A Mysterious Boss

Boss & Co. shotgun actions slide open effortlessly. But not this one. It popped open. Custom design? Overlooked feature? The author is perplexed.

By Terry Wieland

For a mechanism that was invented in 1909 —114 years ago—the Boss & Co. over-and-under shotgun enjoys a reputation and level of respect that any other gun would envy. That includes the estimable Purdey, itself an icon of shooting excellence.

John Robertson, who owned Boss & Co., solved the major problem presented by over-and-under designs, which was an excessively deep frame necessitated by having locking underlugs and a hinge pin. He replaced these with a design using trunnions, similar to cannon mountings. This made the gun both slimmer and easier to open.

The Boss was a sidelock, of course, which eliminated the boxy look of most over-and-unders, and he extended the forend iron in such a way that it broke up the vertical lines on the front of the action, giving the gun the “racehorse” look for which all Boss guns are famous.

If the design lacks one thing, it’s the self-opening feature that plays such an important role in making the Purdey the legend of durability that it is. A self-opener maintains tension on the action, preventing excess movement and consequent wear. To the best of my knowledge, no over-and-under ever had such a mechanism.

Then I went to the Rock Island premier auction in May, and naturally gravitated to an exquisite 20-gauge Boss over-and-under. Any Boss draws me like a magnet. I picked it up off the rack it shared with some fellow aristocrats, pushed the lever to the right, and the action popped open! It didn’t just slide open effortlessly, like other Boss guns. It sprang open.

Close examination revealed that it was propelled by two tiny rods, one protruding from each side of the forend iron, and pressing on two small vertical surfaces where the forend meets the frame.

I had never seen, read, or heard of such a mechanism — not in Donald Dallas’s official history of Boss, nor in Geoffrey and Susan Boothroyd’s book on the British over-and-under, nor even in Crudgington & Baker’s three volumes on British shotgun patents that cover everything from 1850 to 2011.

This last is particularly puzzling, because Ian Crudgington, an accomplished gunmaker, 85 years after this gun was built, made a second set of barrels for it. This was around 2000, a decade before volume three of the gun patents books was published. So Crudgington certainly knew it existed.

Possibly there was no patent. Possibly, as gunmaker Kirk Merrington suggests, it was a one-off — an innovation to satisfy a request of a client for a feature that did not exist. In those days, gunmakers had the ability to do that, and do it they would.

There is another curious tidbit. In Boothroyd’s book, there is a photo of a Boss 20-gauge made in the 1930s. The action is open, and there appear to be rods pressing on the frame; in another photo, tiny rods protrude from the detached forend. There is, however, no explanation or even acknowledgment of the feature.

This Boss & Co. 20-gauge over-and-under, built in 1915, is the one and only self-opening over-and-under author Wieland has ever seen. It may — or may not — be unique. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auction Company

It is possible that such a mechanism works well on a light 20-gauge — the one at Rock Island was a little more than 5 pounds — but would not on the larger, heavier barrels of a 12-gauge. Or, alternatively, the springs would be so strong it would make closing the gun prohibitively difficult.

Whatever its story, that 20-gauge Boss was a gem. When it went on the block at Rock Island, it realized $82,250, far exceeding the high estimate of $50,000. In my opinion, it is worth every penny.

Terry Wieland is a writer specializing in fine firearms. He has hunted on four continents, including 14 trips to Africa, and has written for Safari Times for 26 years.