By Mike Yardley
Monday, 12 November 2007
EJ Churchill's Hercules is an aesthetically pleasing and mechanically excellent side-by-side shotgun.
This is a gun built for EJ Churchill by the well-known Basque gunmaker, Arrieta. It is one of the major manufacturers in Spain, along with the likes of Garbi, AyA and Ugartechea.
The firm still relies on traditional bench work for most of the production process. Its guns have gained an excellent reputation in recent years for offering both quality and value. It is no surprise that EJ Churchill should have sought it out as a manufacturing partner.
The Hercules gun on test, (£9,000 for a single gun in 12-bore, £9,950 in 20-bore) is the top model of the new Continental range upon which EJ Churchill has been working for two years.
Other guns include the Regal (£4,500 in 12-bore) and the well-priced Crown (£3,250). It appears that EJ Churchill - which maintains a busy gunroom - has had increasing difficulty buying good-quality second-hand English guns recently, and, in particular, acquiring pairs of guns.
So, it decided to do something about it and approached Arrieta. All of the guns in the Continental range are built as sidelock ejectors in either 12 or 20-bore with 28in or 30in barrels. All have double triggers, auto safes, chopper-lump barrels and straight grips. And all are available as true pairs.
The Hercules gun spotlighted is especially interesting. It is a high-end assisted opener in the English tradition, in other words what might be called Anglo-Spanish Best. Aesthetically, the Hercules is appealing, and different from the mass, because the engraving is in the traditional Churchill house style (fairly tight scroll).
This is the only model in the new range that has this distinguishing feature. It is a clear cut above many Spanish sidelock side-by-side imports and in the same league as the special English Finish AyA/ASI No.1 (though all the work on the Hercules is carried out in Spain, whereas the AyA is engraved in the UK).
First impressions of the Hercules are very positive. The brush-polished action shows off the special engraving well. The Churchill pattern is one of my favourites - a little bolder than Purdey rose and scroll and distinct from the equally attractive Holland & Holland, which is deeper and not quite as tight.
Engraving is a matter of personal taste, of course, but few British guns are more beautiful than a Churchill of the golden years between the First and Second World Wars. The Hercules is in the same tradition, though the 28in barrels of the test specimen are a bit longer than the typical Twenties or Thirties Churchill XXV.
The barrels are well put together and struck up competently. The chambers are for 2¾in (70mm) shells and the gun bears Spanish proof marks at the superior figure of 1200 BAR, which also inspires confidence. Finish inside and out is good. Blacking is lustrous.
I also like the well-laid concave rib and traditional metal bead which presents a good but not distracting picture to the eye. My general preference on a 12-bore game gun is for a classic concave, but on a longer barrelled 20-bore (and the Hercules is available as a 20-bore as noted) there is much to be said for a subtly formed flat-topped pigeon rib (a speciality, as it happens, of Arrieta, though I believe it is not yet an option in the Continental range).
Detailing is good in all departments on the new gun. All the screw slots line up, the pins of the lock are nicely polished and there are gold line cocking indicators as befits a top-of-the-range gun. All this work has been executed extremely well. I like the hand chequering on the thumb piece of the top lever, and the general form of the lever is good.
The thumb is big enough to be operated easily with cold or wet hands. The button-style safety is also positive in action. One tends not to think about things like this until on a wet moor in September or facing a January pheasant on frosted plough.
Wood-to-metal and metal-to-metal fit are well up to standard too. The locks fit the action impeccably. I did not have the chance to remove them from the gun but I have inspected many Arrieta locks and they have always been competently made (although, in the cheaper grades at least, they are identifiably different from British locks in the details of internal finish). I have found Arrieta locks, like Arrieta guns, to be very reliable.
The action furniture of the Hercules is brush polished in the modern manner like the action. I prefer the traditional scheme though, where fore-end iron, top lever, safety and trigger guard are blacked as well. It is less flash but, on the other hand, if you've got it, flaunt it! One practical advantage to silver-polished furniture is that it less subject to wear.
The shapes of the Holland & Holland-inspired action are elegant, though I would have preferred a slightly different grip shape. There is some nice carving around the balls of the action body. The filing-up work is of high quality and the engraving around the thin, slotted hinge-pin has been especially well done.
The stock of the Hercules is made from well-figured, dense wood. I liked the traditional shapes, though there was some scope for subtle improvement with regard to grip and comb shapes (but one must remember that this is a £9,000 gun, not a £50,000 one).
The Spanish are never quite as good as the best British craftsmen at getting exactly the right taper into a comb and form into a grip. I liked the fact that the grip on the Hercules was not too small though, and the chequering was well executed and practical.
The measurements of the gun were clearly conceived with modification to individual client needs in mind. The length of pull was 15.1/8in with 1/8in extra at heel and 3/8in at toe. There was very slight right-handed cast (but the gun might be bent for a left-hander without great difficulty).
Drop was near the classic 1½in and 2in (1½in from the rib axis at the nose of the comb and 2in from the axis at the rear). Drop is the most critical dimension in my opinion.
I put the Hercules through its paces at EJ Churchill's ground near High Wycombe. It did not miss a beat on driven, quartering or crossing stands.
The gun had no obvious vices: it was well balanced, the trigger pulls were crisp, the ejectors functioned well and the stock and fore-end were ergonomically efficient.
The Hercules shot just about everything it was pointed at. I discovered afterwards that the fixed chokes were full and full - it didn't seem to make much difference!
On the same day, I was able to shoot some of the other models in the new range - the well-priced Crown (£3,250 as mentioned compared to the £9,000 Hercules) and the £4,500 Regal.
They all shot well (my favourite, frankly, was the cheapest gun).
But, the Hercules is exceptionally pretty and fairly priced for its extra finish. Churchill offers all the Continental guns in pairs. These guns are a real alternative to an English single or pair (and I suspect may be bought by those who may want to rest the heirlooms).
The cheaper guns offer value, but the Hercules offers a bit of extra style. Its engraving makes it something special that stands out. You can get Arrietas from other importers, but you won't be able to get a Hercules. If I ordered one it would be either a 28in 12-bore as tested or a 30in 20-bore.
The Hercules, like all Arrieta sidelocks, is built on a slightly modified Holland & Holland (H&H) Royal-style action, the design that is usually chosen for copying by Spanish and other gunmakers because it is simpler than Purdey.
The Spanish have been making imitation H&Hs for several generations, though it was the King brothers of what was to become ASI (Anglo Spanish Imports) who really started to improve the Spanish product by clarifying the demands of the British market in the Fifties.
The H&H design is popular with gunmakers because it is a combination of all things good in side-by-side design rather than being overly innovative. It first appeared in 1883 with leg-of-mutton locks, but was streamlined afterwards in imitation of the Purdey-Beesley design.
The key mechanical difference between the two guns is that the Holland is a barrel-cocking action and the Purdey a spring-cocking one. The Holland cocks on opening, the Purdey on closing.
The Holland's assisted opening system (as seen in the Hercules) has a coil spring in a tube under the barrels. It works well, though as one wag put it: "Easy opener? Don't you mean hard closer?"
The H&H design also uses the Southgate ejector system, one of the most reliable.
Visit EJ Churchill's website for further information.
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