VESTIGIAL: Something that has lost its original function but still retained.
While normally a biological term - think of your appendix - it can apply to an often overlooked but fascinating part of modern best guns. As with all vestigial's, fences once had an actual purpose and, as that need or purpose became obsolete, those lovely little artistic sculptures devolved into respectful hints of their antecedents.
Sometimes to understand where we are it is useful to look at where we've been and the story of these often elegant examples of file and chisel work is part of the story of the path leading to today's best gun.
In the days of external ignition, fences did indeed serve a real purpose. The prospect of burning black powder, sparking iron and hot gas being blown back into the shooter's face was cause enough to develop some sort of protective shield. The solution was to leave a protective barrier between the flash and the flesh and, over time, these barriers or "fences" became beautiful examples of the actioner's skills. In some instances the carving of the more ornate fence work was the job of the stocker. Something not often considered is the fact that on double guns two fences are required. Two identical but mirror image fences. With a single fence a bit of 'artistic license' might be gotten away with, if things got a touch off pattern. No such option when the two are side by side just inviting comparison.
Among the various styles, ball and bead was and is the norm on modern guns for such firms as Westley Richards, Boss, Purdey, Holland and Holland and many others. However, makers such as Woodward, Grant, Greener and Rigby to name only a few, developed signature looks, often with great elegance. Woodward and Greener with their distinctive arcaded or umbrella fences along with Greener's clam shell effect and Rigby and Grant with their sculpted leaf fences all vied with one another. Fleur de Lys and grape and vine leaf were among special styles. The American Parker gun had an arrangement of ball and bead with the number of beads increasing as the grades ascended from "B" to "A One Special".
Today's CNC machines can and do generate fences but the very best work is still done by men with files and chisels and, by definition, best work is what a best gun is about. When asked about the difference between making guns and making best guns, Tom Wilkes made the observation 'it all comes down to time and control of the tool, doesn't it'?
To sum up, while of no particular use today, these interesting examples of gunmaker's skills are part and parcel of what a best gun stands on to the present day.
The next time you hold a really fine British gun you might take a moment or two to carefully look at these little exercises in iron, consider why they're there, where they came from and what it took to produce them.
My Thanks to David Brown for this guest post and I hope I have illustrated it correctly!