Can a bespoke Holland & Holland shotgun prove its worth amidst a sea of mass produced competitors?
If you’ve never seen a modern shotgun from one of the great English makers in the flesh, you might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Whether side-by-side or over-and-under, it is easy to imagine a gun from Beretta or Browning is only different from a gun from Watson Bros or Boss & Co in purely aesthetic terms – or, more likely, in terms of the number of digits present in the price.
The reality, of course, is the name engraved on a gun communicates so much more than its maker. It is a historical record of the hundreds of hours of careful design and exquisite skill and craftsmanship built into the gun in your hands, and the hundreds of years of history of the great gunmakers whose inspiration and expertise helped create the sport we know and love today.
A push towards modernity
Holland & Holland has long had a reputation as a pioneer at the top end of the bespoke gunmaking world, where tradition, as in many industries, had become something of a straitjacket. It was among the first to introduce computer-aided design and machining to its manufacturing process, now common to almost all makers. The Sporting Over & Under was one of the earliest products of this push towards modernity.
First produced 20 years ago in the manner common to all Holland & Holland guns today, every part of the gun is manufactured in-house at its London factory and is entirely fitted and finished by hand. The gun is built around an action similar in style to Perazzi guns, where the lockwork is built onto a removable plate with the trigger. A lever integrated into the rear of the trigger guard allows for swift and easy removal of the action, excellent for those concerned with security. This has both practical benefits – making the gun easy to maintain and repair – and aesthetic advantages, since it allows for a shallower action and uninterrupted sideplates for engraving.
A sight to behold
Clever and brilliantly engineered though the gun is, it would be frankly absurd to pretend one is not to an almost overwhelming extent concerned with its looks and finishing. And what looks they are – from the delightful woodwork to the handsome hand-engraved acanthus pattern, the Sporting Over & Under really is a sight to behold.
Exacting attention to detail is evident throughout, with the well-figured walnut having a deep, glossy finish and the bold engraving on our test gun covering almost every square inch of steel. The large leaves of the engraving really suit the gun’s dimensions and look quite special without falling into the gaudy territory of some bespoke designs. The carved fences are a particular highlight and the simple finish is very smart, though a colour hardened finish is also an option. Interestingly, there is little embellishment on the gun and the maker’s name is almost hidden away in a small rectangular bar. This allows the lines and finish to speak as a mark of quality and would also seem to be an indication of the confidence Holland & Holland show in its creation.
Feels like a special event
The gun is quite heavy, coming in at 7lbs 13oz, though in the field you don’t notice this weight since the balance is very good indeed. This added mass is probably a major contributor to the positive handling characteristics of the Holland & Holland: it stays on line well and felt recoil is virtually nil.
Shooting a shotgun of this quality feels, as it should, like a special event. From the obvious visual appeal to the way it sits in the hands and the fantastic trigger pulls, it always feels unique and is a cut above any over-under I have tested. Given the maker’s name this may come as no great surprise, but for the sceptics among you, I have to say this really does feel worth the asking price. It is not by coincidence these are known as ’best’ guns.
Holland & Holland in the field
The chance to test a gun of this quality is a real treat but also comes with high expectations thanks to the mystique surrounding the top gunmakers. First impressions were good, with the gun making some enjoyable noises on opening and closing, and all levers and catches operating in a satisfyingly smooth and secure manner. The rounded pistol grip was very comfortable, feeling surprisingly slim in the hand but secure. The rounded fore-end too was a delight, tapering beautifully away and giving a real sense of security in the front hand on driven targets.
Any concerns over weight dissolved once the gun was mounted, pointing and moving naturally and smoothly, and being easy to keep on line despite high winds causing some targets to move erratically. Trigger pulls were among the best on any gun I’ve tested, feeling totally natural and crisp without being too sharp. Recoil was dealt with superbly and the gun felt at home on all the targets instructor Bruce Marks could throw at me at Grange Farm Shooting School.
This being a bespoke gun, the stock was a little short for me and I found it difficult initially to find a consistent mount as a result. It must be said the Sporting Over & Under is a serious gun and will do little to flatter if you are having a bad day. Once Bruce had resolved my mounting issues, however, the Holland & Holland proved as special and as pleasurable to shoot as I had hoped it would be.
View from the gun shop by Bill Elderkin
This is an interesting gun because it has no obvious competitors. Made and finished entirely in house, it is a different proposition from the Purdey Sporter, which is manufactured in collaboration with Italian manufacturer Perugini & Visini, and comes in below the £40,000 mark. Indeed, its nearest rival is probably the hand-made round-body over-under from Watson Bros, which starts at £60,000.
The Sporting Over & Under is a pretty gun and seems very good value for money. Holland & Holland’s true sidelock guns are about £30,000 more expensive, and as stated above there is very little in the way of direct competition. Boxall & Edmiston produces an excellent over-under with similar looks for £25,200, though it does not display the same level of hand engraving and high-end finish seen here.
The wood on the Holland & Holland is as good as you would want (though upgraded wood is available starting from £1,300), and the standard of engraving and finishing are exceptional. Wood-to-metal fit is good, chequering is very fine and the optional acanthus engraving, which is found on the test gun, is quite handsome. The fore-end is particularly noteworthy thanks to a lovely profile and fine details such as a beautifully ornate escutcheon around the push-button release.
The gun feels good if a little heavy in the hands, though the balance is excellent. The Holland & Holland is available in 12-bore as tested here, as well as 20- and 28-bore, with barrels from 25” to 32” and either 2¾” or 3” chambers, proofed for steel shot. The test gun was fitted with multichokes, and a particular highlight is the barrel selector which operates in a very satisfying manner mechanically, but also reveals the words ‘over’ or ‘under’ to indicate barrel selection rather than the
more common dots.
If you remain disciplined with the options and extras, you will be buying a very fine gun at a good price.
A satisfying though challenging gun to shoot