Ah, October: frost, foliage, woodsmoke and clear, cool nights. Since hunting season has begun, this author is inspired to write about — what else — guns. I’ve been a regular at C.S. Arms in Upperville, Va., for a few years now. I’m into cheap (of course) fixer-uppers, and my special interest has settled around the obscure niche of antique black powder cartridge guns.
Shop owner Cliff Sophia has come up with a special term for the kind of firearms that I’m especially interested in. I stopped there one Friday and found a large white-bearded fellow, Tim, running the store while Cliff attended a gun show in Richmond.
A pile of rifles and shotguns lay on the floor in a remote corner of the 1830s store building. They looked as though they had spent the last hundred years at the bottom of a well. These specimens were my kind of stuff, but the double barrel pin fire shotgun was too exotic, even for my taste. However, there was a large caliber lever action rifle there; its action frozen with rust; its parts just begging for heat, oil and the wire wheel of my bench grinder.
The rifle was heavy and fired those shells we see in old photos of Mexican outlaws, banded bullets strapped across their chests that look big enough to be anti-tank rounds. Indeed, this could be identical to one of the rifles they carried across the Mexican desert — if old El Bandito moonlighted as an Olympic weight lifter. Tim explained that the guns were en route to the show at Richmond in a complicated journey that began in British Columbia. They were dropped off by one individual to be picked up by another for the final leg of the trip and eventual sale. “I wouldn’t give $100 for the whole pile,” Tim commented.
I expressed my interest in the monster rifle and placated myself to some degree through the purchase of a .22 semi-automatic at a very reasonable price. I called Cliff first thing Monday morning to ask about the rusty lever action rifle. He explained that he had no involvement in their sale and transport other than to provide a drop-off and pickup point. He did, though, see the guns at the sale. Apparently commenting on their poor condition, this quick-witted gun dealer said, “They were all purchased by a concrete company for use as rebar (steel re-enforcing bar used in concrete construction).
And that’s how the term “rebar” found its way into the antique gun business. The term specifically describes my niche; old fixer-upper sporting arms — real bargain basement stuff in a classic militaria shop. On a more recent occasion, I stopped by and asked if any new “rebar” had come in. Cliff showed me a decrepit, nearly 300-year-old flintlock musket that even I would be afraid to put powder and spark to. Then there was that odd 12-gauge shotgun with the unusual hinged breech; a Zulu shotgun or “Shotgun Zulu.” Upon examining the interior of the barrel and finding it to be only slightly rougher than that of Luray Caverns, I knew that the gun had potential.
The hinged breech block is known as the British Snider breech; though, history suggests that it was invented by an American. This setup allows muzzle loading muskets to be converted to breech loaders. This seems to be the history of Shotgun Zulu. An extremely strong hammer spring suggests that the original mechanism was intended to strike flint rather than a percussion cap. The year 1838 stamped on the barrel would nearly prove this theory.
The French army converted its muzzle loaders to breech loaders sometime in the 1860s using the Snider breech. Considered obsolete by the 1870s, they were sold as surplus with many winding up in the warehouses of Belgian gun dealers. While there, they were altered into sporting arms, mostly inexpensive (about $4 from Sears) shotguns.
In the days far prior to air travel and Google Earth, far off and exotic places held a rare fascination for the majority of folks. The name “Zulu” is said by experts to be no more than the work of clever Belgian advertisers taking advantage of this allure. However, this specimen has “P.G. ZULU” lightly stamped onto the barrel amid a mess of Belgian proofmarks. I guess that leads to the possibility of the gun being a knock-off; some of which were actually produced. Does this mean that there was a manufacturing tycoon by the name of Zulu traipsing about the Belgian countryside? The name must have looked funny on a mailbox — but who am I to poke fun?
I intend to test-fire the Zulu — which likely hasn’t been fired in 100 years — at my yearly antique gun demonstration at the Ice Mountain/North River Mills festival in June. That is, unless someone to feeling sorry for this homely old gun and takes “Shotgun Zulu” home.
First published Oct. 8, 2014