THE DAMASCUS MISCONCEPTION
Johan van Wyk
Perhaps the greatest misconception in the world of shotgunning, and especially where vintage guns are concerned, is the strength (or apparent lack thereof) of Damascus-barrelled guns. For the uninitiated, Damascus (or twist-steel, as it is sometimes called) barrels were created by wrapping and hammering sheets of iron around a mandrel. After the mandrel was withdrawn, a barrel emerged which was then used on a double gun or rifle, as the case may be. Various different patterns of Damascus steel were created and a bit of research will uncover the existence of such exotics such as “three-iron stub”, “scelp”, “silver-steel”, and various others. For the moment we will stick with the collective term of “Damascus” to simplify matters.
Damascus was born in the black powder era. It was used on both guns and rifles just about from the beginning of modern gunmaking as we know it until the early 1890’s when it was largely supplanted by Sir Joseph Whitworth’s fluid steel, which was both easier to manufacture as well as cheaper.
The main talking point regarding Damascus barrels for the past few decades have been the question of how strong they are and whether they are up to the pressures generated by modern smokeless ammunition. Some authors (including a few well-known ones) have been so vitriolic in their rhetoric against Damascus barrels that one can almost pick up a faint burning smell just by turning the pages of their books. Almost to a man, these gentlemen claim adamantly that the quickest way for any shooter to blow not only his family heirloom but his own health to kingdom come is to use modern smokeless ammunition in an old Damascus-barrelled gun, irrespective of age, condition, or any other consideration worthy of any thought. My favourite quote in this regard is the American author who solemnly wrote that “Age robs Damascus steel barrels of what little structural integrity they may have had in the first place”. In light of the fact that this same worthy gentleman also claimed that the old Scottish firm of John Dickson & Son made their famous round-action guns in both sidelock and boxlock form, it is probably safe to say that he never handled or shot with a Damascus-barrelled gun before committing pen to paper, nor did he ever lay eyes on a Dickson round-action gun. Yet, wonder of wonders, he found a willing publisher and a throng of eager supporters. Ain’t life grand?
On the other side of the coin are those who neither care nor know any better and simply stuff whatever ammunition is at hand into their old shotguns (probably handed down from generations ago) without losing any sleep over the matter. After all, if it goes bang it worked, didn’t it?
My own opinion lies somewhere in-between the two extremes described above. I have owned, and still own, Damascus-barrelled shotguns and I use them regularly afield. I treasure them for the fine workmanship and superb handling qualities that they exhibit but I also respect the limits of their design, especially with modern ammunition. I am also most definitely of the opinion that the mere fact that a gun is fitted with Damascus tubes should not necessarily demote it to the status of wall-hanger or condemn it to the furnace, as has tragically happened in many instances in the past.
When confronted with a Damascus-barrelled gun, the first order of business is an appointment with a barrel wall thickness gauge as well as a bore gauge. Insufficient barrel wall thickness or any pitting of any kind immediately causes me to lose interest in the gun in question, as does poor overall condition such as barrels shot off the face or any other potentially fatal defect. The second consideration is proof marks, and here I’m specifically referring to vintage British guns. Proof marks are a very good indication of the potential life that a particular gun may have lead as well as whether it was subjected to serious alteration at some point such as lapped bores or lengthened chambers. Again, if the proof marks tell a sordid tale, rather steer clear of the gun in question.
What to do if everything does check out, though? Well, if the price is right and the gun fits, there is really nothing more to add except that you may have an opportunity to enjoy a gun hailing from the finest era of gunmaking that will last for a great many seasons more if properly looked after. Vintage Damascus-barrelled guns in good question regularly fly through modern nitro-proof with lengthened 70mm (2¾”) chambers and reproofing, is practical, is certainly an option as well and is a source of comfort for many first-time buyers as well. Ammunition-wise I stick to nitro loads of modest pressure in my old guns. This is as much out of respect for the guns themselves but also because I have found that they kill as well as anything for the shooting I do. Dead is dead, and no guinea fowl has ever noticed the difference between 1⅛ ounces of chilled lead shot and 1¼ ounces of copper-plated, buffered teeth rattlers in my opinion, although my shoulder most definitely notices the difference!
A quick glance at the catalogues of many of the better-known dealers in quality second-hand guns will show that whereas a Damascus-barrelled gun could hardly be given away a decade or so ago, quite the opposite is today the case. Prices of nicely preserved and well-restored vintage guns have steadily climbed over the last few years as more and more knowledgeable shooters have come to realise that the old guns still have plenty of life left in them and can provide endless hours of elegance and enjoyment in the field, even in the modern era. Of course, if you just happen to be the owner of a nice old Damascus-barrelled gun in good condition, the mere thought of shooting with leaves you in a cold sweat, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll be sure to find a good home for it.