Assembled by the firm’s team of master craftsmen, this beautiful side-by-side is a sculpture in metal and wood, observes Michael Yardley. It proves to be a tribute to its makers
First impressions of the William & Son Pigeon Gun are outstanding but can it really be worth the money? Michael Yardley is delighted to find the latest from one of London’s great gunmakers a tribute to its makers.
For more from William & Son, Michael Yardley finds the William & Son over-and-under an impressive combination of modern design and London tradition.
WILLIAM & SON PIGEON GUN
The test gun this month is a magnificent, 30in barrelled, 12-bore, pinless sidelock side-by-side pigeon gun by William & Son. It has side-clips at the breech, a concealed third bite (like some big-game double rifles), gold-line cocking indicators and an extended trigger guard meeting a steel-capped pistol grip. Profusely engraved with deep scrollwork in the firm’s house style, it hits the scales at 7lb 8oz (a good weight for a pigeon gun intended for use with heavier loads). The gun carries the substantial price tag of £105,000 (though a foreign buyer might lose £20,000 of VAT).
Initial impressions are outstanding. The gun is aesthetically beautiful – a sculpture in metal and wood as well as a sporting tool. The Turkish walnut stock is splendidly figured with strong, straight grain through the grip and lovely swirling grain to the middle and rear. It is chequered at 22 lines to the inch and traditionally oiled. The quality of workmanship and finish on the (full and full choked, flat ribbed) chopper-lump barrels and square bar action are, like the woodwork, what you would expect from a top London maker. The barrels are beautifully struck up and blacked, and perfectly straight. The 10mm to 7.5mm tapered flat rib is my favourite pattern with a matted top surface and an elegantly formed small, stainless steel bead at the muzzles. The perfect proportions of the latter are typical of the attention to detail evident throughout the gun.
The engraving manages to be both modern and classical. It is a style William & Son has developed. It is bolder than the scroll seen typically on a Holland Royal and much deeper than the subtle rose and scroll of most Purdeys. It has stippling surrounding the scroll-work that creates a bas-relief effect. It looks almost carved, especially at the fences where the engraving extends forwards to the barrels. The initial inspiration came from the pattern book of a bank-note engraver.
Can any gun be worth so much money? The market is limited but other carriage-trade London bests are even more costly today. This gun, individualist and exceptionally crafted, has London proof marks for its 2¾in chambers, which were struck in 2017. That is an indication of the time it has taken to complete. Some of the best craftsmen in the country have contributed their skills to it. William & Son doesn’t have its own factory (though gunmaker Paul West, who has overseen the project, was once a Holland & Holland man). The firm has, however, assembled a team of master craftsmen who it commissions regularly. Its guns have a distinct feel and look now. There is a clear and well-developed house style.
William & Son doesn’t make many guns – about 60 since it launched around 1999. William Asprey is the founder and owner of William & Son. The Royal Warrant Association notes of him: “From the start he specialised in the special and surprising, the eclectic and sometimes the extravagant…” The test gun qualifies on all four counts. Since they came into existence, I have shot William & Son game guns in various bores and configurations. None disappointed, all were elegant, mechanically proven, svelte of form and beautifully engraved. They all shot well with flawless function. The firm now ranks as one of London’s great gunmakers.
Returning to the genesis of the test gun, Paul West noted that he had been asked by a potential customer at a show if William & Son made a pigeon gun. “No – but we could.” This was the “spark”, he told me, and elaborated: “People are tending towards high pheasants again, so we thought it would be interesting to make a side-by-side inspired by the pigeon guns of the past that might be used for high birds or, indeed, high volume shooting of any sort.”
Mechanically, the William & Son gun is built on a Holland & Holland-type sidelock action. The latter firm’s ‘Royal’ model was perfected in the early 1890s as an amalgam of all things good in the British gun trade. Unlike the equally famous Purdey-Beesley design, there was no unique patent for it. Many makers have copied it. The test gun, like an H&H, has intercepting safety sears (as are essential in any sidelock) and incorporates the 1922 patent Holland tube-and-spring-beneath-the-barrels, easy-opening mechanism and a Holland-style concealed bite. It is built on a wider, higher and heavier action. The William & Son norm for its 12-bores is an action bar width of 44mm; this one is 46mm at the middle. At the extreme edges of the standing breech, the measurements are, respectively, 58mm for the standard game gun and 64mm for this new pigeon gun (so the increase in width, which is subtle, is most notable across the breech face/barrels).
No shooting man on seeing this gun could avoid being a little excited at the prospect of using it. There were interesting features from a practical perspective: tight chokes, a flat sighting rib, the wide-radiused pistol-grip stock. The weight was optimal for this type of gun at 7lb 8oz. The balance was interesting. The bigger action put significant weight between the hands. The balance point was about 1¼in forward of the hinge pin (because of a relatively light butt). The gun’s shooting qualities were generally good. I had to adapt to heavy but crisp trigger pulls. Felt recoil was not excessive but noticeable (which might be put down to tight bores, 18.4mm, tight chokes and a slim comb). The shelf dimensions for drop – 1½in and 2in – were sensible, as was the LOP at 15¼in. If I ordered one, I might go for a fuller pigeon style butt (which would put a little more weight rearwards). Overall, this is an impeccably presented best gun, a tribute to its makers.
WILLIAM & SON PIGEON GUN
♦ RRP: £105,000
♦ 34-36 Bruton Street, London W1J 6QX.
♦ 020 7493 8385