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database is principally concerned with breech loading guns by Blanch,
both hammer and hammerless. This should not be taken as a indication of
the quality or importance of their muzzle loaders but more a paucity of
information and specimens. During my period of research I have been willing
to travel as far to view a 'flinter' as a 'box lock' but have seldom been
offered the chance with one notable exception of a collection in the north
east of England. This goes some way to explain the lack of muzzle loader
gun details and photos.
The Gun Trade
It should be understood by any student of the gun trade, mid 19th century to mid 20th century, that the trade was not organized quite as the public thought.
With the exception of one or two of the most prestigious gun makers, guns were generally not 'made' by their vendors but by a host of small, highly skilled, anonymous gunmakers based principally in London and Birmingham. These largely unsung tradesmen could produce everything from a striker to a complete gun and supply the parts in any state from a rough forging to a fully finished gun complete with the vendors name and serial number. Furthermore, although some of the gun trade did specialize in a style or quality of gun, many could produce a product to any level of finish.
The secret behind this fantastic level of flexibility was that most individuals specialised in one skill or another, be it barrel work, actioning, stocking, engraving or whatever, and the gun passed from tradesman to tradesman having the various procedures undertaken by a whole series of experts.
The result was that virtually any gun in any bore, style and quality could be ordered within the trade.
As I discuss below, this also means that you can find two almost identical guns that only really differ in the name engraved on the top rib and action. What says a lot about the quality of guns that were being supplied by the trade at the end of the 19th century are the prestigious names that turn up on them.
Many pundits are pretty derogatory about the guns made within the Birmingham and provincial trade and it always makes me smile when they extol the virtues of guns such as Holland & Holland's Dominion back actions, which are arguable mainly of W C Scott origin!
J Blanch and their position in the Trade.
It has been said of J Blanch & Son that, although they undoubtedly sold elegant and finely finished guns, they were conservative in style and lacked the quest for innovation and progress that was apparent in other gunmakers of the time.
Whether this is an accurate portrayal, depends on how you define conservative. If one was to define conservative as a tendency to stay with a tried and tested design and style and avoid technical embellishments, Blanch do fit the definition. However, if one was to define it as a willingness to conform with the mainstream of the gunmaking establishment then Blanch could be considered rather more radical.
back over a hundred years, Blanch guns may seem old fashioned
when compared with their contemporaries but they still catch the eye as
being beautifully finished and out of the ordinary. In terms of conservatism,
it is interesting to note that Blanch was one of the first London gunmakers
to make the Lefaucheux pinfire, the first commercially successful breech
(See Obituary of William Blanch)
Blanch chose to produce many more back action than bar action breechloaders
is a question that can never be answered with any certainty at this distance
in time. It could have been on economic, aesthetic, marketing or technical
grounds and we will never know for sure. Only a tiny number of bar action
hammer guns have come to light and it may be that having identified themselves
with the look of the back action Lefaucheux pinfire hammergun, they felt
that staying with the similarly shaped back action hammerless lock was
a good marketing ploy. It maintained a house style which was noticeably
different from the way that most of the London trade was going. Of the
rest of the best known gun makers, only Chas Lancaster and Rigby persevered
with 'dip-edged' lock plates on their main production guns, Holland and
Holland reserving this distinctive shape for their Dominion model other
than their early 'Royal' sidelocks.
And who made their famous back actions?
Spend enough time around English shotguns and you will come across a suspiciously large number of guns with all manner of makers names that look remarkably similar to Blanchs hammerless back actions. They will all display a wide range of Scott and Perkes patents from cocking rods to interceptor sears and ejectors to top lever spindles, not to mention crystal viewing ports, Gas Checks and forend catches. They are invariably well finished and, with the exception of the makers name, may even carry identical engraving patterns. I have even seen early Adams back actions that carry Scotts brand name Reliance on the right hand side of the action bar or action flats.
Back action lock work
were very fond of interceptor sears and examples of all their hammerless
guns will be found with them. Furthermore, I have not seen a 'Scott' back
action that did not have them and a close inspection of the inside of
a few Blanch back actions will reveal two variations of the interceptor
sear. In essence one lies behind the tumbler and blocks its fall by being
placed between a extension of the lock plate and the breast of the tumbler
and the other lies in front of the tumbler and catches its fall with a
hook arrangement. These two designs are covered by different patents,
the former credited in British Shotguns, 1871-1890 by David Baker
and I M Crudgington to Holland & Holland as illustrated in Holland
and Robertson's patent no. 5834 of 1887 and marketed by them as their
'Patent Block Safety'. However, WW Greener in his famous book Modern
Shotguns attributes this design to W & C Scott. The truth is that
the rights to this design belonged to Joseph Needham and George Hinton
under the patent no. 706 of 1879.
Interceptor sears in Blanch boxlocks are also quite common and all the examples I have seen follow the usual boxlock pattern of an 'L' shaped sear, pivoted on a transverse pin located just behind the fence. Pulling the trigger lifts this sear out of engagement with the tumbler as the main sear is pulled out of its bent. If the tumbler accidentally falls without the trigger being pulled the hook catches it. The design of this mechanism seems to derive from William Anson's patent no. 4089 of 1882 which describes a double rocking lever operated by the safety catch which blocks sears and triggers. However, it also includes the interceptor sears as described above which gives a real 'belt & braces' approach! The use of the double rocking levers to lock the trigger blades, the standard Westley Richards safety, is very common in Blanch boxlocks, the use of the interceptor sears as well considerably less so.
As with the back action lock work, Blanch retailed many guns that used other current patents, especially those by Scott. Whether this was because they particularly liked the patents or simply because Scott was their supplier of choice remains a mute point. However, the fact remains that you are likely to encounter many patent acknowledgment on their guns and none that I am aware of refer to a Blanch patent.
Those most commonly encountered are as follows:
& C Scott & Baker Action, No. 761 of 1878
Inspection Ports', No. 3223 of 1875
Perkes and John Deeley Ejectors, Nos. 1968 of 1878 and 14526 of 1884 respectively.
At least two Blanch gun that I have inspected, 'Scott' back actions nos. 5702 & 5812, credit both the Perkes & Deeley patents on their action flats which suggests that they may date from the period when these two gun makers were locked in their legal tussle. It is interesting to note that later numbered guns only credit the Perkes patent.
W & C Scott 'Gas Check', No. 617 of 1882
primers of this period were extremely corrosive and the brass used in
the caps was not as strong as the plated steel used today. The resulting
split caps resulted in corrosive residue from the primer finding its way
on to the breech face and, via the striker holes, into the lock work with
highly detrimental results. Even a cursory look at the breech face of
most well used guns from this period will show extensive pitting.
later Blanch back actions are made on the Thomas Perkes patent, No. 1968
of 1878, that among other details uses a cocking rod that runs downwards
through the action bar from the breast of the tumbler to bear on, in the
case of non-ejectors, a narrow roller or, in ejectors a leg of the ejector
box, located in the forend knuckle. In both cases, retaining pins will
be seen on the action flats and in some cases these will also retain a
second smooth headed pin.
most ejectors models the cocking rods are linked to the tumblers by a
hook arrangement and move to and fro in concert with the tumblers so these
'cocking rod returning pins' have no purpose. However, one does occasionally
find ejectors with these vestigial pins and on removal this smooth headed
pin will appear to serve no function or it may be the cocking rod retaining
pin which is in turn retained by the threaded pin.
It would appear that 'Scott' back action guns, although identical in many respects, could be specified from a range of extras. For example, all the Blanch back actions that I have seen have had a Perkes type sear and tumbler ejector mechanism. These are reliable but are composed of a huge number of intricate parts. Holland & Holland Dominion guns, on the other hand invariably use the Southgate ejector mechanism with its mere two components, a spring and tumbler.
in their range of guns, Blanch seemed fond of the Southgate ejector and
I have yet to come across a bar action hammerless side lock with anything
but a Southgate ejector mechanism. Box locks are fairly evenly split between
the Southgate and Deeley ejectors, the former being used more in later
The one example of a pair of ejector hammer guns that I have seen were fitted with a Perkes patent mechanism.
were very few makers that utilized the Bold Foliate style of engraving
as their house style after the turn of the century, Holland & Holland
being a notable exception. The ubiquitous engraving style of the time
was Bouquet & Scroll with a huge range in quality from the sparse
and ordinary to the profuse and fabulous. However, Bold Foliate, when
well executed, did carry a significant cache and was often used by lesser
known makers to lend an air of quality to their more highly finished guns
and I think Blanch exploited this perception to make their guns stand
out from the crowd. To cite an example, I have in the database a
Blanch A&D box lock that is profusely engraved with very fine Bold
Foliate and finished overall to a high standard yet it is a Webley action
non ejector with BSA barrels. Most other makers would have relegated this
gun to border engraving and a plank for a stock.
are undeniably some guns by Blanch that do carry fine Scroll or Bouquet
and Scroll engraving, in particular more than 50% of the hammerguns that
I have seen, and these fall into two fairly distinct groups. Firstly you
have the trade guns which were most probably bought in completely
finished from either London or Birmingham outworkers with J Blanch &
Son slotted in to a vacant space on the action and top rib. These would
have been scroll engraved simply because that was what most retailers
you have the better quality guns, maybe made up by the trade but to a
very high level of finish. Here Blanch could have specified the quantity,
style and quality of the engraving and some very fine looking actions
have resulted. Some of the back action hammer guns, eg. gun number 5150,
have fine scroll engraving of superlative quality along with beautifully
faceted and engraved hammers.
have been described as a bolstered action by some although
the 'bar' has virtually no depth to it and would offer no serious additional
strength. Early versions of this stylized bar are rounded
on their bottom edge and curve some way round the bottom of the action
bar whilst later versions have a straight bottom edge and are rather more
reminiscent of the real bar action side lock.
Finally, hammerless guns can generally be divided between early guns which have the rounded ball fences and later guns which display Webley fences. This is not a hard and fast rule and many exceptions will be found. However, it is my experience that in the back action guns, Webley fences are generally associated with concave beetle back safety catches and straight action bars whilst ball fences are associated with button safety catches and droopy action bars. This same fence and safety catch connection is also often exhibited in Blanch box locks. Whether this is a reflection of source, date or specification is a matter for conjecture.
barrels generally follow the conventions of the day. However, it should
be noted that their back actions, especially those that can be attributed
to Scott, were usually only 28", not 30" which was the norm
at that time. Most box locks were 30" whilst their best bar action
side locks were generally fitted with 29" chopper lump Whitworth
steel barrels. Other than these best guns, barrels almost invariably had
'dovetail' lumps .
Top Rib Extensions
regards the high frequency of top rib extensions, I think the answer partly
lies in the source of many of Blanch actions. The origins of their hammer
gun actions is not known for sure and here top extensions are rare but
given the frequency of the 'J Blanch & Son Improved Snap Bolt' forend
catch, a modified Scott patent, Scott seems a good bet. However, once
you move on to the hammerless guns, top extensions become the norm and
I believe that a very large number of these guns came from the Scott and
Webley workshops. As already discussed, the hammerless back actions were
almost without exception Scott guns as they display many Scott features
and patents while the box locks and bar action side locks often carry
the Webley horseshoe top lever. Both these makers often used
a simple square top rib extension that passed under the top lever and
acted as a third bite. This would appear to be a simplification of Scott's
patent no. 1902 of 1875 which protected a top extension of complex shape.
Other forms of top extension will be found. I have seen several examples of a Westley Richards type dolls head extension but these have always been supplemented by a Purdey bolt.
Bolting & Opening Levers
Blanch hammerless guns almost universally used toplevers with the ubiquitous Purdey bolt and Scott spindle to secure actions to barrels, often supplemented by a top extension. However, while most early breechloading guns utilized the Lefaucheux and Jones underlevers, what is perhaps a little unusual is the predominance of side levers in their later hammer guns, especially the higher quality guns. In fact a best quality, top lever Blanch hammer gun is fairly rare. It has been pointed out that these sidelever guns bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Stephen Grant who was well known for his side levers.
One point of interest is the forend catch found on nearly all the hammerless sidelocks and many of the hammer guns. This is a snap action lever catch apparently of a Deeley type but moved to the end of the forend and often engraved J Blanch & Sons Improved Snap Bolt. However, closer examination will show that it is more closely related to the Anson type catch as the pivoting lever operates a sliding bolt. This mechanism was patented by Scott, no. 615 of 1876, and demonstrates one more connection with the Scott gunmaking concern. The Improved seems to only refer to the more slender and elegant dimensions as in all other respects it is the Scott catch.
lower grade guns had wood to match, most Blanch stocks were originally
of very good quality with fine figure. However, a large proportion have
been replaced over the years often with inferior wood and poor fitting.
It is my personal belief that Blanch tended to make very elegant stocks
which were perhaps a bit too thin at the hand for their own good and I
have seen more than one original stock where the grain did not run straight
through the hand as it should for maximum strength.
of the original purposes of this database was to try and go some way to
replacing the Blanch records lost in 1942 as a casualty of the 2nd World
War. The hope was that given enough gun records, I should be able to give
Blanch owners an idea of when their pride and joy was built and where
the gun fitted in to Blanchs range. Unfortunately this was not to
be as simple as I thought.
It has been said that the number 6000 was reached at the turn of the century but I think it was somewhat earlier than this. Many of the hammerless back actions can be dated by their proof marks to before 1896 yet they number as high as the 6100s. Furthermore, as has been discussed, many guns were probably bought in for stock fully finished and numbered and some exhibit dateable proof marks that do not agree with their numbering. This may be explained by rebarreling to steel from damascus.
Brown, in his book London Gunmakers, says that number 4381 dates from
circa 1870, 6000 was just before the turn of the century and 7000 from
just before the 2nd WW. After the 2nd WW a number of guns were bought
in from trade sources, including abroad, in the white and
these may carry the makers serial numbers rather than Blanchs.
As an example, guns purchased in the white from Cogswell & Harrison
are known bearing serial numbers in the 70,000 range.
To further muddy the water, Blanch sold many of its less prestigious guns unnumbered, especially trade' quality top lever hammer guns, single barrels and small bores. These often carry numbers in concealed places such as inside lock plates, on the barrels between flats and forend loops etc and most are patently not Blanch serial numbers. Finally, it must be said that some of the later guns were of continental origin, very possibly Spanish, and are not of the same quality as the home grown variety. They usually are numbered in the 6900s and although they are usually perfectly sound and exhibit high specifications, they often lack the elegance and finesse of earlier guns. There are exceptions to this and a good example is a very fine pair of 20 bore bar action side lock ejectors apparently once owned by Sir Joseph Nickerson which I had the privilege to handle.
It should perhaps be mentioned that Blanch case labels often had the gun's number written on them in ink or pencil, perhaps when returned to Blanch for servicing. Although this does enable one to match case with gun, the calligraphy of the scribe often leaves much to be desired and cannot be said to enhance the Blanch label design!
In all the time that I have been researching Blanch, I have come across very few named accessories. In fact I have only seen two primer/cap boxes and three, yes three, snap caps. Given the commonness of case accoutrements and tools that turn up with other maker's names, I can only assume that Blanch did not subscribe to this particular form of self advertisement and used mainly unnamed items supplied by the trade. I would be delighted to be proved wrong in this assumption so if anybody has any named items, I would love to hear of them.
Innovation? What Innovation?
you read British Shotguns, 1871-1890 by David Baker and I M Crudgington
you will find not a single entry in the index for a patent taken out by
Blanch and this at a time when the entire gun trade seemed bent on achieving
their little bit of immortality. I do not believe that this was due to
a lack of ingenuity or skill on their part, after all William Blanch held
a patent for the first rifle vernier sight in this country. It would appear
that they believed in using mechanisms that had been proven by the test
of time and others development work and where necessary they paid
the royalty costs involved in using current patents.
Much has been made of the conservatism of J Blanch & Son and this is very apparent in the book A Century of Guns by HJ Blanch published just after the turn of the century. The author makes it very clear that he was not keen on unnecessary complexity. For example, he had no time for single trigger mechanisms and I have only come across one example of a single trigger, a pair of back actions sleeved by Boss, and they may well have been a later conversion. However, it is amusing to note that the the first patent that HJ Blanch obtained (see below) was for a single trigger mechanism. Maybe 10 years on when he came to write his book, he had had enough of this famously unreliable embellishment!
H J Blanch obtained at least two patents himself and also one with G J Stevens and one with A L Chevallier . These were no. 8967 of 1899, the single trigger design; 12426 of 1906, a Lee Enfield rifle modification; 25538 of 1909 with Stevens, a sighting accessory, and finally 101018 of 1916 with A L Chevallier, a muzzle grenade launcher.
bolting methods, safeties, forend catches or actions apparently held no
appeal for them and instead they appear to have concentrated on elegant
rather than innovative guns. The only other unusual feature that I have
come across is a pair of side lever hammer guns with a Perkes patent ejectors.
These were finished to a very high standard and, although sleeved, were
very desirable. Perhaps Blanch was only prepared to indulge their customers
whims when the bill was going to be substantial anyway!
As the exception that proves the rule there is at least one Blanch 12 bore over & under which the vendors dated to the 1920s and was apparently in very good order. If the current owner reads this and would contact me, I would be very grateful for further details.
In conclusion, I see J Blanch & Son as a gunmaker who did what they did with a quiet elegance and style in keeping with their conservative ethos and relatively unfashionable location. Occasionally they produced guns to order which compare favorably with those from the very best gunmakers in London but the core of their business lay with the sportsman who valued good solid quality rather than newfangled ideas.
Gunmakers, Nigel Brown, 1998.