Are English guns the best?
Owning a firearm tailormade to fit you is perfection - but is English best, asks Liam Stokes
The famous makers of English guns – Holland & Holland, Boss, Purdey, William Evans, Westley Richards.
These names are revered as the finest examples of the gunmaker’s art around the world. Or is that really true?
Inherited English guns
You’ll see plenty of people turning up at a smart driven day carrying fine English guns they have 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. But after a bit of research I discovered that it is harder to buy a London gun today than it was 60 years ago.
The price of a Purdey then and now
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. A Purdey over-and-under in 12, 16 or 20-bore starts at £108,720.
Is spending this much money on a gun justified? If you buy a London finest are you really buying the best gun in the world?
A perfectly tailored gun
The answer to these question lies in personal preference. 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.
The difference between bespoke and customised
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.
There are also 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 takes 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 explained exactly how far it is possible to take the quest for personalisation, and why the company’s guns costs so much.
“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. ”
Purdey adds 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, should you head to London? Not necessarily.
W. Horton & Sons sells Rizzinni 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.
A spokesperson for Horton explains 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.
Horton attributes this to the unparalleled training available to young gunsmiths on the Continent, in the gunmaking schools of St-Etienne, Ferlach and Liège. 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.
Nearly all the gunmaking patents created in the UK were registered before 1910. Since then, innovation has become the domain of the European gunmakers.
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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.
Certainly, there is something about an English gun that transcends technical considerations. I have been 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.
This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.