The gun we are looking at this month is a 12-bore by William & Son that hits my scales at 6lb 10oz. It has Celtic-style engraving (which seems to have become fashionable in recent years).
First impressions are encouraging. This is a beautifully finished, classic London side-by-side, sidelock game-gun. The decoration is unusual but there is nothing radical about the mechanical specification (and nothing wrong with that, as everything conforms to classic, time-proven pattern). The gun is of “carriage trade” quality in all departments. Barrels are chopper lump and impeccably presented, with a concave rib. There is a smaller than average metal sighting bead shaped rather like a chess pawn.
The action is machined from billet; a bar-action sidelock powered by leaf springs. There is an auto safety. It has double triggers but a mechanical single trigger is an option. The ejectors are the reliable, Southgate type. The stock is of classic form, too, with an elegantly tapered comb and straight hand grip, oval in cross-section rather than diamond pattern. The fore-end is the standard splinter. All the wood is impeccably finished with well-cut chequering and hand-rubbed oil.
The thing that is most striking about the gun is the extraordinary attention to detail. This is not surprising when one discovers that it has been made under the direction of the experienced gunmaker Paul West. A veritable who’s who of the British gun trade have had their input, including Mick Kelly (barrels), Mark Sullivan and John Craven (actioning), Stephane Dupille (stocking), Colin Orchard (finishing) and Peter Cusack (engraving) – all of them masters of their respective crafts.
I admire the way that William & Son is happy to acknowledge these great artisans by name. To work at this level takes at least 20 years of experience, and some of these guys have double that. When one takes this into account, and the fact that William & Son makes only 10 guns or so a year, the price of £46,000 plus VAT does not seem exorbitant (the special engraving adds £1,000 or so).
To my eye, and by the feel of my hands, there is not much that could be improved. It seems lively in the hands and points naturally – both important qualities in a game-gun. Though made to old world standards and styles, it is an extremely efficient hunting weapon as well as a beautiful one. Some might think the silver polished action a little flashy, but you can have colour case-hardening if you want, not to mention game scenes. William & Son has made around a dozen guns with that sort of embellishment although deep scroll tends to be its trademark.
The stock impresses, too. It is the most popular pattern for driven game-shooting, but you can have something different. You could, for example, have a pistol grip and beaver-tail fore-end
if you wanted. The dimensions on the test gun, one of a pair, were standard: 1½in and 2in for drop, with a length
of pull of 15in with a little bit of right-hand cast. Paul West says, “You can have whatever you want but the classic drop dimensions of 1½in and 2in seem to suit many. I don’t like to see too much slope in the comb because it spoils the line of the gun and increases felt recoil.” Quite true.
The mechanical perfection of this gun shows just what British gunmaking is still capable of achieving. Looking at the 28in barrels, first, these have been made by Mick Kelly and are based on Microfinish chopper-lump tubes. They are perfectly struck up and weighted – as a best London gun should be. They are also straight when you look down them with an unforgiving eye – the exception today rather than the rule (at any price). The bore size is 18.5mm and they bear standard London proof marks for 70mm (23⁄4in) cartridges struck in 2008.
Considering the action in detail, one notes conventional mechanics but with everything impeccably machined and hand-fitted. There are no disc-set strikers. All the pins are polished, trigger pulls are very crisp. The cocking indicators on the lock plates have perfectly formed gold lines. The action bar is slim and partially rounded. There are beaded edges to the belly of the action and subtle beading at the top of the fences leading to the rib. The trigger guard has twin beaded edges, too.
Well, I am not going to say at this point that this beautifully crafted English sidelock didn’t shoot. It shot extremely well. Handling dynamics, felt recoil and trigger pulls were all first class. It was a great gun, the best of modern London best. The fact that William & Son manages to maintain this standard is truly wonderful. Expensive? Yes. Good? Undoubtedly. Worth it? Probably. And, I have not the space to tell you about the wonderful 16-bore that I shot the same day.
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More gun reviews in The Field