It all started many years ago when a friend loaned me a Holland and Holland B grade for a season. It was a strange double, fitted with a non factory single trigger, right handed stock but a left handed opening lever.
Opening it the first few times was a funny business. Years of muscle memory automatically put my hand on the left of the lever pressing it to the right, which it would not do naturally. Then i got the hang of it. With the fingers still around the grip the thumb pushed the lever to the left. It was a revelation. With the “wrong” lever installed, opening this particular B grade was a truly one haned operation. It was a kind of revelation that led to a never ending search into opening systems on doubles.
A Russian MC built on the Beesley action, presented to British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan. Compare the lines of this top tang with that of leverless guns.
If speed in operation was the guiding light in side by side design (as stated by the current chairman of Purdey) why did we get stuck with the unergonomic and slow rightward top lever?
There are other types of opening levers, which are faster and easier to operate. The Grant side pedal, the Woodward automatic underlever come to mind. They do have their drawbacks though. The sidepedal makes the gun awkward to store in any kind of gun case, and the underlever is kind of bulky and awkwardly placed around the trigger guard.
A side pedal Stephen Grant.
The underlever was the choice for opening this Jeffery 600 nitro.
Aesthetically speaking the absence of a top lever improves the appearance of almost every side by side. The top strap flows into the fences in one smooth sweep without the cuts and abrupt dips needed to accomodate the top lever and its arched travel.
Arguably the abolition of a top lever facilitates action machining. A hole is drilled for the top lever spindle and in turn a cam is incorporated that translates the circular movement into a linear movement as it presses back the underbolt. These mechanical problems are avoided when the top lever is not there.
A Hodges underlever action. The underlever draws back the bolt and cocks the tumblers and all mechanics are on the trigger plate.
The French Ideal almost got it right with its cocking spur at the rear of the trigger guard. However, the Ideal is a lever cocker, when the spur is pressed it also cocks both tumblers. This means that there are three distinct levels of effort involved in pressing the spur: when both tumblers are fired and three springs are compressed, when one tumbler is fired and two springs are compressed, and when both tumblers are cocked and pressing the spur compresses only the lever spring. Despite the mechanical disadvantages the Ideal, because of its discreetly and ergonomically placed spur, at the rear of the trigger guard, is for many one of the most aesthetically pleasing guns.
A high grade cannon raye Ideal. The spur at the back of the trigger guard is pressed towards the stock to cock and open the gun.
What was missing till now was a smalli lever or actuator, discreeetly place, that would decrease complex machining, and which would enhance the looks of the side by side (and arguably an over under).
Such an opening system is shown in the side by side double rifle recently completed by American gunmaker Dewey Vicknair. A profile of the rifle shows the smooth, clutter free, lines of the top strap unfettered by a top lever. The opening slide is just ahead of the trigger guard, at an easy to reach location. This slide does not cock the hammers, that is done in the usual barrel cocking manner. With just one spring to compress the effort is manageable and constant. Compared to the French Ideal I reckon the Vicknair arrangement is also less likely to smack the middle finger of the gripping hand.
I have not handled the specific gun, but judging from experience from using similarly arranged singles, like the BSA Single XII, I can surmise its ease of use. The stock is easily held between the arm and the torso, the lever pressed and the barrel is free to fall open in the Single XII since it is a manually cocked design. In a barrel cocker some slight effort would most likly be exercised by the left hand to fully open the the gun and cock both tumblers. Again, in a double rifle with comparatively stout barrels (compared to a shotgun) their weight might be enough to cock the action without left hand pressure.
Looking at the superbly crafted double rifle built by Dewey Vicknair it is easy for the mind to start conjuring up images of favorite doubles with that neat opening system. In my mental imagery even some of the great names would be better looking and handier in the field, especially for those of us who open and close our own guns.
The photograph of the double rifle at the head of the article is posted with the kind permission of Dewey Vicknair.