INTRODUCTION How often does the aficionado of antique arms hear of the history of English and American gunmakers, and how seldom of the great European traditions! Here is my small attempt to correct this bias. Please forgive any inaccuracies, but I believe this is will be the first website on the neglected topic of Iberian gunmakers!
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"The Perfect Gun" is the most remarkable treatise on the subject of gunmaking of it's period. It was written in the closing years of the 17th century in Lisbon, and describes the work of three brothers, leading gunsmiths of their day, two of whom signed the book and the third of which remains anonymous. As it was highly unusual to write about the closely guarded secrets of the art, they signed it using anagrams. The three brothers were Jose Francisco, Joao Rodrigues, and Manoel Antonio. Had these three been anxious for publicity, they would hardly have disguised their names. These men were obviously so dedicated to their craft, and so anxious to produce the most perfect gun that they were prepared to risk the enmity of their fellow artisans by revealing the secrets of the trade. They also wished to record for posterity, and the benefit of the less skillful their many discoveries. That there was support for their venture from the highest levels is clearly seen by the magnificent title page. John V of Portugal(1689-1750) was a generous patron of the arts and industry during his reign. He used the enormous royal treasury, swollen from the diamond, spice, and gold trade of Portugal's colonies, to bring to Portugal the brilliance of Europe's enlightenment courts. Unfortunately, spectacular mismanagement by his clerical administrators and the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755 led to an irresistible decline in Portugal's fortunes.

 

This is the first plate from this rare and valuable book. That many artisans used it until it was worn out may account for the fact that only 16 copies exist. In those days, the risks of success or failure in the art of gunmaking were great. An unsafe gun could damage the makers reputation for ever. To prevent accidents, the locks had to be completely safe, and the authors go into the closest details, illustrating their own designs and pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of others.

Equally as important as safe locks were safe barrels. This plate illustrates the forging of a short section of barrel from an iron sheet. While a barrel could be hammer welded from a single sheet the same length as the finished barrel, the authors recommend joining three or more short sections together, each of different thicknesses (for the breach, middle, and muzzle sections of the barrel). They also describe the "Catalan" method of spiral wrapped barrels. Two men work on the same piece-the authors stress the negative effects on accuracy of working at this strenuous trade while tired-and the tools of the trade are scattered on the ground, as well as some partially finished section. Very important are the measuring gauges. The whole thrust of this work is that perfection is only achieved through hard work, good materials, accurate measurement, and good design and proportions. The materials used are discussed in depth. Iberian barrels quickly eclipsed those of Italy in renown and quality during the period. Many English and French guns of the era are fitted with Spanish barrels, and in Iberia, old barrels were frequently remounted in new guns up to 100 years after their manufacture. It was quickly observed that the best source of barrel making iron on the peninsula were the mines of Vizcaya, whose production was widely used for horseshoes. Used horseshoes were thus used to make barrels, both on account of the low cost, and properties of the material. The drumming of the horses hooves was thought to improve the quality of the metal, though this is unlikely. Late in the period, some masters even made barrels from horseshoe NAILS, as an incredible show of virtuosity

This shows the gunmaker in the process of examining the drilled barrel for defects with the aid of a stretched catgut string and a probe. The forged, octagonal section barrel was taken to the drilling lathe in the foreground and reamed with progressively larger drills, but with lighter and lighter cuts until a bright bore was obtained all the way along the length. The drills were lubricated with tallow, and the barrel kept cool with wet cloth. A selection of drills and a master gauge hang on the wall. The ingenious drilling lathe is designed to cut in both directions. The work is clamped on a slide which moves down a channel in the massive frame. The slide is driven by ropes attached via pulleys to the hinged boards under the bed, which have large weights on them. The ratchets are wound to pull up the weighted boards as the drill progresses through the bore. To reverse, the tension was release on one side and engaged on the other. The machine was probably powered by a hard working apprentice or shop-boy (not shown!). The barrel was then removed from the lathe to check for straightness. The barrel was rotated to rest on each of the eight faces, and the taut string when viewed against the light indicated any bend. The exterior was marked appropriately and hammered carefully to correct the bend. Any imperfection in the metal were tested with the probe, and the outside hammered to make them protrude into the barrel. The reamer was run through again and the barrel reexamined. When a straight and scoring-free barrel was obtained, the interior was carefully polished.

This delightful picture shows the exterior of the barrel being turned. A wooden bobbin has been attached and drives the barrel between centres by means of a great wheel. The master is using a graver to cut the metal, rather than a file which is also mentioned in the text and some files are illustrated below. On the wall behind hang a selection of cutters and the all-important calipers and barrel gauge

The whole work stresses the importance of accuracy and consistency in the manufacture of guns. The authors advocate the use of gauges, such as this one in achieving the perfect proportions and functioning of the perfect gun.

"Measure twice, cut once" is a well know carpenters axiom,which the Three Brothers obviously made into a religion. Having carefully checked the outside of the barrel for the correct taper and proportions, here one of the authors appears to be checking for a consistent barrel thickness, or perhaps marking out preparatory to choking the barrel.

While the principle of choke was imperfectly understood, it WAS applied to guns of the era in the peninsula. The authors also mention rifling, the use of patched bullets, and breechloading using the La Chaumette system (the ancestor of the Fergusson rifle) where a breechplug through the wall of the barrel was unscrewed, using the trigger guard as a handle, to allow loading from the rear.

In this illustration, we see the masters' polishing lathe. While the apprentice cranks his guts out, the master polishes the lock parts prior to hardening, or perhaps bluing or fire gilding them. I have left a few more illustrations out, but I think by now you get the drift. Even with the most primitive of tools, a skilled craftsman can get amazing results. The authors believe that have achieved the pinnacle of their art, but modestly state that ANYONE can produce the best results by carefully following their methods.
Pair of Portuguese pistols with fechos de patilha de invenção in the Castillian style, dated Porto 1780, and signed BAMGRU.
Portuguese gun with spring lock or fecho de molinhas, made by Rodrigues, circa 1750.
Miquelet pistol by Pedro de las Heras, Salamanca, circa 1675. Barrel, lock and furniture chiseled with foilage in low relief. Collection of James Lavin.

Spanish Military Holster Pistol. Miquelet lock, about 1750
Length: 521mm
Weight:1.02 kg
Barrel: 340 mm
Calibre: 16.9 mm (0.665 cal.)

Miquelet gun by Antonio Navarro, Madrid, 1786. Barrel with false damascene in gold and blue.
Army Museum, Madrid
Pair of Pistols in the French style by Juan Fernandez, Madrid, circa 1720. Blued barrel, gold and silver furniture decorated with battle scenes.
Length: 540mm
Weight: 1.39 kg
Barrel: 358 mm
Calibre: 15.9mm (0.625 cal.)"
Touch-marks of some Spanish gunsmiths.

Here are some pictures of French gunsmiths from a slightly earlier period.

Figure 1- Signing up for an apprenticeship at a notaries' office.

Figure 2 - The young apprentice begins to work on his own, cleaning and restoring guns.
Figure 3 - The young apprentice learning the skills of the trade.
SOURCES

Rainer Daehnhardt and W. Keith Neal eds, "Espingarda Perfyta or the Perfect Gun", Sotherby Parke Bernet,London, 1974

RESOURCES

Alonso Martinez de Espinar, "Arte de Ballesteria y Monteria", Madrid 1644

James D Lavin, "A history of Spanish Firearms", Herbert Jenkins London, 1965

W. Keith Neal, "Spanish Guns and Pistols", G. Bell and sons, London, 1955


Copyright: Dis Pater Design, 2000

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