When one thinks about topend guns and rifles, one tends to think about actions and engraving and stocks.A dazzling piece of walnut or an exqui- sitely executed game scene is what grabs the eye.The barrels seem to be little more than the black bit on the front.And yet it is the barrels which define the thing as a weapon.Without the barrels a gun is no more than a club; or perhaps a bat. And on closer consideration there is far more to the
barrels than a pair of tubes. Bill Blacker is a barrel-maker at
the top of his profession. He began his career in 1976, aged sixteen, as an apprentice at Holland & Holland.The first year was spent making the tools of his trade and one day a week was passed at Willesden Technical College undertaking Mechanical Craft Studies.
By his second year Bill knew where his inclinations lay and moved into Holland's barrel shop where he was mentored by the late Percy Batchelor for the remainder of his ap-
prenticeship. In 1981 he moved onto the senior bench in the workshop.
In these days of spark erosion and computer-aided design it is important to recall that the Holland & Hol- land factory at that time, a little over 30 years ago, was largely mechanical. Lathes were belt driven and the rest of the barrel work was done in the time honoured fashion of filing with a suc- cession of finer and finer tools.
"The barrel shop had something of a blacksmithing feel to it," he chuckles,"when compared to the work on the action benches, for ex- ample. Fine blacksmithing, to be sure, but smithing for all that." Fine work indeed. Filing down a barrel wall to the few tens of thousandths of an inch tolerance required is only the first insight one gains, in chatting to Bill, into the almost alchemical mastery of the barrel-making art.
Making barrels sing
After the initial filing there comes the customisation.When you con- sider the proportion of the overall weight of a fine gun that is contained in the barrels what becomes imme- diately apparent is the effect that the distribution of that weight can have on the balance of the finished gun. By adjusting that weight forwards towards the muzzles or back towards the breeches it is possible to achieve significant differences in the handling and feel.When top flight game shots refer to "fast" guns, what they mean - but seldom understand - is that some of the barrel weight has been eased back to the breech end in order to shift the point of balance towards the action."A good swinging gun" that some great shots prefer for the highest pheasants in the kingdom will have more muzzle-heavy tubes to achieve that stable, momentum-laden swing. Which is why, when Bill is rebarrelling old guns for discerning customers today he likes to have the old barrels in order to study the origi- nal dimensions, and to discuss with the customer what feel the finished replacements should have.
Then there is the conformation and combination with the ribs. Different makers, and indeed, different owners desire and require that their guns pattern in particular ways.The degree of convergence of barrels
from breech to muzzle, the width of the rib, will determine at what distance the shot patterns will begin to overlap. A pair of 28-inch barrels will have forty thousandths of an inch between them at the muzzle to con- verge the patterns at a standard dis- tance.An extra thou either way will add or subtract from that distance. So it is the case that a properly discrimi- nating customer, working with a truly talented barrel-maker, can design a gun for a specific quarry or a specific style of shooting. Flat ribs, concave ribs, raised ribs.Take your pick but each will have an effect of your sight line and an impact on your point of aim. Here again a thousandth at the shooter's end means a foot or more
at the target end.This is the barrel- makers art.
After which we can move inside the barrels and consider chokes and cones.The arguments for this choke and that are the stock in trade of shooting lunches all over the world but the shaving of a thousandth here and there by a master craftsman is what delivers a perfect killing pattern. Though it remains the role of the shooter to deliver it where required. The barrel-maker's magic only extends so far, sadly.
The value of tradition
In 1983 Bill went to Purdey where he honed and refined his skills in their barrel shop. He went freelance three years later but continues to do con- siderable work with and for Purdey whose guns he esteems some of the finest examples of the gunmaker's craft.
A good deal of the modern fasci- nation with forcing cones and port- ing however, are in Bill's view, mere fashion. Much as the Edwardians were led by the examples of the great Shots of their time. If it's good enough for
LordWalsingham or the Prince of Wales it'll do for me.As a matter of fact, Bill's view is that if it was good enough for the Edwardians it will probably work today."I don't think that the guns made around that time can be much improved upon," he avers,"except in very modest ways." It is a view he endorses in his own choices."I don't shoot very much myself, just with friends really but when I do I'll take the side-by-side Woodward. It's a hundred years old but it works just as well now as when it was made. I'd be interested to see whether top-end guns are very differ- ent in another hundred years. I doubt they will be."
His particular pleasure is build- ing big rifles.The .500s and .600s. The minute technical requirements relating to sights fascinate him and the need for precise accuracy over long distances delivers a provocative chal- lenge for him as a craftsman."Mark you," he says, laughing, "you know when you've been working on those big guns. Hefting those great tubes about takes a toll on your shoulders. A bit like letting them off, I shouldn't wonder." More laughter.
There is plenty of work finding its way to his workshop for the time being. He's creating replacement tubes for a pair of triple barrelled Dickson 20 bores just now. Where else do you go for a project like that, I wonder?
He's rising fifty now and his son's James and Matthew are dedicated to him so Bill's skills and talents will find their way to another generation. However the diminishing skill base is a source of concern to Bill."We have to find a way of ensuring that these skills are preserved. Once they're gone, they're gone." he says."That's the real challenge for us as gunmakers today."