The yearning to possess the best possible firearm tailored for you is almost pathological - but what is the best, asks Liam Stokes

English guns, best in the world. Holland & Holland, Boss, Purdey, William Evans, Westley Richards — names that are coveted around the globe, the finest examples of the gunmakers’ art. Or are they?

Harder to buy a London gun today

I have always been surprised at how many people turn up to a smart driven day carrying a fine English gun they inherited. Looking at the prices of such works of art today, I would instantly assume that such lucky individuals had some minor nobility in their lineage. Yet a little digging reveals that it is actually significantly harder to buy a London gun today than it was 60 years ago.

Pair of Purdey guns

A pair of Purdeys for Father’s Day?

Purdey in the mid-1950s would set you back about £600, around £14,000 in today’s money, which at the time would buy you an average family car. Still a lot of money to spend on a gun, no doubt, but the Purdeys of today are not the value of an average family car, they are the value of a midrange supercar.

So can this expenditure still be justified? Are you buying the best gun in the world when you buy a London finest?

Purdey factory

Purdey has not lost sight of the importance of the traditional hand-made aspects of gunmaking

A perfectly tailored gun

The answer to these question lies in personal preference, which isn’t as much of a cop-out as it sounds. The yearning at the heart of what can seem an almost pathological desire to spend money is the need for individuality, the longing for a gun that is perfectly tailored to you and you alone.

This need is not limited to the minted. Any gun can be fitted and increasingly makers that we associate with off-the-peg guns are offering buyers a choice of wood, barrel lengths, stock lengths and different styles of engraving. But this is not bespoke, this is customisation.

English guns

The Purdey’s ultra-round action body has double triggers and is engraved with its traditional rose and scroll pattern, with a colour-hardened finish. The highly figured stock has a straight-hand grip and the 30in barrels feature a game rib

To be bespoke, the gun must be one of a kind, rather than the combination of selectable options. Arguably that can be achieved with some unique engraving but really when we talk about a bespoke gun, we are talking about one that is handmade to the precise specification of the purchaser. That is what you are paying for when you present your six figures to Purdey.

Yet this doesn’t entirely answer the question because you don’t have to pay six figures to achieve fully bespoke shooting; you don’t even have to stretch to five figures. A fully bespoke, truly one-of-a-kind gun can be made to your specifications for just under £8,000 by Grulla Armas, which has been making fine guns in Spain’s Basque country for 80 years.

At this point things can get a little confusing, because there are different degrees of bespoke. A Grulla can cost you up to £25,000, depending on what extent you would like your gun to be personalised. Think of it as the difference between ordering a handmade suit made-to-measure and ordering a suit that is fully tailored.

It is this ever-increasing level of personalisation that leads us back to London and the question of whether English guns are the best in the world. Where Grulla Armas will be using modern techniques to lower costs, while still producing a handmade bespoke guns, the fine London makes are likely to offer more traditional, more labour-intensive methods. To the purist these details might be of vital importance.

Purdey’s Jonathan Irby explained exactly how far it is possible to take the quest for personalisation, and why it costs as much as an Audi R8.

English guns – Purdey

Purdey buys its walnut directly from source in Turkey, not off the market. There is no set pattern to the engraving, it is designed entirely at the behest of the buyer. Every manner of grip, fore-end, stock and trigger can be tailored; every element of the gun is bespoke.

A fitting for a Best London gun will last for more than two hours, a process that is as much an interview as it is about getting physically measured up. Jonathan says that questions about what sort of shooting the client likes to do are every bit as important as figuring out the right length of pull. This information can be used to tailor the handling and balance of the gun to suit the style of the shooter, with weight distribution being altered to the finest of tolerances as the gun is painstakingly constructed by seven specialist artisans. That sort of attention to detail costs money.

So does that resolve the issue? If you have the cash, and you want that level of personalisation, you head to London? Not necessarily.

Fully bespoke guns

W. Horton & Sons sells Rizinni and Grulla, guns that run the gamut from customised to bespoke, for less than any English gun. But it also sells guns by Karl Hauptmann and Lebeau-Courally, from the gunmaking hearts of Austria and Belgium. These are fully bespoke guns that can cost north of £300,000. These are being chosen by people whose pockets are easily deep enough to afford a fine London gun but are deciding to look abroad.

Steven Horton thinks he knows why. He says that where once there was stigma attached to any gun that wasn’t English, now people are more likely to take a global outlook and seek out the best in the world, free of the assumption that the best must be British. He argues that today the best, or at least the most innovative, is found abroad.

English guns

A William Evans side-by-side, one of the traditional English gunmakers that command top dollar

Young gunsmiths

He attributes this to the unparalleled training available to young gunsmiths on the Continent, in the gunmaking schools of St-Etienne, Ferlach and Liège. He explains that where our gunmaking apprentices are steeped in the traditional methods of building our traditional guns — and often only trained in one element such as stocking or barrel-making — a continental gunmaker’s education is more comprehensive and encourages problem solving.

Steven points out that nearly all the gunmaking patents created in the UK were registered before 1910. Since then, innovation has become the domain of the European gunmakers.

Beretta’s Luke Davison pointed out that this relentless pursuit of innovation is what has allowed Italian gunmakers to prosper. Beretta is the oldest gunmaker still in existence and has survived and thrived due to the early adoption of new technologies that have consistently lowered the cost of producing top- quality guns. This hasn’t only resulted in customisable off-the-peg models of ever higher quality, but leads Luke to assert that just as the best bespoke side-by-sides are English, the best bespoke over-and-unders are made by Beretta in Italy.

Steven is passionate about turning this around and is championing the creation of a gunmaking academy in the UK on the continental model. Perhaps adding this European flair for innovation to London’s mastery of detail and refinement will secure a confident, unequivocal “yes” to the question of whether English guns are the best in the world.

Bespoke shotgun from Purdey £132,000

The making of a Purdey shotgun

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Certainly, there is something about an English gun that transcends technical considerations. Jonathan had just returned from the Dallas Safari Club Convention when I spoke to him, and he was genuinely moved by the awe in which fine London guns are held by both “owners and dreamers”. Those of us whose wallets place us firmly in the “dreamers” camp can take pride in this part of our sporting heritage, while being grateful that foreign makers are bringing customised and bespoke guns to within easier financial reach.