A Primer on Skeletal Shotguns, From Shooting Sportsman

Nathaniel F
by Nathaniel F

To someone not versed in fine shotguns, it can be a little overwhelming when confronted with the variety of special terminology, from English damascus boxlocks, to the subject of a recent Shooting Sportman article, the “skeletal” or “bar-in-wood” shotgun:

To my knowledge, no art museum has ever presented an exhibition of fine shotguns, but if one ever did and needed to pique the interest of its more aesthetically minded patrons, a collection of bar-in-wood guns might just provide a theme. Timber-shrouded actions offer further evidence of a truth universally acknowledged: that appearance is important, and beauty goes far beyond the eye of the beholder. Since the hammergun era, “skeletal-bodied” doubles have regularly topped lists compiled by enthusiasts of the most beautiful shotguns ever made. I couldn’t agree more with those who feel that bar-in-wood guns are some of the sexiest ever produced.

Bar-in-wood shotguns owe their graceful good looks to their parents: They are the direct descendents of muzzleloaders and can be defined as breechloaders in which the lockplate or action body and sometimes even the knuckle and hinge pin are enclosed in a forward extension of the walnut buttstock. They come in hammer, hammerless, round-action and even bogus boxlock configurations known as “body locks” and have become desirable collectors’ items.

According to Gavin Gardiner, who has worked with Sotheby’s gun auctions since 1987, “Bar-in-wood guns were a way of maintaining the gracefulness of a muzzleloader in the early breechloading era, but the easier-to-make and stronger designs soon cast them into the shadows.”

“Pretty much all makers made them—certainly the better-quality ones, anyway. It is just that not many of them continued to make them for long. Westley Richards, Purdey and Horsley are the three that jump to mind as makers that produced good numbers, and of course we have MacNaughton, with their bar-in-wood Edinburgh-actioned hammerless gun. MacNaughton is probably the only one who has made a modern version, though I am sure if you ask, others might.”

MacNaughton is one of the last firms to make them, but it was also one of the first. In July 1867, James MacNaughton registered improvements to a slide-forward-and-drop-down hammergun that was “applicable to the conversion of muzzle-loaders into breech-loaders.” The patent illustration and surviving examples feature wood-covered actions. Common enough in the 1870s, timber-shrouded actions were felled by stronger competition. The few hammerless sidelock ejector examples surviving from beyond this era are some of the most coveted wood-covered actions.

Though they all have walnut-covered action bodies in common, bar-in-wood guns fall into four broad categories—each worth looking at in roughly chronological order.

What is replicated above is only a small part of a very thorough article. I highly recommend our readers click through and read the whole thing. Skeletals marry the practicality of the break-action breechloading shotgun with the elegance and class of the muzzleloading side-by-side. Eventually, however, stronger all-metal actions took over, and in the smokeless powder era skeletal shotguns became technically obsolete – but no less beautiful.

H/T WeaponsMan

Nathaniel F
Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.

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3 of 4 comments
  • JK JK on Aug 14, 2015

    Okay, so where's Skeletor's shotgun?

    • Ostiariusalpha Ostiariusalpha on Aug 14, 2015

      @JK Stop being ridiculous, try showing some mature appreciation for these beautiful, elegant works of mechanical art... oh, who am I kidding:

  • Don Ward Don Ward on Aug 14, 2015

    Moar of these type of articles!