William Evans: a London gunmaker with a Continental twist
William Evans, home to the St. James, Pall Mall and Connaught, has embraced the craftsmanship of European gunmakers to bring customers affordable shotguns.
Providing clients with a combination of quality, value and variety has always been the goal for William Evans, an English gun manufacturer involved in making quality sporting arms since 1883. That practice continues today and a key factor in turning what was once a traditional English gunmaker into a contemporary company with a diverse product range has been its identification of strengths in other gunmakers and suppliers, both in the UK and overseas. Working in partnership with them enables William Evans to offer a much wider range than would otherwise be possible, at highly competitive prices.
“Our clients are the driving force behind what we do,” explains Alastair Phillips, general manager of the London-based company. “We appeal to those who prefer dealing with a small, bespoke manufacturer which treats them as an individual rather than buying from a large, anonymous ‘corporate’ gunmaker. Clients are loyal and several families have dealt with us for generations.
“Although we still hand-craft a small number of bespoke William Evans sidelock side-by-side and over-under models costing upwards of £48,000, the market for best-quality, entirely hand-crafted English game guns represents a niche sector. Because of their inherently high cost we noticed an increasing number of clients were looking to purchase older models priced from around £50,00 to £10,000.
“Limited supply meant values were increasing, while the age of such guns meant reliability and high maintenance costs were potential issues. Over-under shotguns were also becoming more popular, especially with the younger generation, and that combination of factors prompted us to take a new direction.”
The craft of making sporting guns developed noticeably under the Victorians and Edwardians when game shooting became fashionable. Bolstered by the patronage of the English Royal Family, the gun trade flourished and clients looked for individuality in their guns, combined with the best quality materials and craftsmanship.
William Evans founded his business in 1883 and made his name by offering London-quality guns at affordable prices. During the 1920s and 1930s, the company was one of around 30 such businesses in London and sold up to 200 guns a year. The majority were based on boxlock-style actions produced in Birmingham by Webley & Scott, a company always known for its high quality, reasonably-priced sporting firearms.
William Evans rediscovered its roots in 2008 with the launch of the St. James, a new side-plated over-under designed to meet the growing demand for a more affordable model from this long-established English company. A high-quality shotgun that shared many bespoke features with traditional best English guns, the model extended William Evans’ appeal to a wider audience.
Designed by William Evans and produced by Italian sporting arms manufacturer Caesar Guerini, the St. James combined state-of-the-art engineering with traditional English finishing skills to produce an affordable model noted for its elegant lines. Incorporating refinements typical of fine-quality guns, combined with modern features such as steel-shoot-proofed barrels and multichokes, this single-trigger boxlock represented an alternative to the traditional side-by-side, yet cost less than £10,000.
Despite the St. James being introduced at the start of the worst recession for decades, sales exceeded expectations. Initial production of 20 guns sold out within weeks and subsequent batches were snapped up as the 2009 game season got into full swing.
In 2010 William Evans followed the success of the St. James by teaming up with leading Spanish gunmaker Grulla Armas to launch the Pall Mall, a high-quality seven-pin self-opening sidelock side-by-side in the English style. Aimed at discerning sportsmen, its cost was less than half that of a traditional best London sidelock.
“Despite the increasing popularity of the over-under, and its increasing acceptability in the field, the majority of William Evans’ clients who shoot game still preferred a side-by-side,” explains Alastair Phillips. “Many were looking for a shotgun that could be made to their own specifications, at a price comparable with that of an older best London sidelock model.”
Combining exceptional quality and a high level of bespoke manufacture, yet offering good value for money, the Pall Mall was developed and produced in partnership with Grulla. This Spanish company has earned its status through its loyal and experienced workforce, who produce hand-crafted products that offer a combination of high quality, desirability and excellent value.
The only gunmaker in Spain with the skills to produce double rifles, Grulla is highly regarded throughout the world, and its domestic patrons including King Juan Carlos and rally driver Carlos Sainz.
Finished in the classic English style, the Pall Mall costs from around £15,000 and can be delivered within six to nine months. Whilst manufacturing is carried out at the Grulla factory to William Evans’ and the client’s specification, the gun is finished in London by the same craftsmen who work on other William Evans models.
A William Evans shotgun in tribute to a loyal royal
The success of the partnership developed further in 2011 when William Evans took on the sole UK agency for Grulla and began stocking a range of top-quality Grulla shotguns and rifles at its shops in St. James, London, and the National Shooting Centre at Bisley, Surrey.
The following year, at the 2012 Game Fair, William Evans furthered its co-operation with Grulla by launching The Connaught, a new five-pin side-by-side sidelock that offered the opportunity to own a classically-styled ‘William Evans’ at an even more affordable price.
The new model commemorated William Evans’ historic connections with former loyal client HRH The Duke of Connaught (Queen Victoria’s third son), for whom the company made numerous bespoke sporting guns. A classically-styled five-pin sidelock, it was produced after studying what competitors were offering in the sector.
William Evans was confident The Connaught was of much higher quality and offered exceptional value, retailing from £7,800 with a traditional square‑body action and from £8,000 as a round‑body design.
Featuring William Evans’ classic ‘Bouquet and Scroll’ style engraving, similar to that used before 1910, the new model featured barrels of best-quality Bellota steel and a hand-finished, oiled stock crafted from well-figured walnut, with customers able to choose the wood from photographs of blanks supplied by the factory. Stocks were made to the client’s measurements and hand-chequered by Grulla’s craftsmen at 24 lines per inch, giving a much higher-quality finish than many competitors.
The Connaught was well received. However, to cater for clients increasingly looking for an even higher specification, including upgraded engraving and wood, William Evans launched a bespoke version at the 2014 Game Fair.
Featuring exquisite scroll engraving and premium-grade wood, the Connaught Premium was positioned between the standard Connaught and the more expensive Pall Mall. Costing from £11,500, including a leather-lined oak case, it represented outstanding value for a top-quality sidelock that could be made to the client’s exact specification.
As standard it featured tight Boss-style scroll engraving and highly-figured walnut, although clients could ask for special custom engraving to their own design.
“The Connaught was an exciting addition to our range and provided clients with a completely bespoke shotgun at a very affordable price,” explains Alastair Phillips.
“Purchasing a made-to-measure shotgun was once the preserve of an elite few with sufficient funds to invest in a bespoke English sidelock costing tens of thousands of pounds, but with the advent of customisable models such as The Connaught and Connaught Premium, that goal became much more attainable.”
A partnership in bolt‑action rifles
The latest partnership development for William Evans is the ‘SL’ bolt rifle, a new range manufactured to the company’s high specifications and standards by Danish firm Schultz & Larsen.
“Sportsmen who might previously have purchased a mass-produced sporting rifle are increasingly favouring a more exclusive approach,” explains Alastair Phillips.
“Clients will appreciate that our new SL range has been meticulously crafted by specialists who understand what today’s stalker is looking for. Every model has a classic look and offers outstanding value, together with the prestige and reassurance of the William Evans name.”
Combining traditional manufacturing techniques with the best materials, these models are at the cutting‑edge in terms of craftsmanship and performance. Based on the Schultz & Larsen Ambassador model, regarded by many as the ultimate hunting rifle, the William Evans SL is available from stock in .243 Winchester, 6.5mm, .308 Winchester and 30.06 (other calibres are also available on demand).
Painstaking attention to detail has resulted in a rifle that provides a precise shooting experience under all conditions, and for optimum accuracy the barrel is machined from a solid bar of the best quality Norwegian molybdenum steel.
Shultz & Larsen, which produces every component in-house, right down to the screws that hold the stock to the action, is world-renowned for its barrels, which are manufactured using a 500-year-old method that avoids change to the steel’s molecular structure, which will impair accuracy.
Although this is unquestionably the best way to create precise grooves and a superior finish, the process is far more time consuming than hammer forging and therefore too costly for most manufacturers. However, such attention to detail ensures that the SL is incredibly accurate and remains so even when the barrel is hot.
As evidence, Freddie Nesbitt, one of the William Evans team, recently shot 25 rounds through a .308 SL and then proceeded to fire another three rounds at a target 100 years away, the three bullets making a ‘cloverleaf’ pattern.
Featuring an enclosed action with a smooth three-locking head bolt, two-stage trigger and three-shot metal magazine, the William Evans SL is competitively priced, the Grade 1, Grade 3 and Grade 5 retailing at £2,450, £2,850 and £3,250 respectively. Additional barrels can be ordered and are easily interchangeable, allowing clients to own a true multi-calibre rifle.
The SL can be specified with a Classic or Monte Carlo stock, both being manufactured from well aged, carefully dried walnut heartwood to provide timeless beauty combined with pinpoint accuracy.
In addition to boosting sales of new guns, working in partnership with other companies has increased the number of William Evans models in circulation. Although many will have been manufactured overseas, servicing and maintenance has to be carried out in England, ensuring that this country develops and retains the gunmaking skills for which it became world‑renowned.
For more information on William Evans and its range, visit williamevans.com.