A rare multi-shot flintlock and a rifle once owned by a World War II hero make noise during recent gun auctions, writes Michael E. Haskew
Recent Holt’s and Gavin Gardiner auctions brought a pair of guns with stimulating provenance to the attention of bidders, and the excitement surrounding their purchase resonates with collectors and observers who acknowledge the thrill that only such firearms with historical significance can generate.
During its December auction, Holt’s offered an extremely rare Tower Armouries .500 flintlock seven-barrelled volley-gun, model “Nock’s Patent.” Dated circa 1800 and delivered under a government contract of that period, with Great Britain on the verge of the Napoleonic Wars, the volley-gun, both stunning and curious, sold under the hammer for in excess of £20,000.
The gun immediately grabs the observer’s attention, featuring a group of seven 20-inch barrels, six of these with their breeches plugged and encircling the central seventh barrel that is screwed into a hollow spigot. Each barrel is drilled with a small vent to facilitate simultaneous fire.
Emblazoned with Tower proof at the breech, the gun includes a plain top-tang with sighting grooves, small boat-shaped foresight, and truncated lock with “TOWER” clearly visible and further marked with a recumbent crown over “GR” at the tail.
Other prominent features include an “L” shaped frizzen spring, walnut handrail buttstock, plain hammer, brass oval escutcheon, and brass furniture.
Gun auction latest: A thing of beauty
Although there is no visible serial number, the Irish County Limerick registration number “L-K 627” is present on the heel plate. The volley-gun’s flat top to the comb, which generally supports the shooter’s cheek, is marked with a crack attributed to the piece’s age.
A handsome moulded, shaped and raised sideplate and brass underbarrel ramrod thimbles complete the construction, while the front ramrod tensioning spring is corroded and an iron ramrod replaces the original.
Popularly known as the ‘Nock Gun’, this rare firearm was invented by British engineer James Wilson in 1779 and bears the name of the London arms manufacturer Henry Nock, who won the contract to produce it.
The gun utilised the standard flintlock firing mechanism of the day, igniting a small gunpowder primer in the central barrel, and swiftly extending through the vents to the other six chambers.
Thus, all seven barrels essentially discharged at the same time. Early examples were constructed with rifled barrels; however, the laborious and time-consuming process of reloading prompted a fairly rapid conversion to smoothbore specifications.
During its rather short period of manufacture, only 635 Nock Guns were completed and delivered to the Royal Navy. As Europe erupted in the Coalition conflicts against Napoleon, the Nock Gun was intended for close combat at sea as men stationed in the rigging of a warship were instructed to fire down on the decks of enemy vessels that were closing to potentially board.
Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, the gun was reported to have been successfully employed against the Franco-Spanish fleet that blocked entry to the harbour of the great British bastion of Gibraltar. During the “siege,” which lasted from June 1779 to February 1783, a Royal Navy force under Admiral Richard Howe escorted merchant ships in the successful delivery of desperately needed supplies to the Gibraltar garrison in October 1782.
Gun auction latest: Nock Gun
Although the Nock Gun was effective in action, it was nevertheless difficult to operate and retired from service by 1804. As time was of the essence during close-quarter fighting, loading procedures made the user particularly vulnerable after firing.
Further, the recoil of the weapon was so strong that it was difficult to control and often seriously injured the shooter, even breaking the shoulder at times. The sparks generated with its discharge were a threat to set fire to rigging and sails as well. A smaller, lighter variant of the gun was later developed.
At the time this particular Nock Gun was manufactured and delivered, the Royal Armouries, a longstanding enterprise in the Tower of London, were responsible for government weapons procurement.
The Tower was engaged in the development, contract manufacture and storage of weapons – then under the auspices of the Board of Ordnance, which was discontinued in 1855.
The history behind the gun
Nock began his career as a locksmith and secured a patent for a gun lock in 1775, entering the trade with the hiring of William Jover, a Master of the Gunmakers Company, and with the founding of Nock, Jover & Co. During the American Revolution, the business flourished.
After Wilson brought his design to Nock, the latter won the competitive bidding to produce the Nock Gun. Nock also manufactured a double-barrelled pistol used by the Royal Horse Artillery and a pistol used by heavy dragoons.
He was well-known for his double-barrelled shotguns. He served as Master-General of the Ordnance and in 1789 was named gunmaker-in-ordinary to His Majesty King George III. Nock died in 1804 at the age of 63.
His nephew, Samuel, had served an apprenticeship and established his own company, subsequently being named gunmaker-in-ordinary successively to Kings George III, George IV, and William IV and Queen Victoria.
Henry Nock’s son-in-law, James Wilkinson, continued to operate the prosperous original gunmaking establishment. Sometime around 1818, when James’s son Henry joined, the company name was changed to James Wilkinson & Son.
The company survived Henry’s death in 1864 and became the now iconic brand, Wilkinson Sword. By the turn of the 20th century, a series of new laws restricting the sale of guns to private citizens in the United Kingdom led Wilkinson Sword to focus on razor blades and other household products. However, it continued to produce swords for the British Army and for royal ceremonial purposes until 2005.
Gun auction latest: A handsome sporting rifle
The Gavin Gardiner Limited auction held at Sotheby’s London in December, also featured a handsome sporting rifle by the well-known London gunmaking firm of John Rigby & Co.
This .275 bolt-action firearm with a 24-inch barrel, raised fore sight and rear sight with folding leaves to 400 yards, sold for £4,000 in original and unaltered condition. The rifle includes a Rigby peep sight, bolt with flag safety and receiver with thumb cut-out.
Its half-length stock is well figured with a pistol grip and the maker’s ribbed steel buttplate. Nitro proof with 14-inch pull and sling eyes, the rifle weighs seven pounds, eight ounces, and its canvas case completes the package.
John Rigby & Co., has a storied history among London gunmakers. Originally founded in Dublin, Ireland, by its namesake, a London office was opened by the originator’s grandson, also named John, in 1865. By the late 19th century manufacturing had ceased in Dublin.
When the founder died in 1818, the firm continued to operate under sons William and John Jason Rigby and was then known as W. & J. Rigby. The company became known for superior dueling pistols, superb barrel making and rifling technology.
Rigby gained renown under the guiding hand of the third John Rigby, son of William, who took control in 1858. After winning numerous awards at exhibitions in London and Paris, Rigby opened a shop at 72 St. James’s Street in London’s west end.
John Rigby was a standout target shooter, developing the Rigby target rifle for his own competitive use. The Rigby .451-calibre muzzleloader became the most popular match rifle of the mid-19th century in the United Kingdom.
During wartime, Rigby became heavily involved in the development of firearms and ammunition for the military. In 1887, John Rigby was named as superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock.
He was instrumental in resolving issues with the famed .303-calibre Lee Enfield rifle that was modified from time to time and served as the standard issue shoulder arm of the British military until 1957.
Gun auction latest: Mauser
John Rigby gained knowledge of state-of-the-art firearms production methods and developed international contacts. He gained an exclusive agreement for the distribution of German Mauser rifles in the UK prior to World War I and contributed to variations of the original G98 rifle.
Meanwhile, he pioneered the popularity of Nitro Express cartridges. Rigby mechanisms became popular with high-quality double rifles and shotguns.
John Rigby died in 1916, and left his son, Theodore, in charge. Through the 20th century, a succession of owners has kept the Rigby name alive, including American investors.
In 2013, Rigby was acquired by L&O Holdings, also the principal of Sig Sauer, Blaser, J.P. Sauer & Sohn, and Mauser. Subsequently, operations that had been moved overseas were returned to London, and the company is now headquartered in Vauxhall District.
Major Andrew Burnaby-Atkins MC
Numbered 5146, this Rigby rifle was once owned by Major Andrew Burnaby-Atkins, MC, whose story of heroism with the British Army in World War II is both fascinating and poignant.
Andrew was the son of John Burnaby-Atkins of Halstead Village and Tolethorpe Hall at Little Casterton in Rutland. He was one of three children, and along with his brother, Frederick, entered military service following the outbreak of war in September 1939.
The brothers were each involved in combat. Frederick was captured while serving with the Black Watch during the dark days of 1940 as the German Army occupied France and the Low Countries.
He was captured and remained a prisoner of war until hostilities ceased in 1945. He escaped once but was recaptured near the German border with Switzerland.
Andrew was said to have displayed “exceptional valour, bordering on recklessness.” He received the Military Cross twice for heroism in service with the 12th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, in northwest Europe during the last months of the war against Nazi Germany.
The 12th Battalion was a component of the 8th Armoured Brigade for much of the war, and that unit served at length. Its deployments included North Africa, D-Day, Operation Market-Garden (the air-ground invasion of the Netherlands), and continued fighting in northwest Europe and across the Dutch frontier with Germany.
Conservative politician and former editor of The Daily Telegraph, William Francis Deedes, Baron Deedes, KBE, MC, PC, served alongside Andrew during heavy fighting in the winter and spring of 1945. When a large detachment of tanks approached their position Burnaby-Atkins took action to identify them.
Deedes wrote, “Andrew Burnaby-Atkins was very quick indeed. In company with a rifleman he constructed a banner of a fluorescent aircraft recognition panel, then advanced through the mist toward the faintest outline of tanks.
“The squadron leader and I decided to walk over and see what was happening… Burnaby-Atkins’s meeting had been eventful. Black American troops manning about 50 Sherman tanks drawn up along the road to our right had followed his advance suspiciously. ‘Boy, we certainly had you covered,’ they chortled when he arrived.”
An encounter with reporters made it into the newspapers back home, and Deedes remembered hearing of the publicity. “Andrew Burnaby-Atkins and I featured reputably in the News of the World where Andrew was described as ‘an absolutely mad Eton boy.’
His sister gave an interview saying she had known it all along. ‘Did anyone send you the Sunday papers about Andrew Burnaby-Atkins and B Company?’ I wrote home. “We had a rather good write-up.”
As the fighting progressed, Deedes recalled losing many friends, as well as another heroic effort to recover wounded comrades under fire by his friend Burnaby-Atkins. “The attack was stopped. The difficult task remained of getting our wounded off the bridge. Andrew and I went to work on this…I don’t think we could have done it unless the Germans had stopped firing.”
After the war, the Burnaby-Atkins brothers were appointed to high-level administrative positions. With the rank of lieutenant colonel, Frederick became aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Lord Archibald Wavell and then aide-de-camp of the Household to Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma when he served as the last Viceroy of India. During the 1970s, he was private secretary to Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret. Frederick died in 2012 at the age of 92.
Major Andrew Burnaby-Atkins was appointed aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Viscount Bernard Montgomery, hero of El Alamein. He retired from the Army in 1953 to engage in farming and hunting