Most schoolboys dream of cars. One day, they promise themselves, they’ll own a Morgan, Aston Martin DB5 or Ferrari Dino. But our prep school passion was guns. Most yearned for a slinky sidelock – a Boss, Holland & Holland or Purdey. All except me; I wanted a Westley Richards Gold Name boxlock. Badly.
As a 12 year old I’d seen one at a Dulverton gun auction. To youthful eyes it seemed a perfect blend of function and beauty, with hand-detachable scalloped locks, a stock glowing like a freshly shelled conker, and the austere colour-hardening lifted by the legend “Westley Richards” inlaid in restrained gold capitals.
As an example of the gunmaker’s art, it sits comfortably with the best sidelock thoroughbreds from London stables. But a mention of Westley Richards to the current generation of British shots usually results in blank faces. The firm has dropped out of fashion, pushed into relative obscurity by the wave of first-class imports from Italy and Spain and the predominance of the London makers backed and promoted by private money or international luxury goods owners. In fact, many think the Birmingham maker has joined other once-famous marques now made in handfuls by specialist outworkers.
Yet ask an American shot what he thinks of Westley Richards and the response will be very different. In the US the company still enjoys a high reputation for producing superb shotguns and rifles. So why are its products so mysteriously unknown here?
The answer lies in survival. “We’ve always been busy, but we’ve gone to where the customers are,” says Simon Clode, the company’s managing director. “Most of the gun trade had a very quiet time after the Second World War, so we expanded into America and the Far East, where people appreciated our uncompromising quality and personal service – and were prepared to pay. We didn’t wait for them to come to us.”
AS EVER, MAKERS OF BEST GUNS
It’s an attitude that defines the Westley Richards approach to gunmaking: it’s a business that’s expected to turn a profit. And that business is imminently moving into the 21st century with a transfer from its old rabbit-warren premises to an impressive, purpose-built headquarters costing £4.5 million and covering 20,000sq ft. “As ever, we’ll be makers of the best guns and rifles,” says Clode, “but we can make guns at a price that’s within reach of a wider range of customers – our hand-detachable lock shotgun, for example, is £29,500. The secret is, of course, CNC machine-tools.”
All other significant makers use computer numerical control tools to achieve the results once done by men wielding files. But Westley Richards has a sister company, WR Engineering, which uses the tools 24 hours a day, seven days a week, dramatically reducing the costs of machinery, labour and premises. “The secret of our success is another secret,” says Clode, holding up a piece of perfectly worked aluminium. “I have no idea what is, because I’m not allowed to, but I do know it’s a component for some modern British armament. By putting the machines to work on this sort of project, as well as civil hi-tech engineering, we don’t have to rely on the guns to keep the place humming.”
It’s a diversification his predecessors would have admired. The firm was founded in 1812, the same year as the Battle of Salamanca and three years before Waterloo. It was against this background of war that William Westley Richards, then just 22, set up shop as a gunmaker and pistol maker at 82 High Street, Birmingham, overlooking the old Bull Ring. He’d come with a pedigree in guns, his grandfather having made them in the 1740s, but William was born in the heat of industrial innovation. He rapidly embraced the new Forsyth percussion system, then replacing flintlocks, and then embarked on a series of patents to improve sporting guns.
In 1831 William introduced two designs to make the det-onating caps waterproof and prevent fragments of them flying into the user’s eyes. Other innovations for gunlocks, rifle sights and projectiles followed rapidly and by 1840 his reputation was such that he was appointed gunmaker to Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, and was given a special award for his display at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Colonel Peter Hawker, a routinely severe critic, even called him “Joe Manton the Second [whose] factory surpasses all the gun establishments I ever saw or heard of”.
The technical innovations continued throughout the 19th century under William’s son, Westley. Following correspondence with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Joseph Whitworth, the firm improved rifle barrels and rifling. In 1871 it patented the solid-drawn brass cartridge, still used worldwide today. Westley also improved himself socially, becoming a regular guest at the house parties of men such as the Marquess of Exeter and the Earl of Lichfield.
Innovative and well connected, the firm was already in the forefront of British gunmaking when Westley retired in 1872 and appointed his friend, John Deeley, as managing director. Three years later, he and William Anson, foreman of the gun-action department, patented the revolutionary Anson & Deeley action, the basis of all boxlock guns made today. Using the leverage of the opening barrels to cock the locks, it allowed the removal of 15 other components from the process, producing a simple, strong mechanism.
There was room for refinement, though, and in 1897 Deeley, together with Leslie Taylor, another member of the firm, introduced a detachable lock version. Elegant and practical, it won immediate favour throughout the Empire. Now, if the lock spring broke in deepest Africa a new one could be inserted in seconds. And if the Indian sportsman found himself facing leopard when out snipe-shooting, well, he could always use his Westley Richards “Explora” rifled 12-bore to pull off one of the more unusual right-and-lefts.
BOTTOM OF THE BILL IN BOND STREET
The golden era ended with the First World War, with sporting gun manufacture suspended while the firm coped with government orders for thousands of rifles. At the end of the war 300 people were employed – only to be laid off one Friday in 1920. A hundred returned on 12s 6d per week, cut from 15s. The company survived, mainly on orders from Indian princes. Then came the Depression, when the entire workforce was again dismissed.
The Second World War brought a brief respite as the firm assembled Lee Enfields but it went into liquidation in 1946, and was subsequently bought by Captain ED Barclay for £15,000. It still faltered, so in 1957 a majority shareholding was bought by Walter Clode, father of the present managing director, Simon. At that stage, Westley Richards still had a shop in Bond Street, but complications arose when Malcolm Lyell, the shop manager, acquired the premises. Lyell then bought another gunmaker, Jeffreys, and merged it with Holland & Holland. Suddenly, Westley Richards no longer had top billing at what had been its own London shop.
That explains, in part, why Westley Richards faded from the British shooting public’s mind as a first-division maker, though it has always enjoyed a great reputation in the trade. Now, under Simon Clode’s direction, and with the move to its new premises in the autumn, it will again be at the forefront.
A TEAM OF MASTER CRAFTSMEN
The best detachable lock boxlock, in shotgun and rifle, re-mains the flagship model though modern tastes for exuberant engraving lead to more orders for the bigger canvas afforded by the sidelock. Clode employs master engravers Peter Spode, Vincent Crowley, Shawn Banks and Rashid al Hadi. “I think they’re about the best,” he says. “But the primary function of the gun is to work every time, and that’s down to our stockers, actioners, barrel-makers, barrel-filers and finishers. Their individual work isn’t as obvious as that of the engravers but it is to me. Each is a master craftsman.
“The rifles also continue to be a major part of our business,” says Clode, “especially in America, where they still have a love affair with African big-game hunting. Here, mechanical reliability isn’t just desirable, it can be life-saving.”
The sheer power of a .577 Westley Richards Nitro Express is recounted by John Kingsley-Heath in his Hunting the Dangerous Game of Africa: “Most of the ivory hunters at the turn of the century used this rifle. Its knock-down capabilities were phenomenal. When a frontal brain shot was the target, the punch that struck the five-and-a-half-ton elephant was enough to set it on its haunches. I have actually noted on one occasion that it shifted the entire animal six inches backwards off its feet, the elephant tracks clearly showed this.”
Most of those ordering a new gun insist on the best accessories, such as cleaning kit, guncase furniture, guncases, slips and cartridge bags, and Westley Richards makes it all in house. “It’ll be much easier when we move!” says Clode, pointing to a minor foothill of English bridle leather, before we pass a huge ancient pair of elephant tusks (both over 100lb) and go into the second-hand gunroom. “These will form a major part of our new operation,” he says. But I’m not really listening. There, gleaming on the racks, is a Westley Richards Gold Name, in excellent condition and just over £6,000. Which isn’t too much to pay for a childhood dream, is it? Well, not compared to an Aston Martin DB5.