We have just finished some work on a lovely pair of John Dickson Damascus barreled shotguns (shown below), and I thought I’d ask Barry ‘Gramps’ Wilcox to write a short piece explaining some of the history and process behind Damascus barrels.
I myself love to shoot with Damascus barreled shotguns (sometimes referred to as “twist barrels”) as they always have a great feel to them and are free from the resonance that can cause ‘gun headache’. Occasionally when standing in a line of guns, a softer more booming report is heard – rather like the sound of a shot on a foggy wet morning. This is almost certainly not down to the cartridge, but due to the fact that one of the guns is enjoying shooting with his Damascus barreled shotgun that is almost certain to be over one hundred years old. Have a listen out next time you are shooting with someone who has one such gun. You may ask – “What are Damascus barrels?”
The earliest gun barrels were made of iron, brass and steel and in order to give them enough strength they ended up being very heavy. In 1634 a Hungarian named Caspar Hartman is attributed with adapting the Far Eastern method of making sword blades to enable the production of barrel tubes. From that point until the 1880’s, gun barrels were almost always formed this way and the process became known as the Damascus method. The origin of the term ‘Damascus steel’ is a little uncertain but almost certainly it is in recognition of the type of steel used in Middle Eastern sword making.
Belgium was the largest manufacturer of early Damascus barrels but they were also forged in Italy, Spain, Germany and the Balkans.These early barrels varied greatly in quality as the cheaper scelp barrels were not plaited being just a ribbon of steel alternating with bands of iron and any impurities in the welding made them liable to burst. The advent of nitro powders and the resulting higher pressures gave the poorer quality Damascus barrels a suspect reputation.
In 1806 J.Jones was granted a British patent for the production of gun barrels using iron from horse shoe nails and steel from coach springs. The Damascus barrels were made by layering anything from 8 to 24 pieces of alternating strips of iron and steel and forging them together. These strips were then twisted into a spiral and used to make a 3 or 4 piece plait. The whole piece was then beaten flat into a ‘ribbon’ that would be twisted around a central mandrel (solid rod). Clockwise for the right hand barrel and anti-clockwise for the left. This ribbon was then hammer-welded together (forged) and the central mandrel removed to leave the barrel ready for boring and striking off.
Generally, the more layers and plaits – the higher the quality. The lighter colour of the steel against the darker iron, combined with the twists, gave the barrels beautiful, almost reptilian patterns. The traditional final finish for Damascus barrels is for them to be ‘browned’. This is a controlled rusting process and all the specialist craftsmen involved in the industry carefully guarded their own individual process. The formulae for the browning solutions were kept secret and included acids, vinegars, salts and even blood and carcinogenic such as Mercury Chloride. The different ingredients emphasised the pattern of the twists as some chemicals attacked the iron but not the steel.
The ingredients used today by specialist barrel browners are still a well-kept secret often being passed down through the generations and we currently send much of our browning work to the grandson of a famous craftsman!
As for the art of manufacturing Damascus barreled shotguns, that has been all but lost. From 1857 Joseph Whitworth & Co. produced fluid steel barrels and by the 1880’s they began to replace Damascus as the preferred material, taking away the uncertainty of ‘ good’ or ‘bad’ quality Damascus. With thousands of Damascus barrel tubes in circulation at the time it was inevitable that there would be a long transitional period, and Damascus barreled shotguns were built as late as the 1920’s.
I have had the privilege to own many beautiful Damascus barreled shotguns in my time. I particularly remember a delightful little E J Churchill 28 bore sidelock ejector with which I missed many opportunities at pigeons whist gazing at the way the pattern on the barrels so complimented the tiny scroll work on the action! One of my favourite guns was a Joseph Lang hammer ejector and in the near darkness of a duck hide I could literally feel the deep relief of the browning. The finish would have been achieved using an acidic mixture that heavily attacked the softer iron but not the steel, giving an almost etched pattern. I have also been the proud owner of a pair of Harkoms and a lovely Dickson with two sets of barrels. Most are no longer with me but I’m sure they are still loved and used.
Never be frightened to use a Damascus barreled shotgun as they are beautiful examples of the gunmaker’s art and take pleasure from using something that’s just a little bit different. However, as with any older gun, make sure it has been checked out by a trained gunsmith. If you require any advice on buying or selling a Damascus barreled gun, or you need yours re-browned, please get in touch.