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‘Biggles’ and the American shotgun

When the Royal Armouries acquired this rare shotgun in 2015, it was not only because of its interesting association with ‘Biggles’ but also its connection with the fledgling Royal Air Force.

March 2019 marks the end of the RAF’s 100 year anniversary celebrations of its formation in April 1918. It is therefore fitting to shine a light on a shotgun associated with the glamour and derring-do and of one of the great British schoolboy fictional heroes – the flying ace ‘Biggles’, created by ex-RAF pilot and author W.E. Johns in 1931.

‘Biggles’ had many adventures through the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s, both in the air and on the ground. Indeed, he would appear in over a 100 of Johns’ books.

An inspiration to many

The impact of ‘Biggles’ was far reaching and he inspired generations of school boys to take to the air. The RAF was a busy service in its early years, conducting active operations in exotic locations around the globe. In 1919, the RAF conducted offensive air operations in southern Russia against the Bolsheviks and at the same time made use of air power in Afghanistan, as the third Afghan War had just broken out. These kind of stories would excite young boys with the glamour of the early fighter pilots.

The 1920’s and 1930’s, up to and during the Second World War, were hectic decades for the development of air power and Johns’ books were pivotal in encouraging young men to join the RAF and train as pilots. It is therefore interesting to see how this shotgun plays a part in this history, both fictional and actual.

The ‘Biggles’ connection

The shotgun itself has some interest; it is a rare American Winchester Model 21 side-by-side 12-bore shotgun, a model not often seen in the UK, but it is its literary association that is most interesting. Its former owner was Air Commodore Cecil ‘Wiggles’ Wigglesworth, one of the original RAF officers who in 1918 joined the RNAS as an airship pilot. He also served with and was a friend of W.E. Johns, the creator and author of dashing and adventurous aeronautical yarns.

Johns asked his great friend ‘Wiggles’ if he could use his name for his fictional hero in his books, changing the name slightly to James Bigglesworth, known to many as ‘Biggles’. ‘Wiggles’, along with some others were role models in Johns’ many books. Johns stated that the character was an amalgam of many individuals in the Royal Flying Corps (including himself), one of which was certainly his friend ‘Wiggles’ Wigglesworth. Others that have been suggested for the ‘Biggles’ character include rugby player and First World War flying ace Cyril Lowe, fighter pilot Albert Ball and Air Commodore Arthur Bigsworth.

Cecil Wigglesworth came to possess the gun while he was stationed at the Air Attache in Ankara, Turkey, after the war, where he exchanged it with an American colleague during a shoot. That day he was not having much success with his Purdey, so the two men decided to exchange guns. Wiggles’ shooting improved dramatically, so much so that they decided to make the exchange permanent.

This handmade boxlock Winchester Model 21 shotgun, the ‘Standard Model’, was built in 1948. The Model 21 was offered for sale in the United States from 1929 to 1959. Winchester only made around 32,000 of them, the majority of which remained in America where today they are much prized. Although plain in appearance, the Model 21 is both sturdy and reliable and is reported as shooting ‘very well’. They were America’s answer to the best quality guns of the London gun trade, such as Purdey and Holland & Holland.

Johns’ military career

W.E. Johns himself was no stranger to the RAF as he was an ex-RAF pilot and alongside Wigglesworth one of the original RAF officers in 1918. Johns began his military career in the army as a Private in the King’s Own Regiment. As a machine gunner, he fought against the Germans and Turks at Gallipoli and Salonika and also took part in the Spring Offensive in 1917. After contracting malaria he put in for a transfer to the RFC which by the time his transfer came through had merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force. He briefly served as a bomber pilot until he was shot down over Mannheim and been made a prisoner of war in September 1918.

After being repatriated at the end of the War, he became a Lieutenant in the RAF’s Inspectorate of Recruiting, where he had the distinction of  rejecting an application by a ‘John Hume Ross’ whom he (correctly) suspected of using a false name, he was overruled by higher authorities and was therefore forced to recruit into the RAF a certain Thomas Edward Lawrence C.B. D.S.O., more popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Johns began writing and illustrating aviation articles in 1927 after his RAF commission came to an end. He edited ‘The Modern Boy’s Book of Aircraft’ and ‘Wings: A Book of Flying Adventures’ and illustrated ‘The Pictorial Flying Course’ and ‘Fighting Planes and Aces’. This lead to the creation of his legendary fictional character ‘Biggles’, to first appear in a short story in ‘Popular Flying’ Volume 1, No.1 in April 1932.

The Biggles shotgun open to reveal both barrels

Learn more about this shotgun and others like it in our online collection.

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