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Joseph Bentley "Central Fire" Shotguns -- An Original, In Line, Side by Side, Muzzle Loading Shotgun

posted Apr 3, 2012, 1:04 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Nov 19, 2014, 8:56 AM ]
    Two competitors a
t the 2012 Western National Shoot had original, in-line, double barrel, shotguns which date back to the mid-1800s. Both guns exhibited superb craftsmanship and appeared to be made by the same maker. The nipples on both guns extend straight back from the bores, in the manner of today's in-line guns. As can be seen in the accompanying pictures, at full cock, the hammers rotate to below the plane of the barrels.  Consequently, when cocked, the hammers do not obstruct the shooter's view of the target as occurs on a typical muzzle-loading

    The unique design of these original guns generated considerable interest from the other shooters. The locks on the first gun were marked: "Sherman Brothers".  The locks on the second gun were marked: "G. Harold" and the barrel is engraved with the words "Owen Harold Dundalk."  Dundalk is an Irish town equidistant from Dublin and Belfast.  The second gun also had a gold button on the butt plate which read "Bentleys Patent" and  "307."  


Owen Harold

I have subsequently been advised that Owen Harold of Dundalk maintained a shop based at 40 Clanbrassil Street from circa 1846 until his death at the age of 45 on the 21st December, 1854. He was succeeded by a John Harold, presumably his son, who ran the business until 1871. There was also a Joseph Harold, likely to have been a relative, who ran a gunmakers and fishing tackle business in the prosperous market town of Mallow, Co. Cork throughout the fourth quarter of the 19th century. 
Research developed very little information on either of the names engraved on the locks of the guns: "Sherman Brothers" or "G. Harold."  The fact that these two names were not well known is not surprising.  Both of these guns had Birmingham proof marks.  During the mid-1800s, it was common for Birmingham gun-makers to produce guns for retailers, with the retailer's names on the guns.  "Sherman Brothers" and "G. Harold" were most likely shop owners who sold the guns.  In the case of G. Harold, the shop was likely in Dundalk, Ireland. 

    The gold button on the butt plate was  the key to finding additional information about these unusual guns. British Patent Number 10,280 was issued to Joseph Bentley in 1844. The book Abridgments of the Specifications Relating to Fire-arms and Other Weapons, Ammunition, and Accoutrements: A.D. 1588-1858 contains the following description of Mr. Bentley's Patent:

A.D. 1844, July 30.-No. 10,280.
BENTLEY, Joseph.-" Certain improvements in fire-arms. Double barrels with central fire.

Double guns are made with the nipple hole, in a line with and slightly inclined to the axis of the bore, so as to give a central fire. The barrels have a single hutt, common to both. A chamber is formed in the side of the gun, in which the nose of the cock works.

Joseph Bentley Advertisement from approximately 1840
  Joseph Bentley was born in 1793, Wednesbury, Staffordshire, England,  Bentley opened a shop in Birmingham at 11 Steel House Lane in approximately 1829. At that time, Birmingham had a thriving gun making industry.   The 11 Steel House Lane address would have put Bentley's shop on the edge of the Birmingham Gun Quarter.

Joseph Bentley Advertisement from approximately 1842

  In about 1840, Bentley moved his Birmingham shop to 14 St. Mary's Row.   At approximately the same time, Bentley opened a second shop in Liverpool.  The Liverpool shop changed locations on multiple occasions.  Addresses for the Liverpool shop included: 143 Dale Street, 12 South Castle Street, 40 Lime Street, 65 Castle Street and 37 Russel Street.  The shop in Liverpool closed in approximately 1862.  The shop in Birmingham remained at 14 St. Mary's Row until 1864, when it also closed.

    During this period, guns made in Birmingham were primarily for the military and wholesale markets.  Guns of Birmingham manufacture were considered of inferior quality as compared to the fine sporting guns which were made in London.   This is perhaps why the two Bentley guns carried the names "Sherman Brothers" and "G. Harold."

   While Birmingham gun-makers were considered inferior to the London gun-makers, there were some notable exceptions.  W.W. Greener and Westley Richards, both based in Birmingham, each developed reputations for producing high quality sporting guns.   In his day, Joseph Bentley also held a reputation for quality firearms.  A Bentley Central Fire Shotgun (Serial Number 373) was sold by Christies Auction House in 1999.  The auction description indicates that the firm of Joseph Bentley & Son, was a maker to His Royal Highness Prince Albert (husband to Queen Victoria).  Being a gun-maker to a member of the Royal Family was then, and continues to be, a great honor. 

    Prince Albert likely became familiar with Bentley guns in connection with the Great Exhibition of 1851.   The Great Exhibition, which was also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, from May to October 1851. The prime motive for the Exhibition was to demonstrate Great Britain as the world

The front of the temporary structure where the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held. This structure gave rise to the nickname of the Crystal Place Exhibition. 
wide industrial leader. Prince Albert was heavily involved with the organization of the Exhibition.  The Exhibition Catalog confirms that a  Bentley Central Fire Shotgun was exhibited by Joseph Bentley and Son.  Based on the markings contained on Prince Albert's Bentley Shotgun, the gun was manufactured on or about 1852; which is shortly after the completion of the Great Exhibition. 

    Throughout his career, Joseph Bentley was a prolific inventor, with numerous patents to his credit between 1839 and 1860.  Bentley's patents included: Patent No 8024 (1839), Improvements to revolver locks where the lock has two triggers acting in opposite directions, one of which cocks, the other discharges the piece; Patent No. 10,280 (1844), Double barrel shotgun with central fire; Patent No.  768 (1854), Improvements in breech-loading revolvers; Patent No. 780 (1856) Breach-loading fire arm with sliding barrel and a paper cartridge for use in same; Patent No. 2657 (1857), revolver locks constructed so that the hammer can be raised to half-cock,and discharged by drawing. the trigger, or the lock may be cocked by hand.  Mr. Bentley's most significant patents relate to what we now describe as “double action revolvers.” While Bentley did produce a number of revolvers himself, many Bentley style revolvers were manufactured by others under licensing agreements. Phil Webley, of Webley and Scott, was the most notable manufacturer of firearms to use Joseph Bentley's patents.

    While Bentley created several innovative firearms designs, his genius did not equate to financial success.  Bentley and his son filed bankruptcy in 1860.   Following the bankruptcy, most of the firearms produced based on the Bentley patents were produced by third parties under licensing agreements.   Bentley died in approximately 1871; which would have made him 78 at the time of his death. 

The Bentley Central Fire Shotgun

    A digital copy of the original illustrations submitted by Joseph Bentley on July 30. 1844 with his patent application (No. 10,280) is shown on the left.  (Double clicking on the image will enlarge the illustrations )    Figure 3 of the of the illustrations shows the locks hammers and breech of the central fire gun.  It is interesting to to note that locks in Figure 3 are "back action" locks, as apposed to the "front action" locks which had been used on the two original Bentley guns which were used at the 2012 Western National Shoot.  A sketch of a front action lock plate is, however, included in the illustrations as Figure 5.

    Prototype Gun

    Following the original posting of this Article, I received several photographs of what appears to be an early prototype of
the Bentley central fire system.   The prototype gun is a single barrel shotgun and has no serial number.  Unfortunately, the hammer and lock of the prototype gun have been damaged.   The hammer is completely missing and a portion of the lock plate are missing from the gun. As can be seen from the accompanying pictures,  the prototype gun employed a back action lock which is virtually identical to the the lock depicted in Figure 3 of the illustrations accompanying the original 1844 patent application.

    The prototype gun has an octagon to round barrel, a half stock, under rib and horn tip.  All of these features were common on English single barrel sporting shotguns during the 1840s and 50s.  The prototype also has a well worn gold button embossed with the words "Bentley Patent."  

Back Action Bentley Guns

    In addition to the pictures of the prototype gun, I have also received a set a pictures of a Central Fire SxS with Serial Number 47.  Gun Number 47 also employed back action locks and the single "hutt" which is described in Joseph Bentley's  1844 patent.  The "hutt" is the lug at the end of the breech plugs which engages the standing breech (also called a tang). As can be seen from the pictures of the latter guns, Bentley ultimately abandoned the use of a single hutt and returned to using two "hutts" (one for each breech plug).

    Here are the pictures of Bentley Central Fire Number 47.

Front Action Bentley Guns

    As time progressed, Joseph Bentley appears to have moved away from back action locks and towards front action designs.   he following pictures are of the "Owen Harold" branded gun. This was the plainer of the two Bentley shotguns which I examined at the 2012 Western National Shoot. Both guns employed front action style locks. The Owen Harold gun had less engraving and had checking only on the wrist of the stock.  The Sherman Brothers gun had a higher level of engraving and checkering on both the wrist and the fore-end.   While the ornamentation of the two guns differed, both of the Bentley guns were superbly made and of the same fundamental design.  The barrels, standing breech, tang and lock plates on both guns all fit together perfectly. Both guns remained tight and serviceable after more than 150 years.   The fact that these guns still generate interest from shooters is a testament to the genius of Joseph Bentley's designs and workmanship.


Lock Recess and Hammers

Central Fire Breach

A Bentley Rifle

    In addition to building in line shotguns, Bentley also produced in line rifles using his central fire design. I received a number of pictures of a Bentley Rife (Serial Number 435).  The bore is approximately 45 caliber and the barrel is currently approximately 21 inches long. My assumption is that the barrel was cut down at some prior time.  As you can see in the pictures, there is a void between the rib and the bottom of the barrel.  When the gun was made, this area was likely filed and the breach. When the barrel was cut down, the void area was exposed.  The ramrod still has what appears to be its original bone tip.     

    The barrel is marked with the name Prince Albert.  However, it appears inscription was placed on many guns for marketing purposes and the gun was not actually made for the royal family.

  If anyone else has an old Bentley muzzle-loading shotgun (or rifle), let me know.  I would love to have the opportunity to see more of these great, old guns.