A Match made in Heaven

Reuniting long-split pairs is something of a mission for many owners of one or other of the ‘orphans’. Pairs (usually shotguns) are made to enable the shooter to operate in a grouse butt or on a pheasant or partridge peg with a loader and increase his rate of fire.

Back in the Edwardian era – in what you may consider to be the Golden Age or a period of rather gross excess, depending on your point of view – aristocratic teams of Guns competed to shoot more than their neighbours throughout the season. Quality was commented upon by the more accomplished Guns of the day, but quantity was really the name of the game.

Lord Walsingham was said to be admired, not just for the accuracy of his shooting, but for his rapidity. That matters when you want as many pheasants on the ground after a drive as possible. A pair of guns ensured that the fastest rate of fire be kept up, while halving the workload for each gun during a busy drive. Today, few of us shoot double guns regularly.

Even historically, the evidence of wear suggests that most pairs of guns were not normally used together, one gun showing a great deal of wear and another relatively little. This is one reason that dealers often split pairs – nobody wants a worn out gun and a good one – but you can sell a cheap gun cheaply and a good one well. What you get for the double case is a bonus.

However, seeking the pair to your gun has been a fun game that many an owner has played. Joe Halle even made a business out of it when he formed ‘Matched Pairs’ a few year ago. Of course, when you find the pair, the real fun begins as neither owner wants to sell, or if he does, he thinks he has the other chap over a barrel and expects to extort a ridiculous fee for enabling the pair to be reunited.

This rigamarole around pairs of shotguns is fairly commonplace but this month at Holt’s there was a rather different story. One in which the auction played the role of match-maker and which featured a pair of rifles, rather than shotguns. Made by Holland & Holland, in 1907 for the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, they are in .500/465 (3¼”) Nitro Express, and numbered ‘1’ and ‘2’. The .500/465 NE is a dangerous game rifle, with similar performance to the .450, .470 and .475 rifles being built around the time. It emerged, in 1907, as a replacement for the .450 which legislation that year outlawed for civilian use in India.

So, the Maharajah was updating his battery to replace his .450 rifles, as so many others must have had to: good news for gun makers. The .500/465 is a necked-down .500 N.E, firing a 480 grain projectile at 2,150fps, by way of a charge of 75 grains of cordite.

Holt’s neatly catalogued the rifles thus:

No.1 of the pair: 26in. nitro chopperlump barrels (loose on action), matt sight rib gold-inlaid ‘1’ at the breech end, open sights with two folding leaf sights, marked 100, 200 and 300, ramp-mounted bead fore-sight with flip-up moonsight, treble-grip action with hidden third bite, removable striker discs, elongated top strap, automatic safety with gold- inlaid ‘SAFE’ detail, gold-inlaid cocking-indicators, the fences deeply carved in high relief with floral designs and masks of the Green Man, the action, lockplates and furniture with bold scrolling acanthus of art nouveau style, the underside with a roundel engraved ‘CHARGE 75 GRAINS CORDITE .465. CASE 3¼ INCHES’, 143/8in replacement pistolgrip stock with cheekpiece, engraved steel pistolgrip-cap (with trap), sling swivels and including 7/8in ventilated rubber recoil pad, forend with grip catch release lever, light damage to wood, weight 10lb 4oz, in a case.

No.2 of the pair: 26in. nitro chopperlump barrels, matt sight rib (matt finish worn) gold-inlaid ‘2’ at the breech end, open sights with two folding leaf sights, marked 100, 200 and 300, ramp-mounted bead fore-sight with flip-up moonsight, treble-grip action with hidden third bite, removable striker discs, elongated top strap, automatic safety with gold-inlaid ‘SAFE’ detail, gold-inlaid cocking-indicators, the fences deeply carved in high relief with floral designs and masks of the Green Man, the action, lockplates and furniture with bold scrolling acanthus of art nouveau style, the underside with a roundel engraved ‘CHARGE 75 GRAINS CORDITE .465. CASE 3¼ INCHES’, 143/8in. replacement pistolgrip stock (repair to grip) with cheekpiece, engraved steel pistolgrip-cap (with trap), sling swivels and including 3/4in. ventilated rubber recoil pad, fore-end with grip catch release lever, replacement wood with light damage, weight 10lb. 9oz.

It is interesting that both rifles have been re-stocked and that there is a 5oz weight discrepancy between them. Otherwise, they appear to be a fully mirrored pair of rifles, with very distinctive engraving, which is not unusual for sporting guns and rifles ordered by Indian princes. Quite why the Maharajah needed a pair of heavy rifles one can only speculate. Did he carry them in a howdah during a tiger hunt and have the second passed to him if need be?

Perhaps we might discover the answer by reading his book ‘Thirty Seven Years of Big Game Shooting in Cooch Behar, the Duars and Assam, A Rough Diary’. This records the Maharajah’s exploits between 1871 and 1907, when India was still a paradise for the sportsman. In these depleted times, it is easy to forget that in the days of the Raj, forests and their inhabitants were strongly protected and hunting carefully regulated. When the British left India in 1948, there were, reputedly over 40,000 tigers in the wild.

Today, there are under 3,000. What is remarkable about the inclusion of both rifles in one sale catalogue is the fact that they did not come in together. Holt’s took one in from their agent in France and then the other followed it. The vendors may be from different branches of the same family. The route by which these rifles, made for India and exported in 1907, came to France is unclear.

Many Indian princely armouries were cleared by British gun dealers in the 1970s and 1980s. Holland & Holland and Westley Richards were key players at the time and made a lot of money buying from the down-at-heel royal families, whose fortunes were much reduced under Indira Gandhi’s rule. In the 1940s, during the negotiations for Indian independence, the Maharajahs had agreed to integrate their principalities into the new states of India and Pakistan, in return for guaranteed protection of their titles, privileges and annual payments from the privy purse to maintain their lifestyles.

Indira Gandhi reversed that promise in 1971 and stripped their titles, assets and money in one swift act. Many maharajahs had no choice but to sell much of what they had of value, including their collections of sporting guns. I would imagine that this was the period in which the Cooch Behar Holland & Holland’s made their way back to Europe, perhaps sold to a French collector and then split within the family.

The presence of one at auction seems to have prompted the submission of the other. They are offered as two separate lots and it will be interesting to see if they are bought by the same person, and indeed, if they make different sums. One can imagine that the buyer of the first one, determined to secure the second will be under some pressure to pay whatever is necessary, should anther bider push him hard for number two. That can make for an interesting auction! Elsewhere in the sale, little gems appear to interest the student of firearms.

One percussion gun (lot 520) features both a sprung butt-plate safety and a grip safety, another (lot 516) has the most delicate, slim locks you are likely to see. Buying or not, the viewing room is always educational. While at Holt’s, I suggest you make time to sample the wares of ‘The Shotgun Chef’, whose catering far exceeds what one would normally expect at an occasion like an auction viewing. A touch of sophistication, which I hope is not entirely lost on the clientele.

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