by Doc. MARCO SEBASTIANO SCIPIONI, journalist, writer and passionate of fine arms and their history.


Original Holland & Holland action



The hammerless sidelock actions of the 1870s and later were not particularly efficient, furthermore the side-by-sides made according to their schemes turned out to be heavy and ungainly. Frederick Beesley (1846 – 1926) was one of the truly brilliant inventors of those years, with dozens of important patents to his credit, so much so that he was recognized and acclaimed as “the main supplier of inventions and designs to the English hunting shotgun industry”. In 1879 he developed a particular system, which involved a lock that was cocked by means of springs housed in the action and pulled by the closing of the barrels. He sold it to James Purdey, the most exclusive manufacturer of the time, who patented it under his own name in 1880. This was the birth of the famous Purdey action with self opening, which is still produced today practically unchanged by the company and which is considered a true gem of the gunmaking art of all time. Also Henry Holland began to study his own action, and in 1883 he presented a first version of what would become his masterpiece, the “Royal” model. This realization was developed in collaboration with another giant among English inventors, John Robertson, who would buy the company “Thomas Boss“ a few years later and would introduce important patents, including the famous single trigger and the even more famous and celebrated “Boss” over and under. Together with Robertson, Holland registered four patents, which testifies to the close collaboration between the two. It must be remembered that in those years Holland was not a manufacturer, he did not yet have his own factory, and Robertson, together with W. & C. Scott, supplied him with all the shotguns he sold under his own name in his elegant store located in the most exclusive district of London.


Sight of the internal mechanics of an original Holland & Holland


This first Holland’s side-by-side with sidelocks had an ingenious but complicated mechanics that employed two different cocking systems, one cocking the right lock by means of two levers and closing the barrels, the other cocking the left lock by opening the barrels and using a single cocking lever. Its official purpose was to distribute the strain between opening and closing the gun, but I suspect they actually may have been afraid of infringing Anson & Deeley’s 1875 patent. This complex system was, indeed, abandoned in 1885 and they started cocking also the right lock by opening the barrels through a single lever, as was already in use for the left lock. This is how the “Royal” action that we know today was born, as far as the lock and its cocking are concerned. The name “Royal” was filed for patent on May 28, 1885 and since then it has been marking H. & H‘ s most outstading shotguns. The name was a perfect fit, combined with the idea of King and Royal House, and lended an aura of distinction and exclusivity to the entire gun. The work still lacked an automatic ejector mechanism, which in those years was beginning to be considered essential to speed up the reloading of the gun. Henry Holland patented one of the simplest and most functional ejectors, if not the simplest ever. The patent is number 800 of January 13, 1883 and the mechanism, not only simple to build but also to adjust, is actually composed of only two pieces, a hammer-body and a spring – in addition, of course, to its extractor leg with head, which is a necessary element in any ejector, even in a manual one.  It works on the principle of the mass with eccentric fulcrum and when the hammer-body is forced beyond its equilibrium point by the lowering of the barrels, it is pushed by the spring and it triggers, violently striking the end of the leg and causing the automatic ejection. In his beautiful catalogs of the late ‘800 and early ‘900, Holland emphaticallly advertised this system and named  it “AB” to mean that it was composed of only two pieces. Besides, the real origin of this ejector has been quite unclear for years. The first ejector system with these characteristics, which the English call “over – center tumbler”, is the one patented by Thomas Perkes in 1878 and sold to W.& C. Scott (as mentioned above, this important company was a regular supplier of Holland). Anyway, the English have almost always called this mechanism “ejector Southgate”, especially among insiders, referring to Thomas Southgate, who was issued two licenses, based on the same principle, in 1889 and 1890. Recently, however, it has been proven beyond doubt that the Holland ejector, as we know it, was created by the great Frederick Beesley, whose great importance we mentioned at the beginning of this writing, and sold to Holland & Holland in 1891 or 1892. There are some Holland side-by-sides built before the patent date of 1893 which are equipped with this mechanism. Evidently, Holland wanted to try it in the hands of his customers before buying it! The last finishing touches to the Royal Holland side-by-side were the key for the manual detaching of the sidelocks and the self opening, introduced in 1922 evidently to match the functions offered by Purdey side-by-sides. Not everyone likes the self opening, though: on the one hand, it makes the opening fast and effortless, on the other, it takes more strength to close the gun. Anyway, we have to consider that England was rigidly divided into social classes at that time. Here is what happened to an American who visited Purdey’s at the end of the 1800’s: he observed that opening a Purdey side-by-side was very easy but that it took a certain amount of effort to close it. Astonished by the criticism, the imperturbable salesman replied that none of their customers used to close their guns personally! During hunting trips and even while hunting with their dogs, the wealthy hunters who were Purdey’s customers were always accompanied and served by their trusted gamekeeper and loader, to whom they passed their unloaded guns to be reloaded. Incidentally, this is the reason for the application of the automatic safety on many guns. The self opening in the Holland & Holland gun is achieved by means of an extended cylindrical body, with a spiral spring inside, positioned under the initial part of the barrels, which at one end pushes on the forearm cross and at the other is bound to the hook of the forearm itself.


Now, all we are left to talk about is the sidelock. It can be described in a nutshell as an external hammer lock, with the hammer brought inside and in one piece with its lower part (called nut), built to interact with the cocking lever. Moreover, a safety sear has been added and placed below, alongside the trigger one, which has the function of blocking the hammer if it is released from its mount notch without the trigger being pulled.


In the first decades after its appearance, there were many sidelock actions that functioned quite similarly to Holland & Holland’s, but the Companies that built their guns adopting these different mechanical designs closed one after the other. The unanimous adoption of the Holland system by the Belgian industry, which then dominated the market in terms of number of manufacturers and quantity of guns produced, was also fundamental. The most famous Belgian manufacturers, such as Lebeau Courally and Francotte, immediately copied the Holland & Holland action in its entirety, and so did other Belgian companies, then all Spanish and Italian manufacturers acceptingly followed them. The Italian side-by-sides with sidelocks that appeared around 1930 and were offered by Beretta, Bernardelli and Franchi were all based on this system. Actually, Holland’s mechanics fully deserved this success. It was relatively simple to manufacture and adjust, with no structural weaknesses and little inclination to malfunctioning. The double safety sear of the sidelock allowed for light snaps without fearing the simultaneous start of the two shots, and this feature was particularly appreciated by those practicing pigeon shooting, a sport which was very popular at the time and attracted a rich and wealthy social class that gladly spent on luxury weapons. The surfaces of the sideplates left ample space for elaborate engravings that pleased the eye and soon owning a “Holland-type” side-by-side meant having a top-class weapon. And this is still true today. The locks are magnificent and are truly a treat for the eyes of the competent enthusiast and connoisseur. Unfortunately, there are only few left to build and offer top-class side-by-sides with real Holland sidelocks.


I hereby do not mean to foster a manufacturer, but it is a fact: nowadays, at European and world level, there is no superior, better made and better finished side-by-side with real Holland & Holland mechanics than the one produced by the Piotti brothers.


„Monaco“ shotgun by Flli Piotti

Holland e Holland Side-Lever-Loc