British gunmakers Westley Richards, Boss & Co and James Purdey & Sons first opened their doors in the early 1800s. Find out how these famous British gunsmiths innovated, flourished and survived, culminating in recent bicentennial celebrations

By Douglas Tate

The beginning of the British gunmaker Westley Richards & Co story belongs to that classic British equation – a combination of skill and enterprise that characterises so much of the British Industrial Revolution. The early 19th century was a period of ferment when rank individualism, competition and disciplined industrial method all met together. The gunmakers founded in 1812 by William Westley Richards (1788-1865) emerged from one of the most intensive workshop cultures in the world.” So begins Jeremy Musson’s memorable story, In Pursuit of the Best Gun, A Bicentennial History 1812 – 2012.

Great British gunmaking has its genesis in the Georgian generation. Westley Richards opened his doors in 1812, James Purdey in 1814 and according to Keith Neal and DHL Back, “Thomas Boss was working in the trade from 1812.” It must have been quite an alignment of the stars that saw so many gunmaking greats start around the same time and Musson’s introduction would serve for any of them.

From whence did great gunmakers originate? “In a word, ‘wealth’,” Richard Purdey, former chairman of James Purdey & Sons, has plausibly suggested. “The land-owning classes were already wealthy in their own right, but some became decidedly more so if they had the good fortune to be sitting on top of untapped seams of coal or beds of gravel or acres for housing the growing urban population. Vast fortunes were also being made by the new industrialists, the tough, inventive and adventurous new breed who had started and fuelled the industrial revolution on the back of coalmining, steam power, textiles, iron and steel manufacture, railways, shipbuilding, creating machines to help build the empire.”

The great-great-great grandson of James Purdey the elder explained, “Owning a country estate, enjoying hunting, shooting and fishing, was traditionally what landowners did. Now, with the coming of better roads and new railways, the British countryside was far more easily accessible and, coupled with new-found wealth, its delights were open to newcomers, and shooting was the smart thing to do socially. As a consequence, new British gunmakers were setting up shop in every market town of any size, catering for the growing popularity of game-shooting, and then, as now, the best and most expensive guns, appealing to those who can afford to spare no expense in securing the best and most exclusive, were being made in the two great new centres of gunmaking, London and Birmingham.”

But it could also be argued that best British shotguns began with best British duelling pistols. Because no aristocrat dared risk his life with a sub-standard dueller, pistols of the Georgian era were constructed to superlative standards. Today these masterpieces are rightly considered to be the most collectible of firearms. As duelling waned under social pressure, fine pistol-makers turned to building fowling pieces. The painstaking attention to detail afforded duelling pistols was applied every bit as rigorously to sporting guns, which were improved as wing-shooting became more popular. “The rage for shooting was never at a higher pitch than at present… the art of shooting flying is arrived at tolerable perfection,” wrote George Montagu as early as 1792.

Good-quality flintlock fowlers were made in London during the mid 18th century; many had Spanish barrels. Joseph Griffin would change this with a home-grown product to become what JN George called, “the first gunsmith in London”. His immediate successor was “…the celebrated Twigg, whose foreman, John Manton, was in later years to hold the same position until surpassed by his younger brother, the great Joe Manton, who was to reign as undisputed head of the gun trade during the last years of the flintlock and in the early days of the percussion sporting gun”.

Gun auctioneer Gavin Gardiner has this to say, “The young gunmakers of the Georgian era laid down the blueprints, and provided the DNA that is still at the heart of every hand-built, handmade best English gun. If you look at a list of London gunmakers from the 1790s, you will be surprised how few were still in business a hundred years later… however, of the young makers who rose through the ranks in the early 1800s… the greater majority were still in business a century later. What was it about these young makers, and especially Thomas Boss, Westley Richards and James Purdey, that made them unafraid to innovate and embrace new technology, and to remain at the forefront of British gunmaking for two centuries? The 20th century was tough on the traditional crafts, and gunmaking was no exception… with all but a handful of true gunmakers surviving.

“Durs Egg was a highly influential embryonic gunmaker who trained in Paris in the 18th century and set up shop in London just in time to bring the latest Continental innovations to the London trade. Together with Joseph Manton he really set the styles, shapes and forms that a sporting gun should take: a double-barrelled gun of light weight with quick handling qualities and a delicately crafted lock and action. The younger makers picked up from here, but the blueprint was drawn by these early makers, the fundamental DNA laid down that still runs through the heart of every best-quality sporting gun today.”

Founding father, Joseph Manton, was born in April 1766, the son of a farmer and corn miller in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Manton was brought up in rural isolation, his family unsophisticated, his life unpromising and his future uncertain. Manton’s one advantage was that he grew up in what firearms scholar Keith R Dill has labelled the Grantham Genesis.

Four great British gunmakers of the Georgian era, John Twigg, Robert Wogdon, Joseph Manton and his equally talented brother John Manton, all appear to have learnt something in Grantham. All were influenced in varying degrees by communing with the shadowy figure of Edward Newton, a provincial gunmaker whose only legacy appears to have been the workmen he trained who subsequently took his high standards with them to London.

Joseph Manton was the venerated patriarch of the early-19th-century fine-gun trade. “But for him we should all have been a parcel of blacksmiths,” remarked James Purdey. Manton metaphorically fathered an entire generation of British gunmakers; James Purdey, Thomas Boss, William Greener and Charles Lancaster all worked for him and went on to establish firms which ranked among the greatest gunmakers of the 19th century. Today they continue to make guns of splendid artistry. Eventually Manton was crucified by his creditors but in a moment of grace anointed James Purdey the elder with the encomium, “After me, Purdey gets up the best work.”

The fine flintlock fowler was made obsolete by the epiphany of a Scot. The Rev’d Alexander Forsyth set about reducing the eternity between pulling the trigger and discharge. His solution to the slow ignition of the flintlock was to apply a compound that exploded with a hammer blow to detonate the charge.

An entire generation of gunmakers revelled in the glory of Forsyth’s creation and the London trade became a petri dish of percussive pills, pellets and tubes. “Many… systems were used and patented between 1812 and 1825. The chief were those of Egg, Wilkinson, Lancaster, Lang and Westley Richards,” wrote WW Greener in The Gun and its Development. He credited one manufacturer with a design that employed them all. “In 1821 Westley Richards invented a percussion gun which ignited with either the simple detonating powder, the paper caps, the pellets or the balls.” When the ideas Forsyth championed crystallised into the percussion cap, Joseph Egg, nephew of Durs Egg, was deemed responsible; however, a British-born Philadelphian, Joshua Shaw, must also be given his due.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in 1851, featured guns by firms founded by Greener, Egg, Manton, Boss, Lang, Forsyth and Westley Richards. Although the American Colonel Samuel Colt’s revolvers caused the biggest hullabaloo at the time, it was the exhibit of a relatively obscure French maker named Lefaucheux that would prove most prescient. Casimir Lefaucheux showed a single-barrelled pinfire shotgun with hinged, drop-down barrels, which would provide the inspiration for a new generation of British gunmakers.

William Greener rubbished these as “French crutch guns” and a “specious pretence”. But his son, William Wellington Greener, embraced the principle and made it stronger. Many of Manton’s other descendents acquired Parisian breechloaders, which they then set about Anglicising. Joseph Lang, an entrepreneur who married James Purdey’s daughter and bought bankrupt Manton’s stock, was the first of these. Charles Lancaster, son of Joe Manton’s barrel-borer of the same name, who in the words of Colonel Peter Hawker, “…has raised many gunmakers to the head of the trade by allowing them to put their names to what was his in all essential parts of the barrels”, was another.

In 1857 Thomas Boss died and shortly afterwards his widow took Irish gunmaker Stephen Grant as a managing partner, changing the name to “Boss & Co.” According to trade legend, Grant initially encouraged the widow Boss’s amorous overtures only to spurn them when he established his own renowned firm a few years later in 1866.

In 1875 Westley Richards unveiled the Anson & Deeley action, crediting the design to two of its own employees. John Deeley conceived the principle while Anson worked out the design is how the official Westley history of 1913 by Leslie Taylor couched it. Early models were secured by a Westley top lever fastening down a doll’s head rib extension but when these were replaced with a Purdey underbolt and Scott spindle and top lever the design became ubiquitous. Infinitely simple, the A&D became the first successful hammerless design in which the fall of the barrels cocked the locks. It was both utterly of its time and utterly ahead of it. Sporting-gun historian David Baker has called it one “of the very greatest landmarks in the history of sporting shotguns” while commenting, “In total numbers it is only rivalled by a few mass-produced repeating shotguns.”

Nevertheless, it would be improved by locks detachable without tools. The development of the Westley Richards droplock was “achieved almost by chance”, according to Musson. “Leslie Taylor had asked the then foreman if it were possible to conceal the various pins on the Anson & Deeley lockwork which showed through the side of the action body. He felt this was unsightly and that it would improve the elegance of a gun if this was concealed somehow. The foreman came up with the suggestion of fixing the lockwork to internal plates which in their turn were concealed and fixed into their positions by the action floor plate. Only after this had been achieved did Taylor and others realise that they had effectively invented the detachable gun lock action.”

Henry Atkin had worked with both James Purdey and Moore & Grey. In 1877 his namesake son – who had apprenticed to his father while the former worked with James Purdey – established his own business and began signing his guns “from Purdey” to which his former employer initially objected until it was pointed out that James Purdey the elder had signed his own gun “from Manton”.

During 1880 an ambitious Purdey worker dismissed for spending too much time down the pub sold his ex-employer a self-opening action which used the mainspring to help open the gun and also to power the tumblers. Frederick Beesley had indentured himself to Joe Manton’s former stocker William Moore before joining Purdey and becoming the fine-gun boffin of his day. George Teasdale Buckell in Experts on Guns & Shooting dubbed him “the principal inventor for the trade” and his action for Purdey is as British as cricket or a pint of bitter. In 1923 this magazine called it a “marvel of ingenuity”. It is being built to this day.

Holland & Holland responded in 1885 with its updated Royal which won acclaim in this magazine for “ease of opening”, while Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, writing in The Badminton Library of 1892, called it “excellent” and complimented it for “the simplicity and strength of the action, and non-liability of the locks to get out of order”. In their book Shotgun Technicana, former Purdey craftsman David Trevallion and American gun writer Michael McIntosh lavish praise on the Holland action, making the point that if “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, no gunmaker in the world should be more flattered than Holland & Holland, because no sidelock action has been so widely copied”. They list the myriad English, Spanish and Italian firms which adopted the Holland action, explaining, “The reason for this universal appeal is that the Holland system is so simple and relatively easy to make that it accommodates almost every level of manufacturing economics,” and conclude that, “Mechanically it’s hard to improve on perfection.”

Scotland, too, provided talent. In 1891 a gunmaker named John Robertson became proprietor of Boss & Co. Robertson had previously worked for Westley Richards and James Purdey before becoming an independent “stocker and screwer” to the London trade, outworking for the likes of Grant, Lang and Holland & Holland. In 1909 he and a fellow Scotsman named Bob Henderson introduced an over-and-under which featured hinges and lumps alongside the lower barrel. By dispensing with an underbolt, Boss & Co built a superposed that was sufficiently sleek and shallow to compete aesthetically with side-by-sides. As an indicator of its market significance, a Boss over-and-under 20-bore, pre-sale estimate $65,000- $85,000, fetched $189,750 at an American auction last year.

If the Boss is the Rolls Royce of British over-and-unders then the Woodward is surely the Bentley. James Woodward worked with Charles Moore, became his partner and eventually changed the firm’s name to James Woodward & Sons in 1872. “Unquestionably the most important contribution that the firm made to gunmaking was the development and production in 1913 by CL Woodward, W Evershed and C Hill of their over-and-under design of shotgun to which further improvements were made in 1921,” says Nigel Brown in London Gunmakers. In 1921 The Field remarked, “Woodward deserve the greatest credit for designing an over-and-under action, which is as neat in appearance as it is efficient in functioning.” James Purdey & Sons thought sufficient of the design to adopt it in 1949 and continues to build it to this day.

Austerity struck the gun trade in the aftermath of the Second World War. In his book, Jeremy Musson offers a telling anecdote of London’s gunmakers’ predicament. “In the mid Fifties the British gun industry was not thriving as it had, and Mr Lyell (who ran Westley Richards at the time) recalled meeting Roy Robson, the chairman of Grant & Lang, in Piccadilly and asking him how trade was. Mr Robson apparently replied that, ‘you can’t speak ill of the dead’, doffed his bowler hat and walked on.” Lack of demand produced little innovation in the post-War era and standards were seen to loosen.

Since then, thanks largely to commissions from rich American collectors, the British gun trade has fully recovered and is once again producing its finest guns. Musson quotes avid collector Ron Holden: “I can say without hesitation that the guns produced by Westley Richards today, under Simon Clode’s revival, are the best they have produced in their 200-year history.” This could apply equally to Britain’s other fine gunmakers and perfectly illustrates Manton’s apostles’ credo, “to be the maker of as good as a gun as can be made”, as expressed by William Westley Richards during the Georgian era. Or, as Richard Purdey says, “…having the vision to see a business opportunity, the skill and courage to grasp it with both hands and, lastly, see it through to a successful conclusion. Market forces always tell in the end, and it is the original and best that flourish to this day.”

Gavin Gardiner agrees: “With Boss and Westley Richards both having bicentennials to celebrate, and Purdey’s coming up to theirs in two years’ time, what have they got to celebrate? Survival. Survival that just three decades ago was looking unlikely. Survival through two centuries of the trends and whims of fashion, world wars, recession and biblical disaster. These gunmakers are producing timeless objects that their founders would recognise as direct descendants of the guns they built. It has become all but impossible for them to innovate, as the last serious innovations occurred over a century ago.”

So genuflect and sing hosannas to England’s holy trinity of surviving Georgian gunmakers – Westley Richards, Boss & Co and James Purdey & Sons – so consecrated by re-straint and taste that they continue, almost, to walk on water.

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