Dangerous game rifles – a Westley Richards speciality – are the acid test of a gunmaker; failure can mean injury or death to the shooter. ‘Our double rifles get used’, says Alborough-Treager. ‘They have to work, and work all the time, every time’.
In the bush, the droplock’s sealed action protects the lockwork, but if cleaning becomes necessary, removing the locks is as easy as pressing a button to open the cover plate and taking them out with thumb and forefinger. Alborough-Tregear recalled a client who dunked his droplock into a river while hunting in Africa: ‘He pulled the locks, dried and oiled them and was back in business’. And in the extremely unlikely case of a lock going wrong, a replacement can be dropped straight in – assuming you’ve got a set of spares.
For geeky gun cranks – ‘mechanicians’, as Henry Sharp playfully called us – popping the jeweled locks out for a look is an incredible tactile and visual treat, and, unless we accidentally drop and damage them, it is not possible to do any harm. By design, they cannot be put in backwards and, unlike those sidelocks with detachable lockplates, there is no surrounding wood for the ham-fisted amateur to mark.
THE MODERN DROPLOCK
Today’s Westley Richards droplock is almost unaltered from the design perfected in 1909, but there have been some minor changes. Nowadays, Westley Richards makes its actions a bit wider than before; this adds some strength but, more importantly, the extra width allows hand-filing of the action to a rounder, more attractive curve, particularly at the bottom corners. A not-so-minor change comes with 21st-century metallurgy; modern metal is much better than Victorian steel, and makes a strong design stronger yet.
To really understand why new Westley Richards droplocks are so special, we must also consider proportion and scale. Achieving perfection in both has been an obsession of the company’s. The two attributes are closely related but not quite the same. Perfect proportions add beauty – to the figure of a woman, to the action and stock of a gun, to virtually everything. Proper scale, on the other hand, not only helps deliver guns with weight and balance appropriate to their bore, but also can be critical to mechanical reliability.
Smallbore droplock shotguns are especially popular these days, and small guns are harder to build and make reliable. As size decreases, hammers become lighter, springs become more stressed and the geometry of cocking and ejecting mechanisms changes subtly; smaller components are more difficult to machine and to work with. Today, every droplock Westley Richards is built on a scaled frame – properly sized – to its bore or calibre, from .410 to 4-bore.
A beautifully elaborate scroll engraved 28g droplock shotgun. Engraved by one of Britain's new generation of master engravers Vincent Crowley. This gun demonstrates the use of various engraving techniques − carving, gold inlay and etching, all of which combine to make for a delicate and refined execution.
Since the late 1980s, when the droplock was put back into regular production, Westley Richards has made full use of its in-house engineering and tool-making division, employing computerised design programmes to correctly scale each component and action, and then using its computer-controlled millers, spark-eroders and wirecutters to create the parts with which craftsmen build guns and rifles.
In 2016, David Brown, who lives by the Red River in North Texas, received the new .410 droplock he’d ordered from Westley Richards two and a half years earlier – delivered just as promised at 5lb 5oz and with 28-inch Teague-choked barrels and game-scene engraving inspired by William Harnden Foster. Brown is an expert on British guns, a collector and a serious shooter. ‘Somewhere north of 5,000 rounds so far, and zero malfunctions’, Brown reported after the first season with his little .410. ‘Never has the gun failed to go bang, eject, and the triggers are as crisp as on day one. Quite frankly, the gun is a joy to shoot and when I do my part, the doves are in trouble’.
On the other end of the gunmaking scale, Alborough-Treager told me of a client in Africa, a hunter armed with a .500 droplock double rifle. After killing a charging buffalo at very close range, he rang Alborough-Tregear to blurt out, ‘Long live Westley Richards!’
Long live the droplock.