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Charles Boswell ‘Live Pigeon’ Gun

When it comes to taking a close look at used shotguns I often comment that such and such a Trap gun, if suitably modified or ‘sporterised’ as it’s more commonly referred to, would produce the perfect high driven pheasant gun. However, a generous invitation to participate in the ‘Hurlingham Gun Club Cup’ at West Kent Shooting School got me thinking, especially since to shoot in the event it’s mandatory to use a side-by-side gun.

Although I have my own side-by-side 12 bore, the short barrels and wide chokes were, so I was reliably informed, highly unsuitable for the event since the targets were Helice or ‘ZZ’. This unique discipline is as near as you get to shooting live pigeon whilst, the propeller like ‘birds’ unpredictably spinning from their launchers, the white centre or ‘witness’ having to be shot out of the orange wings in pretty short order. The answer I was told was an original live pigeon gun. Now although these shotguns aren’t especially thin on the ground, they’re still somewhat specialised. However, the simple answer was to call Jeff Lupton at the Yorkshire Gun Room near Ripley Castle, a specialist in this type of shotgun.

Boswell’s Finest

A sporting gentleman and multiple clay shooting champion, Jeff now makes his living as a purveyor of fine guns and, as it happened, the owner of a 1929 Charles Boswell live pigeon 12 bore that I was more than welcome to borrow. This gun exhibited the same feel as a modern Trap gun in length, handling and weight. But where the Boswell’s modern equivalent boasts gleaming woodwork, gloss black barrels and the latest technology, this seventy-eight year old fowling piece displays an aura of quality, patina and usability that a modern shotgun couldn’t possibly match.

The ‘Doll’s Head’ style cross-bolt boxlock action, top lever, wide trigger-guard and extended bottom tang, fences, side clips and forend irons are profusely decorated with rose and scroll, ‘C. Boswell London’ adorning the side banners, a duck in flight across a reed bed on the bottom. Crowned with a small brass bead, the fixed English Full and Full chokes are exactly as they should be, slightly wider than their modern equivalents, the ‘15, Mill Street, Hanover Square, London, W’ on the still nicely blacked 3” Magnum modern proofed barrels indicating that this 12 bore was a product of Boswell’s last know London address.

As might be expected, the woodwork displays the signs of having seen use, the occasional old scratch and ding visible on the rounded semi-pistol grip stock. Delicate in execution, the fine chequering on both the grip and forend still offers excellent purchase, the semi-circular panels and drop-points on the stock head still well defined, a lasting tribute to the craftsman that shaped them. 

All this comes complete with the Boswell’s original leather over oak travelling case – adding that final touch of desirability. Still emblazoned with period GWR travel labels plus the original maker’s label on the inside of the red velvet lining. Fair enough, the case doesn’t make the gun shoot any better, but this tangible confirmation of age adds that special something modern shotguns just can’t aspire to no matter who built them; the Boswell comes from an era of the travelling sporting gentleman. 

Shooting a Classic

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The Boswell positively drifts to the shoulder whilst the muzzles seem to find their target all on their own, the centrally biased 8lbs 8oz bestowing the Boswell with my infamously descriptive ‘hydraulic’ feel. Exactly 15” in length, the front trigger pull has been extended by the later fitment of a hard orange rubber recoil pad, an item that allows the Boswell to soak up even more of the shock generated by the heavy loads it was designed to shoot.

Both triggers are sublimely crisp, the break as predictable and clean as any modern shotgun I’ve used. Fortunately the original owner was endowed with similar physical dimensions to me. Drop at comb is 1 7/16” whilst drop at heel is 2 1/8”. Combine this with the 9-13mm raised, tapering cross-cut rib that still holds chalk all these years later, the view when the Boswell is brought to the shoulder is as exact as it possibly could be, the infinitesimal concave in the rib’s last four inch or so adding to the gun’s pointability.

Designed to be as near flat shooting as possible, the trick to live pigeon and ZZ shooting is to pull the triggers as soon as the muzzles are on target since they are both erratic and unpredictable in their flight. With this style of shooting in mind, the Boswell proved itself to be one of the most devastating ‘snap shot’ shotguns I’ve used, the weight and barrel length aiding this reaction style of taking the target.

Around Coniston’s Compak and DTL layouts, the Boswell’s ability to kill long-range Trap birds was prodigious. A selection of Express 28g Supreme Competition and 36g Super Game were a perfect choice of cartridge. Similarly at West Kent SS, during the Hurlingham, using Express’ new ZZ load, a purpose built 36g cartridge loaded up with 7’s, these purposefully punchy rounds felt no more potent than a mid-range 28g.     

Finding a ‘Live Pigeon’ gun

The Boswell seen here has been used as an example of type. Charles Boswell was one of the most prolific manufacturers of this style of shotgun but there are many other live pigeon shotguns to choose from - Holland & Holland, Purdey, Boss, WW. Greener and Grant to name but a few, whilst other continental makers such as Piotti have and still do produce this type of shotgun.

Likewise the cost, certain of the more famous makes always command premium prices. However, if you keep your eyes and ears open, 12 bores of this type can possibly be had for less than £1,500, many of these more affordable examples still in reasonable, unmolested condition and a fine addition to any gun cabinet.  About £2,000 will get you a real gem if you do your homework.

It’s also worth remembering that the live pigeon shotgun was usually built as a single gun, the owner never requiring a pair of them unlike the game gun equivalents. This can at times mean that since these shotguns are target or discipline specific and that there’s only one of them, the asking price can at times be marginally less than a game gun counterpart although the original leather case can add at least £300 or more to the asking price.

Remember buyer beware, but if you get it right, bide your time and choose wisely you’ll have a fantastic 12 bore that’ll give you years of pleasurable, fantastic shooting.