Dreaming of Doubles
September 23, 2010
The semiannual Tulsa gun show is reputed to be the largest in the world.
Every spring and fall, gun dealers, buyers and anyone remotely connected with the firearms industry descends on this mid-size Oklahoma city, and for two days thousands of guns are displayed, handled, admired, bought, sold, lusted after and discussed at length.
The attendees are a curious mix: Some look like they just climbed down off a tractor; others like they parked their Harley around the back. Still others are shadowed by their chauffeur cum bodyguard, who carries the briefcase. Altogether, it is as eclectic a brew as anyone could conjure, and all brought together by a common passion.
George Caswell, the country's largest dealer in double rifles, always attends the Tulsa show with his huge multi-table display of fantastic doubles and custom bolt actions from all over the world. It is a chance for anyone with a ticket into the Tulsa show to expose himself to the exotic and unaffordable world of double rifles--to handle them and see them up close if only for a few minutes. It's worth the drive to Tulsa, just by itself.
Over the last 15 or 20 years, after decades of near-death, the market for double rifles has exploded, and even the poorest specimens now sell for substantial money. A good rifle with a great name in a usable dangerous-game caliber routinely sells for $25,000, and you're lucky to find one at that.
We are criticized sometimes for writing about rifles our readers can't afford, and it probably does not assuage the situation to point out that we can't afford them either. Usually, these rifles, new and old, are displayed at high-end shows for the high rollers, like SCI and the Dallas Safari Club, and George always attends those shows and does well. But he goes to Tulsa, too--probably the most democratic gun show in the country--and he does so for a reason.
One, he always sells a few guns. And two, there is a great deal of interest among everyone who attends. Just because a man will never be able to afford one of George's used Rigby .577s doesn't mean he wouldn't like to pick one up, hoist it to his shoulder and imagine a Cape buffalo coming over the table at him.
There is so much history associated with old doubles, it is hard to imagine any serious rifleman not being interested. One rifle George just listed is a Purdey hammer gun that has been mentioned in any number of books. It is one of four .500 BPE doubles ordered by the Marquis of Ripon when he was appointed Viceroy of India in 1880.
Along with the four .500s, the Marquis took a 4-bore rifle and a 12-bore shotgun. James Purdey coined the term "express" to describe his high-velocity, flat-shooting rifles, and so this .500 was one of the very first express rifles.
Its history since it shipped out for India in 1880 is fairly well-documented. The .500 BPE was counted the premier tiger cartridge of its day, and the Marquis hunted tiger and sambar with it. This Marquis, by the way, was the father of Lord de Grey, who succeeded him as Marquis and is considered the greatest game shot of all time.
At any rate, after an energetic and eventful career, which took its toll, the .500 found its way to Australia, where it was used to hunt Asiatic buffalo, took part in load development for Graeme Wright's book Shooting the British Double Rifle, and then was restored, restocked and fitted out in an authentic period oak trunk case. It's a gorgeous piece, and it can be yours for just $15,995. A steal, I would say. Not many rifles these days send me to the vault browsing for trade bait, but this is one of them.
A visit to Champlin Arms, either the vault in Enid or one of George's gun-show displays, never fails to produce something either mouth-watering or intriguing.
In Enid earlier this year, photographing guns for my new book, George showed me a double rifle that is the most puzzling I have ever seen. Most doubles were made for an obvious purpose. A .500 BPE was probably a tiger rifle, a .300 Sherwood a rook rifle and a .303 British likely intended for stalking stags in Scotland.
But what would a man want with a high-end double rifle chambered for the .32-40? I mean really. There it was: A Charles Boswell boxlock double chambered for a cartridge that was never popular outside the United States and was primarily a target cartridge to boot. For hunting, the .32-40 is marginal for whitetails, and then only at close range, but here was one chambered in a rifle that is useful only for hunting.
What I would not give to enter, just for a moment, the mind of the man who ordered this rifle back before the Great War. For that matter, I'd kind of like to visit the gunmaker's mind as he took the order. What could he have been thinking?
If you have a use for a fine double rifle in .32-40, you now know where to find one. The price on the Boswell is $13,900, and if you cannot imagine a better use for $13,900 than a double rifle chambered for an obsolescent target cartridge, then you have far more money than I do.
The Marquis of Ripon's Purdey .500 BPE hammer gun, though. That has possibilities.