Military weapons, guns and rifles for fieldsports and presentation pieces make up the remarkable collection of the Army officer turned statesman, says Mark Murray-Flutter
Little has been written about Sir Winston Churchill’s guns and his enthusiasm for game shooting. Mark Murray-Flutter corrects the omission, as he delves into Churchill’s remarkable and extensive personal armoury.
For more on the fascinating history of infamous guns, learn about the gunmaker famed for his duelling pistols, read Robert Wogdon: duelling pistols.
SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL’S GUNS
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965), one of the 20th century’s most important figures and one of Britain’s most influential national leaders, was also an enthusiastic shot and sportsman. He purchased, was given and used a range of firearms during his military, political and sporting career. His extensive personal armoury included pistols, rifles, shotguns and a number of sub-machine guns. Little has been written about – or is known about – Churchill’s personal armoury; this article intends to correct that omission.
The number and type of weapons grew over time, not only by ones personally acquired but also through gifts made to him while serving in public office. By his death in January 1965 Churchill had acquired and used at least 24 weapons but, at his death, only 17 were known as surviving in his personal armoury, including his favourite pair of Woodward shotguns and his trusty Mannlicher rifle, plus some weapons relating to his military career.
Churchill saw military service in India, the Sudan, South Africa and on the Western Front in World War I. While serving in these theatres he carried and used a variety of pistols and revolvers. The earliest pistol we know of was a .455in Webley-Wilkinson Model 1892 revolver, probably acquired in early 1894 during his cadetship at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He used it during his service on the North-West Frontier of India, an area of perpetual conflict known to the Army as the ‘Zone’, when serving with the 4th Hussars in 1896 and the revolver remained with him until his death in 1965. The Imperial War Museum acquired it in 1997.
One of the abiding mysteries regarding Churchill’s military service weapons is associated with his service in the Sudan and South Africa, and his use of the Mauser C96 pistols during that service. That he used one is not in doubt but the mystery is how many did he have, where and when did he get them and what happened to them? Some entries in the Churchill papers cast light on their acquisition. There is an account dated 1 November 1898 from John Rigby & Co for: ‘£15 2s for two Mauser pistols and ammunition [supplied in 1898]’. The two Mauser pistols are recorded as serial numbers 4257 and 2373 (with an individual cost of £5 5s each; the rest of the order was made up of 1,000 cartridges, a tin-lined cartridge box at 6s and a 1s pistol box). Churchill was often slow to settle his debts, especially with those in ‘trade’, such as tailors or gunmakers as is illustrated by the fact that he only cleared this debt in May 1901. A further note in the Churchill archives from November 1938 shows that even James Woodward & Son had to write to his personal secretary, Kathleen Hill, asking for settlement of an account of £37 13s that dated back to 1935 – three years overdue.
The Mauser mystery deepens as there is an additional reference to a third pistol apparently owned by Churchill in a bill submitted to him, again by John Rigby & Co, on 31 December 1902. This was for work carried out in November 1902 cleaning a revolver (mentioned as a .450 WG Target revolver serial no 1384) and a Mauser pistol serial no 3511. The current whereabouts of two of these Mauser pistols and the Webley WG revolver is unknown; the third Mauser pistol is in a private collection. There is also no mention of these pistols in 1920 on Churchill’s first Firearms Licence, licensing having been introduced by the 1920 Firearms Act.
Sometime during or just after his service in the Sudan campaign of 1898 he acquired, as a memento, an Italian Vetterli-Vitali Model 1870/87 rifle that had been used by the Sudanese forces and which is heavily carved and decorated. He kept it as a souvenir for the rest of his life.
In late 1911, Churchill, now an MP and in government, was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, a post he held up to and through the early years of the war. In February 1914, he was presented with a Canadian Ross Model 1910 Mk III rifle by the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence, Colonel the Hon Sam Hughes MP, which bears a plaque to that effect. It remained in his armoury until his death and was subsequently sold to the Imperial War Museum in 1975.
Following his resignation from the government in November 1915, Churchill served on the Western Front during 1916 as the commanding officer of the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers (in command from January to May 1916) during which time he carried a Colt .45in 1911 Government model pistol. He had purchased it in London in 1915 and it is reputed to have been one of his favourite guns and bears obvious signs of frequent use. The right side of the slide is engraved: ‘WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL’. This is probably the pistol he is recorded as using for target practice during World War II. It is now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.
Churchill acquired or was presented with additional pistols during his lifetime. In early 1911, while serving as Home Secretary, he was presented, as a New Year’s gift, with a Webley Model 1909 self-loading pistol. He received it the day after his involvement in the famous Sidney Street Siege of 3 January 1911. In his note of thanks he alludes to the event: “Had it arrived just one day earlier it might have gone into action. As it is I trust some time will pass before I have need of it. It is, as the Americans say, not a thing you want often, but when you do you want it badly.”
In 1920, Churchill also acquired a Webley .32in Model 1913 self-loading pistol, probably for self-defence. This pistol was assembled in April 1920, sold in June 1920 and appears on Churchill’s l920 licence issued by the Metropolitan Police on 9 December when he was living at No 2 Sussex Square, London W2. It was sold at auction in 2015.
ENTHUSIASTIC GAME SHOT
Less well known is that Churchill was an enthusiastic game shot, both at home and abroad. During his time in South Africa in 1900, as a war correspondent for the London Morning Post, he was invited to shoot on the Natal estate of Gilbert Fownes, a noted South African timber merchant. In 1909, while a Junior Minister in the Colonial Office, he recounted a hunting adventure in East Africa in a travelogue entitled ‘My African Journey’, in which he recalls his exploits hunting big game, especially rhino (he was supposed to be on an official trip to East Africa in his capacity as a Minister in the Colonial Office). It is likely that the reference to a .500in sporting rifle found in James Woodward & Sons’ records is from this time, although there is no subsequent reference after 1922, when it was taken out of storage at the gunmakers.
It would appear that he thoroughly enjoyed game shooting in Britain, too, being especially keen on driven grouse and pheasants. His pair of Woodward ‘Automatic’ shotguns, ordered for him by his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, in 1899 and delivered in 1902 were clearly well used as they are recorded as being regularly serviced and regulated by
Woodward on an annual basis, generally in July or early August, just prior to the Twelfth.
The frequency of his attendance at shooting parties and his clear enjoyment of them can be judged by the quantity of cartridges he ordered each year, particularly from Woodwards: in excess of 1,000 rounds, often in batches of 300 or 500. He was a popular guest on some of the best shoots in the land, including the Duke of Westminster’s at Eaton Hall, where he even had his cartridges delivered by train in November 1938. Photographs show him shooting on Lord Nunburnholme’s estate at Warter Priory in East Yorkshire. Between the wars, a fallow time in his political career, he readily accepted invitations to shooting parties from hosts such as Lord Spencer at Althorp, Northamptonshire; Lord Rochdale (George Kemp, a fellow Conservative and Liberal Unionist MP, created Baron Rochdale in 1913) at Gunnerside in North Yorkshire; and with Lord Astor at Hever Castle in Kent. There were many other invitations to shoot over the years.
For Churchill, these shoots not only allowed him to enjoy his sport but to indulge his other great passion: politics. Fellow guns were often powerful men in both commerce and politics. Churchill’s skill as a shot is attested to by his game card over three days at Warter Priory in December 1910. The shoot was for eight guns, including fellow MPs and ministers of the Crown. It recorded a bag of 4,926 pheasants, 1,385 hares, 396 rabbits, 34 partridges, six woodcock and one duck.
For most of his life, Churchill’s favoured gunmaker was James Woodward & Sons of 64 St James Street, London. The firm built his shotguns and he purchased his 6.5mm Mannlicher rifle there. He also used them most years to maintain his guns. Woodward was taken over by Purdey in 1948 and therefore Churchill, in his later years, would also favour Purdey as a continuation of his loyalty to Woodward.
Just after World War II, Churchill was presented with a Belgian 12-bore Lebeau-Courally Model 106 double-barrelled shotgun. Built by one of the best gunmakers in Belgium in 1938, it was originally owned by one of the finest Dutch sporting shots, Baron Van der Heyden. This shotgun, along with the Woodwards, were the only sporting guns Churchill used. The Lebeau-Courally was sold at auction in 1998.
Churchill was issued a Firearms Certificate, one of the first (no 694), by the Metropolitan Police on 9 December 1920. The certificate permitted Winston Spencer Churchill (WSC) to possess, ‘a .256 bore Mannlicher Sporting Rifle, a .45 Colt automatic pistol, a 9mm Webley automatic pistol, a .32 Webley automatic pistol and a .450 Wilkinson revolver’. His shotguns never appeared on his licences as they were not required to be listed until after 1968.
In 1929, Churchill gave up his Metropolitan Police certificate and was issued a new Firearms Certificate by Kent Constabulary (his country seat was at Chartwell in Kent), upon which were recorded these same weapons. This certificate was maintained until his death on 24 January 1965. The Woodward records also show that on 11 August 1940 the firm arranged payment for Churchill’s Firearms Certificate renewal (2s 6d). In those days your gunmaker was accommodating in all things sporting.
In terms of the firearms owned or presented to Churchill, the sub-machine guns are of particular interest as they represent some of the main models used by British forces from the early 1940s until the 1990s. There are a number of famous images of Churchill using or holding them during the war. They include one of him with a Thompson Model 1928 with the Home Guard near Hartlepool in 1940; one using a Thompson Model 1928A1 and an M1 carbine on Salisbury Plain alongside Eisenhower in 1944; and another of him shooting a Mk II Sten gun at Shoeburyness, Essex, in June 1941.
The Thompson was never part of Churchill’s armoury and unfortunately the two Stens owned by Churchill were in fact Mk IIIs, not the Mk II version he is photographed with. The Mk III variant was the simplest and cheapest model Sten and was made by Lines Bros, the famous toy manufacturer marketing toys under the brand name of ‘Tri-ang Toys’. How he came into possession of the Stens is not known but as one was cased we might assume it was a presentation example. Sterling Armaments also presented him in March 1941 with one of the first Lanchester sub-machine guns (a copy of the German MP28/II); in fact, the gun was a tool room example. In 1953, Sterling Armaments again presented him with a sub-machine gun, this time a Sterling-Patchett model. An early iteration of the famous L2A3 Sterling, it was used in British service from 1952 until the early 1990s. It has a silver plaque attached that is engraved with a quote from his famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech of 4 June 1940. These weapons were to remain on his certificate until his death in 1965. This gun is now in the collection of the Royal Armouries.
Further presentations were made to Churchill after World War II. In 1952, the Colt Firearms Company shipped directly to Churchill a Colt .45in Model 1911 Commander pistol with ivory grips. The slide is engraved: ‘Presented to Rt Hon Winston Churchill’. There was a gift in 1955 of an FN FAL rifle, along with a Browning Hi-Power pistol, presented by the workers of FN. The rifle is inscribed in gold on the receiver: ‘This rifle was made by the workers of Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre and presented to the Rt Hon Sir Winston Churchill, KG, OM, CH, PC, MP, Prime Minister of Great Britain, as a token of respect and admiration. Liege, Belgium, 25th March 1955.’
He is also known to have possessed an American M1 .30in carbine and a Browning .22in sporting rifle, but the exact circumstances of their acquisition remain a mystery. The Woodward day book records for November 1922 a mention of a .500in Express rifle but, again, nothing is known of this rifle and what has become of it. It may well have been the one used during his safari in East Africa in 1907.
For six years after his death the automatic weapons remained at Chartwell, but now under the authority of the National Trust. In 1974, due to the new Firearms Act of 1968, which prohibited automatic weapons, the new owner, Churchill’s grandson Winston Churchill, ordered them to be deposited into the care of a well-known gun dealer, Cogswell & Harrison of Piccadilly. They remained there until sold at auction, along with the Ross rifle and the M1 carbine, at Sotheby’s on 15 July 1975.
Pair of 12-bore ‘The Automatic’ shotguns by Woodward & Son: Churchill’s favourite shotguns, ordered in 1899 by Charles Spencer-Churchill (1871-1934) 9th Duke of Marlborough (1892-1934) to be a 25th birthday present to his cousin, Winston Churchill. They were delivered on 6 October 1902. By 1902, Churchill was an MP (elected in 1900 for the Oldham constituency), which is why the address on the oak and leather case is his rooms at Westminster. They are a pair of single-trigger, hammerless ejector guns known as the ‘Automatic’ model, with half pistol hand stocks. The 29in barrels are of Whitworth steel and were of all cylinder choke. They have arcaded fences and the protruding tumbler pivots are marked with cocking indicators.
12-bore, Lebeau-Courally, Model 106: Built in 1938 by Lebeau-Courally in Liège as a side-by-side sidelock ejector with two triggers and ejectors. Originally sold to Baron Van der Heyden in 1938, one of Holland’s finest shots. By 1947 it was part of Churchill’s gun cabinet.
.455 Webley-Wilkinson revolver (Model 1892): Likely to have been acquired in early 1894. Carried by Churchill during his service on the North-West frontier of India with the 4th Hussars in 1896.
7.63mm Mauser C96 (serial no 4257): Mentioned in a bill submitted by John Rigby & Co in November 1898 to Churchill for the sale of pistols, along with ammunition and a box. Currently in a private collection.
7.63mm Mauser C96 (serial no 2373): Also mentioned in the bill submitted by John Rigby & Co. Whereabouts unknown.
7.63mm Mauser C96 (serial no 3511): Yet a third Mauser pistol, but this time mentioned in a later bill to Churchill submitted by John Rigby & Co, dated December 1902. Whereabouts unknown.
.450 Webley WG Target revolver: Mentioned in a bill submitted to Churchill by John Rigby & Co in December 1902 for cleaning, along with the supply of appropriate ammunition. Built in 1887, it is possible that the pistol originally belonged to Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, who passed it to Winston (he would have been 13 at the time of its manufacture).
9mm Webley Model 1909: Originally assembled in October 1910 and cased, it was gifted as a New Year present to Churchill in 1911. It is engraved ‘From JMB to WSC’.
.32in Webley Model 1913 [pictured]: Assembled on 27 April 1920 and sold during June 1920. Recorded on Churchill’s Firearms Certificate issued on 9 December 1920.
.45in Colt 1911 Government Model: Assembled by Colt in 1914, it is described as a ‘Government Model and 1st Model National Match’. Purchased by Churchill in 1915 and carried by him in World War I.
.45in Colt 1911 pistol, Commander Model: Made in 1952, with grips of ivory. The left side of the slide is engraved: PRESENTED TO RT HON WINSTON CHURCHILL. Shipped directly to Churchill by Colt.
9mm Browning (Hi-Power): Made by FN around 1955 in conjunction with an accompanying FN FAL rifle. It is cased and was presented to Churchill by the FN company. The top of the slide is inlaid in gilt ‘WSC’.
6.5mm Mannlicher Model 1893: Purchased by Churchill from James Woodward & Sons on 16 September 1908. Described as ‘Mannlicher Sporting Rifle, five flushed leaf backsight 100 to 500 yards. Ivory tipped bead foresight. Pistol grip stock.’ It was used by Churchill when stalking in Scotland.
.500in. Express rifle: Mentioned in the Woodward records but no trace can be found of it.
.303in Ross Model 1910 Mk III: Made in 1914 by the Ross rifle Co, Quebec, Canada. The butt has an oval silver presentation plaque inscribed ‘TO RT HON W L SPENCER CHURCHILL WITH THE COMPLIMENTS OF COLONEL THE HON SAM HUGHES MP MINISTER OF MILITIA AND DEFENCE FOR CANADA 14TH FEBRUARY 1914.’
.22in Browning: Little is known of this rifle as no trace of it has yet been found.
.30in M1 Carbine: Not much is known about this carbine, sold at auction in 1975.
7.62mm FN FAL: Made in 1955 by FN as a boxed presentation piece to Churchill to accompany the Browning pistol. The magazine housing inlayed in gold: “I WAS VERY GLAD TO FIND THAT THE WEAPON WAS IN HARMONY WITH CERTAIN IMPORTANT PRACTICAL AND TACTICAL CONCEPTIONS TO WHICH MY OWN LENGTHY EXPERIENCE HAS LED ME.” This is a quote from a speech made by Churchill in Parliament in 1954.
10.35mm Vetterli-Vitali Model 1870/87: This Italian rifle, heavily carved and decorated, was acquired by Churchill as a souvenir of his involvement in the Sudan campaign of 1898, which culminated in his famous participation in a charge by the 21st Lancers at the battle of Omdurman.
9mm Sten Mk III SMG: The Sten Mk III was of simpler construction than the Mk II. Manufactured by Lines Bros, the company behind Tri-ang Toys.
9mm Sten Mk III SMG: Also manufactured by Lines Bros.
9mm Lanchester SMG: Made by the Sterling Armaments Co in March 1940. This was the Lanchester Pilot Gun No 8, one of a small series of pilot guns authorised by contract dated 18 October 1940 for a pilot study into the completion of the drawings, production methods and firing trials. The bolt housing is inscribed: ‘TO THE RT HON WINSTON CHURCHILL, PC CH, MP “WE SHALL FIGHT ON THE BEACHES, ON THE LANDING GROUND…IN THE FIELDS…IN THE STREETS… IN THE HILLS…WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER” HOUSE OF COMMONS 4TH JUNE 1940’. Sterling clearly gifted this to Churchill in the hope he would champion the gun with all three services. In fact, only the Navy adopted it.
9mm Sterling-Patchett SMG: Assembled by Sterling in 1953 and sent to 10 Downing Street as a gift. The underside of the magazine housing has a silver plaque engraved: ‘THE RT HON WINSTON CHURCHILL MP PRIME MINISTER 1940-1945. HE INSPIRED THE NATION – “WE SHALL FIGHT ON THE BEACHES ON THE LANDING GROUND…IN THE FIELDS…IN THE STREETS… IN THE HILLS. WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER” HOUSE OF COMMONS, 4th JUNE 1940.’ It was a personal gift from the Sterling Company. Presented on 3 March 1953 during his second term as Prime Minister (1951-55).