The Raven Gun

Raven gun header2

The Royal Armouries is one of the oldest museums in the world, and is best known for its collection of antique arms and armour. However, we have always collected modern firearms. The Armouries at the Tower of London was an issuing arsenal from the days of King Henry VIII, stocked with everything from the latest equipment to obsolete weapons kept in reserve. Henry and his successors also commissioned new and experimental weapons which were trialled and then stored at the Tower, becoming curiosities for later museum visitors. Materiel taken in battle from Britain’s enemies was also displayed soon after its capture. Meanwhile, at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, the Pattern Room collected contemporary (legacy and cutting edge) firearm designs of all kinds in its capacity as a reference collection, a function that is still carried out today by the National Firearms Centre at the Armouries in Leeds.

In the mid-Eighties, the Armouries took the decision to revive the tradition of commissioning new pieces for the collection, with the intention of showcasing the modern art of the gunmaker and to preserve examples of it for future generations. Three unique firearms were completed, including a Smith and Wesson revolver decorated by famous American jewellers Tiffany & Co., and an enormous 2-gauge rifle by gunmaker Giles Whitthome. The first to be ordered, back in October 1984, was the beautiful ‘Raven Gun’.

 The Raven Gun disassembled in its travelling case © Royal Armouries


The Raven Gun disassembled in its travelling case © Royal Armouries

It was inspired by the famous ravens of the Tower of London, who according to legend would signal the fall of the Tower (and by implication Britain itself) if they were ever lost. It is said that King Charles II ordered their wing feathers trimmed to prevent that ever happening! In reality, the history of the Tower ravens may not be much older than the design of the gun itself, and the apocalyptic story seems to have been created during the Second World War. Nonetheless, these beautiful (and frequently misunderstood) birds are now forever linked with the Tower and are visited by millions of people every year. They are cared for by a Yeoman Warder (‘Beefeater’) Ravenmaster, and even hold military ranks!

It might seem strange to create a gun in honour of a family of birds that might usually be on the receiving end of its shot, but in fact firearms have been used to protect the Tower ravens from their corvid relatives like Carrion Crows and Jackdaws, who are thought to be a disease risk to the larger birds and might also steal their food.

The Tower Ravenmaster shows the new gun to one of the Tower's ravens, 1984 © Royal Armouries

The Tower Ravenmaster shows the new gun to one of the Tower’s ravens, 1984 © Royal Armouries

The Raven Gun itself is a double-barrelled hammerless ejector shotgun with a patented ‘round-action’ mechanism that cocks on closing. It is a late Victorian design developed by Edinburgh gunmakers John Dickson & Son and patented between 1880 and 1887. Thousands of these top-notch sporting guns were produced 1960s. The company is still going today, and is once again producing the Dickson round action guns for those able to afford them. However, our special example is the work of another British gunmaker, David McKay Brown, who established his own business after an apprenticeship to Alex Martin of Glasgow in 1957.

The gun’s 27” ‘chopper lump’ barrels are of blacked Sheffield steel with 2 ¾” chambers and a silver bead foresight. The metalwork is blued and blue-black case-hardened, and the stock is of chequered French walnut. What makes the gun really special is the detailed engraving of raven’s feathers. Head-feathers cover the action, eye plumage is used on the breeches, the trigger guard has overlapping feather decoration, and even the top lever and sliding safety are feathered, including a single golden feather and representation of the Tower itself, also in gold. The tang is engraved ‘ARMOURIES’.

This unique decoration was applied by noted artist and engraver Malcolm Appleby, a graduate of the Royal College of Art who has specialised in firearm decoration but whose other work can be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum and National Museum of Scotland, amongst others. Appleby used a taxidermied raven specimen provided by the University of Aberdeen as his reference.

More detailed drawing by Appleby used as reference for the feather engraving on the gun, 1984

Study of Corvus Corax specimen by Malcolm Appleby, 1984 © Royal Armouries

He then used his own drawings as reference to work out which feather patterns would best fit different parts of the gun (you can see more of this process on the Armouries website).

Adapting the feathers to the shapes found on the gun © Royal Armouries

An Appleby drawing used to adapt the feathers to the shapes found on the gun © Royal Armouries

The finished gun was presented in 1986, and placed on display with a museum number of XII.5483. When the majority of the collection moved to Leeds in 1997, the gun moved with it to feature in the museum’s Hunting Gallery, but today it is back on display in the White Tower at the Tower of London, its natural home, alongside the birds that inspired it.

References

Wilson, G.M., ‘The Raven Gun’. Park Lane Arms Fair 4 (1987), p23-25

Tate, D. 2004: British Gun Engraving, Safari Press.

Weblinks

Dickson & Son on their ’round action’ design -http://www.dicksonandmacnaughton.com/gunroom/new_guns/side_by_side/dickson_round_action.aspx

The Armouries at the Tower of London-
http://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/tower-of-london

The Ravens at the Tower-
http://www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/stories/theravens

The National Firearms Centre-
http://www.royalarmouries.org/what-we-do/research/nfc

Related

Jonathan Ferguson

Jonathan Ferguson is Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK. He is based at the National Firearms Centre, one of the most comprehensive firearms collections in the world and successor to the MoD Pattern Room. His research interests include the use and effect of weapons, and their depiction in folklore and popular culture.


More In: Guns & Gear, Shotguns


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  • Laserbait

    I love this kind of article, thanks!

  • Vermin.308Winchester

    I am a prejudiced jerk for this but your little introduction
    blurb is interpreting my enjoyment of your rather well composed articles. I recognize
    that I am probably reading far too much into it as a virtue of my rather exasperating
    encounters with people and articles discussing the “depiction of firearms
    in popular culture” but I simply don’t cope well with the implied premise.
    That premise being the depiction of firearms in popular culture influences
    violent crime or for that matter the resulting political argument over both
    first and second amendment rights and the influence of that most exasperating pseudoscience of phycology on politics and the interpretation of the constitution. Again I am almost certainly reading far too much into this as a virtue of preconceived
    notions of your politics informed by decisions made by your government and I certainly
    don’t wish for your contribution to this website to stop regardless of your
    view of civilian weapons ownership.

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      Buddy, you are reading ****FAR**** to much into a simple statement. TFB covers firearms in popular culture. Why not research the folk law and popular perception of the things we love? I for one would be fascinated to read an essay, for example, on when firearms began replacing swords and bows. Or when movies started featuring semi-auto pistols instead of revolvers. It would be a fascinating subject.

      Other commenters: Please don’t turn this thread into an argument about guns & culture.

      • Jonathan Ferguson

        Thanks Steve – as I think you know the foregoing is not the intention of my bio blurb at all. If I can make it any plainer, I am interested in how weapons have been used and how effective they were/are, and I am also interested in how they are depicted in movies, games, books etc. I am certainly not here for any discussion of contemporary politics. Perhaps a comma between the two would help?

        • Jonathan

          Oh, and many thanks to those who have commented to express their enjoyment – I hope I can pique your interest with future posts.

        • DiverEngrSL17K

          Well said, Jonathan. And thank you for sharing your insights.

  • Steve (TFB Editor)

    I absolutely love that photo of the shotgun and the raven.

  • UD

    I really enjoyed this, I hope we get more like this in the future! Wonderful history and back ground.

  • Anton Gray Basson

    Wow, this was so interesting, I mean how awesome is it that this gun is inspired by culture, and its a very beautiful gun, the detail is amazing.

  • Steve Bodio

    I actually made a side trip to the Tower see it in the nineties, and used to correspond with Appleby. He also did round action guns with scales, inspired by crocodile and pike, and at one time was planning one based on the merlin (falcon). Earlier he engraved a sidelock gun (a Wilkes?) with a woodcock’s feathers, and later he made a Damascus steel buckle for me based on an eagle. I think his totemic engraving designs beat any amount of gold inlay– and round actions, McKay Brown or Dixon, are more graceful than sidelocks.

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      Hello, Steve :

      That’s a very interesting connection that you have with such a deeply-rooted and long-lived tradition associated with true craftsmanship. Thank you for sharing this story — it adds even more to the already-substantial article that Jonathan Ferguson has written.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    @ Vermin.308Winchester & Steve (TFB Editor) :

    Er, guys — I think you both meant to say “psychology” and “folklore” respectively :).

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    I believe Jonathan Ferguson ( the author of this article ) was simply attempting to link cause-and-effect across distinct topical lines which may appear, at first glance, to be separate but which are, in reality, inextricably interconnected. The facts of history are what they are, and no amount of idealistic perception or opinion is going to change that.

  • Vermin.308Winchester

    In an effort to redeem my name let me add that I had no intention of attacking Mr. Ferguson personally and that my comment was totally ill-conceived being that it was inspired by a sort of deep seated itch to say something rather than calmly discuss the beautiful piece of metal art in front of me. I had no desire start anything again I simply wanted to say something. Please forgive my dramatic tirade, I suppose such impulses serve as the explanation for the many off topic comments I am so prone to criticize. My constant references to my own prejudice throughout the comment probably should have served as an indication that I was in wrong in commenting in this way. I suppose everyone must eventually look back on what they said without thinking and see true hypocrisy as an opponent of reactionary politics who looked back and saw that I myself had lashed out against someone about which I knew nothing as a reaction to
    recent events i now how know that feals

    • Darrell

      It’s called “think before you speak, speak less than you think.”

    • Jonathan

      No need for redemption – it’s easy to misconstrue things online. But I appreciate your reply, thanks!

  • Rock Island Auction

    Fascinating article! Thanks for writing it!