In HM The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year, we offer a state-of-play report on Britain’s esteemed gunmakers, their rich histories, modern innovations and the key gun or rifle at the core of their collections
As we celebrate the Platinum Jubilee, we also celebrate everything British. The British gunmakers have a proud and fascinating history and Douglas Tate has compiled a report of the best baker’s dozen in the country and their key gun or rifle of their collections.
THE BEST BRITISH GUNMAKERS
ATKIN GRANT & LANG
Atkin Grant & Lang (AG&L) is an amalgamation dating from 1960, but its roots go much deeper. Further, it has a strong connection to the greatest of the gunmakers: in 1828, Joseph Lang married one of James Purdey’s daughters. The first Henry Atkin worked with his father, Charles Atkin, who was a graduate of Purdey’s workshop. Their current reputation rests on a ‘spring opener’ sidelock based on a modified Beesley action, the most famous example of which was built for the gun writer Gough Thomas. Henry Atkin over-and-under shotguns are based on the Woodward-style action, patented in 1913 and renowned for being lightweight, robust and one of the best over-and-under designs ever created. Stephen Grant was an Irishman who worked for Thomas Boss.
Historically, the firm is best remembered for its serpentine side-lever guns. The current offerings from AG&L in the Grant name are a rebuilt side-by-side and a round action over-and-under. Lang famously built an early breech loader for Ivan Turgenev and later developed multiple systems of hand detachable sidelocks. Today, the name is represented by big rifles in bolt-action and side-by-side double configurations.
BOSS & CO
Like several other Best London gunmakers, Boss & Co can trace its lineage back to the Regency era, when Thomas Boss served time with Joseph Manton. Known as the ‘King of the Gunmakers’, Manton was largely responsible for the full flowering of the flintlock, where only perfect work would reliably fire the charge.
Quality has long been crucial to Boss & Co’s success, but the company’s modern reputation hinges on a development from 1909, when the then Scots owner introduced a shallow-framed over-and-under with a bifurcated lump.
It became the standard by which all others are judged. Boss’s British credentials are impeccable, but its current owner, Arthur DeMoulas, is from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
While shooting a vintage side-lever Boss on an English driven day, the left-handed DeMoulas clocked its many benefits, which informed the creation of the initial Boss & Co 1812 Edition, the world’s first ambidextrous over-and-under gun. Now he has built a side-lever side-by-side on the same principle, in which a brace of side-levers, one for each side, are cased with the gun.
AA BROWN & SONS
The ‘gunmaker’s gunmaker’ is a typical tribute targeted at AA Brown. Originally a maker to the trade, supplying some of London’s most prestigious marques, it only began using its own name when the Trade Descriptions Act was signed into law. Its most coveted model is the sidelock Supreme de Luxe. Built on a Rogers action, like the Holland & Holland Royal, but with domed lockplates and a double bar to the action, it has some of the allure of a round body.
Now, AA Brown has added an over and under to its portfolio, called the ABAS Series 8, based on the Woodward design. Like the side-by-side, the ABAS features Brown’s signature domed lockplates. The initial pair are 16-bore, with 12-, 20- and 28-bore and .410 versions to follow. Patent applications from 1913 in the names of Hill, Woodward and Evershed describe a bolting system where the barrels and action are united by a tongue-and-groove mechanism. Today, it is known simply as the Woodward and is the only English over-and-under to compete seriously with the Boss. Brown is a provincial maker in the sense of location only. Its work is every bit the equal of London Best.
If you associate Scottish gunmaking with trim round actions, you are not alone. However, for those who champion a broader view of Caledonian firearms, there is Buchan Guns, offering an Italian-style trigger-plate over-and-under, a Londonstyle sidelock and now, with the acquisition of David McKay Brown (DMB), a quintessential round action – all built in Scotland.
Grant Buchan began building guns 16 years ago, but only formed an alliance with the retiring McKay Brown last year. The round action dates from the early 1880s, when a couple of Edinburgh gunmakers produced similar designs based on trigger plate mechanisms. McKay Brown learned to build his while working for John Dickson & Son. In 1967, he left Dickson and began his own business. “We have a full order book for DMB in the next 24 months,” Buchan tells me.
I asked about production of guns branded with his own name. “We do have a Buchan Braemar side-by-side .410 sidelock under construction, which is with Pedretti for engraving. The gun is being engraved and inlaid with platinum as part of the design to mark HM The Queen’s Jubilee. We have five Buchan Balmoral 28-bore sidelock over-and-unders in manufacture and we are currently finishing a Buchan Glenugie double rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor.”
Churchill’s early reputation rests on live pigeon guns, which he soon abandoned in favour of 25in-barrelled batons. Sold as XXVs, these guns provoked intrigue from the outset. More importantly, they provided Churchill with a unique selling proposition that, in the absence of a proprietary action, convinced clients to switch brands. One who did was The Prince of Wales. The day before he met Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who would become his wife, the man who was briefly Edward VIII ordered a pair of Churchill Best Premier quality sidelock ejectors with signature XXV barrels.
Churchill’s British credentials are deep. Recently, the company has concentrated on over-and-unders sourced in Europe for the home-grown shooting market, but managing director Rob Fenwick confirmed that Churchill continues to build English guns. “Yes, we still make English guns – the Premier. They are made in our workshops here at West Wycombe and we have the most stunning one under construction now. However, we make only a few a year. We love doing it; we have actions, a stunning wood collection and barrels and so on.” Only engraving is done out-of-house.
JOHN DICKSON & SON
John Dickson opened its doors in 1838 at a time when Edinburgh styled itself the ‘Athens of the North’ for its progressive Enlightenment outlook. It benefited from the patronage of the eccentric Charles Gordon, who ordered more than 200 guns during a 40-year period.
In the 1880s, Dickson & Son cemented its reputation with the development of the round-action gun. The round action’s svelte lines are made possible by a larger-than-normal trigger-plate that accommodates the firing mechanism, allowing the action body to be rounded. Slim as an adder and strong as a battle axe, it’s synonymous with Scotland.
Since then, Dickson has acquired the names of other Edinburgh makers and is now also building the iconic MacNaughton skeletal-bodied round action and Daniel Fraser boxlocks and rifles. Today, these celebrated British names are in the hands of a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Daeschler, who learned much from the Aberdeen gunmaker Anderson & Campbell.
“The workshop is very busy with gun and rifle building, with many orders in for the iconic Dickson Round Action and MacNaughton Skeleton guns,” he says. “We look forward to, later in the year, finishing the new Dickson side-lever 28-bore Round Actions, a configuration that Dickson has never built before, and the 20- and 16-bore Daniel Fraser patent boxlock guns – the perfect guns for partridge or quail.” In 2021, Daniel Fraser came back to the forefront of Scottish rifle-making with three new stalking rifles – the Fraser Velox MS, the Fraser Velox M98 and the Fraser Cairngorm. Looking forward to 2023, we will see a new patent falling-block rifle from Daniel Fraser.
HOLLAND & HOLLAND
For more than 187 years, Holland & Holland has built fine British guns and rifles. In 2021, it was acquired by the Beretta Holding Group, but still holds two royal warrants. The Royal sidelock is undoubtedly the jewel in its crown. In 1977, it built a pair of 12-bore and a pair of 20-bore guns together with 25 magazine rifles to mark The Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Every major London gunmaker is conversant with the requirements of dangerous game, yet few have Holland & Holland’s experience of building big rifles. This year sees the completion of the Robert Ruark double rifle from the African Hunter Series. Started in 1987 with the Sir Samuel Baker in .500/465 (a proprietary cartridge developed by Holland & Holland), it was followed by the Selous, WDM Bell, John Taylor, James Sutherland and President Roosevelt rifles. Given a special serial number sequence, each gun in the series was pictorially engraved by one of Britain’s top artisans. The current rifle is by Phil Coggan.
During 1870, Sir Joseph Whitworth secured a patent for “double barrels for fowling pieces, made out of one piece of metal”. Back in 2010, English gunmaker Longthorne introduced an over-and-under with similar innovative barrel technology. However, marketing director Elaine Stewart says Longthorne was not “… influenced by anyone. We were not aware until after we launched the gun that Whitworth had experimented with and patented a method of making barrels from a solid billet”.
Since then, Longthorne has made a set of barrels using a single block of damascus steel and more recently a set of barrels fully sculpted from solid titanium. It enjoys multiple international patents relating to the barrel design.
Longthorne has other projects in the works, namely several new engraving designs of trigger-plate shotguns. This includes its square-back Valiant model emblazoned with a Union flag and its recently launched side plated trigger plate, the Valorous, with a delicate floral design and black background, and its top-of-the-range Valkyrie, inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, and created in-house by designer Chloe, the daughter of directors James and Elaine Stewart.
JAMES PURDEY & SONS
James Purdey & Sons is perhaps the most prestigious gunmaker in the world. Its outstanding accomplishment is the Beesley self-opening mechanism, which has held pride of place at the centre of its portfolio since 1880. Beesley’s originality earned him the title ‘principal inventor for the trade’. Michael McIntosh and David Trevallion, in Shotgun Technicana, say of the Beesley/Purdey: “It’s difficult to imagine a more brilliantly integrated system: three separate and distinctly different functions – cocking, firing and opening – all actuated by a single spring.” Such was its success that, by the late 19th century, every crowned head of Europe had become a customer of James Purdey.
Tom and Athol Purdey visited the US to gauge the appetite of American Guns for an over-and-under. In 1949, Purdey acquired the rights to the James Woodward over and under. This year, Purdey celebrates the first of those visits in 1922 with an exhibition-grade Woodward-style gun engraved with the steam ship on which Athol Purdey traversed the Atlantic. The Commodore Hotel he patronised is on the reverse, while a portrait of the man himself features on the underside – all the work of Britain’s top engraver, Phil Coggan.
More recently, Purdey has introduced a trigger-plate over-and-under not dissimilar to those of Italian design. Named The Sporter, it is both handmade and hand engraved, and draws from the same pool of craftsmanship and experience as the company’s traditional sidelock guns. These have proven “extremely popular” according to gunroom manager Dr Nicholas Harlow, who added: “We have recently submitted a patent for a heat-dissipating hand-guard, and we are also experimenting with anti-rust finishes to increase the longevity of our guns even further.” Purdey is also planting 100 gunstock-quality walnut trees. The firm, which was established in 1814, is in this for the long haul.
John Rigby & Company was established in Dublin in around 1775, and its initial reputation rested upon superb saw-handled flintlock pistols with acid-etched damascus barrels. Later, after a move to London, double rifles with signature dipped-edge lock plates and the super-strong Rigby and Bissell rising bite became a unique selling point for the firm.
John Rigby also understood the importance of bolt-action rifles. He was awarded a 12-year exclusive distributorship to import and distribute all Mauser-made rifles, actions, barrelled actions and components into the UK and British colonies. After a short stint in the US late in the 20th century, Rigby was bought by the L&O Group (owner of Mauser), based in Germany, and brought back to the UK about 10 years ago. The new owners appreciated the significance of unique features, and guns and rifles featuring this rising bite third fastener remain the cornerstone of the collection. Rigby also has a new falling- block stalking rifle in development in .416 Rigby No 2.
SMITH & TOROK
Alex Torok served 30 years at Purdey as an actioner before becoming a gunmaker to the trade. Then, in 2006, with Mike Smith, he formed Smith & Torok. Since the death of Mike Smith in 2015, Torok has continued to build Best guns. As one might expect from a Purdey alumnus, Torok’s customary action is the Beesley. When an over-and-under is needed, the Woodward is used.
Smith & Torok enjoys a reputation for unusual bores and claims to be the only Best London maker to have built both 32-and 24-bores recently. The company has also made a pair of 10-bores called Dual Guns. This is a six-barrelled set that is able to shoot shotgun pellets or 10-bore slugs effective to 100 yards.
Diversification into gun cases and tools has provided Smith & Torok with another arrow in its quiver. Its handmade case fitted with gun tools not only frames its own wares, but is also in demand when other makers require a show case. A recent .410 engraved by Malcolm Appleby on a totem dragonfly theme, built by John Wilkes, is a classic example.
Watson Brothers dates from 1884 when Thomas Watson made his brother, Arthur, an equal partner in an extant business. One early success for the company was the Phantom, a short-barrelled, lightweight 28-bore clearly intended for a child. Since then, standout models have been small bores. “We have a 28-bore side-by-side pigeon gun engraved all ready for finishing with beavertail fore-end, side-clips and pistol grip,” says owner Mike Louca. “The latest is 28-bore droplocks, but these are not yet ready for stocking. The droplocks are different to the Westley as it has Southgate ejectors and a different style of droplock, with disc-set strikers.”
Louca is an ex-Purdey craftsman who has perfected a lightweight version of the Woodward over-and-under with proprietary ejectors that are altogether trimmer than the original. Recently, Watson Brothers completed a side-clipped Purdey-style hammergun intended for high pheasants. Ironically for a company famed for small bores, Watson Brothers also offers big bores. Four-bore side-by-sides weighing 17lb to 18lb, with barrels from 36in to 42in, are available to the determined, and affluent, wildfowler.
Westley Richards is perhaps best known for the Anson & Deeley boxlock action, but it is undoubtedly the hand-detachable improvement that is the company’s outstanding accomplishment. It’s the reason why Westley Richards is the most significant English gunmaker ever to offer a legitimate alternative to the London sidelock. A favoured mechanism for double rifles for those seduced by the allure of dangerous game, it is a drop-dead reliable feature.
Westley Richards has been making guns in Birmingham for 200 years and is majority British owned. It has a successful history of innovation: the fore-end housed ejector, the Westley top-lever, the doll’s-head rib extension, the boxlock, the Deeley & Edge fore-end fastener – all of which have been widely adopted by the British gun trade. This year, the company introduced a modern magazine rifle for high-altitude sheep hunting called the Mountain Rifle.
“A high percentage of our output is of a level that most makers would consider ‘exhibition grade’,” a spokesman for Westley Richards says. “Delivery would be possible in 2027, depending on the choice and availability of the engraver engaged. The reality is that Westley Richards has sufficient orders from actual customers to engage every hand in the factory, and keep every outworker we employ, busy for the next five years.”