Rifles have always played a key role in Keith Thomass life. He was born in Zimbabwe, in 1974, while the Bush War was raging and his father, Kevin, a member of the celebrated Selous Scouts, was engaged in fighting insurgents. Keith had the good fortune to spend his childhood and youth on game reserves, not only in Zimbabwe, but also Namibia and South Africa, where his father, after the unrest, was engaged as a professional hunter. In fact, Kevin remains a very active hunter and is still waiting for the rifle his son promised to build him. But thats another story altogether, and one with a twist in the tail.
It was a truly wonderful environment in which to grow up and learn the ethics of shooting and hunting from his highly experienced father. Firearms, inevitably, were tools of the trade and his first gun, given to him when he was six, was a Webley .22 air rifle. Thrilled with his new acquisition and despite parental supervision, he soon managed to slice off the tip of a finger by failing to load it correctly, causing the barrel to jerk back and mangle his finger. It taught the boy a severe but valuable lesson.
Honing his skills
Always fascinated and absorbed whenever worldwide clients arrived to hunt with his father, during his formative years Keith observed and took note of the wide range of rifle makes and calibres that they carried, including top-quality rifles by Holland & Holland, Purdey, Westley Richards and Rigby. From his earliest years he knew that his sole ambition in life would be to make rifles. The basic skills were already there, lying dormant and ready to be discovered and honed, so that when he was only 14 years old, Keith spent the summer holidays working in a gunshop in South Africa. There, he restocked his fathers 7x57mm rifle and, at that early stage of his life, considered it to be a prime achievement. Keith told me, however, that when he went home later after working his apprenticeship in England and saw the stock he had made for the rifle as a boy, he was horrified at the workmanship. Luckily, his father said it didnt really matter as the rifle was simply a working tool for him.
In 1991, Keith was fortunate enough to be offered an apprenticeship at Rigbys under Paul Roberts. He was then aged 18 and at that time had no real commitment to become a full-time gunmaker, but instead harboured ambitions to return to Zimbabwe as a professional hunter and perhaps to supplement his income by working on guns in the off-season.
However, after several months at Rigbys, he was offered the opportunity to work with Paul Willis, who was in charge of the gunworks and who taught him metalwork. Though his original intention had been to become a stocker, Keith began to discover the fascination and challenge of working with metal.
Nevertheless, he still had no intention of remaining in the UK after his apprenticeship was ended, but on one fateful day Paul Roberts enquired about his future plans and asked him if he would like to remain with him. Keith was delighted and a work visa was obtained. When Rigbys was sold to America a few years later, Keith moved to Purdeys, where he was to spend nearly nine very happy years working mainly on bolt-action rifles, shooting and regulating all double rifles and also learning Purdey-style action work. However, though he thoroughly enjoyed the work at Purdeys and was reluctant to leave, Keith sought new challenges and decided to become self-employed.
Opportunities at Westley Richards
Keith quickly obtained work from J. Roberts and Purdeys, then, after a few months, was also offered jointing and general gunwork by Simon Clode of Westley Richards, the prestigious gunmakers that was then still based in its old factory in Birmingham.
The workflow steadily increased until, eventually, Simon offered Keith the role of foreman at the new Westley Richards factory, which was then under construction. It was, says Keith, a great opportunity to take on new challenges.
Today, though Keith specialises in the shooting and regulating of bolt-action and double rifles, and also undertakes all the action work, he increasingly finds that he is working almost entirely on double rifles and, in particular, Westley Richards new sidelock double rifles, which have been developed over the past few years, with the first one almost at the proofing stage. Demand for double rifles these days comes mainly from the US, but there are also, says Keith, a considerable number of doubles on order from Europe and from UK-based customers.
Double rifle variations
The Westley Richards double rifles offer three variations. One is a fixed lock/boxlock, with a starting price of £29,500. Next there is the droplock, unique to the gunmaker and in which the lock work can be removed and be replaced by a spare if necessary. This particular droplock costs £43,000 upwards. The third variation, the new sidelock, starts at £56,000. A great deal of money, yes, but the amount of work and time involved more than justifies the expense. Incidentally, Westley Richards also builds shotguns in the three action styles.
Currently, Keith is working on a .470 sidelock rifle, a calibre which is very popular, though Westley Richards builds in numerous calibres. He has also just regulated a pair of rifles in 7×57. Westley Richards has orders for .577 and .600 rifles and the ever-popular .416 Rigby, made on the new Westley Richards sidelock system. The company is making some rather unusual calibres, too, such as the .577/700, which is a .700 cartridge necked down to a .577, but the sheer weight of the rifle at 18lb is mind-blowing, remarks Keith.
Variety is at the heart of Westley Richards and it can be seen in the fact that it is building 8-bores for wildfowling. In fact, Simon Clode is prepared to consider any calibre of rifle if asked to by a customer. Naturally, there is a substantial investment in developing a calibre, but it is a course the firm is not afraid to pursue. Keith is, for instance, involved in the process of building a .600 incorporating the Westley Richards sidelock system, with the Westley Richards dollshead and top-lever system. This is one of a pair of .600 double rifles and will take two to three years from the original order to finished rifle. Each will have an engraving on them: one devoted to Africa, the other to India. Surprisingly, this pair of massive rifles is destined for a UK-based hunter and will be used actively on major African safaris.
Still under construction
I asked Keith about his progress on the rifle that he is building for his father. Well, he replied with a smile, fortunately he has some other rifles. In fact, the story of this rifle goes back a long time, to the days when I was an apprentice at Rigbys. I had been given the action of an old Mauser 98 by the late Dave Perkins. Dave was a truly remarkably gunsmith who worked from his home in the West Country. He used to come up to Rigbys to undertake double-barrel rifle regulating.
One day, having finished my work, I was making a brass cannon for myself. Dave asked me what I was doing and when I told him, he suggested I needed to make something worthwhile and shoved the old Mauser action into my hands. So I decided to build the rifle as a .300 H&H for my father. However, it has taken some time and I recently changed the calibre to .300 Win Mag, as this ammunition is easier to obtain in South Africa. The new barrel is on the action, the trigger is all there and its nearly ready for stocking, though Ive yet to buy a stock blank, but I aim to have it ready by April next year.
Who knows, Kevin may yet fi nd himself owning a quality family-made rifle. Curiously, though hunting and rifles run in his blood and his father now runs his own successful safari company, Keith, married to Deborah and with a two-year-old son, Max, has never stalked in this country, despite having had invitations. He doesnt even own a rifle. However, he hopes to grass his first roe or red deer when he can drag himself away from his workshop and bench.