By Gary Hubbell
“What is a boxlock shotgun?”
That is a question that we often hear when we’re guiding upland bird hunts or giving shooting lessons. It’s a good question, one for which many accomplished shooters don’t know the answer. There’s a very good reason that gun designer Jon Hollinger chose the Anson & Deeley boxlock shotgun—an 1875 design—as the basis for his lovely Aspen Outfitting Company Small Game shotgun. It works, and beautifully.
Illustration of the Anson & Deeley Boxlock Action from
"Shotguns & Cartridges for Game and Clays," by Gough Thomas
Many American shooters have some idea of the working mechanism of a side-by-side double-barreled shotgun, even if the knowledge comes from action movies. There is a lever on top of the tang that the shooter moves to the right. The gun opens, which cocks the internal hammers. The shooter drops in a couple of shells. The safety is flicked off, and the shooter fires, first one trigger, then the second trigger. The shooter again moves the lever to the right, the gun opens, and the shooter either extracts the empty hulls or the gun ejects the empty shells. Repeat. Pretty simple, huh? That’s the Anson & Deeley boxlock design.
Prior to the development of the Anson & Deeley boxlock, shotguns had external hammers. You recall how Doc Holliday thumbed back the hammers on his scattergun in “Tombstone”. That may work fine for riding shotgun on a stagecoach or blowing away the Clanton Brothers at the OK Corral, but walking around in the field with a hammergun is either cumbersome for walk-up shooting—requiring a shooter to thumb back a hammer while a pheasant flushes—or terribly unsafe, if a shooter walks around with hammers cocked.
In 1875, when the Anson & Deeley boxlock was introduced, the world of shotgunning had just recently gotten over percussion muzzleloaders and moved on to hammerguns with paper cartridges. Can you imagine, then, that their design would become one of the safest, most reliable, and practical designs ever conceived?
In short, William Anson and John Deeley, two British gunmakers, conceived of a design that has stood the test of time. Their boxlock is not only extremely functional and well conceived, but sleek, handsome, and stylish.
Now to the mechanics of the boxlock. A boxlock shotgun is generally identifiable by a straight vertical line where the wrist of the stock meets the back of the action. On better boxlock guns, the back of the action is scalloped in a series of small linked curves where it joins the stock, but the wood-to-metal fit is still generally vertical. The mechanism is concentrated in the center of the gun. A sidelock shotgun, on the other hand, is identifiable by a stock that is deeply scalloped where the stock meets the action. The mechanism of a sidelock shotgun is found inside of those oval metal sideplates. That’s the basic difference between the two. Both designs utilize a spindle called the Scott spindle, a vertical shaft that is pinned through the top lever of a shotgun and holds the lever in place so that a gun can be opened and closed. As you may recall from the movies, however, this development was also used in hammerguns.
The boxlock was the first gun of its era to have internal hammers, as we’ve already mentioned. The mechanism is very simple. As our friend Terry Wieland describes the mechanism is his excellent article, “Patent #1756”, published in Gray’s Sporting Journal, “The basic A&D lock mechanism has but three moving parts: the tumbler (or hammer), sear, and the cocking dog. And that’s it! The dog cocks the tumbler, the sear holds it in place and the trigger (not considered part of the lock) releases it. Then you open the gun and start the whole process again.
“Anson & Deeley connected the breech of the barrels to two rods—cocking dogs—that extended back under the tumblers. As the barrels dropped, the dogs cammed the hammers back, which were then caught by a spring-powered sear.” So, every time you open the gun, the tumblers, or hammers, are cocked by the dropping barrels. Aha. What a concept.
The beauty of the Anson & Deeley boxlock is in its simplicity. It is an extremely reliable action, yet the manufacturing process makes it fairly simple to build. The gun has a slim profile, is easy to hold, a delight to shoot, and it seems that every feature of the action makes perfect sense. The double triggers, of course, are perfectly logical. Front trigger, right barrel. Back trigger, left barrel. Forget about fussing around with a single selective trigger, trying to pick a barrel with a selector smaller than a dime. Who can do that while birds are flying? The lever is in exactly the right place. The safety is right under your thumb. The profile of the action allows its manufacture in extremely light weights.
Since its patenting in 1875, of course the A&D boxlock has been improved. By necessity, a safety was added to the tang, right under the thumb of the shooter’s hand and just below the lever. In the AOC/SG, that has been refined to an automatic safety that reverts to the “safe” position every time the gun is closed. Whereas early designs may have included extractors that lifted empty hulls out of the breech, to be further extracted manually by the shooter, the AOC/SG has a double traveling ejector rod that will pop the empties into the shooter’s waiting hand.
In addition to the cocking and firing mechanism, the Anson & Deeley allows for a slim English-style straight stock to be securely attached to the action, which means a light, fast-handling gun can handle an incredible amount of shooting before the stock ever loosens from the action. There are two vertical screws that attach the trigger plate to the top tang, as well as two vertical screws that attach the trigger guard tang to the wrist of the stock, making for a solidly seated stock.
There were many famous makers of fine old American side-by-side shotguns, including A.H. Fox, Savage, LeFever, Parker, Ithaca, Winchester, and L.C. Smith, among others. However, none of these makers used what has become the ultimate classic design in side-by-side field shotguns: the Anson & Deeley boxlock. According to our friend Michael McIntosh, author of the classic work “Shotguns and Shooting” and a score of other sporting books, it wasn’t because their designs were better than the A&D. As he related to Terry Wieland for the “Patent #1756” article for Gray’s Sporting Journal, “Partly it was an effort to get around patent laws,” he said. “But since British patents in those days lasted only 14 years, that was hardly the only reason. Each company wanted to develop its own mechanism. Probably the Ithaca came closest to the classic A&D, but almost all the others, in trying to be different, just ended up being more complicated. All the great American designs worked, but they worked because they were so well made, not because their designs were superior to the Anson & Deeley.”
You may think that the side-by-side shotgun is an anachronism in an age of back-bored semi-automatic shotguns with ventilated ribs, 7-round magazine capacities, gold triggers, and recoil reduction systems. You may think they’re quaint old guns when compared with over/under sporting clays guns with interchangeable chokes, single selective triggers, pistol grip stocks, and high-port ventilated ribs. If so, then why do the most discriminating bird shooters in the world shoot side-by-side shotguns? So they can miss more birds? No. It’s so they can bag more birds.