Best British guns were once out of reach for most of us, but you can now pick one up for a reasonable price, and they will cope with steel, says Diggory Hadoke
The late Cyril Adams, who made a fortune selling restored British guns to eager American buyers, recalled walking into Purdey’s one afternoon in search of old guns and being told there was nothing good in. (Read are English guns the best?)
He noted a pile in the corner and asked about them. “Oh, those are just old hammerguns, nobody wants them” was the reply. Cyril bought them all for a trifling sum and did very well on the other side of the Atlantic. Those were the days!
Cyril was not alone. Several British dealers got in on the act and made a lot of money. Back then you could actually put a pre-1898 shotgun in a box, take it to the post office and send it direct to the buyer anywhere in the US via parcel post.
The general shooting public had little interest in dusty old side-by-sides and they could be bought cheaply, while there was a hungry collector market if you knew the right people.
For 30 years it was a rising market. Auctions were not then online, of course, so it required a local contact who could travel and find things hidden in the provinces or act for you at auction. Today, everything is visible from anywhere and the middle man is an endangered species. And British guns are declining in value.
Best hammerguns are holding their value quite well, despite a general downturn in prices for traditional British firearms. A few years ago, a good Westley Richards boxlock would command £4,500 retail. Today half that would be more likely. Bonhams sold a pair of Woodward sidelocks last month for £10,000. They were bought in a gunshop a decade ago for £25,000 by a friend of mine. In a dead or declining market it is brave man who dips in and spends money on things rapidly going out of fashion. However, now might be the right time to do it.
First, we should examine why British guns are depreciating at a rate of knots. Most British guns made before World War II were sidelock, boxlock or hammer side-by-sides. The over-and-under breech-loader was introduced in the early 1900s but took until the 1980s to gain the upper hand and is now almost universal.
Given that an over-and-under needs less exact fitting and will suit most shooters in standard specifications, more youngsters now learn with one. It helps that the shooting schools all have a basic over-and-under as their teaching tool. As the generations pass, this becomes more apparent, with buyers for side-by-sides failing to come through the ranks. (Read over-and-under or side-by-side?)
Cheap side-by-sides are nasty, they don’t fit anyone and they require expert fitting and alteration to get right. A cheap over-and-under can be quite nice to shoot, reliable and more universal in its approximate fit — you don’t have to get your face across the left barrel to find the rib.
With modern, machine-made over-and-unders costing around £500 new and looking good and working well, the interest in second-hand, mid-quality English boxlocks has weakened. The Webley and the Boswell have given way to the Yildiz and the Kofs.
The generation that spent good money on their gun collections as 50-year-old men in the 1990s are now approaching 80 years old. They want to sell their guns when they downsize, or they die and their family sells them cheap because young men don’t like side-by-sides, if indeed the next generation shoots or has any interest in guns at all.
Collecting as a hobby is a hunt and hunting is a lot of the fun. The thrill of finding something that has been in an attic for 80 years and buying it, cleaning it up and enjoying it, is intoxicating. Similarly, finding such a thing in an auction and bidding, winning and taking it home is also fun, especially if you have several friends who share your passion.
With everything online and nothing hidden, that hunt is diminished. There was a time when if your gun dealer showed you a pair of Boss sidelocks, you might have asked yourself “where will I find another?” The answer now is “go online”. There, you will see the similar offerings of just about every dealer in the country and many private sales, too. It is no fun and there is no incentive to buy.
Quality, condition and rarity will now make good money. With lead shot under increasing pressure and the demand for guns able to withstand steel, some shooters are waking up to the fact that a good British boxlock could be the answer.
Buy a Webley Model 700 proofed for 2 ¾in cartridges after 1954 and you can shoot standard steel loads all day long without worrying. If the steel shot eventually scores the barrels, you can probably live with that if you only paid £650 for the gun.
Sleeved guns suddenly look interesting. Those thick, new tubes, modern reproof and 70mm chambers will do service with punchy steel loads. If you want to drive steel shot at high speed from a hammergun, or repurpose a wildfowling boxlock as a steel-throwing high-pheasant gun, sleeved ones are the practical, low-cost answer.
However, it is not only opportunism for gaps in a falling market that should drive us to reassess. Guns are a passion and fine British guns are our heritage. The investment drive that caused prices to rise pushed many people out of the way. They simply could not compete with the wealthy collectors.
We have reached a point where Best guns are again within the budget of anybody interested enough to get involved. You probably could not afford a really good Purdey sidelock 15 years ago but you might find you can afford one now. (Read can I afford a Purdey?) At what point will people begin to think the prices are low enough to be tempting? It is time for real enthusiasts to rekindle their relationship with the best our forefathers could produce. Will there be a new generation of British sportsmen buying vintage British guns and shooting, as our grandfathers did, mostly small days of driven pheasants on self-financed syndicate shoots?
Whatever the market is doing, quality and utility don’t change. That Webley 700 you can now buy for £650 would have sold for £700 to £900 in 1988. I know, because I had mine valued when I left the country that year. In 1988 a new Rolex Submariner cost £1,000. Today you are lucky if you can find one for under £10,000.
If value for money is interesting to you and you want to buy an object that really should command a much higher figure than it actually does, it makes total sense to go out and get a good British gun.
Financial pressures, diseases, commercial overexposure and supply-chain issues have conspired to kick the industry hard in recent years. Perhaps the next decade will belong to the shooting sportsman rather than the shooting businessman.
If it does, what better for him or her to bring to the shoulder than a classic British boxlock or sidelock, perhaps loaded with bismuth or one of the new compounds being proffered as lead alternatives? When the shoot is traditional and the bag relatively small, the economics are manageable and classic game guns come into their own. Now looks like a good time to buy one.
- £10,000 For this, a superb sidelock ejector by most London makers, made before World War II, should be within reach. If you want a Purdey or a Boss, it won’t be mint but it should still be very nice.
- £7,000 A Best sidelock ejector by a top Birmingham or provincial maker, in immaculate condition.
- £5,000 The best boxlock in the best condition, cased with all its accessories. Or a sleeved Best London sidelock.
- £3,000 A second-tier, second-quality sidelock or a very good boxlock.
- £1,500 A good-quality boxlock in full working order with good wall thickness.
- £650 A post-war Birmingham boxlock or a good but well-used earlier one.
- Under £500 A very serviceable, if well-used, boxlock that has been well repaired and looked after.
Ammunition for older guns
Bismuth is suited to all older guns, if in cases shorter than 70mm. Try Gamebore Bismuth at around £1.20 per shot.
BioAmmo Blue will soon be available in 65mm and is suited to older British guns at around 55p per shot.
Standard steel loads can be used in guns proofed after 1954 with chokes of a quarter or less. Check case length — 70mm cases can only be used in chambers marked 23∕4in or 3in. For 2½in chambers, use 65mm, 67mm or 67.5mm loads. If the gun has been sleeved and reproofed for 70mm cases, steel is fine.