This month we look at a pair of Watson Bros guns made by Michael Louca and his team but commissioned by Ray Ward of Knightsbridge (one of the few companies left having the highest-grade guns built for it for stock – a bold gesture in the current climate).
Watsons sell with house engraving for £44,500 each in over-and-under form and £39,000 as side-by-sides. The firm, based in Shoreditch, is one of the least expensive London gunmakers, especially when one considers its prices are inclusive of 20% VAT. The firm, established in 1885, was bought by Louca, a former Purdey craftsman in 1989. Watson was especially well known for its small-bore guns and, initially, Louca specialised in lightweight small-bores. The trend now is towards lighter shotguns in all bore sizes with the occasional heavier gun made for high birds. About 200 guns have been made in the past 20 years.
There are five craftsmen in the workshop (excluding Louca), all young and trained under an admirable in-house apprentice scheme, with one young man partially funded by the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers’ charitable trust scheme. “I want to do all I can to encourage traditional bench-work and the preservation of key skills,” Louca notes. “We don’t use CNC machine tools because every time you use CNC for a task that is one person you have lost and with him the knowledge of making that component. Each person has his own personality, which he puts into a gun.”
What of the personality of these guns? Well, they are beautiful with full London finish, exhibition wood and (extra-cost) bold, floral engraving, piercing and a carved pheasant on the belly. They are distinct in several other aspects. The actions have features of a Boss, including draws and wedges for extra strength as well as trunion hinging similar to a Woodward (or Beretta) and primary bolting of typical London over-and-under pattern with bites either side of the bottom chamber. The action profiles are consequently low. The guns weigh around 6lb 12oz – a little heavier than many modern Watsons, though they do not feel it. They are choked 3/4 and 3/4 – which some might be tempted to open out.
The 23⁄4in chambered and London-proofed demi-lump barrels are well presented. Made from EN19 steel and with average wall thicknesses of
30 thou made possible by the strong material, they would be compatible with standard steel shot if the chokes were opened (not that I would advise its use in any English gun).The actions are made from EN32, a high-grade mild steel – which can be case hardened later or, where the actions are to be left silver finished, nitro carburised. This involves dipping the actions in carburised nitrogen gas and leads to a very even case hardening. It has the advantage over conventional bone-meal hardening in that it does not lead to any movement/distortion in the metal.
The woodwork on the Watsons is interesting, not just because of the good figure, fine chequering, and excellent oil finish, but because the guns have something close to a Prince of Wales stock with capped grips. The hand design complements their (non-selective and inertia-activated) single triggers well. The fore-end also has a pleasant, slender shape with rounded front and button release catch.
Louca has arrived at many conclusions (reached also by me through experiment). He likes light, longish barrels, with wide bores- .732in (18.6mm) – and longish chokes of 7⁄8in with a 3⁄8in lead into them (combined with a 1in forcing cone). He favours minimum rim depth (the recess cut for the cartridge rim) because, like me, he believes it reduces felt recoil significantly and leads to more reliable function. It prevents the cartridge bouncing back and also stops blow-back around the striker, which can cause further problems.
The gape of the gun is greater than to norm to facilitate easy loading – 1⁄8in under the rim as it ejects over the top of the gun. “It’s very simple,” Louca notes. “It’s like kicking a ball through a window – the more open that window, the easier it is.” He builds his actions from forgings because the grain of the metal flows with the shape for added strength. The most novel thing about the gun is its ejector system, which he has spent some years perfecting. It is designed to help reduce overall gun weight and is leaf-spring powered on an over-centre cam principle, like most side-by-sides.
The gun I shot pointed well. Like its twin, it has a “solid” but internally hollowed, file-cut, 1⁄4in rib tapering to 3⁄16in. It was a very willing gun that moved easily. The increased gape was immediately noticeable on loading – a feature many makers would do well to copy. I enjoyed shooting the Watson but, with this much-evolved formula, I think I might be tempted to take advantage of all the research and effort and go for even longer barrels. Meanwhile, trigger pulls were good, felt recoil was low, as expected, and everything functioned perfectly. Bottom line? Made in London by a man who not only knows, but cares, and at an attractive price. Call Watson Bros on 020 7033 0003 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Price £120,000 the pair
From Ray Ward, 12 Cadogan Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1
Tel 020 3283 8944
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More gun reviews in The Field