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England’s provincial gunmakers

During the past six months, Shooting Times has interviewed traditional gunmakers in London, Birmingham and Scotland and, to complete the circle, we recently talked to England’s provincial firms. Many boast famous names that once thrived in the gunmaking quarters of London and Birmingham and have now been revived by the investment and nurture of enthusiast businessmen away from the expensive overheads of the major cities. Such is the co-operative nature of the English gun trade, plus the obvious financial benefits, that several firms farm out the individual skills needed to build a handmade gun, then finish it on their own premises rather than construct from start to finish. Either way, there are still plenty of gems hidden in the English regions that keep the fires of the gun industry burning brightly.

Holloway & Naughton, in Leicestershire, has set out to prove that it is possible to create a thriving new business in the provinces. Former clayshooting champion Andrew Harvison launched the company 15 years ago. The firm now offers three ranges of shotgun and builds 10 new guns a year.

“I realise that the traditional names of the industry look on newcomers such as ourselves with scorn, but I don’t mind if they won’t welcome us into the fold,” says Andrew. “Don’t misunderstand me, I have the highest regard for the big names, which have a 200-year start on us. But I believe they can be too stuck up and set in their ways. It is a sad indictment of our industry that they decided to bring in Italian and Spanish gunmakers for their less expensive models, rather than discover fresh ones at home.”

Andrew has been aggressive in his advertising and marketing campaign to seize on any new business opportunities within the sector, drawing heavily on his own experiences as a top competition Shot. “Business won’t come to you if you sit and wait for it,” he says. “I score highly in my ability to fit a gun to a client, the benefit of which I know well from my competition days. We have quickly turned into a very serious player, using our own engineering company in Leicester to make parts. Ourselves and David McKay Brown in Scotland have proved that you can start from scratch in this business, and it is no surprise that this causes consternation among the bigger names in the industry.”

Now based in Wiltshire, the fifth generation of the Greener family is still making the finest shotguns and rifles as they have been doing since 1829. Founded by William Greener, and made famous by his son William Wellington Greener, the company continues to make Best English guns with Graham Greener being fully involved as a director of the company.
“We work as a co-operative,” says Graham, who bought back the business from Webley 20 years ago. “Our two gunmakers are also directors of the company. David Dryhurst, one of the last apprentice gunmakers trained
by the company, and Richard Tandy, trained by E. J. Churchill, ensure that the very highest standards remain to this day.”

New exhibition quality shotguns are being made using traditional W. W. Greener designs including traditional sidelocks, Unique Ejectors and Facile Princeps models in 12-, 16-, 20- and 28-bore shotguns, as well as a 12-bore hammergun. A few pairs of guns are being made with interchangeable steel and Damascus barrels.

However, the Greener order book is closed while the gunsmiths catch up with the backlog of commissions. Graham is delighted that the company is operating at full output, but is also frustrated that there is no means of expanding the business. “Because of the embellishments we add to every gun, all the money goes back into manufacturing, so there is no spare cash to employ new workers. We can’t afford the time to take on an apprentice either, as we are working flat out. I think it is a failing of the industry and the Government that there are no skilled people available to expand gunmaking
in this country. There has been very little reinvestment or support from Westminster.”

Mike Cooley, chairman of Cogswell & Harrison Gunmakers in Slough, Berkshire, is a professor of engineering and shares Graham’s concerns for the future of the gunmaking industry in the UK. “I would always advocate a symbiosis between traditional skills and modern technology, so that the latter enhances the former, but without compromising the overall quality of the product,” he explains. “Artisanship should not be replaced by machinery, but I fear that the industry has not fully explored the potential of that symbiosis.”

Mike feels that there is an underestimation of the value of apprenticeships in this country, an unfortunate deterioration from a nation that invented the concept. “If you look at the system in Germany, where every master craftsman has an apprentice, you quickly start to see the benefits,” he says. “But there is some encouragement in that last year Gordon Brown pledged to overhaul the apprenticeship system and give cash grants of £3,000 per apprentice to employers willing to offer work-based training.”

Dating back to 1770, Cogswell & Harrison lays claim to being the oldest surviving gunmaker in the UK. For most of its 238 years, the company was based in London and it still sees itself as a London gun company, despite moving its HQ to Berkshire. “All our work is still completed by London-based craftsmen,” says Mike. “And every gun is finished by our master craftsman, Alan Crewe. The sidelock ejectors are made to the Beesley-Purdey design, while the over-and-unders are the Woodward type. We operate under a system that I call a “network of economy”, with a range of London craftsmen adding their skills to the finished article from different establishments, as we can’t afford the overheads of working in the Capital.”

The firm also provides a provenance-finding service for clients. They can apply for a certificate of origin of their gun to find who previously owned it and how much it was bought for. “This has proved popular, as owners generate a better connection with their gun, while an interesting provenance can increase its value, especially at auction,” says Mike. “Then owners often feel it is worthwhile renovating their gun to increase its value further.”

If Cogswell is the oldest company, then L. W. Butler Rifle and Gunmakers is probably the newest independent gunmaker in
England, having set up shop in Oxfordshire last September. Owner Lee Butler sat his apprenticeship in Birmingham before working for E. J. Churchill for 11 years. But when E. J. Churchill decided to scale down production of its bespoke handmade guns by more than half, Lee took the plunge and launched his own company, employing Doug McLean as his apprentice.

The company is based in the old E. J. Churchill workshops and operates on a contract basis for the famous old marque.
“I still make Best-quality Premier side-by-sides (four to six a year) and Imperial over-and-unders (eight to 10 a year) for E. J. Churchill, as well as various rifles,” says Lee. “But I also get to make a few guns to my own design.” It is a situation that suits E. J. Churchill well.

“For us, it is business as usual,” explains managing director Rob Fenwick. “Our Imperial and Premier guns are still made in the same workshops by the same people to the same high standards.” Rob says that this decision has allowed E. J. Churchill to concentrate on its Continental range of shotguns, which are built in Spain by Arrieta and finished in England. “It still feels a very English gun,” he adds, “which is extremely reliable and affordable as it costs between £3,000 and £10,000. Clients can come to the shooting school for an exact fitting before commissioning the gun. They are flying off the shelves ? we have sold 90 in the past 10 months.”

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