315858 of April 14, 1885), but made a few guns on that. Evidently, Tolley’s system achieves the same ends as Beesley’s, but is much simpler.

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A boxlock by Tolley. Image by dogsanddoubles.com

 

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Tolley’s patent drawing.

 

Since the late XIX century British gunmakers developed numerous self-opening systems. In modern terminology some of them are classified as «assisted-opening» and «easy-opening». Among these, one can’t fail to mention the self-opening system of Henry Holland and William Mansfield (British patent № 202405 of May 18, 1922), used by Holland&Holland for their «Royal» model, and also by some Spanish companies. According to Donald Dallas, the first Holland&Holland self-opener, №30595, was finished on April 27, 1923.

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H&H Royal self-opening mechanism.

 

 

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Advertisement of the self-opening mechanism from The Field, March 22, 1923.

 

 

The principle of Holland & Mansfield self-opening mechanism is as simple as genius. A push on the action above the hinge pin naturally creates torque that tries to open the gun. This torque is created by a simple coil spring, fitted neatly between the front barrel lump and the fore-end lump.

Assisted-opening and easy-opening systems are outside the scope of this paper. I shall only say that the distinction between self-opening, assisted-opening and easy-opening designs is largely arbitrary, and not all experts agree on it. Many «assisted-opening» and «easy-opening» systems can be turned into full-scale self-openers by minor changes in schematics, or even the power of the springs.

A Belgian self-opening system.

 

Original self-opening systems were developed not only in Great Britain, but also in Belgium. One such gun, made at the beginning of the XX century, is illustrated here. I don’t know yet who patented this action, or whether the system was patented at all, but there’s no doubt it’s Belgian. This system achieves the same ends as the Beesley-Purdey system. In the Belgian system there is more room for the actioneer. In spite of its apparent sophistication, the Belgian system is easier to put together and regulate. This is, I believe, one of the reasons it exists.

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A self-opening boxlock by Defourney, «ARA» in the company’s catalogue.

 

 

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The principle of Defourney’s self-opening system: 1 – sear; 2 – tumbler; 3 – roller; 4 – mainspring; 5 – cocking lever; 6 — pad.

 

 

Two Belgian self-opening systems that deserve special attention were designed by Defourney, a box lock and a side lock. Apart from Belgium (1907 patent), Defourney had his system patented in France (patent №464.536 of November 7, 1913) and Great Britain (patent №13189 of May 29, 1914). The gem of this design is the flat mainspring (4), with one side hinged and the other leaning against the tumbler (2). The mainspring is compressed when the gun is closed. The residual pressure of the mainspring after letdown of the tumbler is siffcient to ensure self-opening effect. It’s worthy of note that Defourney used the same principle as Tolley did 13 years earlier.

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Defourney’s self-opening sidelock, «HAR» in the catalogue.

 

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Defourney’s patent drawing.

 

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Defourney’s self-opening sidelock: 1 — tumbler; 2 — mainspring; 3 — cocking lever; 4 — cocking lever spring; 5 — cam; 6 — pad. The rollers are shown in red circles.

 

 

Let us consider Defourney’s self-opening sidelock system. The long mainspring (2) has one end fixed on an axis, and its other end presses against a pin protruding from the tumbler. The tumbler is cocked when the gun is opened, by a long, spring-loaded cocking lever (3). When the gun is closed, the pad (6), being pressed by the barrel flats, rotates around its axis and compresses the mainspring through the cam. The contact areas between pad and cam, and between cam and mainspring, are fitted with rollers for smoother operation.

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Francotte self-opening boxlock.

 

 

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A drawing from the catalogue of Etablissements Braekers,  1926.

 

 

«Shotgun Technicana» by David Trevallion and Michael McIntosh mentions a self-opening boxlock gun made by A. Francotte in 1937. The same action was used by Etablissements Braekers of Liege in the late 1920s. The tumbler is cocked in the traditional manner, by a cocking lever when the gun is opened. When the gun is closed, the pads are pushed into the action body by barrel flats, and compress the mainspring. After the tumbler is let down, residual pressure from the mainspring is acting on the barrel flats through the pads and ensures self-opening effect.

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A similar system on a gun made by Armurerie Saint-Eloi, Barlemaunt Commune.

 

 

This action didn’t enjoy much popularity. Neither did a W.C. Scott & Son patent on a similar principle. On December 3, 1878, William Scott and Thomas Baker obtained the U.S. patent №210436 for «Improvement in breech-loading guns». This patent protects a number of principles, including those where the tumblers are cocked and the mainsprings compressed by pressure of the barrel flats on the action flats in closing the gun.

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Drawing from the William Scott and Thomas Baker’s U.S. patent № 210436 of December 3, 1878. 1,2 — cocking of the tumbler (i) and compressing a coil spring in a box lock by drawing out shaft (g), acting on lump (h) on the barrel block. 3 — a side lock on the same principle; 4, 6 — variants of cocking a side lock by opening of the gun; 5 — a scheme of cocking a parallel striker gun by opening of the barrels.

 

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W.C. Scott & Son guns with various cocking systems according to the 1878 patent.

 

The pressure of the mainspring is pressed via the shaft to the barrel block, ensuing self-opening effect.

Russian gunmaking, apart from Beesley-Purdey system used by TsKIB, knows only one independent self-opening design. You can see it on the gun made by Tula Armory in 1934 for the All-USSR Industrial Expo, under Tula’s gunmaking patriarch Alexander Ivanov.

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A Tula Armory gun with self-opening effect.

 

Self-opening systems have proven their functionality and reliability. Most of them are newer and more technological than the Beesley-Purdey system, but none is as ingenious and neatly designed as the unsurpassable masterpiece of the prominent Victorian gunmaker.

Brancquaert and Defourny.

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Brancquaert Model 8.

 

Gun lovers all over the world like lists of «best» gunmakers and love to argue who made a better gun. In Russia, for instance, there’s an unwritten rating of Belgian makers that affects a gun’s price tag along with other factors such as condition. I don’t know who compiled this rating and what criteria they used, but I know that its value is dubious. Belgian guns of the same class by different makers, on close inspection, usually turn out to have the same quality — if not prove to be the same gun. For example, let’s look at Brancquaert and Defourny.

Both Brancquaert and Defourny figure prominently on the list of the makers that Marco Nobili’s influential work identifies as equal to Lebeau-Courally. Other names on the list include E. Bernard, C. Braekers, Britte, J. Bury, A. Cordy, Dumoulin, A. Forgeron, A. Francotte, Browning, Galand, N. Lajot, Mahillon, ML, E. Masquelier, Pirotte, F. Thirifays, F. Thonon, J. Thonon. This alone would seem to imply that they were gunmakers of the same level. However, things go a little deeper than that.

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Liege in the beginning of the XX century.

 

But let’s first look at the Liege gun trade at the turn of the XX century, when both Brancquaert and Deforuney entered the scene of best gunmaking. We can get answers for many questions from the account of Sergei Zybin, Head of the Repair and Hunting Guns Workshop of the Imperial Tula Arms Works, who was sent to Europe in 1902 to study progressive methods of making hunting guns (at least, this was the official version of his assignment). Zybin writes of Liege as a community of incalculable individual craftsmen, small shops and large, steam-powered factories, that worked together almost as a single body. There were businesses that managed to assemble large volume of guns without any sophisticated machinery, purchasing parts from more high-tech manufacturers. On the other hand, even Pieper, Liege’s biggest maker, had nearly all their guns finished by independent one-man shops.

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Sergei Zybin.

 

Wherever machinery could help, it was used — even individual craftsmen (or women: more than a third of the workforce was female on some firms) had access to steam-powered machines, with specialized businesses renting out shop floor space at affordable daily rates. Where machines couldn’t cut costs, the jobs were done by individuals at homes. Outsourcing secured the entrepreneur from strikes and such; on the other hand, self-employed craftsmen were better motivated and utilized their time and resources better. All of that fused into a flexible system that could produce any quantity of guns of every description cheaper than anywhere else.

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Shop floor at Fabrique National, Herstal.

 

Before the WWI, when the main Belgian gunmaking brands were only establishing themselves, some differences in quality could be observed, and some sort of ranking could be established. But the between-the-wars period all variation disappeared. The catalogue of H&D Folsom Arms, New York, listed over 200 various Belgian gunmakers they sold in the USA — but the valuators of American auction houses today treat all of them alike (with exceptions for Lebeau and Francotte). And, in a way, they are right — most if not all Belgian firms of the period ensured the same quality for the same money.

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Shop floor at A. Francotte’s.

 

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Shop floor at Manufacture Liegeoise.

 

I don’t mean to say that there weren’t any artisans who were above the mass. Liege was home to a number of gunmaking stars. Hyppolite Corombelle, for example, the engraver par excellence, who later moved to Italy to become the founder of Bologna engraving school. But the names of the stars did not appear on the guns and remained unknown to the public. With the world’s economy struggling, all ambition gave way to the need to sell: under one’s own brand or some other name, complete guns or parts or some work on them, it didn’t matter.

 

Now that we got a glimpse on how Liege gun trade worked, let’s get back to the heroes of the story.

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Front page of Brancquaert’s catalogue showing the Wellington live pigeon shooting grounds in Ostende.

 

Louis Brancquaert owned a gun shop at 202 Avenue de l’Hippodrome, Bruxelles, on the way to the Boitsfort Hippodrome not far from the shooting club «Tir du bois de la Cambre». Brancquaert sold hunting and pigeon shotguns, accessories, and Mullerite ammunition (made by Muller & Co, Liege), which was advertised as the best for live pigeon shooting. He also patterned and retailed «Brancquaert`s pigeon–trap» — a trapdoor cage for releasing birds for live pigeon shoots. The patent, however, was only a «brevete S.G.D.G» (see the article about Lebeau-Courally for what it means). Louis Brancquaert himself was an important figure in live pigeon shooting as shooter and acting  as secretary of at least three shooting clubs: in Bruxelles («Tir du bois de la Cambre»), Spa and Ostende. Live pigeon shooting was an expensive hobby, and provided Brancquaert with connections in the top society.

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Live pigeon shoot in Bruxelles. Early XX century.

 

In fact, Brancquaert’s fame as a gunmaker rested on live pigeon shooting. His name first caught the gunners’ eye in 1897, when Baron Raoul de Vriere, former Secretary of the Belgian Embassy in Washington, used a gun by Brancquaert to win the Grand Prix in Paris. By 1905 Brancquaert’s guns secured three gold medals, a silver cup and 30,317 Franc of prize money.

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Baron Raoul de Vriere, one of the best live pigeon shots of the late XIX century.

 

Brancquaert sold his wares all over Europe through a wide network of sales representatives: there were nine in Italy alone. His guns were of best quality only and with an option to place the customer’s monogram or crest on the trigger guard. Model 1 was a carbon copy of Purdey by Beesley’s Patent self-owner, and Model 2 copied the Holland&Holland sidelock. Model 3 was a side-plated Anson&Deeley boxlock with a single trigger; it was advertised as the company specialty, not inferior in any way to English guns of the same type. Model 4 was Model 3 with double triggers, Model 5 was a bar-action hammer gun, and Model 6 was Model 4 without side plates.  Model 7 was a three-barreled gun, with two 12 or 16 gauge smooth barrels on top and a .450 Express below; it featured a patented cocking system and a rear sight that rose automatically when the selector was shifted to the rifled barrel and went down as the action was opened.

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202 Avenue d’Hippodrome, where Brancquaert’s shop used to be located.

 

However, Brancqueart was never a gunmaker in the true sense of the word. It is not a secret that the guns he retailed were supplied to him by  Defourny.

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Antoine Joseph Defourny Jr.

 

The Defourny dynasty of gunmakers was founded by Antoine Joseph Defourny (1805-1873). He had ten children, and his two elder sons Noël Joseph (1834-1918) and Gilles Joseph (1831-1915) became gunmakers too, while another son, Jean (1850-1914) was a gun trader. Like his father, Noël had ten children, however, three of them died in infancy. But two of his surviving sons, Antoine Joseph (born April 9, 1862, died August 19, 1943) and Alphonse (1870-1948) became gunmakers, and another son, Noël Victor Jean, was the State Weaponry Controller. Gilles Joseph’s family was less numerous, with «only» five children, and two of his sons, Guillaume (1865-1916) and Jules (1871-1958) also became gunmakers.

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The genealogical tree of the Defourny gunmaking dynasty.

 

Guillaume Defourny worked for August Lebeau, and in 1896 opened his own business, G Defourny-Sevrin. This firm continued after his death for some time and closed in 1955. His son Georget (1900-1973) was a gun trader. Antoine Joseph Defourny Jr got married in 1891, and had seven children. Two of his sons, Joseph (1892-1976) and Noël (1897-1977) also became gunmakers. In 1895, Antoine Joseph Defourny started his first business of making «de luxe» firearms. He claimed 15 Belgian patents for various firearms improvements, but apparently never saw it necessary to protect his rights abroad. By contrast, his son Noël patented his single selective trigger (which he later fitted to many of his father’s over/unders, including the early Anson&Deeley models) first in Belgium (in 1949) and then in the USA (Patent № 2.639.972 of March 31, 1953). Antoine Joseph Defourny made a great contribution to the Belgian gun trade as an inventor. Especially valuable was his work on improving the Beesley self-opening scheme, to which I dedicated a separate chapter.

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Defourny patent self-opener.

 

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1956 Defourny over/under with Noël Defourny’s patented selective single trigger.

 

However, not all Defourny’s inventions were equally successful. An example of this is his over/under. Defourny’s first shotgun with one barrel on top of the other dates back to 1905, four years ahead of Robertson’s and Woodward’s famous patents. At the time, the over and under was still some sort of gunmakers’ terra incognita, and it shows in Defourny’s design. His decision to use the Anson&Deeley principle was justified by logic — however, it lead to complications. For instance, in order to house the cocking rods, the action frame had to have extremely thick walls. There was no room inside Defourny’s action for a normal sized striker for the under barrel. Consequently, the striker had to be very small, and its travel very short. That made it necessary to use an extremely powerful mainspring, which in turn caused quick wear of the parts.

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An early model of Defourny over/under; it was also offered by Francotte and Defourny-Sevrin.

 

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This view of Defourny’s over/under fore-end gives you an idea of how thick the action had to be.

 

Later Defourny improved his design. He used Holland&Holland type bar action sidelocks, first conventional than hand-detachable; fitted the gun with ejectors; decreased the thickness of the action, giving the gun instantly recognizable look. On Defourny sidelock over/unders the self-opening effect is so significant that Holt’s experts classify them as assisted-opening. His uncompromising war against weight was a relative success: a 12 gauge Defourny over/under tips the scales at 3.1 kg; the barrels are 71 sm. long and weigh 1.45 kg. This was made possible by 18.2 bores, which ensured 150 gram weight reduction as compared to regular 18.5 mm bore.

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Defourny over/under with Holland&Holland type detachable locks.

 

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A page from 1938 Defourny catalogue.

 

Still, 25 years of improvement did not make the design truly successful. I believe the reason was that Defourny kept trying to build a side-by-side with stacked barrels. The schemas he used, the arrangement of parts, including the mutual location of the hinge pin, ejectors and cocking rods, followed old side-by-side patterns. In spite of that, Defourny’s over/unders had a widespread influence in Belgium, and were also built by other Belgian makers, including A. Francotte, (with whom Defourny had a joint patent for ejector cocking scheme «applicable to all weapons with tilting barrels») and Defourny-Sevrin.

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Model 4 named «Brancquaert».

 

The strangest thing about Brancquaert and Defourny is that in all those years nobody ever wondered why guns from Brancquaert’s catalogues match the guns from Defourny’s catalogues to a T — even the drawings are the same! For example, Brancquaert’s Model 1 is Defourny’s Model 27 — while Defourny’s Model 1 is Brancquaert’s Model 7. In May 2008 Christie’s auctioned a Brancquaert gun which the auction’s experts identified as «assisted opening»; in the autumn of the same year that gun was auctioned again by Holt’s, this time the experts correctly attributed it «self-opening». From the description, it was clearly Defourny’s patented self-opening system.

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Brancquaert Model 7, a.k.a. Defourny Model 1.

 

My own Eurica! moment came when I got to see Brancquaert’s Model 8 over/under. Apparently, Brancquaert managed to supply the Royal Court of Spain with one, as the catalogue contains appropriate announcement, complete with an image of the Court’s crest. But no matter who owned it, Brancquaert’s Model 8 was the good old Defourny’s design and work.

As a matter of fact, all Brancquaert’s guns known to me bear a Defourny stamp somewhere — sometimes on the action under the stock, sometimes in plain view on the barrel. Speaking of Defourny’s stamps, his «A.J.D. patent» does not signify that the mechanism in question or any part of it was Defourny’s invention. There is a subtle, but significant difference in meanings between the French words «brevete» (which means the same as the English «patented»), and «patente», which stands for permission to use a certain activity, duly paid for. Consequently, «A.J.D. patent» is only Defourny’s trade mark.

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If you know where to look, you’ll find a Defourny stamp on ever Brancquaert gun — for example, on the inside of the action.

 

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The same stamp from the shotgun assembled for Brancquaert by Joseph Defourny (Antoine Joseph Defourny`s son) in 1927. Brancquaert`s Model 1, Beesley-Purdey action. Photo: http://www.steniron.com

 

Apparently, Brancquaert, with his influence in live pigeon shooting world, was a godsend to the beginning gunmaker who only started his own shop at the age of 33 and at first did not build more than 15 guns a year. The irony was, however, that Defourny himself depended on the trade to fulfill Brancquaert’s orders.

It is highly unlikely that Defourny’s atelier had a considerable manufacturing capacity. His first shop was located in Herstal, on rue Petite Voie. After that, his address changed as many as seven times. Some of the moves could be in fact only changes in the numbering system on rue Nicolas Defrêcheux (consistently with this hypothesis, all rue Defrêcheux addresses are on the odd side of the street). But that doesn’t explain moving to Rue Champs de Foxhalle and Rue de Jupille. A manufacturing enterprise with heavy machinery necessary for full cycle gun production can hardly be expected to hop from place to place across the town every few years.

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25-27 rue Nicolas Defrêcheux, Herstal, the last address of Defourny A. J. Armourie S.A.

 

Another item of circumstantial evidence is a gravure from the 1938 catalogue, showing Defourny’s premises in 1905. Especially touching is the little detail of the small poultry yard, complete with the chicken, on the premises. The question is, at a time when  every company that actually owned a factory proudly printed a photograph of it, why would Defourny use an obscure drawing instead? The building on the right rather closely resembles one of Defourny’s actual premises at rue Nicolas Defrêcheux, and the poultry yard is probably genuine — but the rest of the drawing, with smoking factory pipes and everything, looks more like a property development plan than reality.

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The drawing from 1938 catalogue showing Defourny’s premises in 1905. Note the poultry yard in the middle.

 

«Depended on the trade» doesn’t imply that Defourny was not a «real» gunmaker. He obviously had a staff of artisans and performed at least some works in-house. A close study of the 1938 catalogue allows us to identify Defourny’s input to his guns precisely. On Model 1 it was all parts of the mechanism that were invented by Defourny, the rear sight and the side safety. On Model 2 — side locks and ejector; model 8 — the mechanism and ejector, on Model 19 — ejector, etc.

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A contrast to Defourny’s drawing: Charles Sporcq catalogue showing a full inside view of the premises from shop floors to the store counter.

 

Defourny, just as most other small-scale makers, almost certainly never made action frames and barrel blocks, outsourcing them from bigger manufacturers such as Fabrique Nationale (FN). The evidence for this is that immediately after FN began to produce the sidelock with original cocking system, identified as «System Anson 1928» in the jubilee edition of the FN book, an identical gun appeared in Defourny’s model range. His over/unders were probably made in cooperation with A. Francotte & Co, which was a small, but a «real» full-cycle manufacture that could do everything in-house.

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FN  shotgun and its lock. An identical gun was offered by A. J. Defourny.

 

Many details of the cooperation between Defourny and Brancquaert remain unknown, but it was beyond doubt mutually beneficent, and probably ran deeper than making guns. In 1913, Defourny became a Knight of the Order of the Crown — a high award of Belgian Kingdom, and in 1928 the Officer of the Order; in the same year he was appointed the Representative of Belgian gunmaking industry at the Milano International Exhibition. There are ten degrees in the Order of the Crown, and the Knight and the Officer are the fifth and fourth. What was unusual in it was the fact that normally gunmakers were awarded for their input in the country’s defense. Antoine Joseph Defourny never had anything to do with military arms, never had any defense contracts, and never ever worked for the government. However, Brancqueart, through his involvement in live pigeon shooting circles, had enough connections in high society to get a friend of his knighted. This is only an unconfirmed guess, but it is not improbable.

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Defourney O/U 20 gauge. Photo: http://www.pugsguns.com

 

So, this is far from the full story of Defourny and Brancqueart. But it shows the complicated relationship between various Belgian makers of the period, and demonstrates why all «lists» and «ratings» that place one Belgian gunmaker higher than another should be taken with a big grain of salt. I can imagine the confusion it all causes for beginning gun lovers and collectors. «Whom to believe?» they might ask in despair. To this I always say, don’t trust anyone except proof marks and official documents.

BRITTE, BURY AND OTHERS

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Gun No 1214, a 20 gauge Anson&Deeley boxlock with an extra .35 Remington rifle barrel set. «JB under crown» trademark on action flats. Sold at Bonhams auction for £2,040 in 2010. Image by bonhams.com

 

In the previous articles about Belgian gunmakers («Brancquaert and Defourney«, «Lebeau-Courally: Between Truth and Fiction«) I dealt with a number of old, but often repeated misconceptions. Now I have to return to this issue again.

Belgian gunmaking was based on division of labor, which allowed any entrepreneur to become a «manufacturer» of sporting guns, by purchasing parts and outsourcing jobs to homeworkers. That’s why the names of the real masters: barrel borers, actioners, stockers, etc., remain in the shadow of the people who owned numerous big and small companies. In the mass of Belgian hunting guns of the same grade, none stand out by some exceptionally high level of quality; all differences are usually in options and decoration. What’s more, sometimes identical guns come under different brands. There are a few producers whose names have always been associated with high quality: Courally, Francotte, Forgerone, Tonneay, Christoph, Donckier, Duchateau, Masquelier, Thirifays, Defourny, Janssen, Britte, Ronge, Lajot, Cordy, Mahillon, Bernard, Galand, Brancquaert. Jules Bury has always been included in this list.

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Liege, 1914. A homeworker and his family. Working for 12 hours making revolver hammers, the homeworker earned 9 francs a day. A family of 10 lived in one room, which served as workshop, kitchen and bedroom all in one. Image by Musee de la Vie Wallonne.

 

In Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium where the city of Liege is situated, Bury is one of the most common family names. Untangling complicated ties of kinship in large Walloon families is not an easy task.

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List of Liege gunmakers, 1840.

 

On March 5, 1811, the wife of Lambert Bury, a miner of Liege, gave birth to a son, Michael. On coming of age, Michael became a gunmaker and moved to Maastricht, where in 1846 he married Marie Joanne van Hoesbruck. Michael Bury died on January 17, 1887, survived by 6 children. Among them was Jean Joseph Bury, born May 16, 1853. Jean became a gunmaker, after his father. In August 1893 he moved to Herstal, a small town near Liege. It should be noted, perhaps, that Maastricht is only 30 km away from Liege.

A firearms manufacturer called J. L. Bury lived on rue Pont des Arches, 966, Liege in 1827. In 1840, the records show another firearms manufacturer, Francois Bury, at the same address. At the same time, a gunmaking company called «Bury the Sons and Donckier» was in business in Saint-Leonard, an outskirt of Liege.

Another Liege gunmaker called Jean Bury was born on August 18, 1840. On September 21, 1861, he married Marie Catherine Guillet, of whom he had a daughter, also called Mary. He died on February 8, 1890.

In 1855, a gunmaker called Jean George Francois Bury was living on St Leonard, 137, Liege.

The family of firearm engravers Bury was well known in Wallonia. Toussaint Bury was born in Liege on July 15, 1849. He was a Renaissance man who left a noticeable influence on Walloon culture. He combined the work of an engraver with interest in literature, and comprised a Walloon-French technological dictionary for engravers. His nephew Jean Bury, born on January 13, 1867 in Liege, was also an engraver. After his uncle’s death in 1918, the nephew updated his uncle’s dictionary and republished it under his own name. Jean Bury died in 1940.

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Liege, 1914. Engravers, as a rule, worked from home. Image by Musee de la Vie Wallonne

 

It is common knowledge that the Olympic Games of 1900 took place in Paris, France, as part of the World Fair. A Belgian athlete called Jules Desire Bury, of Liege, born 1862, competed in the rifle shooting events, taking the silver in Free Rifle at 200 meters and the bronze in National Rifle.

Let us now turn to the Registry of Liege Proof House. It lists Nicolas Bury from 1868 to 1890, Jean Bury from 1890 to 1896, Antoine Bury from 1920 to 1939 and Jules Bury from 1896 to 1947. Therefore, the possible line of kinship is: Jean George Francois Bury (father, one of «Bury Sons and Donckier») — Jean Bury (son) — Jules Bury (grandson). It’s interesting that Jules Bury, like his grandfather might have done before him, also formed a partnership with a member of the Donckier family. Whether Bury the Olympic athlete who defended the colors of Belgium was the same person as Bury the gunmaker we shall probably never know, but some facts suggest it is quite probable.

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Theophile Britte. Images by littlegun.be

 

Let us digress from the Bury family for a while. Theophile Britte was born on July 9, 1874. On February 2, 1896, he and his brother Lambert registered a firearms manufacturing company «Britte Freres» (Britte Brothers), which, at first, was a small workshop with about 10 employees. On September 17, 1923, Theophile Britte, Jules Bury, and the Masquelier brothers formed an anonymous limited liability company «Establissments Britte». The new enterprise produced precision mechanisms, sets of gauges, and sporting arms «in the white» (mecanique de precision, outillages calibres, armes des chasse en blanc). The company did not make barrels, purchasing them from well-known and reliable suppliers. They offered «in the white» assembly sets for 12, 16 and 20 gauge shotguns, both Anson&Deeley and H&H type sidelocks, as well as the original «Super Britte» side-opening over/unders patented in 1931. The guns could be supplied in the finished state as well, with the help of outsourcing to houseworkers and smaller firms. The number of over/unders made under Britte’s own brand does not exceed 250.

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The produce of «Etablissements Britte»: an assembly set of a H&H type sidelock side-by-side «in the white». Image by Steven Dodd Hughes.

 

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The same assembly set as a finished gun. Image by Steven Dodd Hughes

 

The idea of making high quality assembly sets «in the white» proved a big success. To satisfy the demand of customers in France, a division in Saint Etienne was founded. The quality of Britte’s assembly sets was so high that even British firms bought them. However, the world economic crisis played its part, and in 1936 the French division was closed. Then gunmaking stopped in Liege as well. Theophile Britte took into his company his son George (October 4, 1900 – September 13, 1949), and son-in law Lois Dessart (June 25, 1898 – April 12, 1932). The latter had a son, also called Lois, born 19.05.1924. Lois Dessart Jr joined his grandfather’s company on August 22, 1941, and headed it on September 13, 1949 after the death of his uncle, George Britte. Theophile Britte died on October 6, 1945, aged 71. Nowadays the Britte company, headed by Vincent Pissard, the son-in-law of Lois Dessard Jr., works for the aerospace industry, and is part of the international Mustad group. Before the Nazis occupied Belgium in 1940, the workers carefully packed the finished guns, assembly sets and spare parts in boxes, and hid them in the basement of Dessard’s family mansion. There they stayed until 1999, when Guy Bignell of Griffin and Howe learned about their existence. Bignell purchased the lot, and also the rights for the Jules Bury brand name. He got 17 finished Super Brittes, and 16 more «in the white», 17 finished H&H type side-by-sides and 155 more «in the white», and five boxes of parts. This treasure was called — probably in the name of marketing — «Jules Bury’s collection», although, of course, Bury himself had nothing to do with it. The guns from this «collection» sell for a pretty penny, including the «in the white» sets finished by such American gunmakers as Steven Dodd Hughes. The interest to the new guns from «Bury’s collection» led to an increase in prices for older Bury guns, not only in the USA, but also, somewhat surprisingly, in Europe and even Russia. Precise attribution of these guns becomes, therefore, an urgent problem.

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A Super Britte by Auguste Francotte. You can buy a similar gun today from such companies as Jules Bury, Lebeau-Courally, Paul Scholberg.

 

It is well known that Jules Bury had two styles of barrel inscriptions: «Jules Bury F-ant A Liege» and «Jules Bury Arq-sier A Liege», meaning, respectively, «a manufacturer» or «a gunmaker» of Liege. With these words on the barrels, identification is usually not a problem. However, on some guns there is the trademark stamp «JB under crown», which is often attributed to Jules Bury. It is worthy of note, that guns on which there’s both the inscription and the trademark do not exist. At the same time, there are numerous guns featuring the «JB under crown» stamp and signed by such names as Charles Masquelier and Louis Christophe.

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A Jules Bury self-opener.

 

There are guns on Purdey by Beesley’s Patent self-opening system stamped with «JB under crown». At the same time, there are guns on the original Belgian self-opening system (see my article «Self-Opening Breechloading Systems») without this trademark, but with «Jules Bury» on the barrels, or without any maker’s mark or stamp whatsoever. Apparently, Jules Bury was not the inventor of that system, because no patents were ever granted to his name in Belgium or anywhere else. As for the trademark itself, it exists in numerous variants, both stamped and engraved.

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The «JB under crown» trademark was used before Jules Bury was even born.

 

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This stamp did not belong to Jules Bury.

 

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On this Browning, the trademark is engraved.

 

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Actions of three different guns stamped «JB under crown»: top left Louis Christophe made before 1922; bottom left 1925 vintage; right 1929 vintage.

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Purdey-by-Beesley’s-patent type self-opener signed by Louis Christophe with «JB under crown» trademark, 1933. Engraved by H. Leukers. Image by Jan Bliki.

 

The experts on Belgian guns marked down another interesting feature. On most sidelocks signed by Jules Bury or stamped with «JB under crown» trademark, the bottom part of the action, where it meets the stock, has a furrow, and the stock is made with a bolster which fits it (see pictures below). However, this way of stock inletting was used by many makers, that is why I think the claim that this is a characteristic feature of Bury’s guns is unjustified.

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Two guns by Thirifays, circa 1925, with «JF under crown» stamped on the water table industrially, with the ‘bolster’ stock inletting at the bottom of the action. Image by steniron.com

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A gun by N.Bodson with «bolster» stock inletting at the action floor.

 

So, should you lose your head and rush in when you see «Jules Bury» or the «JB under crown» trademark on a gun? I don’t think so. Not only because the guns so branded aren’t any superior to others made out of Britte assembly kits…

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A 12 gauge gun № 6593/7199 with «JB under crown» trademark. Sold at Bonhams in 2014 for £1,000. Image by bonhams.com

 

«Pandectes périodiques: recueil de jurisprudence, de législation et de doctrine» is a collection of legal data including sample court decisions, regularly published in Belgium since the late XIX century. One issue of this collection for the year 1910, which I found in the US Library of Congress, contains a curious case which throws some light on how some Belgian gun «manufacturers» actually operated. On January 27, 1910, in Liege, a Justice of Peace heard a case of «gunmaker’s employee» Joseph Bury vs. «La Zurich» insurance company. The case states that the plaintiff, Joseph Bury, accidentally shot himself in the gun store belonging to his brother, Jules Bury, while unloading a Browning pistol which he was demonstrating to a customer. The plaintiff claimed it an accident at workplace, and demanded the insurance payment liable to him as a manufacturing industry worker with salary under 2,400 francs a year under a Belgian act of 1903. The insurance company, however, denied the claim, stating that the case does not fall under the act. This is what it argued: While it is true that Joseph Bury was injured at work, however, his employer Jules Bury does not have a gun making facility, he only sells guns, ammunition and related products, and controls the performance of his orders by homeworkers. Apart from that, Jules Bury sells long guns and pistols by other makers. There is a gunsmithing shop for repairs of hunting firearms at the store. The whole workforce of the company is limited to the two Bury brothers and an apprentice. The accident happened in the showroom, not in the gunsmithing shop.

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Guns signed by Jules Bury on the barrels (without «JB under crown» trademark), top to bottom: a 8x60R double rifle № 8225 калибра 8 x 60 R, a 9.3x74R double rifle № 8044 калибра 9.3 x 74R, an 8-gauge shotgun № 78

 

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A 28-28-.35 drilling № 7721 signed «Jules Bury» and «WAFFEN-FRANKONIA-WUR/BURG»

 

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This .405 Win double rifle by Bury № 6640 belonged to Herman «Fat Pig» Goering and was sold for $9,000

 

Nevertheless, the court decided for the plaintiff, justifying it by the following: According to the list of trades and professions published by Belgian Ministry of Labor in 1902, a gunmaker is defined not only as one who makes firearms or parts of firearms, but also as one who makes a profit by buying and selling firearms. According to Item 2 of the above-mentioned work accident compensation act, gunmaker’s employees fall under its jurisdiction. Besides, Jules Bury takes orders for making hunting guns under his own brand. He is a licensed gunmaker, purchases parts and materials, places orders, personally patterns and sights in the guns he sells, and submits these guns to Liege Proof House in the established order. The precedent statement runs: «A merchant who sells hunting guns and related equipment, as well as partly makes the firearms he sells, is de facto practicing gunmaking, and therefore falls under the provisions of the compensation for work-related accidents act. This act is applicable to employees hired at daily rates, acting under supervision of his employer, and engaged, directly or indirectly, in manual labor, and therefore exposed to the same risks as regular employees». This is, as a matter of fact, the answer to the question if Jules Bury was a gunmaker. By Belgian law he was; however, he didn’t actually work at the bench, didn’t wield a smoke lamp, file or chisel. At least, not in 1910. Probably it was not because he couldn’t or wouldn’t, but because he didn’t have to. Could some crisis make Jules Bury resort to manual labor? Probably yes. Could the «JB under crown» stamp belong to his firm? It could. Don’t forget about Joseph Bury, who was in charge of gunsmithing, and whose attempt to replace his brother for the sale of the handgun almost ended tragically. Jules Bury traded and took his orders from a shop in Passage Lemonier, the biggest and most prestigious department store in Liege, resembling modern GUM in Moscow.

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Entrance to Passage Lemonnier, Liege, 1902.

 

Bury’s shop was No 11. Next door, No 13, was the shop of Marcelle Donkier. In 1938 Bury and Donkier merged under Bury’s brand. In 1947 a new company, Bury-Donkier was established. It existed until 1964 and was then purchased by Charles Masquelier.
MAHILLON LEUKERS-ENGRAVED

H. Leukers Jean Duchateau

Guns engraved for H.Mahillon (top) and Jean Duchateau (bottom) by H. Leukers

 

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«A typical Bury», or, to be precise, a Christoph. With «JB under crown» trademark; engraved by Schoffeniels. According to littlegun.be (who provided the image) it was proofed in 1955. Perhaps, the gun was shelved for some time.

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Another «typical Bury», 1925. With «JB under crown» trademark. Image by A. Bazylev.

 

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Jules Bury, without a doubt.

 

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A 20 gauge by Bury-Donkier. With B-D trademark.

 

What conclusions can and ought to be made, aside from the eternal «do not make an idol for yourself»? First, Jules Bury was NO DIFFERENT from dozens of other entrepreneurs — who called themselves «makers» — of Belgium. Second, it was hard to go wrong with the high quality Britte assembly kits, and so no matter what name they were sold under — whether Bury, or Christoph, or Masquelier, or Donckier, or Mahillon, or Duchateau — it is (at least after 1923) the same gun, and there were other makers for the trade in Liege apart from Britte. This is why the auctioneers single out Francotte and Lebeau and put the rest of Belgian gunmakers under the same heading, and that, I believe, is mostly due to inertia and reluctance to see the obvious, an maybe only to give credit to the founders of the companies and their past merits. To end with a bit of advice: if you are after a vintage Belgian gun, it’s not worth it to chase famous names. Look at condition, fit and patterns, not the stamps and inscriptions on the gun.

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