Peter Finer

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A German Flintlock Breechloading Break-Action Sporting Gun for Ball and Shot by George Grebe, Kassel, c. 1690

Item Ref: 2095 Price on application

2095 4
2095 5
2095 14
2095 15

Germany, Kassel. Steel, iron, walnut.


Private Collection, USA

George Grebe (Grebi) was registered as a Bürger of the city of Kassel in the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel in 1695. He is also recorded in the archives of his German Baptist faith, sometimes known as the ‘Brethren’, as Gun-maker to the Court of Karl, Landgrave von Hesse-Kassel (r. 1670–1730). By 1708 Grebe had moved from Kassel to join a small group of religious dissenters, Pietists, under the leadership of Alexander Mack, with whom he established a community, living in the settlement known as the Hüttental, overlooking the town of Schwanzenau. He had presumably ceased making firearms and in that year became one of the First Eight founding members of the Neu Täufer, or New German Baptists. In 1719-20, in the face of renewed persecution, the then expanded community fled to Surhuisterveen in the Dutch province of Friesland. The former Schwanzenau community subsequently emigrated from Rotterdam to Philadelphia aboard the Allen, arriving in America on 11 September 1729. It is not known whether George Grebe was among the immigrant party, but in view of the large number of descendants bearing his name in the Germanstown area it would seem likely. The inspiration for the chiselled designs on our gun, of tightly packed interlaced scrollwork inhabited by monsters, classical figures and grotesques, originated from outside the German cultural tradition. The source is easily confirmed by an examination of the Italian firearms with chiselled lock mechanisms and iron mounts which had developed as an indigenous style in and around the city of Brescia. The Brescian technique achieved the apex of its development by about 1670, but its tradition of chiselling iron, both in relief and in the form of flat lacelike tracery plaques, possessed a character which remained distinct in Europe to the end of the century. Presumably it was from travel to the fashionable city of Venice, the seat of Brescian governance, and from Italian diplomatic gifts of luxury firearms to the courts of the many ruling German houses that the Brescian taste developed in small pockets of Germany.

By the closing decades of the 17th century the firearms imported from Brescia appear to have almost merged, in terms of their style, with the German work produced in emulation of that style, notwithstanding the inevitable German lapses in the grammar of the ornament which today betrays the German origin. To judge, however, from the very small number of surviving examples, it would appear that the neo-Brescian firearms produced were limited to eccentric commissions scattered within the nobility. Nonetheless, the Brescian vogue persisted in Germany at least until the early 1730s, as can be seen from the large quantity of sets of flintlock pistols and short carbines signed GIO.BOTTI, which were assembled by an unknown German maker for Ernst August I, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar (1688–1748) and formerly amassed in the Gewehrkammer at Schloss Ettersburg, Saxony. Unlike our gun by Grebe, the Ettersburg group followed the Brescian decline from skilled and expensive iron chiselling to the use of more economical gilt-brass mounts which were cast in multiples. While the decoration exhibited on the Grebe gun is certainly the product of a German iron-cutter, it is most likely that the wood for the stock was imported from Italy for carving in Germany. This differs from the Italianate firearms from Schloss Ettersburg, for which the barrels, the locks and the mounts were almost certainly imported and then mounted by a German gun-stocker working in his own national style of the period.  Leonardo da Vinci is credited with the invention of a gun with a metal pre-charged cartridge loaded from the breech. The earliest surviving examples of hand-held breech-loaders with separate chambers are two guns believed to have been made for Henry VIII, one of which, with a hinged trapdoor breech, is dated 1537. Similarly, the series of matchlock gun shields made for King Henry’s bodyguard in about 1544 are loaded by way of a lid pivoted at the rear.

Throughout the remainder of the 16th century and within the early 17th century, the hinged lidded breech appears to have remained the preferred option, although a German matchlock carbine of about 1600, now in the Bayerischen Nationalmuseum, Munich (no. w 1448), employs a loadable separate chamber released by a sliding bolt passing laterally through the rear of the barrel. This example is effectively a proto-version of the internally released separate chamber used in conjunction with the break-action system of the present gun. Early examples of break-action guns include a Viennese miquelet-lock rifle made by Franz Jeiadtel, about 1650, and another Viennese miquelet-lock by Michael Gull, about 1660. Grebe’s gun, however, is made the more sophisticated by his adoption of the latest form of the flintlock. Throughout the second half of the 17th century the search for methods of quickly and safely reloading sporting firearms continued, in parallel with the development of the break-action types. The alternative systems centred on the use of either a movable breech plug acting on a threaded lever action, a complex and expensive option, or on a movable barrel which was required to be unscrewed and replaced for each load. The former concept in fact re-emerged in 1776 with the Ferguson patent rifle, with considerable success at the battle of Brandywine, but disappeared following Fergusson’s death at King’s Mountain in 1780. The latter system, using barrels referred to both as ‘screw-breech’ and ‘turn-off’, was widely adopted owing to the relatively low cost and the desirable quality of obturation, gas seal, afforded by the tightly loaded ball. A further alternative was the use of a captive pivoted chamber, which again enjoyed greater success, primarily in military applications, in Britain, Austria and the United States in the late 18th and well into the 19th  century.

The break-action system, with a separate chamber or cartridge, ultimately evolved into the modern classic shotgun. Ingenious further developments of the system were made by some of the leading English gun-makers in the late 17th and first quarter of the 18th century, including Nicholas Paris Senior, Henry Delany, Robert Rowland and James Freeman. The introduction of a separate chamber for the charge was a significant improvement on the more cumbersome and time-consuming turn-off barrel which had to be operated using a spanner-like key. A specially fitted belt pouch filled with a quantity of pre-loaded chambers, each carried with the steel in closed position over a primed pan, would have ensured a quick rate of reloading. It is also noteworthy that chambers which included their own pan and steel, possessed the additional benefit of being easy to remove from the breech after being discharged. Although now very rare, examples of these chamber-pouches survive in ancestral gunrooms, some with provision for six, or as many as twelve, chambers each. On the walls of a number of castles, the hereditary seats of princes and the nobility in Germany, Austria and Bohemia, there remain paintings and engravings of a formal hunt known as the Battue. Introduced from France in the late 17th century, it involved the organised beating of woodland to flush out deer and boar, the game being driven down rides into enclosed clearings in which the sportsmen waited in their protected positions or butts. It is not known to whom our gun belonged but it is probable that it was commissioned by a nobleman, who naturally wished to demonstrate his refinement and taste while engaging in the courtly pursuit of hunting. The very unusual and obviously bespoke Italianate styling of this gun, together with the additional cost of its breech-loading system, make it most likely that this gun was made for Karl, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel.

Decorated throughout after the Brescian manner, with a swamped octagonal sighted barrel hinged beneath the breech, which is released by a catch ahead of the trigger guard that is engaged internally by a hidden locking extension projecting from the breech face. The breech retains its original removable chamber with its pivoted steel and integral pan. The breech is chiselled in low relief with a band of scrollwork panels framing the figure of the goddess Minerva seated beneath a grotesque mask. A chiselled monstrous serpent issues from the decorative pierced base of the back sight, which itself has grotesque masks within an interlace of foliage. Signed GREBE in large chiselled letters within a pierced chiselled scrollwork plaque set prominently into a recessed oval on the upper breech tang; a further serpent is chiselled to the rear of the tang. The back-action lock is chiselled in low relief over its entire surface with a close-set interlaced pattern of scrolling leaves, involving a warrior in combat with a serpentine monster, en suite with the outer plate of the chamber. This plate is additionally decorated with a lion, its priming pan cut with a demon mask, and the cock screw chiselled as a further demon mask, its mouth also forming an aperture for a key. The carved moulded butt and long fore end are each of highly figured Italian curly walnut, the butt cast off, with carved raised cheek-piece and matching sliding patch-box cover. The fore-end is carved with scrollwork in low relief behind the ramrod pipe. Full iron mounts are chiselled en suite with the barrel and the lock, including a pierced side plate formed in two parts and involving a serpentine monster, trigger guard decorated with a panel of pierced scrollwork set within an oval recess, and with moulded ramrod pipes, and butt plate engraved with the numeral 23. The tang of the butt plate extends over the length of the comb in the form of a mythical sea-serpent, with a smaller serpent issuing from its jaws. It is inset with a chiselled scrollwork plaque towards the rear, this involving a classical figure, perhaps that of Pan, playing on his pipe and kicking the grotesque head of a man smoking a pipe. Fitted with an iron fore end cap engraved en suite with the muzzle, and retaining its original wooden ramrod with moulded iron tip.

Size: Overall length 119.5 cm / 47 in, Barrel length 81.3 cm / 32 in