About a year ago I had a telephone call from William Evans. The firm was considering the production of a new over-and-under gun abroad and wanted to discuss what form it might take and who might be the best people to make it. So I went up to London and had a long discussion with Duncan Cavenagh, the firms managing director, and Alastair Phillips, its gunroom manager. Evans had obviously noted the recent production of Holland & Holland and James Purdey & Sons. Hollands had introduced a new, British-made over-and-under more than a decade ago. More recently, Purdey has been putting great effort into its new Sporter model built in association with Perugini & Visini in Italy (based on a British-machined action and monobloc).
There were two possible directions to go with the new gun. One would have been similar to H&H or Purdey pitching at a market in the £25,000 to £40,000 region, the other would be to create an elegant but practical field gun with British style but made predominantly on the Continent. Evans chose the latter route and selected Caesar Guerini in Northern Italy as a manufacturing partner. Guerini, a very modern concern, was already producing a svelte gun which had stormed the American market and been very successful in the UK since its introduction in 2006. The new William Evans version of this gun, dubbed the St James, would add various refinements and a bit of London cachet to what was already a very fine design.
All of which brings us to the test gun, the prototype St James model. It is a 28in-barrelled, side-plated, multi-choked, 20-bore over-and-under with a single selective trigger, weighing in at 6lb 11oz. There is a 30in 20-bore option and 12-bores will follow in due course. (I favour a 20 or 28 in this action type.) The St James, which has an intended price point of about £9,500 inclusive of VAT, has extensive scroll engraving in the attractive Evans house style. (The pattern for the prototype was taken from a gun built for the Duke of Connaught in 1910.) The William Evans name appears centrally on both lock plates in a frame and St James in a ribbon on the bottom of the action.
Various other stylistic touches include a longer trigger-guard tang than the usual factory production (with the serial number engraved upon it in the usual English fashion) and chequering to the thumb piece of the top lever. The dreadful, US-litigation-related injunction to read the owners manual before use is, I am happy to report, absent from the side of the barrels. The name William Evans and the firms address appear instead. The gun is London finished by William Evanss own craftsmen in the UK. Blacking is to best London standard and there is traditional oil on the stock and hand-cut chequering.
The stock of the test gun was well finished but a little too dark. The chequering to the grip covered a greater area than on a factory-production Guerini, to both practical and aesthetic advantage. The Guerini already benefits from an exceptionally good semi-pistol grip. It is near ideal in radius and proportion. It is made even better by hand chequering and creates a grip with maximum purchase leading to first-class muzzle control. I have rarely felt better on a game-gun high praise but deserved. I am exceptionally picky about grips.
Other features go beyond cosmetic improvement. The St James is equipped (in its 28in form) with a solid, slightly tapered rib. This is much better than a narrow ventilated type for a working game-gun. It is less prone to accidental damage. The standard Guerini, moreover, has a very pronounced lip to its Schnabel-style fore-end. This confines the front of the forward hand to the belly of the fore-end something that many pheasant-shots are not inclined to do. Although there are dangers to extending the front hand too far forward (swing is restricted), it is useful to have the option of taking a more forward hold on occasion. To allow for this, William Evans has specified a rounded fore-end with Boss-style chequering.
The stock dimensions are excellent. I must declare a bias on this front, however Guerini UK asked me to advise on ideal shelf measurements when it started exporting to Britain. Continental and American gunmakers have a tendency to make game-guns shorter and lower in the comb than most British sportsmen prefer. The length of pull on the stock is 15in including a thin, brown rubber pad with 1⁄8in extra to the heel of the butt and 3⁄8in to the toe. The drop is 13⁄8in relative to barrel axis at the nose of the comb and 21⁄8in at heel. The idea was to create a stock that handled naturally encouraging natural pointing without too much incline in the comb. There is a decent taper in the comb as well not always a feature of Italian over-and-unders.
I shot the prototype St James with Alastair Phillips at the Braintree Shooting Ground in Essex and was genuinely impressed. The basic Guerini is a well-sorted gun. The St James, though, is something special in its looks and intrinsic shooting qualities. The improved chequering to the grip and the reshaped, round fore-end which allows the front hand to maintain a constant relationship with the barrels made a real difference. The solid rib design was first class. The gun was particularly well balanced and remained lively though it was a little heavier than an old-fashioned 20-bore. It had a quality feel. At first sight it does not appear much different to an ordinary Guerini but it felt significantly more refined when fired and vibration seems slightly dampened.
We shot at skeet and simulated-game targets. I put the first 40 shots through it without a miss. Only an outrageously distant crosser finally defeated me. Alastair shot the gun extremely well, too. It was great to see his face break into a broad smile once he realised that this gun, into which he and his gunroom colleague George Juer had put so much effort, not only worked but worked exceptionally well. The St James is not inexpensive, but it is exclusive and, most importantly, it works. It is one of the best-shooting over-and-under 20-bores that I have tested for these pages.
The action of the St James, save for its engraving, is based upon the expert use of computer-controlled machinery. The test gun combines trunnion hinging and bifurcated lumps with a wide locking bar-bolt of the Browning-type engaging a slot-bite beneath the bottom chamber. This works best in smaller bores, as it is slightly deeper than the designs that dispense with under-barrel lumps altogether.
The top and bottom tangs are almost ideally spaced in the Guerini-pattern 20-bore action, allowing for a grip of near-perfect proportions with regard to depth. Coil springs power the hammers. There is a single cocking rod running lengthways in the belly of the action. Springs for the ejector mechanism are contained beneath the extractors within the monobloc. The monobloc barrels are chambered for 3in (76mm) shells and are presented well with solid joining ribs as well as the solid sighting rib as noted.
The barrels are supplied with five multi-chokes. These are of shorter pattern, being about 2¼in long when removed, and compatible with steel shot. The barrel bores are relatively tight at 15.9mm (top) and 15.8mm (bottom). Forcing cones are of medium length.
St James over-and-under, £9,500, from William Evans, tel 020 7493 0415,
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