Monday, October 7, 2013

Mystery rifle

A post about history and a mystery which unfortunately has no final answer.

Some years ago I stopped into a gun shop and spied an interesting looking rifle on the used gun rack.  I knew that it was rare - at least in this side of the pond and scooped it up with the approval of the Missus.  She is nice that way.

I brought it home and examined it.  It is a sporting rifle made by Birmingham Small Arms or better known as BSA.  Besides firearms BSA was known for a line of motorcycles which enjoy a cult following these days.  BSA was located in, wait for it, Birmingham, England!  They produced firearms for military and civilian use and many of the rifles were based on military rifle actions.  This particular rifle was their base model and made using new but obsolete pattern action and barrel of the Long Lee-Enfield rifle coupled with the bolt from the Lee-Enfield cavalry carbine.  The butt stock and forearm are nicely finished and checkered but are really only the military patterns adapted for civilian use.

The rifle's barrel is marked with the name of the retailer who sold the arm:  Army-Navy Cooperative Society.  This was a store that began as the means of outfitting British military officers who served overseas with the various bits of kit to make their sojourn less trying; this included firearms for hunting purposes because all work and no play makes Jack a dull, dull boy.  

Each firearm sold by the store was engraved with an inventory number which I found on the bottom of the trigger guard.  Some research on-line revealed that the inventory of firearms sold by the A&N Co-op are now held by the University of Glasgow and for a reasonable fee a copy of the inventory page for your arm would be sent to you.  You bet I got it!

The inventory page that I received revealed that my rifle languished in inventory for several years before being sold in November of 1914.  It provided the name of the purchaser:  J.W. McGowan Esq.

Now for the mystery:  who was J.W. McGowan Esq., and why was the rifle sold in November of 1914 when the British military, desperately short of arms were obtaining everything that could possibly launch a rifle bullet from the gun trade?  Why was it sold to an individual rather than to the government?

First, who was J.W. McGowan?  The A&N Cooperative Society primarily traded with military officers so the assumption is that McGowan was either an active service or retired officer.   My research which could only be done through open source sites on the Internet turned up three J.W. McGowans:

1. J.W. McGowan the younger, an active attorney in the 1880s
2. Captain J.W. McGowan residing in London in 1905
3. Pvt John William McGowan who died in France in 1915 and is buried at the Le Touret memorial.  Pvt McGowan was in the Border regiment.

Who bought the rifle in November of 1914?  Captain J.W. McGowan?  Was J.W. McGowan Esq the father of Captain McGowan or Pvt. McGowan?  Was the rifle bought to take to France but it never went (the condition of the rifle is way too nice to have seen use in France in wartime).   Was Pvt McGowan a 'gentleman ranker'  someone of the upper class who served as a private in the Army rather than take a commission?  Was the rifle intended for him when he returned but he never did and it was sold from the family?  The rifle shows very little use and mostly the wear of nearly 100 years of life.

An additional mystery:  the muzzle of the rifle is threaded for a sound modulator or 'silencer'. These devices are popular in the UK where it is considered polite not to disturb the neighbors when stalking game.  In the U.S. they are tightly controlled and are considered the tool of assassins although this is more due to movie villains than actual evidence to this.   The theory was advanced to me by an author of a book about this model of rifle that rifles of this type were purchased by the Royal Navy during the early days of WW1 for use by the Royal Marines as sniper rifles with silencers.  There are no military markings to indicate this and I think this is not very likely but, who can say at this point?

At this stage I have gone as far as I can with this mystery.  The answer eludes me and I fear that I will never know the actual chain of events that stretch from the gun counter of the Army and Navy cooperative store to a gun shop in Glendale California to the gun safe at Grouch estates.

The rifle
The pride of J.W. McGowan
Threaded muzzle for a silencer

Pvt. John William McGowan's resting place.  Was he the intended owner of the rifle?


  1. How fascinating!! That's quite a bit of research.

  2. There was some mention in earlier times of the use of silencers in the trenches and the Germans referring to them as "whispering death". No documentary evidence has surfaced AFAIK, but it would have made sense to use the Maxim silencer or a copy of it, since it not only reduced the rifles report, but also the flash and the disturbance of the ground around the muzzle on firing; things which often gave a sniper away. Unless he was a well-to-do "gentleman ranker", of which there were many in WWI of course, especially in the first year or two, a private in the army of those days was very unlikely to be able to afford to buy a rifle of his own, even if he wanted to. The officer is a much more likely candidate and he might even have been a "dug out": a retired officer who rejoined the army for the war. Short of finding the man's papers and information on the rifle, or some mention of him and the rifle somewhere else, such as in a regimental diary, I'd say your best bet is to carefully disassemble the rifle and collect the dust and dirt from the nooks and crannies and have it analyzed for pollen which is peculiar to northern France & Belgium. This is not a certain answer, but it will tell you if the rifle has been in that part of the world at some point, and other unique pollens may tell you where else it has been. You may even find some human DNA. Of course this may just be a stalking rifle whose owner liked to preserve his hearing and perhaps spook the game less. November 1914 is definitely the period when thousands of men were being killed by German snipers and thinking officers were looking desperately for ways to counter them. You might think such a rifle would have a telescopic sight or a target sight at least, but such scopes were very expensive, usually custom fitted to order and took weeks to get set up, even in peacetime. A target sight is a fragile thing in the trenches and a lot depends on the range one is shooting at. A man with a silenced rifle could get much closer to his target, so close that the open sights might have been best, or just what the man preferred!