I was removed from the boarding school I attended when I was ten for the sake of my health, and sent to another one at Frinton, on the East Coast of England, where, from being a wee pale bendy thing like some strands of spaghetti, I grew into a slightly more robust streak, though hardly a Charles Atlas.
I mention the new school because academically I learnt very little there, but I did absorb the invaluable concept that Life, if handled judiciously, could be quite as entertaining as any game. There also, I reinforced my passion for the great outdoors. However little I applied myself to my studies, and I have to admit that precious little in the way of actual grind was attempted, I managed to absorb a fair amount of that sort of learning which in later life has more to commend it than conjugating Latin verbs or knowing the definition of a surd.
One of the books we read during English lessons did make a lasting impact, though. This was 'Bevis' by Richard Jefferies: a tale of how two boys spent a summer holiday camping, sailing and making and using a matchlock. This last activity fired my imagination at the time and stuck in my mind until I was about fourteen and saw the book again in the public library. By this time I was attending grammar school, and not as a boarder. Bevis, or rather, his home-made matchlock had been lurking at the back of my conciousness during that interval so I took out the book for old times' sake, and, I think I can safely reveal now, for rather more clandestine reasons.
It was a fortuitous reunion, for in a local scrapyard, always one of my happier hunting-grounds, I found a steel tube. This had been a track-rod from a van or small lorry. The tube was straight, the metal was thick and the bore was smooth and shiny. I would recognise it now as drawn steel tube but in those days I just looked at it with gun barrel in mind: it was not seam-welded, the metal was thick and that was enough. The only drawback was that it was threaded on each end. One of my particular older friends owned a garage and filling station. He was an able engineer and a registered firearms dealer and always had time to impart advice and communicate his enthusiasms, so he was the obvious person for me to consult. He wasn't stuffy so, when I presented my prize to him and asked if it would make a good gun barrel he examined it and said: "Ooooooooooooo! Yes. And how were you intending to close the breech end?"
I had given this due consideration and explained how I had thought to find a bit of bar (rod, I think I said) which would fit tightly. I would hammer it in, drill through the lot and put a bolt through to secure it.
He looked dreadfully pained. "Ooooooo, you wouldn't want to have that plug coming out of the back of your head, now, would you?"
This was a situation which I had not considered: holding off invading Russians, yes, but not such unlikely or unlucky self-destruction. I had to agree that I wouldn't want that to happen.
I must have looked disappointed (boys do tend to be good at that) because he offered: "Leave it with me and I'll see what can be done." I noted that he didn't say: 'I'll see what I can do.' and held my peace accordingly.
About a fortnight later I was passing the garage forecourt and he beckoned me in. I followed into the workshop. Lying on the bench was my tube, beside which was a properly made breechplug with a tang on it. I could see that on one end the threaded portion had been removed, and the other end had been turned down to taper up to about eighteen inches from the breech-end, which he made a point of showing me, drawing my special attention to the fact that it now was threaded on the inside of the tube. The plug was screwed into the barrel as I watched, secured in a vice, tightened, removed from the jaws, and was then laid on its left side.
My benefactor produced a centre punch, placed the point of it near the breech, hit the other end of it sharply with a hammer, beamed at me and said: "There! That's where you aren't allowed to drill the touch-hole."
"Oh," I said. "what size am I not allowed to drill it?"
"One sixteenth of an inch would be a good size." He replied, taking down the drill-bit box from a shelf in the store.
Having bought from him a twist-drill bit not to drill it with, I went home and broke it. I was more careful with the replacement.
I fashioned the stock out of a piece of pine beam from a demolished house and fitted the barrel to it. Though I only roughed out the shape on the premise that I would finish it properly if it warranted the work, it took a lot longer than I anticipated but I was quite pleased with the results when it was done. Along the fore-end the barrel was lashed on with two 'bands' of Bowden cable which I bought in a length from the local cycle shop. One end of each band was fixed by winding it round a screw and then tightening the screw until it dug into the wood. I wound the cable several times round the wood and barrel, and secured the other end by passing it through a hole drilled in a rather substantial roundhead woodscrew with a small washer under the head, which screw was then tightened, winding the cable tight and pinching it under the washer when the screw was home. It took a little trial and error to get it right, but when it was right, it was extremely secure. At the back, a screw through the tang held it in place. A short section of bicycle inner tube stretched over these bands tidied-up the appearance and covered the sharp cut ends of the Bowden cable.
The serpentine was forged from a six inch nail and the pan was artistry in Heinz - not pretty, not substantial, but extremely functional. Well, I suppose that went for the whole gun, if I am honest. The middle of the serpentine was flattened and drilled, and a screw into the stock held it in place, and acted as a pivot.
I had been bidden to prove it before I fired it from the shoulder so, reluctantly, fearfully, I double-loaded it and held it down by covering it with a sack filled with soil. Two charges of powder and two ledger weights seemed to be tempting fate, but, better to tempt her at arm's length.
You may wonder where I got the gunpowder. Well, I had been making the stuff for quite a long time for the manufacture of, shall we say, fireworks. My mother was in medical practice, so I was pretty well-in with the local chemist. In those days a chemist was not just a dispenser of medicines, and soap salesman, and Bill dispensed things to me that would make the modern nanny state's hair curl. Saltpetre and flowers of sulphur were just not in the same league as some of the reagents I purchased!
A very handy book called 'How it Works and How it's Done' helped me with many of my more clandestine activities, and if I remember correctly¹, it was this book which steered me into 'milling' gunpowder safely, and granulating it afterwards.
¹ I don't remember correctly - I just bought a rather secondhand copy in a bookshop, and the directions were notthere.Must have been another book.
I was into aeromodelling in those days too, and I had several Jetex motors. These were in essence small rockets powered with solid fuel pellets which were ignited with a fuse. They propelled balsawood and tissue model aeroplanes rather slowly. A short length of this fuse I had poked through the touch-hole before charging the barrel, and now, checking that the muzzle was pointing in a safe direction, and that the lump of wood was in front of it to collect the discharge, I lit the fuse and retired to a safe distance, convinced that the gun would end up like a peeled banana. Still, I thought, this was better than getting my head blown off or losing a hand - but only just. There was a red flash followed by a big bang and lots of smoke, the muzzle rose about a foot into the air, then fell back, and the sack of earth shuddered.
The report was beyond my wildest dreams and the two ledger weights I had used as ball were deeply embedded in the wooden block I'd left in front of the muzzle, which block performed an impressive retreat into the bushes at the bottom of the lawn. Even though the muzzle had not been close to the grass, nor pointing quite parallel with the ground, there was a rather noticeable greyish darkened patch just in front of where the muzzle had been. I hoped it wasn't too noticeable!
When it was retrieved, I split the block and prized out the erstwhile balls. They were well flattened and distorted and looked most impressive. I took them to school the next day as evidence of my nefarious activities. Kudos ensued, in spades. Even Joe, who claimed to shoot rats along the riverbank with a Colt .45 revolver, was not his usual dismissive self.
Since it wasn't going to blow up on me I finished making the serpentine and fitted it with an untidy but cunning arrangement of galvanised wire which could hold the match - thin cotton wick for one of those tiny paraffin lamps which you can still buy, and of which I bought a yard at the ironmonger's. Waiting for a time when the rest of the family was out, (only a year before, my father had found I'd got an air pistol and had taken it away from me, so, I asked myself, what chance had this fearsome contraption got if he saw it?) I loaded it up again as per instructions and aimed it at a piece of four-by-two. I eased the lower end of the serpentine back, and the head descended, the glowing match was dunked in the priming - and went out with an ironic curl of smoke. I lit the match again, the odd grains of gunpowder adhering to it fizzed and popped, and I lowered the serpentine more gently. The match went out again. The best result I could manage was one shot in about twenty attempts. This disappointed me greatly so I propped the thing up in my shed and forgot it for a while.
When I did take it out I used Jetex fuse to detonate the charge but this was very unsatisfactory, as it was impossible to gauge how long it would take between lighting the fuse and firing. I had ideas about charging the gun with shot and having a go at the local woodpigeon population, but every time I lit a match preparatory to potting a sitting bird the said bird unsat and decamped some seconds before the charge detonated uselessly. I racked my brains for a solution.
I needed some method of instantaneous detonation. While I was quite well acquainted with the percussion principle, all my knowledge and equipment together with the contents of my father's workshop were not up to the job of such complicated work. My father's father had been a carpenter, so most of the tools reflected this. Something else had to be arranged, and I knew what, give or take details. One of our antisocial games at school was to take two substantial bolts and a nut, screw half the length of the nut onto one bolt, place a liberal quantity of red match heads in the cavity and gently screw down the second bolt until it was tight. A length of wool, string etc was tied to one of the bolts as a flight, and the contraption dropped out of the physics lab window. This allowed the thing to fall three floors before hitting the playground. Cap bombs? Pshaw! (Don't try this at home!)
In the scrapyard I found an inch-long three-eighths inch cylinder-head nut, probably from a motor-cycle. Also, I found a set bolt which screwed into it nicely. This gave me an idea. With a hacksaw I cut the nut almost in half lengthways, leaving about ¼" of the end uncut, then sawed down and removed the section I'd cut out. This left a trough with quarter of an inch of threaded nut on the end. With a rat-tailed file I removed as much of the thread in the trough part as I had patience for, and left it untouched in the end quarter of an inch. Then, with a small triangular file I cut a channel along the bottom of the trough - Viola! My new pan!
Next, I found a bit of plate in my father's scrap box and bent it in the vice and hammered it about a bit until it fitted the shape of the stock. I drilled it and screwed a bolt through it into the new pan, marked it where it protruded into the pan, undid it, sawed off the excess portion beyond the mark, reassembled it all and fluxed it with Baker's Fluid.
The assembly then was heated with a paraffin blowlamp and locked-up with soft-solder. The finished component was extremely rigid, which was the object of the exercise. It had to be fitted meticulously, for my filed groove was cut to line up with the touch-hole. Never the most patient of individuals, I must confess that I cut away a little too much wood and ended up applying a certain amount of packing to get a solid fit, courtesy again of Messrs. Heinz. The plate was partially let into the stock at the bottom and fixed with woodscrews. The pan nestled in a channel cut out of the stock alongside the touch-hole. One big woodscrew through the 'flying' top of the plate held rigidly the pan up against the barrel.
I made a hammer from a big steel collar and a long five-sixteenths inch Whitworth bolt. The bolt was screwed into the securing-screw hole in the side of the collar. When I could find a suitable piece of metal, the collar would have a shaft through it to act as a fulcrum. The bolt was bent over in the vice, and a liberal amount of hammering and offering-up, more hammering, and more offering-up was indulged in until I could lay the collar on the right hand side of the stock so the head of the bolt would cover the pan. Next, I laboriously filed a 3/8" radius on the bolt head, again with frequent offerings-up, so that it fitted snugly into the trough of the pan. In retrospect, I wish I had heard of engineer's blue! With the business-end of the hammer located in its place I could mark the spot where the pivot would go.
The collar had fitted a biggish shaft: seven sixteenths or maybe even half an inch. Anyway, I found a stud which fitted, (friends who have motor repair businesses are to be cultivated by boys with secret hobbies!) and with brace and bit, bored a hole in the stock for it, hacksawed off the (threaded) excess on one end, drilled a hole through the cut end of the bolt for a splitpin, and tapped the threaded end of the stud - now officially a spindle - into the stock. the intention had been to glue the bolt in, but it proved to be firm enough as it was. Now, I would say that it was a pretty tight interference fit.
There was a certain amount of play, but the hammer fitted the pivot well enough and the head descended into the pan, also well enough. The splitpin prevented the hammer from coming off the shaft. I intended adding a washer between it and the pivot of the hammer, but events overtook the necessity, of which more a little later. All the external parts worked, if you discounted the nonexistent spring.
To try out the principle, I fixed elastic bands as a spring. The priming I used was red match-heads and gunpowder mixed. The 'trigger' was a piece of thin fencing wire bent into shape and attached to the arm of the hammer, and which held it cocked like a hook latch keeps a door open, and which was released by an upwards pressure of the thumb on the other end, which was slotted into a screw-eye. When the hammer slammed into the pan the match-heads ignited, the gunpowder took, the flash was ducted along the filed channel into the touch-hole and - Booomfff! It went every time.
Satisfied with the results and tired of replacing burnt laccy-bands after every shot, I attached a coil spring to the front of the hammer and the plate which supported the pan, and there it was: one of the weirdest looking guns anybody ever saw, but even using patched ledger weights I could hit a block of four-by-two at twenty-five paces every time - well, nearly every time.
During the summer holidays that year I decided on improvements. The latch-type trigger was just a little bit hazardous to my mind.
The trigger mechanism was the bugbear. It took me a lot of thinking to work that one out. I knew what I wanted to do though: to have a peg through the collar, one which could be withdrawn, thus allowing the hammer to fall. I had a length of silver steel I'd found in a jumble sale - old steel knitting-needles are nearly always silver steel: not many people know that. Now all I needed was a bit of ingenuity. I considered cable and pulley arrangements. I toyed with the idea of having a sideways trigger-pull, but the revelation came to me very suddenly one evening and put paid to the tail-end of a relaxing soak in the bath. I knew exactly how Archimedes felt: I was still dripping like Niagara as I searched my attic bedroom for a pencil with a point on it.
The solution was quite elegant in a crude sort of way: rather than converting a trigger pull in one plane to movement at right-angles to it, I could apply the same Miquelet lock principle (though I didn't know it as such at that time) to the spindle the collar was intended to rotate on. All I had to do was to enlarge slightly the hole the spindle currently fitted, and fitted rather well, so that it would fit less well and rotate freely, and to fix the hammer to the spindle. The latter job was easy enough: drill through the collar and the spindle and whack in a slightly oversized nail, and a good firm job would result - even if the fit between the collar and the spindle was to a tolerance which would not be approved by most odd job men, let alone an engineer! Later, I shimmed it with a bit more trimmed-down Heinzwork.
There had to be a mortise in the stock now to accommodate the trigger mechanism. There had also to be some way of locating the length of knitting-needle so that once it was withdrawn from the hole through the spindle, it remained in place so that it could be reinserted in the spindle next time the lock was cocked. Time for another bath!
I was looking at the problem with the idea fixed in my mind that the knitting-needle - let's call it a sear now, shall we? - would lie in the same plane as the barrel. I considered cutting a groove into the wood from the top and fixing in a short length of pipe for the sear to slide in.
Two problems arose: firstly, I couldn't find a piece of pipe which anywhere near fitted the sear, and secondly, the sear had to be sprung if it was to relocate itself. I returned to first principles. If I cut and planed a piece of wood to fit a mortise - no, a better idea - if I chiselled the mortice to fit a piece of wood which was planed-all-round, I could offer it up before cutting the business-end off, and bore through it to allow for the spindle. If I then drilled a hole to accept the sear, and if I drilled it the same size, the fit should prevent the sear from dropping out while allowing it to move relatively freely.
This had to be thought through. My usual modus operandi was the bull in the china shop approach, and much time was often wasted by doing things arse-about-face. I was anxious not to make that mistake this time, as I had spent a lot of time on the project already, and if I spoilt it now, I couldn't see myself starting all over again.
Accordingly, I formulated a sequence, and set its execution in motion. From my father's scrap wood box I took a piece of hardwood of around 1" × 2" × 12". I measured it, then marked-out the dimensions of its end on the underside of the stock so that the hammer's spindle would pass through the middle of the mortise, and did the necessary chisel-work so that the mortise was slightly smaller than the piece of wood which was to go in it. I then shaved the sides of the mortise with the chisel until the piece of hardwood fitted snugly.
I thought how pleased Phil Darby would have been with this particular job: the poor fellow had more-or-less given me up for lost in woodwork classes!
With the hardwood tapped-in, and using the existing boring for the spindle as a guide, I bored a hole the same size through the hardwood. While it was in place I scribed round the projecting wood, level with the bottom of the stock. The free end of it was secured in the vice and the stock tapped off. Careful to leave a little waste, I cut off the redundant hardwood. As soon as I had the money for a long drill bit I took my knitting needle in to the ironmonger's and he matched it to a drill-bit for diameter. So far, so good. All I had to do now was to drill the hole for the sear. 'All I had to do' was hold the electric drill straight and vertical so that the far end of the drilled hole broke through right in the middle of the hole for the spindle. Easy-peasy. I took greater care at the second attempt.
When the hardwood block had been finished to my satisfaction I considered glueing it in, but realised that it couldn't move because it was a tight fit in the mortise, and anyway, the spindle held it in place like a dowel. I offered-up the whole assembly and found that I had to open up the bore the spindle turned in. I proposed to wax it when it was ready for action.
The next step was the trigger. The idea was to make a right-angled lever pivoted at the bend, and with one end forked to straddle the steel knob on the end of the tail-end of the knitting - er - sear.
Bending the metal was no problem, but arranging the pivot without giving way to the temptation of banging in a staple and covering the crime with more Heinzery seemed at first sight uninvitingly laborious. Another visit to the scrapyard was called for. Something suitable could nearly always be found. This time nothing suitable turned up, though I expect I didn't return empty-handed! I would have to make the part.
Top of my shopping list was something to use as an anvil, so I raided our garage and borrowed the carrier from one of the old bicycles which hung along the side. After attaching this to my own bicycle I cycled over to my favourite yard. this was kept - if that was the right word - by an elderly rag-and-bone man: a proper one, who used to tour the streets with a horse and cart. You could hear his call for half a mile: AYOLL--LI-ORRRN! - - - AYOLL--LI-ORRRN! - - - AYOLLL RAGS, - - - AYOLL--LI-ORRRN!
His yard was a treasure-house - well, treasure-heap, but you had to know his routine, or he would likely be out on his rounds. This time I came away with an old flatiron and several curiously shaped pieces of metal which I thought just might possibly be incorporated into the design.
Once home with my share of the scrapyard, I gathered some dead wood together, never a difficult task as we had a seven acre wood at the back of our garden, and lit a fire in the hearth in my den. While the fire was establishing a bed of embers I bent a six inch nail at right-angles in the workshop, then took it, a pair of pincers and a big hammer down to my den. I raked the embers into a heap and placed the bent nail on the hottest-looking patch, then blew at the spot through a piece of old electrical conduit.
When the elbow of the nail was glowing nicely, I removed it from the fire with the pincers and hammered a flat on it using the bottom of the flatiron as an anvil. I had to repeat the process twice before the flat was large enough for my liking, then I carried the still hot part to the workshop, holding it in the jaws of the pincers.
I offered-up the rapidly cooling trigger to the stock and marked the blackened metal with a hacksaw, and the stock with a pencil. After cutting off what I didn't need of the nail, I returned with it to the fire and hammered a longer but thicker flat on the cut end, this time in a plane at ninety degrees to the one on the elbow. It was looking good, but I had to contain my enthusiasm for another day as my father would be home at any time, and I didn't want him asking any awkward questions.
The next chance I had I drilled a hole in the flat on the elbow of the trigger and so made a pivot, with a length of four inch nail as a fulcrum. I had to make a small slot in the wood to accommodate the flattened elbow, but that was a minute's work. Next, a hole was drilled in the flat I had made on the cut end. I made this a loose fit on the knitting - er - sear. This had to be cut to length, so I measured the length by poking a piece of galvanised wire down the hole and then scraping it level with the bottom of the lifter. I cut the sear to size and passed it through the hole in the lifter and into the hardwood block, cocked the hammer and eased it about until the end of the sear could be pushed home. I made a mental note to round the end of the sear and to relieve the opening of the hole in the spindle into which it fitted.
I then cut out a slot for the (onetime four-inch nail) fulcrum to rest in. I could now test the trigger. Pulling it quite hard resulted in it lifting the sear downwards (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) a little bit, but not enough to release the hammer. I could see what the trouble was: the radius of the lifter was short, and it was tending to pull the sear against the block it ran in as it rose.
More work! More expense! I had to buy a needle file and turn the hole in the lifter into a slot. This had the desired effect, and later, I modified the straight slotted end to an arch, of approximately the same radius as the length of the lifter. At about the same time I did the rounding and relieving work on the sear and spindle. This made recocking much easier, but the trigger release on firing was not so crisp.
The fiddly-bits came when I found the time and the enthusiasm. To begin with, the trigger was held to the stock by a thin plate, in which I had cut a slot for the trigger's fulcrum flat. The bored hole in the stock in which the hammer pivoted was given a liberal number of applications of furniture wax, as was the hardwood block the sear ran in. A peepsight was made by drilling a hole in a woodscrew and positioning it just behind the tang: an idea I had been given by my garage-proprietor friend. The foresight was a piece of thin steel strip with a steeple-shaped top to it, the bottom of which was bent at a right-angle and held to the muzzle end with a jubilee clip. The height of the sight was arrived at experimentally, using a piece of wire and cutting it down until it was correct. I always intended replacing this with a proper sight, but, well, it worked.
Theoretically, range adjustment was by raising and lowering the screw backsight, but in practice this could never be tried, as I had nowhere safe to shoot at any range. Later, a washer was soldered over the peep-hole on to the screw, which improved sighting no end.
The coil spring which powered the hammer was rather clumsy where it was, and got badly fouled with flash from the pan, and it occurred to me that if I left a portion of the pin which held the hammer to the spindle proud, I could have a flat spring which would be much neater and more professional-looking. By now I was acquainted with the use of flat springs in gun locks because I had been shown books and the real thing at the garage.
Where to get the spring? I found one in an old rim-lock in a heap of spoil from another house which was being demolished. A word with the foreman secured it, and I returned home in jubilation and fitted it. It was barely strong enough for the job, but the principle worked. I searched the scrapyard, I visited my rag-and-bone man, I importuned at the garage, but a piece of flat spring I could not find. In the end I found a broken tine from a garden fork in the shed, and filed a spring up from that. It was very successful, and if I am wanting a bit of spring steel for a job I will still often use an old garden fork for the material.
While this seemed to be an improvement at first, the spring soon began to slip off the rounded end of the pin or get jammed between it and the stock while cocking the hammer. The answer was supplied by standard practice but I had hoped I could get away with the bodge without dismantling the lock. I gave in to common-sense and a more professional attitude and filed a recess in the collar for the end of the spring, and then moved the latter a little closer. This new arrangement worked very nicely, and looked far less Heath-Robinson to the eye.
The last refinement was a trigger-guard. This began life as a piece of flat steel and was bought from the garage. A slot was cut and filed for the trigger, and two holes were drilled and countersunk for fixing screws, one either side of the slot. The position of the screws was marked and they were screwed home without the metal in place, and then unscrewed. With the trigger removed and the strip screwed in place, it was bent round the chuck of my father's prized electric drill, and then bent up again a bit behind the trigger. Where it met the stock behind the trigger it was again drilled and countersunk for another woodscrew, then the curl of the terminal scroll was formed round one of my mother's rolling pins. Don't worry: no-one ever knew!
I had a pretty fair idea where the scroll was to kiss the stock, so before the rolling-pin outrage I had the foresight to drill and countersink the strip while that end of it was still straight. After the scroll was curled to an acceptable standard I marked where the final screw was to be positioned, loosened the whole guard and moved it aside so that I could drill a pilot hole for the screw, as I knew from experience that if I didn't, and I tried to drive it in with the screwdriver at an angle, the result would be a wonky screw and a chewed-up slot.
Another thing I always intended to do was to scribe along the areas of the guard and scroll where they were in contact with the stock, clean out a channel the depth of the strip, and let the metal into the wood so that it was flush. One day, one day, one day it would be almost a Purdey!
The trigger-guard with the scrolled grip was rather pleasing. I had seen the style in a book shown me by my friend the garage proprietor. Just about everything else was from my own head - wood excluded!
The gun really came into its own as a shotgun though, and the new ignition system stole a march on the pigeonry of the neighbourhood, which became increasingly wary but more than just occasionally, very tasty. Wads not being readily available to suit trackrods, newspaper doubled for these, and shot could still be bought at some of the older-established ironmongers in the area. All this exciting activity began to wane however, when I joined the Army Cadets and sampled the delights of the ·303 S.M.L.E. and the Lee Enfield No 4.
Shortly after that I bought a fourteen-bore percussion shotgun, and this was so much harder-hitting than my homebrew cannon that the latter became a neglected but much-cherished wallhanger in my attic bedroom.