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BARREL-MAKING FROM THE 16TH THROUGH 19TH CENTURIES
With an Explanation of then-Contemporary European Barrel Markings
Barrel markings are informative in dating/locating a guns' manufacture. However, when they are in a foreign language, English-speaking dealers/collectors often miss the message. As a moderate linguist and gun collector, I hate to find yet another English Language gun catalog or auction description that lists a European gun made by ‘herraduras’ or ‘gus stahl’, in places like ‘Tortiglione’, or ‘Rubans’ (see Exh.1 for examples). Hopefully this article will contribute to better future descriptions, but, first, you need a barrel making primer!
246 SUPERB CASED PAIR OF FRENCH PERCUSSION DUELLING PISTOLS by Ruban D’Acier: 28 bore; 10” oct micro-groove rifled Damascus barrels with top flats gold inlaid RUBAN D’ACIER; foliate engraved locks, hammers & t/ guard & fitted with set triggers; g. profiles & clear markings ………………….
013-A208, Pair of French Napoleonic Flint Pistols by Canon Tordu, a maker from 1790-1815, made in the height of quality French Pistols, with gold make name and gold inlays in barrel ………………….
Lot #: 1128 This is a beautiful example of an engraved and gold inlaid Mangeot percussion pistol with an elaborately carved ebony stock.... Just behind the muzzle and at two additional points are scrolls complimented by floral splashes which also flank the barrel address “ACIER FONDU”
Exh.1 Misdescribed guns! While a couple of these are older, three come from relatively recent catalog descriptions – one from a major US online gun vendor, the other two from major US and International auction houses.
So a good barrel-maker could name his price. Customers didn’t know how Cominazzo made his barrels, but, based on reputation, they were willing to travel/pay more to get a Cominazzo gun rather than a similar one from an unknown maker3 . While some of the great barrel-makers' secrets may have been unique refinements on the processes described below, most had to do with their basic treatment of iron, and, later, steel.
To understand later barrel-makers marks, a brief history of iron and steel as it relates to gun barrels is required. Iron comes from natural mined iron oxide materials, often found in conjunction with sulfur, silicon, and other impurities. Good iron, properly treated and formed, can make a relatively strong barrel – and most barrels were made of iron until the 1820’s. Steel is the product of iron that has been exposed to carbon – then typically from dry wood or charcoal - at high temperatures in a closed environment. The process removes oxygen from the iron, in the form of CO2, and adds carbon. Iron is relatively malleable and easy to work. Steel is stronger, but more brittle, and harder to work.
Steel was known in Asia 2,000 years ago. As iron was commonly heated using charcoal, to reduce impurities, and assist in forming it, it is likely that some iron founder realized that the blistered iron nearest the charcoal was harder than the rest. Early steel was made simply by piling charcoal on iron ingots. Some of the surface iron became steel, and the ingots were hammered together to produce a (presumably variable!) material somewhat stronger than pure iron.
Around the 4th century AD, founders in Asia developed a process in which iron was heated with dry wood/charcoal and other materials in a closed clay container. This method, called Wootz, produced the first crucible cast steel. Amazingly, though Europeans were aware of Wootz and tried to reproduce it, it took until the late 1740’s for an Englishman, Benjamin Huntsman, to ‘rediscover’ the steel process4 . Steel was available in Europe before this date, but was either very hard to work or very expensive.
Espinar, writing in Madrid in 1644, says steel was only used to face frizzens, providing a better spark from the flint5 . The Three Brothers, writing in Lisbon in 17186 , state that steel was used only for facing frizzens, and making springs for locks, as does Johann Halle, writing in Leipzig in 17647 . The Three Brothers say that steel was only available in Lisbon in small sizes, coming from Germany, Hungary, Venice, and Milan. Halle states that the only true steel had 'the impression of the elephant or the crab' - founders marks. It is not clear whether this was some European charcoal-exposed iron product, or, given the position of Hungary and Venice on the border of the Muslim states, an Asian import. Regardless, all these, and later, writers state that barrels were then made of iron. While Huntsman's process was quickly imitated, crucible cast steel was initially an expensive product, which limited its use in gun barrels until the beginning of the 19th century.
With this brief introduction to steel, let us return to iron barrel manufacture. A small number of early gun barrels were cast, or drilled from a solid rod, but the vast majority were lap-welded. The barrel-maker bent a long rectangular (width slightly larger than the circumference of the widest part of the barrel) piece of iron called a ‘skelp’ around a mandrill approximately the size of the barrel bore. The breech end of the skelp was thicker than the muzzle end. The overlapping edges of the rounded skelp were hammered/forged together. The barrel was ‘drawn’ (lengthened), by repeated hammering, then filed on the outside, and reamed on the inside, to produce a tube. The breech was subsequently screwed into the barrel.
The selection of the iron itself was critical to barrel quality. Swedish iron was particularly prized because of its relative lack of impurities, such as sulfur. The best barrel-makers used iron that had already proved itself – horseshoes, horseshoe nails, iron from farm implements such as scythes – that had been exposed to stress. By ‘natural selection’ in their previous life they had lost whatever impurities they were originally formed with. Forging together 1000’s10 of such ‘used’ iron pieces, the best makers produced iron barrels with no flaws. The Spanish credited themselves with being the first users of used horseshoes/nails to create less-flawed iron (giving a strong reputation to Spanish barrels!)11. In practice, the French probably beat them (employing, of all things, German horseshoes!) making gun barrels with used iron before April 1678.
This was the basic barrel-making process in Europe and the USA until the 1820’s. While simple, it had the obvious defect that the barrel’s weak point was in a straight line where the folded skelp was forged together. One flawed piece of iron in this line could result in a catastrophe.
Iron, like wood, has a grain, a fact known in the late 1600's.14 Exh. 2 shows a microscopic image of the grain in a low carbon steel rolled from left to right. The grain
Exh. 2 Examples of grain in low carbon steel. Images courtesy Roberto Garcia, Analytical Instrumentation Facility , NC State Univ.
is clearly visible on the left hand side. With further magnification, on the right hand side the dark areas are potential sources of failure. The grain adds strength, as it does in wood. The French tried to mitigate the skelp fold by forging together plates in lattice-form with opposing grains15. The Spanish tried making the barrel in several shorter lengths which were forged together so as to place the grain counter to the length of the barrel, thus reducing the area of longitudinal weakness (though creating some latitudinal ones)16. Both methods were costly and not widely adopted.
When twisted, the grain improves the strength in a long skelp-formed barrel – by spreading the strain around the (previously straight-line) joint. Some ‘twist’ barrels were made by simply twisting a regular heated skelp-formed barrel upon itself17. Most were made by twisting one or more rods of iron around a mandril in spiral form and forging them together. Made from c.1700, or earlier, twisted barrels (canon tordu) became relatively common in France in the 1750’s.
A variant of the twist is the ribbon barrel (canon a rubans, in French). Here, a very thin tubular base is covered in alternating spiral layers of ribbon-thin iron (and, sometimes, steel) which are then forged together19. The barrels of Eastern European guns, such as Bulgarian Shishanes (miquelet-locked guns with pentagonal stocks) were made in the same fashion. Because of the difficulty in forging ribbon strips long enough for a barrel, such barrels were usually made in three, or more, parts which were then forged together. This method was popular in France from the late 1700’s. Exh. 3 shows various European barrels with markings describing the use of different barrel-making processes.
Exh. 3 In descending order: Steel from Paris – courtesy antiquegunroom.com from a French percussion pistol c.1855 Twisted Barrel – courtesy greg martin auctions. com from a German flint (later conv.) DB fowler c.1800 Barrel of Ribbons Damascened –courtesy czernys. com from a French DB flintlock c.1820. In this context ‘damasse’ means damascened (using gold inlay to imitate Turkish style). Barrel of Cast Steel – courtesy czernys.com from a French percussion pistol c.1860 Of Horseshoes – courtesy thomasdelmar.com from a Spanish miquelet fowling piece of 1815
While these improvements in iron barrels had their place, gun makers had known for a 100 years that steel was the future for gun barrels. After the Hapsburg victory over the Turks at the Siege of Vienna in 1683, large numbers of Turkish guns with Damascus barrels were captured. They were found to be extremely robust. Asians had been using Damascus steel for centuries. The earliest datable Damascus swords are from 300AD; Saladin’s cavalry fought the crusaders armed with Damascus blades. The existence of a large number of captured guns raised the profile of 'Damascus' in Europe. It was recognized that the addition of steel to iron gave additional strength while permitting lighter barrels for the same bore.
Damascus barrels were made by twisting alternating rods of iron and steel or 'soft' (lower carbon) steel with harder steel and forging them into a single strip which was then wound around a mandril and forged into a barrel.. The finished barrel was etched with a light acid that reveals the different contours/colors of the metals used. Exh. 4 shows three rods in partial stages of being twisted into a barrel. Anywhere from one to six rods might be used, though three was typical, and only finely figured Belgian sporting guns used six.
Exh. 4 Three-rod twist Damascus barrels in the making. From a Belgian barrel supplier to Colt’s shotguns in the 1880’s – two views.
Different numbers of rods twisted were given different end-product names. Thus the cheaper two rod Damascus was called ‘Boston’; the typical three rod was ‘English’ Damascus (though there were variants even within these names)24- see Exh. 5. Fine wire Damascus was made by forging together up to 100 fine wires
Exh.5. Examples of common Damascus barrel-types. Photos from the 'Firearms History, Technology, and Development' blog
of alternating low and high carbon steels so that the cross-section looked like a chessboard. The resulting square rod was then twisted with similar rods to produce a barrel with an extremely detailed finish.
A variant on regular Damascus is Laminated Steel. This used six or so thin-rolled strips of alternating iron and steel laid on top of each other. The resulting laminate was forged into a rod which was then twisted in the same way as regular Damascus steel, but was known as ‘Double Damascus’. Exh. 6 shows a page,
Exh. 6 Pistols as they were! A page from a hand water-colored gun sample catalog c.1840. Almost certainly from Liege – similar catalogs are in the Musee D’Armes there – this is p. Note how guns looked in 1840, with bright case-hardening on the locks, and vivid blueing of the ramrods, triggers, screws, and nipples. The top pistol barrel, #3660, is made from rub. d’acier(steel ribbons), the second and third, from damas (almost certainly three rod damascus, with extra twisting). All three are described as having rifled barrels. Courtesy Janua:Europe Antiques and Decorative Arts in The Netherlands ( ebay seller charlessimon).
probably from a Liege gun maker’s catalog of c.1840, describing the three pistols shown – the top one is described as ‘rub(ans) d’acier’ (steel ribbons) while the other two are ‘damas’ (Damascus)25. Exh. 7 shows two more pistols from the same page, the one on the left
Exh. 7 More Pistols. Another detail from the Janua watercolor. Pistol to the left with a barrel, a rubans, pistol to the right with a damas barrel.
with a barrel ‘a rubans’, the one on the right ‘damas’. The latter appears to be a double Damascus barrel.
Damascus barrels were first made in Europe at the end of the 18th century. They are reported to be used for fine sporting guns in both Liege and St. Etienne by 1790. W. Dupein took out a patent in England for an iron and steel skelp in 1798. Anschutz and Beretta were making Damascus barrels by 1811 .However they were used on only the finest arms until the 1820’s. Conservatism (and fear that bursting steel -mix barrels could cause injury) meant that all-iron barrels were still being made until 1840 or later.
The period from 1830 to 1870 was the ‘golden age’ of Damascus barrels (and of European barrel markings attempting to set their makers apart from their competition). Exh. 8 shows a beautiful pinfire double
Exh. 8 A fine DB pinfire shotgun from Liege c.1860. Note that the right hand hammer has broken off - too much case hardening? The Damascus pattern appears to be Double Damascus Twist. Courtesy www.littlegun.info/ (an excellent site for 19th century European arms data)
* On some guns/pistols the word 'herraduras' is split into two parts, 'herra' on one side of the top flats, and 'duras' on the other.
**Interestingly, both of these terms remain in use (in Spanish/Italian respectively) to describe pasta: cintas being of thin, flat strips (similar to fettuccine), and tortiglione being a twisted pasta! As if to confirm this, Microsoft's spell-check kept trying to turn 'tortiglione' into 'tortellini'!!
** Cockerill was a well-known English-founded steel-maker in Belgium.
Damascus twist barrel shotgun from Liege, c.1860, representing the fine quality then achieved. This period produced a substantial variety of Damascus finishes. I have seen sample boxes with a dozen different finishes, each of which must have required a different hard steel/soft steel mix, different numbers of twists, numbers of rods, etc., yet were offered as something that could be reproduced on demand! One can only admire the skill of the men with the simple forges, wrenches and hammers who could do this!
However, competition was coming, in the form of barrels bored out of cast steel. In 1843 barrel-makers Gastinne Renette and Bernard of Paris competed with a team led by Jalabert Lamotte of St. Etienne to see who could produce strong accurate barrels of cast steel. By 1850 cast steel barrels were in regular production. Damascus barrels lasted for some time, in part because of their beauty, in part because some owners believed that the softer steels or iron in their make-up made them more forgiving in the event of a barrel mishap.
Table 1 shows how the above processes are described on barrels in the different languages used by European gun makers through the 1880’s. On the left side I have indicated the iron/steel combinations that might be covered by the barrel description. Remember that the twisting, or ribbon-forming, of barrels added properties to the barrel, even if it was all iron (the twisted grain added strength). Consequently, absent visible differences or metallurgical analysis, one can not be certain that a ‘twist’, ‘canon tordu’ or ‘a tortiglione’ barrel contained an iron/steel mix, or was simply a well-made iron barrel. Some, prior to 1820 were indeed iron and steel mixes; most, after 1830, were probably iron/steel or hard steel/soft steel mixes.
A few caveats: the markings under ‘French’ are as likely (or more likely!) to appear on guns made in Liege (Belgium), but also on arms from Switzerland, and occasionally even Russia and the German States (where French barrel-making was considered trendsetting up to the middle of the 19th century). I have included some dates for different markings, based on personal observation. Those with absolute dates are based on observed absolute dates on barrels; those with c.1xxx dates are based on my guess as to the gun’s age. The dates are not intended to show the extent of a particular process, which may have started or ended well before/after. We know, for example, that ‘herraduras’ barrels were made as early as 1700, but I have not observed any thus marked with a specific date earlier than 1792. Not surprisingly many of the actual dates are from the 1830-1860 period, when lower steel costs and new technologies allowed barrel-makers to try new combinations of steels or iron and steel.
Other Barrel Markings
The text above addresses markings directly related to
the barrel-making process. The following marks, found
mostly on French guns, relate to the manufacturer’s
Fourni par = supplied by (sometimes abbreviated, fni
Invon, Ivon = abbr. the invention of…..
Brevete = Patented
Bte sgdg = abbr. patented without Government
Guarantee (Breveté Sans Garantie De Gouvernement)
Used after 1844 to state that the French Govt would
not enforce breaches of such patents (i.e. it was up to
the patent holder to enforce his claims).