Many suppliers in the shooting world have a Royal Warrant in their sights — and for very good reason, says Patrick Galbraith
We were 12 miles north of Moy when the engine went bang. At first, the power started to go, then a gritty groan came from deep within the Jimny’s oily guts. I’m not mechanically minded, but it was clear we wouldn’t be going any further. Up until that point, it had been just the sort of journey I like. Quite a number of grouse had flown across the road, I’d seen plenty of roe and there were geese in the sky.
There is something about the beauty of heading north in autumn, as a sportsman, that could almost make you cry. I lay there on the verge, next to the heather, smoking a cigarette and thinking about what to do next.
It wasn’t actually a sporting tour; I’d been heading to the tailors Campbell’s of Beauly to get a pair of plus fours made. The details are boring but eventually, via a lift from a keeper, a baker and a local minister, we got to the fine historic town just before John Sugden, the owner of Campbell’s, was about to shut up shop. I say “we” because it was me and my terrier, who’d come along for the ride. As dusk settled over the red sandstone houses, we were running through the streets.
I don’t like to spend money, but standing there in the fitting room as someone carefully measures and remeasures measurements you didn’t know you had makes you realise some things are worth paying for.
I wasn’t the only person who’d popped in for some kit that week. Days earlier, HRH The Prince of Wales had dropped by. I was delighted to hear the Prince is deeply concerned about the future of tailoring and the employment it brings. It’s reasonable to say that there aren’t many people making tweed breeks, but sporting tailoring is one of the many micro sectors sustained by fieldsports. (Shooting suits make to measure – where to go for bespoke tweeds.)
History of the Royal Warrant
I assume that, like me, the Prince was delighted with the kit that turned up a month later, because back in April, Campbell’s gained its second Royal Warrant; it now holds the Prince’s as well as HM The Queen’s. John Sugden recently told me that there are about 150 businesses with one from the Prince, and the Queen has granted around 500. Interestingly, the Prince is particularly keen on giving them to artisans and craftsmen. “All very much his thing,” John confirmed.
The history of Royal Warrants goes back to medieval times, when tradespeople and artisans competed for royal approval. In the 15th century, the Lord Chamberlain appointed suppliers who held a Royal Warrant of Appointment; it’s a practice that continues to this day. Companies can apply for a Royal Warrant if they have supplied goods to the households of The Queen or the Prince of Wales for at least five of the past seven years.
It was suggested to me recently, by a Norfolk wine maker, that Royal Warrants these days are little more than PR opportunities for businesses. But in the sporting world I believe that, for the most part, those who hold them produce great kit. Hull Cartridge is the official supplier of shotgun cartridges to The Queen. I have never had the chance to ask her, but I like to think that, as I do, she finds the High Pheasant Extreme to be exceptionally smooth and very hard hitting.
Yesterday, a friend showed me a pair of Holland & Holland rifles that belonged to their great-grandfather. It was amazing to think about all the adventures they would have been on. To me, it felt like they handled exceptionally; by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s and Prince Charles’s reckoning, they’re also pretty decent, because Holland & Holland is the only gunmaker to have a Royal Warrant, receiving its first in 1963. Or so most people will tell you; actually it had one a while before that, of a more exotic sort. In 1883, the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, bought six hammer guns from the London gunmaker.
I can only assume they were pretty short in the stock, as the King was just 5ft tall. When he was a young man, his father advised him that to be a good king, “all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper, and mount a horse”.
It was not advice that served him well; he failed to stand up to Mussolini and was ultimately forced to abdicate. But when the going was good, he shot enthusiastically — in 1896 he bought six Paradoxes, versatile guns with the ability to fire both bullets and shotgun cartridges. Yours today for £130,000.
Simon Tilbury, the group head of marketing at Farlows, supplier of fishing tackle to Prince Charles, raised an interesting point. There is a danger, he said, when it comes to selling kit to ordinary folk, that we see the Royal Warrant and think it will be very expensive. But that’s never been the point. Royal Warrants have always been about quality, not price. In that sense they are a symbol of exactly what good kit is about. You can always tell someone who knows their stuff, not because they go for what costs the most, but because they go for the most resilient, hard-wearing stuff.
Swarovski is a fine example, with a Royal Warrant as supplier of binoculars to Her Majesty. My uncle, once a stalker in Ardnamurchan, is a man who doesn’t give much advice, other than on Highland cattle and binoculars. “Buy the best you can,” he told me when I was 10, “and don’t leave them on the top of the car when you drive off, only to realise an hour later, by which point they’ve been run over 50 times on the A9.”
Wise words — and to this day, I’m still saving for some Swarovskis. I can’t help but think The Queen must have a few spare pairs, but the only time I’ve come across her was in a petrol station in Castle Douglas, and it didn’t feel the moment to ask.
“So do you want a Royal Warrant?” I asked my friend Marcus Janssen, brand and sales director at Schöffel Country, when we met up last year for a rough day. “Absolutely,” he said. “The key is just to make sure you make great kit and to continually try and improve on what you’re doing. That’s what we do day in, day out.” I know him well enough to have told him to cut the marketing manure if I’d doubted his sincerity, but I also know him well enough to realise he really does go to bed at night thinking about waterproof trousers.
Some people think Royal Warrants are a bit quaint, but in reality they’re hard fought for and are still a stamp of rugged excellence, and when it comes to selling to the Japanese, John Sugden tells me, there’s nothing that seals the deal like one. If only he could get a pair of his tweed plus fours to Emperor Naruhito, I’m sure Campbell’s would soon have an Imperial Warrant, too.