There is a special aura surrounding shotguns with provenance. Knowing that the shotgun in your hands was used by a stellar Edwardian shot or that the rifle saved its original owner countless times in the bush delivers more than a frisson; it’s like plugging yourself directly into history’s mainframe.
More than any other possession, shotguns are intensely personal, fitted to the individual. And wear and tear adds to the historical value, with every scratch on steel or walnut a record of another day in the field.
They may be sold as working shotguns, investments or collectors’ pieces but there is one universal – the excitement they elicit in even the most stolid of hearts.
Those in the know have picked the best working pieces of shooting history to come on the market in recent times.
Westley Richards .577 single-trigger detachable-boxlock ejector rifle, no 16650
This gun was sold on 31 December 1906 to one of the most famous elephant hunters of his time. James H “Jim” Sutherland shot an estimated 1,200 bull elephants during a career that took him from professional boxer to British Intelligence officer, always set against an African backdrop. He fell victim to a conspiracy by the Azande tribe in 1929 and was poisoned. He recovered to hunt although paralysed, eventually dying from the poison’s effects in 1932.
In his book The Adventures of an Elephant Hunter (1912), he makes frequent reference to the merits of the .577: “When using the double-barrelled rifles against big and dangerous game it is of supreme importance to have a thoroughly reliable ejecting mechanism, and I find that a single trigger is a vast improvement on the old double trigger.” He goes on to note, “I think the superiority of the .577 over the .450 and .500 rifles will be evident when I state that I have lost elephants with these last two rifles, while I have bagged others with identically the same shots from a .577.”
Subsequently owned by Major GH “Andy” Anderson, another professional hunter who accompanied the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) on their safari in 1924, the gun was sold in his case by Patrick Hawes from Bonhams for £68,000 (the original estimate was £12,000 to £16,000).
Hawes believes double rifles by the best makers will always be sought after, saying: “Sometimes the makers will buy them as they have been so effective and reliable for so long and are a great showcase.” Of the Sutherland rifle he remarks that the “faultless performance throughout Jim’s life” made it appeal to avid African hunters and those fascinated by the era.
Colt Python .357 Magnum revolver, no 35459
Schoolboys young and old would give a month’s tuck money to lounge sardonically in a James Bond-approved Aston Martin. Cool points: a gazillion. Excitement level: unbridled. Ratchet up the nonchalance factor with a gun owned by Bond’s creator Ian Fleming and you would have that same magic multiplied but without a phenomenal price and with the merit of being unique.
Presented to Fleming in 1964, the gun (in original working condition and offered in the maker’s carton) would have had Pussy Galore purring with pleasure. It realised £12,350 in March 2007 through Bonhams.
Charles Lancaster .450 (31⁄4in) Nitro Express back-action sidelock ejector double rifle, no 13315
The rifle was completed in 1911 for the Hon Denys Finch Hatton. Originally in .475 calibre (and rebarrelled by the makers to .450 calibre in 1929) with rose gold escutcheon inscribed “DFH – NOVEMBER 1928” and lightweight initialled leather case, it combines legend, adventure and Hollywood royalty.
After graduating from Balliol College Finch Hatton spent the majority of his life on his own land in British East Africa. A professional hunter immortalised by Karen Blixon in her autobiography and the subsequent film Out of Africa, he took numerous distinguished clients on safari including HRH the Duke of Windsor, then Prince of Wales. His taste for adventure embraced flying as well as hunting. This led to his death after only seven years in Africa when his de Havilland DH Gypsy Moth aeroplane suffered engine failure. The gun will be auctioned by Holt’s on 25 March 2010, estimate £60,000 to £80,000.
Purdey 12-bore hammer ejector gun, no 14982
Built in 1895 as the no 2 shotgun of a pair for Lord Ripon, unusually, this gun has a manual half-cock between full cock and the rebound half-cock. It was sold through Gavin Gardiner for £36,000. The Marquis shot over the greatest estates of his day, including his own Studley Royal. His lifetime bag of 556,813 is unlikely to be equalled.
Purdey shotguns are synonymous with the generation of
super shots to which Lord Ripon belonged. He continued using the ultimate refinement of the hammergun, the Purdey hammer ejector, until his death more than 30 years after the hammerless ejector had made it seem antiquated. Gardiner explains, “In the right hands these guns were far from obsolete.”
Ripon was in very good company, as both King Edward VII and King George V continued using Purdey hammer ejector guns until their deaths.
Game-scene engraved J Purdey & Sons 12-bore self-opening sidelock ejector, with extra set of barrels and No 3 of a trio, no 15353
In 1896 this shotgun was made for Prince Frederick Dhuleep Singh, son of Maharaja Dhuleep Singh. In 2007 it was sold by Eric Clapton, realising £13,750 through Holt’s Auctioneers. Engraving on the action and lockplates shows mallard in flight, setters, spaniels, pheasants and other fauna.
Like his father, Prince Frederick (known as the Black Prince in his home country) was a popular sportsman who lived an unbridled life a
s an English aristocrat, according to Roland Elworthy at Holt’s. After serving as a major in the First World War he retired to indulge in philanthropic and sporting pursuits from his Elizabethan moated manor house, Blo’ Norton Hall on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. He shot alongside the other Edwardian behemoths in-cluding King Edward VII and Lord Walsingham. Apparently he was a staunch monarchist of Jacobite leanings.
Elworthy reports that, “The walls of his home were covered with portraits of Bonny Prince Charlie and other Stuarts, while in the downstairs loo could be found a portrait of Cromwell hanging upside down!”
Three-barrelled flintlock boxlock tap-action pocket pistol, 120-bore
Francophile and flamboyant sportsman Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757 – 1823) stopped off on his sporting tour through France to present this exquisite pocket pistol by Durs Egg to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Thornton claimed to have “a greater quantity of sporting apparatus of the most valuable and curious manufacture than any other sporting gentleman in England” including a gun with 14 barrels.
The blued, border-engraved action has Thornton’s coat of arms and motto inlaid in gold on one side and a scroll engraved with the battle honour “Marengo” on the other. It sold for £40,000 in April 2006 through Bonhams.
Pair of .450 (31⁄2in) no 2 Nitro Express boxlock ejector rifles by J Lang, nos 16748/9
Completed as a pair in 1927 these rifles were bought by big-game hunter Philip Percival on 9 December 1927. The founding president of the East African Professional Hunters Association, Percival became one of the highest-paid professional hunters of his day as well as mentoring fellow hunters Sid Downey and Harry Selby.
Among his clients were Baron Rothschild and Ernest Hemingway. The latter was inspired to immortalise him as the character “Pop” in Green Hills of Africa (1935). African legend is wrought into the treble-grip action bodies and chopper-lump barrels of this pair of rifles. A few days after his 76th birthday, Percival killed two stock-stealing lions with a right-and-left from one of the pair. They were sold through Bonhams for £14,000.
Pair of 16-bore EC Hodges patent rotary-underlever hammerguns by Stephen Grant, nos 3040/1
Queen Victoria seemed parsimonious when she gifted these shotguns in individual leather cases to her heir apparent. The lids are marked with the crest of the Prince of Wales and named “ALBERT EDWARD”, one shotgun dated “NOVr 9th 1870” the second shotgun dated “DECr 25th 1870”.
Eventually Albert was crowned Edward VII in 1901 but while excluded from political life he became a popular and highly skilled socialite in the grand shooting parties of the time with his easy manners and quick wit.
As Roland Elworthy of Holt’s says: “These cracking Grant shotguns were a gift from Queen Victoria and while built as a true pair they were given to him on different dates; the first shotgun on the occasion of his birthday and the second shotgun as a Christmas present and were presented in their original individual cases.” They sold at Holt’s Auctioneers on 17 December for £50,000 plus buyer’s premium.
Matched pair of 16-bore self-opening sidelock ejector guns, built for HRH Edward Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) by J Purdey & Sons in 1909, nos 19624/20493
The sale of shotguns from the Royal gunroom can send prices sky-rocketing and enthusiasts ecstatic. Sheer historical weight fuels the saleroom and the excitement is tantalising. Edward VIII’s pair of 16-bore shotguns in a brass-bound leather case inscribed HRH The Prince of Wales proved the point when their sale in Geneva in 1991 attracted worldwide interest and a record price of £160,800. The scandal of his abdication in 1937 made for a packed saleroom. Gavin Gardiner remarks, “The shotguns were built for The Prince of Wales when he was 15. He shot with them for the early part of his shooting career, and changed to a pair of Churchill XXVs in 1931, just days after first meeting Wallis Simpson while hunting in Leicestershire.”
Pair of 20-bore single-trigger self-opening sidelock ejector guns by J Purdey & Sons, nos 28143/4
Some of the most exciting sales can come from recent shotguns. Gavin Gardiner was “especially thrilled” when asked to handle the sale of Sir Jackie Stewart’s shotguns; Sir Jackie, who won 27 Grand Prix, was a childhood hero. This pair of 20-bores was presented to Sir Jackie in 1976 on his retirement from motor racing.
Gardiner notes: “Unusually for the time, the shotguns had 28in barrels (when 26in barrels were the fashion of the day for small-bore guns such as these). Sir Jackie was ahead of the field again as longer barrels have become much more fashionable in recent years.”
Sold to a European motorsport enthusiast for £64,800, who, “shoots very well with them, by the way”, they are the perfect example of how provenance, quality and association can still be put to practical use.
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Gavin Gardiner Limited