Nowadays individuality in bespoke fine guns is often expressed through engraving. In an age when many designs have become streamlined and more or less standardized, it is the engraver’s artistic vision and his or her talent for capturing it in metal that often distinguishes one double from another.
But in the latter half of the 19th Century, when the modern sporting gun was still aborning, it was the craftsman’s mechanical ingenuity that most tellingly separated the guns of one maker from another. Engraving back then was commonly confined to a handful of patterns, but the variety of mechanisms evolving in use seemed almost infinite.
In his new custom guns, Pennsylvania craftsman Dewey Vicknair has turned back the clock to the mechanically fertile days of the 1870s with his reintroduction of W. & C. Scott-inspired crystal cocking indicators on both sidelocks and boxlocks.
A Scott crystal indicator is literally a window into the heart of the gun—a glass porthole surrounded by a raised metal bezel that allows a shooter to see if the gun’s locks are cocked or not by the position of the tumblers. Crystal indicators hark back to the era when a generation of shooters long accustomed to hammerguns viewed new-fangled hammerless designs—that is, guns with their lockwork mounted internally—with great suspicion. After all, how could you tell if a gun was ready to fire if you couldn’t see whether its hammers were armed?
Gunmakers arrived at any number of ways to indicate cocked locks and assuage their clients’ worries: elevating pegs, external levers that rotated, even faux hammers. Many of these were ugly and of dubious utility—some allowed easy ingress to water, for example—and disappeared from manufacture rather quickly. The most ubiquitous design, still in use today, has turned out to be an arrow or gold line inscribed on the tumbler axle that protrudes through the lockplate.
Scott’s crystal indicator, however, was quite popular in its day and garnered the approval of even the most fastidious observers. The influential J.H. Walsh, writing in The Modern Sportsman’s Gun & Rifle in 1882, noted: “There is no possible objection to the Scott indicators . . . but all others are, in my opinion, worse than useless.”
Patented in 1875 by William M. Scott, crystal indicators were widely used on Scott-made guns until the first decade of the 20th Century. According to J.A. Crawford’s and P.G. Whatley’s The History of W.&C. Scott Gunmakers, most all of the firm’s back-action and bar-action hammerless sidelocks were made with them until 1892, and one-third of the firm’s output featured them until 1900. After three decades in production, they finally disappeared around 1905, presumably because a new generation of shooters had grown accustomed to guns without visible hammers.
Because Scott was such an important and prolific maker to the trade—supplying actions and guns for others to badge as their own—crystal indicators are found on guns bearing the names of a wide variety of British makers, from “best” brands such as Holland & Holland to Cogswell & Harrison to obscure provincial firms.
Though ignored by today’s gunmakers, Scott’s classic design always appealed to Vicknair, 42, a self-described “gearhead” who over the past decade has earned a reputation as a go-to gunsmith for repairing difficult mechanical problems (see “The Hunter One Trigger,” March/April ’10).
“I’ve always loved the crystal indicators,” Vicknair told me during my visit to his basement workshop outside the town of Lititz, in the heart of Lancaster County’s Amish country. “To someone as detail oriented as me, they are neat—just neat.”
Though Vicknair’s stock and trade is mechanical repairs (“Parkers and L.C. Smiths keep me in business”), he started customizing an A.H. Fox Sterlingworth in the summer of 2008 as a gun for himself. (See “Making a Fox Even Finer,” Sporting Shot, Premiere Issue, from www.shootingsportsman.com/sporting-shot.)
Vicknair dramatically upgraded the plain-Jane Sterlingworth, which included extensive sculpting of the action and furniture as well as adding sideplates.
“Sometimes sideplates on boxlocks look really good,” Vicknair said, “other times they just look hung on. With a Fox, I thought they would really complement its frame.”
Being of a practical mind, however, Vicknair didn’t want sideplates just for ornament. “I wanted them to serve a purpose,” he said. “Adding crystal indicators would make them do so.”
With the idea thus conceived, Vicknair had a fundamental problem to surmount: In a boxlock such as a Fox, the tumblers never project behind the rear of the action, even when cocked. Adding an indicator window on a sideplate would therefore create a view only into the stock. W. & C. Scott built some of its boxlocks with crystal indicators in the action body, but their appearance is, in Vicknair’s words, “silly.”
Vicknair’s solution was ingenious. “In a sidelock what shows is the tumbler,” he said. “So I figured I’d make a thin indicator and have it pivot at the bottom. It would be spring loaded and bear against the back of the tumbler, therefore coming in and out of view as the gun was cocked or fired.”
He worked out the design first with drawings and cardboard templates, and then made the indicator, which he calls a “flag.” Think of it as a gold-washed, inverted steel triangle with a pivot pin at the bottom and a wire torsion spring pressing it forward against the back of the tumbler. When the tumbler is in the cocked position, the gold washing makes the flag easily visible directly through the window. The rear portion of the flag—out of view behind the window when the gun is cocked—has a hole through it the same size as the window, so that after the tumbler falls the flag will come forward and its hole will perfectly line up with the indicator aperture, indicating the locks have been fired.
Vicknair made the indicator window and supporting bezel very similar to Scott’s original design but with a couple of important modifications. On many old Scotts, the entire apparatus is often pinned into place in the lockplate through two tabs, one on each side of the bezel. (The pins are visible on either side of the window.) Vicknair preferred a cleaner appearance sans pins, so he threaded the circumference of his bezel and counter bored it into the lockplate. He then flared the interior lip of it over the inside face of the plate, punching it down to doubly secure it.
The window itself is no longer glass or crystal but Lexan, a polycarbonate resin that polishes completely clear. Lexan is used in making aircraft canopies and bullet-resistant glass, so it is plenty shock resistant. Vicknair cements it into place in the bezel using modern glue. “Any solvent or cleaner you would use on a gun will not harm it,” he said.
Although he originally had intended the Fox to be his own gun, a customer saw it in process and made Vicknair an offer he couldn’t refuse. The new owner, Vicknair reports, shoots the gun extensively, and its retro-styled indicators have proven entirely durable.
In the hand, Vicknair’s Fox is also beautiful. (He had borrowed it from its new owner to show me.) With its sideplates and extensively sculpted action, it is a gun of soft curves and perfected proportions. The circles of the crystal indicators on the lockplates complement the hinge-pin recesses that Vicknair added. The indicator bezels are also just the right size—large enough to allow functional viewing of the flag, yet not so big as to lend them the goggle-eyed appearance of a cartoon frog. Ken Hurst’s engraving only accentuates the gun’s overall proportions and lines.
Vicknair has reprised the crystal indicators on a custom L.C. Smith he made using an old Field Grade. The Smith is, of course, a true sidelock, so there was no need to create a flag for them to be fully functional—the windows are located where the tumblers are held when cocked. Smiths do lack intercepting sears, however, so he designed, made and added them to the locks. This gun, too, has been sold.
Vicknair’s next project with crystal indicators is a stunning .22 rimfire double rifle on an A.H. Fox-type action that he has made entirely from scratch. Like his first custom Fox, this too will be sideplated complete with little spectacle windows and indicator flags. Viewing the .22’s petite sideplate templates, I joked that the indicator windows might best be ground as magnifying prisms.
Vicknair’s skills are no joke, however, as distinctive as those of the men who made guns with crystal indicators a century and a quarter ago. A circle has come round in American craft gunmaking, and all for the better.
Editor’s Note: For more examples of Dewey Vicknair’s work, visit www.vicknairrestorations.com.
Vic Venters’ book Gun Craft: Fine Guns & Gunmakers in the 21st Century is due out this fall from Shooting Sportsman Books.
- By: Vic Venters