Peter Finer

A Russian Oval-barrelled Flintlock Sporting Gun by G. Kuprin, Tula, c. 1770

Item Ref: 1559 Price on application

1559 36
1559 37

Russia, Tula. Steel, two colours of gold, silver and wood.


Ancestral Swedish Collection before 1996
Nordén Auktioner, Stockholm 29th May 1996, lot 765
Private collection, USA

This magnificent sporting gun was made in Tula, a city just over 100 miles south of Moscow which had been involved in arms manufacture since the late sixteenth century and had close ties with the central Armoury workshops in the Moscow Kremlin where Tula armourers went regularly for training.  At the beginning of the eighteenth century, at a time when quantities of good  quality  munition  weapons  were  required,  Peter  the  Great  (reigned  1682–1725) established a state armoury there to satisfy the needs of the Russian army during the latter stages of the Great Northern War (1700–21).  When peace came, however, the government’s need for military weapons was drastically reduced and so the armoury’s craftsmen were encouraged to turn more and more to the production of fine-quality weapons for the civilian market.  These craftsmen were more home workers than factory workers, plying most of their trade from their own workshops but using the armoury and its equipment for complicated operations like the boring and turning barrels.  As the Russian economy developed so the demand for luxury goods grew and the craftsmen of Tula broadened their production to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent aristocracy for all sorts of luxury goods from chess sets to coaches, though the production of firearms and edged weapons always remained their main business.

The westernising policies of Peter the Great had the effect of making these newly affluent consumers demand not traditional Russian styles and forms but fashionable, western European ones.  Therefore early in the eighteenth century the craftsmen of Tula had to turn away from traditional Russian types of form and decoration and perfect those commonly used in Western Europe, including westernised shoulder stocks for long guns, chiselled steel ornament, the inlay  of  wood  with  silver  wire  and  engraved  plaques,  and  the  production  of  twist  or ‘Damascus’ barrels. They were helped to do this by the policy of employing foreign craftsmen to work alongside them, mostly gun-makers from the German lands and Scandinavia, and their influence can be seen, for instance, in the often quite Germanic stock forms of Tula guns.  In this regard the full stock of our sporting gun and its pronounced cheek rest seem to be inspired by Germanic prototypes.  However,  in  eighteenth-century Russia  it  was  France  that  was regarded as the leader in fashion and it was to French decorative arts that the craftsmen of Tula turned for the inspiration of much of their decoration.  On many Tula guns of the mid-century much of the silver inlaid ornament on their stocks can be traced back to the pattern-book published by Nicholas Guérard in Paris earlier in the century, a pirated edition of which was published by Johann Christoph Weigel of Nuremberg and which was widely circulated in the gun-making trade. 

However, too much has been made of Guérard’s influence on the ornament of Tula guns which, in fact, show evidence of far more diverse sources of inspiration, though the influence of  French  fashion  remains  clear.   While  the  use  of  silver-wire  inlay  to  decorate  stocks continued throughout the second half of the century, generally becoming more delicate, the manner of decorating the steel of locks, barrels and mounts changed considerably. In the mid- century the fashion was for heavily chiselled ornament on a gilt ground but by the 1760s a far lighter and more delicate type of decoration came into favour following the French fashion in which bright steel surfaces were chiselled and inlaid in precious metals with rocaille and flowers. Our gun is a superb example of this type of embellishment. 

The oval-bore barrel of this gun is a most unusual and intriguing feature.  Occasionally blunderbusses dating from the mid-eighteenth century onwards are found with elliptically expanded muzzles, presumably in an attempt to spread the shot more horizontally than vertically.  For a birding gun the advantage of this is obvious as it would appear to give more chance for a shooter ‘leading a bird’ to hit it. Unfortunately, however, the theory was incorrect, at least as far as expanded muzzles were concerned, and the effect of an oval bore was probably also insignificant. 

The maker of our exceptional gun, whose name can most accurately be transliterated as G. Kuprin, appears to be otherwise unrecorded. However, in overall style our gun is very close to one in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (inv. no. З.O.5632) by the Tula maker A. Leontyev.  The steelwork of that gun, however, is blued, it has a conventional barrel, and the lock does not have a safety catch, but the rest of its form and decoration is very similar to that of ours, exhibiting the same mix of flower and rocaille decoration that dates them both to around 1770.  Both Leontyev’s gun and Kuprin’s exhibit the highest standards of artistry attained by the gunmakers of Tula. 

Bright steel lock with rounded plate, faceted frizzen and swan-neck cock, the latter with chiselled leaf scroll supports from the heel to the back of the neck and the front of the neck to the lower jaw.  The lock encrusted and chiselled with roses in two-colour gold and with a rocaille motif at the rear.  The walnut full stock inlaid with profuse silver wire decoration in the form of spiralling scrolls and carved with ribs around the main elements and sprays of flowers on the wrist and at the front end of the pronounced cheek rest.  Mounts of bright steel, consisting of three ramrod pipes, a scroll trigger guard, a butt plate and a two-part side plate, with horn fore-end cap.  The butt plate shaped to the shoulder with stepped, faceted tang encrusted  and  chiselled  with  gold  and  silver  roses  and  with  a  large  acorn-shaped finial engraved with foliate and floral scrolls on a gilt ground. The side flat edged with a double line and zigzag border in silver wire within which are silver wire scrolls and expanded steel washers for the two side nails chiselled, cut out and gilt in the form of rococo foliate scrolls. The trigger guard decorated en suite with blued steel trigger reinforced behind with a triangular fin.  The two-stage oval-bore barrel with ribbed octagonal section chiselled at the breech with rocaille scroll work and ahead of this on the three top flats chiselled and gilt with roses, top flat also bearing the maker’s name in gold GKUIIRNHB, with stepped tang decorated en suite, raised backsight just to the rear of the breech, leaf fore-sight at the muzzle. Wooden ramrod of oval section with horn tip.

Size: Length 115 cm / 45.5 in