THE INNOVATIVE JAMES ERSKINE
I have a special interest in the Scottish borders and their gunmakers spawned by regular wildfowling trips to the Solway Firth from 1958 - 1972. My memories are many of morning and evening flights, with rough-shooting to pass the daytime hours, as well as the guns and cartridges which I encountered during my meetings with local fowlers.
Many of these loaded their own cartridges, usually singly on the kitchen table with basic equipment such as powder and shot measures, a re-and-de-capper and a device for rolling the turnovers. I followed suit but found this method rather irksome and time-consuming.
Then in 1960 a new (to myself) means suddenly became available. I was offered all the cartridge-loading equipment belonging to a devoted pigeon shooter with whom I had struck up an acquaintance. He was moving at very short notice to live in London and was giving up shooting. The entire lot, comprising components and a 100-loader by James Erskine of Newton Stewart, Scotland, cost me just six pounds!
ERSKINE CARTRIDGE LOADER
This cartridge-loading "machine" was invented and patented by Erskine around 1890. It comprises a superbly constructed mahogany box measuring 14 inches in length, 11 inches wide and stands 6 inches high. It was obviously constructed by a skilled joiner so doubtless the inventor had these made for him in view of the large number which were sold to gunmakers the length and breadth of the UK.
In order to operate it you turn it upside down and pull out the bottom slide. This exposes 100 holes into which you insert your capped cases, then push the slide back and revert the box to an upright position.
The powder is then tipped on the upper surface, the residue scraped off once the 100 small holes are filled and this upper slide is pulled so that the propellant drops down into the cartridge cases. Next comes the wad tray which fits directly over the cartridges; card wads are placed in the exposed tubes and rammed home with a four-pronged rammer, followed by the same procedure with felt wads. This rammer was known throughout the trade as the "cow's tits"!
Now it is time to load the shot charges using the same principle as for the powder. Additional wooden slides are available according to the required load, 1 1/16oz, 1 1/8oz etc., Scrape off the surplus pellets then drop the charges down by pulling the slide back. You are now ready to insert your overshot wads. These must be rammed home hard before the shells are removed from the bottom of the loader.
A standard turnover tool, resembling one of those old meat mincers which clamped on to the edge of a table, rolls the top of the cardboard case over neatly. I always used to ensure that cartridges did not rattle as a loose rolled turnover leads to poor patterning of the shot. If I found a loose one then I put it back in the turnover machine and tightened it.
This innovative and simple loader could complete 100 cartridges in an hour. Bear in mind that it is only suitable for loading bulk powders such as Smokeless Diamond, Greenbat etc., or black powder. Dire consequences could result if one was foolish enough to load modern propellants.
So effective was my Erskine that, like many gunmakers in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries I ran a small business with it. Foolishly in 1973, having no further need for it, I sold it for £14.00! I did not envisage that it would ever become a collector's item.
I have regretted this over the years but recently I picked up a replacement, one that is in excellent condition and perfect working order. If you buy an Erskine cartridge loader ensure that there is a rammer with it as all too often this is missing. I would value one of these machines at somewhere in the region of £250 - £300.
Charles Erskine, James's grandfather, served in the Jacobite army in 1716. Afterwards he went to live in Minnigaff, Galloway, where he married the blacksmith's daughter and eventually succeeded to the business which doubtless incorporated making a few guns. His eldest son Thomas set up as a gunmaker in Newton Stewart.
James was the eldest son of Thomas and went to work with gunmakers Williams & Powell, Liverpool, as a finisher. He then returned to Newton Stewart where he worked with his father and eventually took over the latter's business.
James was highly innovative and built some exceptionally fine rifles and shotguns for HRH The Duke of Saxe Coburg Gotha and other foreign nobility. He was awarded a Bronze Medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851 for a muzzle-loading shotgun with recessed hammers.
In 1869 he opened a retail outlet at 27, Finsbury Pavement, London E.C. but little is known about this venture or for how long it lasted.
Then, of course, he invented his cartridge-loader which was a huge success, along with another device for loading military ball cartridges.. After his death in 1891 his business was taken over by his son, William, who made some improvements to the latter. William had joined his father in 1877 at the age of 13. It would appear that another son was involved as in 1894 as the firm then became known as James Erskine & Sons.
In 1905 William purchased the business of George Hume at 81, English Street, Dumfries who, although he called himself a gunmaker, seems to have been a retailer. William traded here until 1946 when he retired at the age of 80.
Some years ago I acquired a lovely 12-bore hammergun by James Erskine. This in itself is proof of the quality of this maker's work. Built around 1870 it has 30-inch Damascus barrels with true cylinder choke borings and 2 1/2-inch chambers. It is proofed for black powder but in spite of many years of use the bores are as clean as polished mirrors,
It has under-lever opening and a 14-inch straight-hand stock of high quality walnut. Its elegance is further enhanced by some fine scroll engraving. It weighs 6 lbs, 13oz and handles superbly.
This gun would rival many built by iconic London gunmakers of this era.
Having invented his famous cartridge-loader it surely follows that, like most gunmakers of his era, James Erskine must have loaded his own cartridges. Yet so far I have been unable to trace a surviving example. It is believed that he made his own paper tubes.
Hence if any reader has an Erskine cartridge in his collection, or knows of one, I should be interested to hear via "The Countryman's Weekly".
James Erskine was an innovative highly skilled gunmaker. I am sure that had he worked in London instead of just having a retail outlet there then his name would have ranked alongside those of many of his more illustrious competitors.
- James Erskine was a gunmaker at Newton Stewart about 1850.
- He made guns for foreign nobility and also won a Bronze Medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
- He invented and patented his cartridge-loader about 1890.
- This machine is capable of loading 100 cartridges per hour.
- Erskine also invented another machine for loading military ball cartridges.
- His son, William, took over the business after James died in 1891.
- William made some improvements to the cartridge-loader.
- In 1905 William purchased the business of George Hume in Dumfries and relocated there.
- William retired in 1946 at the age of 80.
- James Erskine was reputed to have made his own tubes for cartridges but no example of these has so far been found.