by Sam Garro
The remarkable journey of an 1879 Alexander Henry 12-bore double rifle which started in Scotland and ended 140 years later in Australia - in the hands of the same family.
During Africa’s settlement by Europeans in the 1800s, black powder muzzle loading muskets were relied on to hunt game and ward off dangerous animals but were vastly inadequate on the tough plains unless you were virtually within a stone’s throw.
The heavy lead ball projectiles lacked sufficient velocity to have any penetration at distance, more often creating a perilous situation. As a result, a serious need grew for a more practical firearm. Demand for a powerful and easier-loading rifle was spurred on by hunters and guides needing to protect clients on safari, ivory hunters, park rangers and wardens required to periodically perform culls on crop-damaging animals.
It was also a time when the allure of safari hunting for some was too great to resist despite the inherent dangers. The legendary Frederick Courtney Selous for example, in 1871 at the age of 19 set out as an ivory hunter using a 4-bore muzzle loading rifle on elephants and other pachyderm, firing 4oz lead round bullets and galloping away on his steed past the game to reload and fire again, repeating the process until the animal was downed. Not ethical by today’s standards but those were the times.
By the late 1800s large calibre breach loading smooth bore and rifled bore rifles, using brass cases and round lead balls or conical-shaped slugs with a metal core or insert for greater penetration, were developed for big game hunting in Africa and India. Rifles came in various bore or gauge sizes, each number denoting bullet weight in ounces to the pound (16oz = 1lb). For example a 4-bore fired a 4oz lead ball, a 10-bore a 1.6oz lead ball, a 12-bore a 1.3oz lead ball and so on, the higher the number the lighter the bullet.
Andrew Spence Chirnside, son of an early pioneer to Australia, was seeking a hunting experience in Africa. His 12-bore double rifle saw real usage on plains game and pachyderm. The rifle was later handed down the family line, at one point sold to an overseas buyer, changed ownership several times and after 139 years from its manufacture, returned to a descendant of the original owner in Australia through an extraordinary coincidence.
But first to the background of this beautifully-maintained rifle, how it was attained, the pioneering family and the rifle’s fascinating journey. Brothers Thomas Chirnside (1815-1887) and Andrew Chirnside (1818-1890) were born in Cockburnspath, East Lothian, Scotland. Thomas migrated to Australia in 1839 in his early twenties with a few hundred pounds, a healthy sum then, followed by Andrew in 1841 for the purpose of improving the family fortunes.
Coming from a farming background they quickly established themselves as cattle and sheep pastoralist, amassing significant land holdings in Wyndham and Western District, Victoria. In those days there were no adventurous outdoor sporting outlets. In an effort to create and promote sporting events, Thomas imported bloodstock including mares and stallions, some of the first red deer, foxes, hares, pheasant and partridge. It heralded the start of a significant era in horse racing, organised fox and hound hunts, deer hunts and others associated with the imported game, strategically placed in country areas to establish themselves.
Andrew Spence Chirnside (1856-1934), Andrew Chirnside’s son, grew up in his father’s footsteps becoming an accomplished sportsman, expert horse handler, breeder and successful racer. Like his father who won the first Caulfield Cup in 1879 with Newminster and the 1874 Melbourne Cup with Haricot, in 1879 Andrew Jr. won the Victoria Gold Cup Steeplechase in Ballarat and followed that with wins in South Africa, England and Scotland. He was also noted for establishing the Chirnside Mounted Cadets at his own expense.
Yet despite his success he yearned for something greater and, as a result, in1897 accompanied English journalist Russell King-Hall on a big game trip to South Africa. For the safari he took a black powder 12-bore hammer underlever double rifle procured directly from Alexander Henry, the Scottish gun maker in Edinburgh. At the time such rifles were issued as a matched pair at some cost. The rifle was extensively and successfully used on all manner of game and Andrew returned to Australia with an array of exotic mounts, skins and artefacts.
A 60-room Italianate-style family mansion, Werribee Park, was built by Thomas Chirnside, completed in 1876 to accommodate Andrew, his wife and three children, Thomas later moving from his home in Point Cook to live there too. The grand building and botanical gardens are now a popular government-owned tourist attraction.
With Andrew’s death the rifle passed down the family line and was eventually sold, much to the dismay of family relative Robert McCallum, a member of the Big Game Rifle Club, Little River, Victoria (Andrew’s son, Capt. Percy Chirnside was Robert’s great-grandfather).
Some years ago fellow BGRC member Bob Christopher, a big bore rifle enthusiast, was browsing internet gun sites and stumbled across an Alexander Henry 12-bore double rifle for sale in America. On sourcing all available information to his satisfaction he made the purchase. The accompanying paperwork revealed Andrew Chirnside as the original owner in 1879 - as recorded in the Alexander Henry Firearms Registry - but Bob had no idea at the time that fellow BGRC member Robert McCallum was a family descendant.
Tracking ownership overseas, the US seller had bought the rifle from Westley Richards in Montana. Prior to that sale, Westley Richards had sold it to a fly fisherman who visited the store and later, for whatever reason, sold it back to Westley Richards. The seller later also received phone calls from England from another great-grandson of Andrew Chirnside (not Robert McCallum), enquiring about the rifle and revealing how the matching rifle had been stepped on by an elephant in Africa and rendered inoperable. The whereabouts of the original gun case is unknown. The fact that only 20 or 30 of these firearms were made makes the rifle rare and collectable.
At a BGRC meeting earlier this year, Robert McCallum and Bob Christopher were discussing 12-bore firearms. As the discussion progressed, each revealing details of a particular 12-bore rifle it was clear that, to their astonishment, they were describing the very rifle originally owned by Andrew Spence Chirnside, a fact validated on checking their own records.
Now there was a dilemma. Bob, the owner, while reluctant to part with a firearm he had grown attached to and used in competition, had to consider its release to a descendant of Andrew Chirnside, more importantly a friend and fellow BGRC member who had more than a genuine desire to own it. Ultimately, good sense and understanding prevailed and the rifle was exchanged to the satisfaction of both, albeit not a cheap exchange.
When the rifle was built it was regulated to take 2.5” brass cases and fire long conical bullets of specific weight in front of a set charge of black powder. Two projectile types were made, one surprisingly with an explosive head, the other lead with a steel insert or inner core for penetration on heavy game. Neither is available today and if you come across one it will be a collector’s item.
As the bullets are no longer made, Bob Christopher was faced with the challenge, as others with bore-guns have experienced, to replicate the bullets or substitute them with cast-lead moulded round balls of similar weight. After trialling various bullet and powder load combinations, a near maximum black powder load of 6.5 drams (178 grains) and a 1.25oz (547gn) lead ball provided the best result. However, and it is emphasised, maximum powder loads are not recommended as a rule. The age of the firearm, its overall condition including signs of metal fatigue and other wear and tear factors must be taken into account.
The rifle has rebounding hammers which removes the need to otherwise half cock the triggers when break-opening the gun, along with stalking safeties that block the hammers from being moved until the safeties are pushed forward, a sensible mechanism considering the hefty recoil that could result from both triggers being set off and a potential double discharge. Also, some prefer to pull the rear trigger first as opposed to the front, to avoid accidently pulling back both. The round rifling was also designed by the maker to minimise fouling from the black powder.
These powerful rifles starting at 12-bore and upwards were specifically built to handle big game, but the price meant only the wealthy could afford them. A 500gn or heavier bullet travelling between 1300 and 1500fps with an approximate 2500 foot-pound-energy has improved stopping power. To put it in perspective, using the Taylor Knock-Out Value, a formula devised by John Taylor the big game hunter and novelist, the 12-bore rifle value is 88 on the chart compared to the 400 Jeffery at 47 and .375 H&H Mag at 40. The pushback force at maximum powder load is substantial despite the heavy weight of the rifle, designed to compensate in part for the recoil.
The journey for this Alexander Henry 12-bore continues as Rob proudly maintains and fires the stunning rifle with its beautiful walnut stock, colour case hardened action with ornate scroll engraving, elegant Damascus barrels and underlever at events including the Nationals. He may not be shooting big game as Andrew Spence Chirnside did in the 1800s, but derives just as much pleasure knowing it was Andrew’s - and the journey it took to end up in his hands.