The Greener GP shotgun

Royce Wilson

Martini action rifles, as many historic firearms enthusiasts will attest, are lots of fun to shoot. There’s something about dropping the lever, feeding a cartridge into the breech, closing it, taking deliberate aim (you have one shot so make it count) and firing. Then the way a spent round ejects from the action when you drop the lever again. It’s all so satisfying and historically appealing at the same time.

The problem is .577/450 ammunition for the Martini-Henry hasn’t been widely commercially available in decades and most of the Martini-Henrys still around are in the hands of collectors. Add to that .303 Martini-Enfields being hard to find. Meanwhile, Martini Cadets are in an odd calibre (.310 cadet) that’s tough or expensive to unearth ammo for, while many Sportco .22 Martinis have been turned into target rifles which lack that certain something for day-to-day shooting.

But did you know there are Martini action shotguns? Even in the 19th century the Martini action was one of the gold standards for single-shot cartridge rifles. Incredibly strong, versatile, and reliable, the action is also satisfying to operate - drop the lever, load a round, close lever, shoulder gun and fire.

Martini rifles were replaced in British service in the 1890s and early 1900s when Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield rifles were introduced, but the actual design was extremely solid and continued to be used in guns until as late as the 1980s.

Shortly after World War One, the Egyptian Government approached British gunmaking firm W.W. Greener to make single-shot shotguns for its police service. The guns, known as Greener EGs (for Egyptian Government) and produced from 1922, were based on the Martini action and featured a military-style full-length wood fore-end, but were chambered for a proprietary 13gr (Mk I) or 14gr (Mk II) shell not available on the commercial market. The theory was if the Greener Police Guns were acquired by the ‘wrong’ people they’d be unable to use them due to want of ammunition.

However, local ne’er-do-wells were an enterprising bunch and soon worked out that a 16gr shotgun shell wrapped in gaffer tape or paper would function, albeit not safely. The authorities were reportedly tipped off to this after a miscreant was severely injured by a catastrophic failure while using it. The Greener EG Mk III brought an innovative solution to this problem - a bottlenecked 14gr shell which featured a ‘moat’ around the primer. Two lugs protruded from the face of the gun’s breechblock, which would fit into the moat on the shell and allow the action to be closed and gun to be fired.

Highly successful in Egypt, the design was widely exported all over the British Empire where an easily-operated and sturdy firearm would be ideal for places where they’d likely go for long spells without maintenance. The Martini action would also be familiar to most local police and military, given the Martini-Henry and Martini-Enfield rifles in their armouries.

About 60,000 Greener EG guns are believed to have been manufactured between 1922 and 1964, about 45,000 for Egypt and the rest going to other far-flung parts of the Empire.

The guns were so well made they’re still in service in some places - there are recent photos showing police in Burma armed with them. While most of the colonial police service guns were in the proprietary 14gr chambering, a number were made in conventional 2¾^ chambering as well, notably for the Royal Hong Kong Police and for export to the US as prison guard arms.

Meanwhile, Greener decided to offer a civilian version as well, chambered for conventional 12ga smokeless 2¾^ shotgun shells. As well as using regular ammunition, the fore-end was much shorter, the barrel longer and the guns lacked the sling swivels found on the police guns. Known as the GP (General Purpose) the gun proved extremely popular, being made from 1922 to 1964 by W.W. Greener, then from 1965 to around 1980 by Webley & Scott after they acquired the firm. In 1985, a consortium including Graham Greener took back the rights to the name and W.W. Greener is still in business making bespoke shotguns, albeit not of the GP design.

Webley-made GP shotguns usually feature a round knox form instead of a hexagonal one, a shade of purple colouring on the action and have circlips and pins through the action rather than screws. Unhelpfully for modern collectors, serial numbers on Greener GP shotguns were not reliably recorded before 1968, so while there’s a number on the gun there’s no certain way to correlate it to a specific production year. Even W.W. Greener themselves are not entirely sure how many guns were produced.

As an example, I’ve seen a Greener GP with a barrel with 1952 proof marks but the action appears to have a serial number from the early 1930s, based on an educated guess working backwards from known serial numbers in 1968. This model features the plum colour case hardening used by Webley & Scott and lacks the ‘GREENER’S GP GUN’ or ‘WW GREENER MAKER BIRMINGHAM’ markings on the action, despite having numerous other features indicating a W.W. Greener-made shotgun. Proof markings are one of the better ways to date the guns and your favourite internet search engine should turn up some helpful guides to deciphering their arcane mysteries.

While GP is generally understood to stand for General Purpose, the guns are also known as ‘Gaffer Guns’ and ‘Garden Guns’, a reference to their general usefulness (much like gaffer tape) and the ubiquitous (‘garden-variety’), not to mention suitability for controlling pests like rabbits, foxes and birds in a large country garden. In the 1950s they were advertised as retailing for £14/5s, about $700 today, so rather more than you’d expect to pay nowadays for a single-barrel 12ga shotgun but still a reasonable price for a British-made quality sporting gun.

Greener GP shotguns have surprisingly long barrels - about 30^ - and are typically bored with a full choke, giving them good range at the expense of pattern spread. Multi-choke examples are also encountered in some guns and a small number were also produced as trap guns with ribbed vents on the top of the barrel for the US market.

Prior to 1968, shotguns in the UK with barrels longer than 20^ were not considered firearms and, much like air rifles, didn’t need a firearms certificate and could be owned basically because the holder felt like it. Even with the introduction of shotgun certificates in 1968, increasing the minimum barrel length for shotguns to 24^, controls on single and double-barrelled sporting shotguns in the UK remained comparatively relaxed and even today aren’t anything an Australian shooter would consider unreasonable.

Surprisingly, Greener GP guns are also takedown arms - if the user opens the action, removing a dedicated screw in the front with a screwdriver will allow the barrel to be screwed off for maintenance. It’s not considered a good idea to make a habit of this as it can apparently cause issues with the fit between the action and barrel. Since a bore snake will do a fantastic job of cleaning the barrel from the breech without dismantling the gun, it’s not really an advisable thing to do.

The Greener GP really is a fantastic all-round  shotgun. They’ll feed pretty much any 2¾^ shotgun shells including trap shot, bird shot, 00SG and solid slugs and are straightforward to use. The auto-resetting safety is a minor irritant in a range setting but makes sense for a gamekeeper wandering around an estate keeping an eye out for pests, which is how the guns were originally envisaged to be used.

The straight comb on the stock makes the recoil seem sharper than is necessary, but a slip-on recoil pad solves that problem and increases overall length of pull. As well as being excellent knockabout shotguns, a number of Greener GPs in Australia have been converted into Bore Guns and used for Big Game Rifle matches and hunting. Similar in principle to a 12ga solid slug, a Bore Gun is slightly different from a shotgun in that it has a rifled barrel and fires a metallic cartridge round with conventional projectile, as opposed to a smooth barrel and rifled slug from a shotgun shell. The design was also turned into a harpoon gun, best known for its appearance in Jaws, and a line-throwing gun, allowing ropes to be launched between ships.

For Australian shooters, Greener GP shotguns come up semi-regularly on secondhand gun sites like SSAA Gun Sales, but are not the sort of thing you’re likely to find on the rack at your local gunshop. When they do turn up they don’t often stay long and have a well-deserved reputation for being solid, consistent, adaptable and effective guns. Their connection to the iconic Martini-Henry rifle makes them popular additions to gun cabinets across the country.

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