Upon seeing one of these guns, your first thought isn’t: “How much damage can I make with one of these?’ but, “This is a work of art.” With each gun taking a minimum of 1,000 man-hours to complete, the art of gun making is a precise craft which gunmakers master over many years of apprenticeship.
“London has always been at the forefront of the industry,” explains Ian Anderson, head of gun sales at William & Son. Gun making has been in London from the Victorian era and beyond and it has such a deep heritage that sets the capital apart from the rest of the world.”
A prominent figure in London’s gun-making history was Joseph Manton, a gunsmith who set up shop in Mayfair in the late 1700s. His talented workforce included James Purdey, Thomas Boss, Charles Lancaster and William Greener – all of whom later took their expertly honed skills and struck out on their own. The businesses they created still continue trading to this day.
A gun bought today will largely have been made using the same manufacturing methods that were used more than 100 years ago, and whether you choose a Purdey, Boss & Co, Holland & Holland or William & Son, all guns go through the same stages of production. Creating a unique piece can take up to two years to complete, a lengthy process but one that is well worth the wait.
The craftsman who starts the gun-making process is the barrel maker. A skilled barrel maker can bind two metal tubes together with such precision that they can be measured to a thousandth of an inch, thereby altering the entire behaviour of the gun. The barrel maker will also determine the calibre of the gun and the barrel length.
The job of an actioner is to create the gun out of all the individual parts. It is a painstaking process to make a finished product that gives the impression of being one single piece of metal, rather than formed of numerous components. The precision needed for this process can only be successfully completed by hand. The actioner often takes on two of the other stages – the locks and triggers and the ejectors.
The stocker’s unique role is to blend the woodwork flawlessly with the metalwork to create the perfect shapes and curves of the gun. Stockers carve the walnut to the user’s exacting standards, so the gun fits its owner perfectly.
The engraving stage is arguably the most complex. Hand engraving is a rare skill and the finished product is visually striking; this is down to the intricate engraving. Engravers create the most notable bespoke and personal elements of the gun: engraving unique designs of flowing filigree, depicting favourite scenes from the field or something entirely unique – the options are endless.
The finisher ensures all the internal elements of the gun work as they should, before polishing the stock. The finisher provides the delicate chequered engraving and oils the walnut to emphasise its beauty. Walnut is used due to its density, strength and its attractiveness.
Gunmaker Paul West of William & Son explained how these guns are the ultimate indulgence. “Most of the time, owning one of these guns is a distinctly personal experience,” he says. “Having a beautiful gun is not a statement to show off to others; a beautiful gun is a pleasure to be savoured by the owner alone. Rifles and shotguns spend the vast majority of their lives in a display cabinet before being transported to the field, where there is no real opportunity to show it off. Guns are for their owner’s enjoyment.”
The sentiment of these guns, according to Allie Stanislas of Purdey & Sons, is that they are “a tool to treasure” and that customers still continue to purchase their guns from Purdey due to the history and heritage of the company. “We are the only London gunmaker to hold all three Royal Warrants,” she notes. James Purdey, another of Joseph Manton’s protégés, opened his first gun and rifle shop in London’s Princes Street [which was later renamed Wardour Street] in 1814. William & Son’s Ian Anderson describes how the company, despite being a newcomer on the scene, is able to stand up to the competition: “Our buyers like the shape and the lines of our guns because they are very delicate in appearance but durable in functionality,” he says. “People also like to buy into a small family firm and it is pulling away from the norm of those big luxury brands. We offer something quite unique and very individual. We are really fortunate that we have an on-site gunsmith, which is a real luxury in central London. It’s a good base for those living in London who want to get their repairs done speedily.”
All pictures courtesy of Willian & Son and Purdey.