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Classic Upland Guns

J & W Tolley Ltd: Birmingham Sidelock Ejector

OVER! is the cry of the live-driven English game bird beaters when the birds lift from the woods or fields to fly in the direction of the shooters waiting at their pegs. In the U.S., a similar event is often orchestrated from a safe center pit blind, hillside or custom-built tower designed to launch game birds and pigeons — often called a tower shoot. In most cases, a blast from a horn is used to alert the shooters waiting at their pegs laid out on the shooting grounds, much like the hands on a clock.

The concept of the live bird event is to simulate incoming flushed birds that come high overhead toward the pegs. The distance of the shot opportunities is inconsistent, bird speed is aggressive and a quick kill on these strong flyers does not always happen. Of additional importance and beyond the shooter’s skills, the appropriate shell is often loaded with 1 1/8 to 1 ¼ ounces of shot, with the large shot size and aggressive shot speeds (FPS) approved by the host. Correct chokes are equally important to make a true kill. The tighter choke, in most cases, would be fired first.

My son Ernie’s friend Rick has acquired his second British-made side-by-side. With a smile, he passed me the leg-of-mutton case as we waited to be assigned our peg numbers. As Ipulled out the 28-inch barrels from the case, I shared his smile as I saw a 2 in gold displayed in the Anson push rod fastener splinter forend iron, telling me that this gun was number two of a matched pair. Paired guns are typically custom built to an individual’s specifications for driven game birds and pigeon shooting in the United Kingdom. They also suggest that the owner has the wherewithal to afford a custom pair of guns and is an active shooter in the nobility circles. Such a shooter will require a support person (gun bearer), often referred to as a secretariat, who passes the second loaded gun to the shooter who has spent the two rounds in gun one, but with the flurry of birds overhead still has shot opportunities.

Photo/Stan Trozoniec

Setting the ejector barrels with smooth concave game rib on the table, I removed from the case the beautiful English scroll-engraved sidelock action secured to a nicely figured straight hand stock with fine checkering and drop points. The gold 2 was also displayed on the top lever. The floorplate was engraved with the wording “Patent Hammerless Ejector” embraced with the English scroll engraving. The side plates had cocking indicators and displayed the maker’s name, J & W Tolley Ltd.

I set the stocked action on the table and returned to the barrels to review the Birmingham proof marks. They told me that the gun had the nominal bore size of .729 (12-gauge), was nitro proofed for 2 ¾-inch shells and 1 ¼ ounces of shot and made circa 1925. (I will be offering a special article on interpreting proof marks and aging British side-by-side guns in my Spring 2024 column.)

These were the original proof marks on the barrel flats. In the U.K., if the barrels were altered in any way, additional proof marks (reproof) needed to be added before the gun could be put up for sale. So, if there have not been any changes to the barrels since the proof marks were applied, the gun is in proof for the designation on the barrel flats. Unlike the firearms made in the United States, all British-made shotguns must go through one of the two British proof houses, and the proofing information marked on the barrel flats for what size shell (gauge), length, shot load and pressures (nitro proof). In the United States, the burden of a “safe gun to fire” is placed on the manufacturer, and markings are not required.

Once I assembled the gun, looking toward the sky in a safe direction, I swung on one of two incoming invisible game birds. After an imaginary discharge with the front trigger, I let my hand slide down the straight hand stock to easily engage the rear trigger for the second shot.

“Rick, this gun is the real deal for driven game bird shooting,” I said. “The robust constriction at 7 pounds, 8 ounces will help absorb the recoil of the heavier loads and take less of a toll on you during the day’s shooting. It is a very nice find.”

The length of pull is 14 ¼ inches to a leather pad, which Rick had added along with bending the stock for a left-hand shooter. It would have been nice to have the sibling (Gun Number 1), but our U.S. shooting formats seldom require paired guns; therefore, the paired guns are often separated in hopes of maximizing the gross selling dollars.

If you can find a number one or two SLE of this quality for $2,500 to $3,000, take it home; you will have something special at an attractive price.

Ernie Foster

About author
Ernie Foster has been a fixture at The Upland Almanac since its inception. He’s a big-game hunter and avidly hunts upland birds over his beloved pointing dogs and in many parts of the world. His passion for hunting, double guns and shooting sports co