Are you tempted to spend the school fees on a side-by-side? Peruse Michael Yardley's guide to the 10 most expensive guns in the world and pen the ultimate wish list
The most expensive guns in the world are, sadly, not a ticket to instantly becoming a better shot. But there is no denying they will make a day in the field far more thrilling. All shooting people will have a much-loved gun, one that wiped everyone’s eye at the Boxing Day shoot, took the first woodcock or travelled to the very first grouse butt. And yet, the most expensive guns in the world are still irresistable.
So which of Michael Yardley’s selection of the most expensive guns will take your pick? Do you prefer British or European? Established or modern? Peruse our ultimate wishlist and choose which will top yours.
British gunmakers continue to offer the finest on the market, using the latest technology to build the highest-quality guns. Discover more about the companies continuing Britain’s long tradition, read British gunmakers of the 21st century. The Field has a number of guides to the very best field kit, including the best shooting coats, best ear defenders for shooting and best gumboots.
Prices correct at time of publication (2015).
The Field’s 10 most expensive guns
This is not only one of the most expensive guns, it is probably the most sophisticated. At the Fabbri factory (read about the editor’s visit to the Fabbri: Italian gunmakers factory) the bench artisans work in silence as if in a religious establishment. The guns, blending old and new, are technically supreme. Every detail is thought through and many are unusual. The demi-lump barrels made from stainless steel, for example, don’t have conventional joining ribs; a micron-machined H-section sits between the tubes, which are brought into perfect re-lationship for point of impact by this component. When everything is exactly right the assembly with sighting rib is fused together by laser, creating one piece of metal. It is then DLC (diamond-like carbon)-coated, this high-temperature vacuum process vastly increasing resistance to wear as well as blacking the steel. The barrels, also tested to extreme proof pressure, become virtually indestructible. About 20 Fabbris are made each year. They are imported by Tony Kennedy, who observes, “There is nothing better and never has been, so much goes into it, you have to see how it is made to understand.”
Price: from £138,000 for an all-stainless gun and £150,000 for one with a titanium action (which reduces overall weight by about a pound if required). There is a 25% supplement for a pair.
Delivery: usually four to five years.
PETER HOFER SIDELOCK
Hofer, based in Ferlach, Austria, is a great showman and maker of some of the world’s most exclusive, innovative and most expensive guns. “Every-body says you can’t create a new gun. But that is not true,” he says. “Every third gun we create is a new gun.” About six guns leave his atelier each year. All are ornate and mechanically original. He may work on a single piece for many years (on one he lavished 21,400 hours). I recently handled a double-barrelled .17 rifle weighing 2lb, engraved with beetles.
Hofer has developed a side-by-side 12-bore sidelock that includes an almost hidden .17 tube between the two smoothbore barrels. His more conventional side-by-side, made to whatever specification is desired and taking about 1,600 man hours, has a back action and single trigger. A Boss-system over-and-under is also offered, taking 2,000 hours, as well as more German-style guns. Hofer makes large and small gauges, but seems to have a particular passion for the miniature.
Price: He does not like to discuss price but Bloomberg Businessweek reports the range as $200,000 to $500,000. What Hofer calls his “Mega guns” may cost more than £1 million.
Delivery: by negotiation, depending on specification.
Boss, established in 1812, patented its over-and-under – one of the most influential of all – in 1909. And the modern version is on of the most expensive guns in the world today. Breech-loading over-and-unders had been made in Germany from about 1870 but Boss streamlined and lowered the action, dispensing with a cross-pin beneath the barrels. Instead, rotating trunnions at the knuckle mate with teardrop wedges machined into the barrel lumps. The Boss has two locking systems. There are draws projecting one on each side of the action walls meeting corresponding female radii in the middle of bifurcated barrel lumps. To the rear of the chambers two semicircular projections protrude and engage slots on either side of the bottom of the action face. A bolt emerging from the face locks these down. Says the firm’s Jason Craddock, “The draw system reduces strain at the knuckle and keeps the barrels on the face; the rear bolt and bites fasten the gun. There is tension at the trunnions but the draws reduce this significantly.”
Both systems are much imitated and the rear bolting has inspired many makers to create simplified versions as well outright copies. Most Bosses include a turret-system, mechanical single trigger and the ejector mechanism is powered by coil springs.
Price: from £105,540, including VAT (single trigger, £114,540). Double-trigger side-by-sides start at £81,540 (single trigger, £90,540). No more than 18 guns are made annually.
Delivery: 30 months.
Purdey, established 1814, acquired the right to make the Woodward over-and-under (patented in 1913) from James Woodward after the Second World War, having offered a more complex, deeper, six-bite design previously. The gun is distinguished by a brilliant hinging system involving stud pins near the knuckle and bifurcated lumps (much copied by dozens of makers) and a unique tongue-and-groove lock mid action. Superlatively strong, this is rarely copied because it is difficult to make. The Woodward-type over-and-under has a low action profile and great elegance of form. The ejection mechanism, improved by Ernest Lawrence, is boxed and powered by leaf springs.
Today, this over-and-under may also be ordered in Damas steel, which looks like traditional Damascus but is a tremendously strong, super-material created by bringing together two powdered steels in a nitrogen vacuum.
I have shot both conventional and Damas guns and found the latter in 30in 12-bore form one of the best I’ve ever used on game.
Price: for Purdey over-and-unders in 12-, 16- or 20-bore start at £108,720. In 28-bore and .410 they rise to £115,320. A Damas version is one of the most expensive guns in the world, and would cost you at least £130,320.
Delivery: 18-24 months.
HOLLAND & HOLLAND ROYAL OVER-AND-UNDER
Holland & Holland, established in 1835, first made an over-and-under in 1914. An improved version was introduced in 1950. Different again was the new Royal over-and-under brought out in 1992 (prototyped in 20-bore form two years earlier). The new gun benefited – as did the less expensive, sideplated, detachable-trigger “Sporting” over-and-under launched at about the same time – from the CNC machining revolution then happening within the London gun trade and at Holland & Holland in particular.
The gun is a back-action sidelock with a notably shallow and elegantly bolstered slim body. Unlike in a Purdey, Woodward or Boss, there are no additional central bites. It locks by means of square bolts locating just above the centre of the lower barrel. The gun is offered with double triggers or a non-selective, inertia-operated single trigger. I have shot the gun in most forms but the 30in 20-bore is one of the sweetest (natural pointing, low recoil, effortless) I have had the pleasure to use. It takes more than 900 hours to build.
Price: with a single trigger of £98,400, including VAT, in 12-, 16- and 20-bore; 28-bore and .410 cost £104,400. The firm produces 75 to 80 guns a year.
Delivery: 30 months.
The Purdey-Beesley side-by-side hammerless self-opener is perhaps the most iconic shotgun of all. Based on a design conceived by the gunmaker Frederick Beesley and patented in 1880, it revolutionised the British sporting gun (as did the simpler but no less influential Anson & Deeley hammerless boxlock brought out by Westley Richards in the 1870s). It was set apart by the beautiful form of its sidelocks and the ingenuity of their mechanism. They used one leg of a V-spring to power the internal hammers and the other to power the self-opening feature, which was useful to speed up shooting on the large-bag days then becoming fashionable. Ejectors were added in the 1880s and, apart from developments in this area, the gun made today is virtually unchanged from that conceived by Beesley (who licensed the manufacturing right to Purdey initially and later sold it the design).
The traditional steel gun with classic Purdey rose and scroll come in 12-, 16- or 20-bore, 28-bores and .410s. Purdey also offers a hammer ejector in 12-, 16- or 20-bore. The 12-bore I shot performed fantastically well (perhaps the best side-by-side I have shot, equalling the superb hammerless Holland Royal).
Price: for a traditional steel gun with classic Purdey rose and scroll in 12-, 16- or 20-bore are £94,080, inclusive of VAT; 28-bores and .410s cost £99,120. The 12 bore hammer ejector costs £99,120 and may be ordered with Damas steel barrels for an extra £14,400, making a total of £113,520 (thus qualifying as Britain’s most expensive house-engraved side-by-side).
Delivery: usually 18 to 24 months.
WILLIAM & SON SIDELOCK
William & Son was founded in 1999 by William Asprey after he had managed the Gun Room at Asprey’s in Bond Street. William & Son’s gunmaking team is led by Paul West, an ex-Holland & Holland man. The guns have a distinctive style, typically svelte with deep-scroll house engraving (although available with whatever the customer wants). They represent excellent value, too, when one considers their quality. Side-by-sides are built on a slimmed Holland-style action in all bore sizes. The over-and-unders are built on a modification of the Boss system but with Woodward-style hinging studs and bifurcated lumps. Ejection uses conventional cams and V-springs rather than the coil springs of the Boss. However, the gun locks up in a similar fashion to the Boss (or guns that imitate it) with draws mid action and projections either side of the bottom chamber that slot into recesses in the action face. The over-and-under is available in 12- and 20-bore only. The firm makes only a dozen guns a year.
Price: Side-by-sides cost from a little more than £60,000, including VAT, the over-and-under, when equipped with a single-trigger, costs from around £75,000.
Delivery: about 12 months (less time than most premier-league makers).
HOLLAND & HOLLAND ROYAL SIDE-BY-SIDE SELF OPENER
Holland’s Royal model was first mentioned in 1883 and illustrated in this magazine in 1895. With its leg-of-mutton locks it looked significantly different to the modern gun. A second series, incorporating Holland-Robertson patents, was developed in the 1890s. This had what we would now regard as conventional lock plates and an improved ejector mechanism based on what would now be called the Southgate system. An assisted opening mechanism was added in 1922 in-volving a tube and spring beneath the barrels. The gun is one of the favourites of the gun trade because of it brilliant design and the ease with which it can be maintained. I think it shoots especially well, too.
The only changes in the past few decades have been to the wood (now Turkish) and to the wall thickness of the barrels (slightly increased). It takes about 800 hours to complete a modern Royal side-by-side.
Prices: from £85,800, including VAT, for a 12-, 16- or 20-bore with double trigger; in 28-bore and .410 it costs £90,000, including VAT.
Delivery: approximately two years (some shelf guns available).
WESTLEY RICHARDS 4-BORE DROPLOCK SIDE-BY-SIDE DOUBLE
Westley Richards not only perfected the basic boxlock but in 1897 introduced a version with detachable locks known as the “droplock” because the locks may be removed from under the action via a hinged bottom plate. This is one of the most intriguing of all British designs (the Dickson Round Action might run it a close second). Each lock contains only seven components. Workmanship is outstanding, with jewelled surfaces and impeccable presentation. The gun is available in .410 to 4-bore. The 12-bore versions I shot impressed, but so does the behemoth 4-bore, partly because of its sheer scale.
All guns have the Westley top lever and “Model C” doll’s-head extension. The firm is well known for its single selective trigger (double triggers are an option), which operates on an inertio-mechanical principle and has 26 individually made parts.
Prices: from £46,200, including VAT, with full scroll; the single trigger will add £4,620. A 4-bore, however, would cost £71,400, including VAT. Extra locks for all gauges cost £3,900. Exhibit-ion wood would add £2,400 per gun and tip and toe plates £2,050 each.
Delivery: about 30 months.
MOST EXPENSIVE GUNS: LIST CRITERIA
Mike Yardley explains the criteria behind the creation of this list of the 10 most expensive guns in the world.
Creating a list of truly great guns – guns made by methods old and new and without any compromise – is not without complications. Much thought and research went into this one. Initially, the idea had been to consider the 10 best guns in the world, but the criteria for selection would have been subjective. So, it was decided to use price as the main criterion but even this is not as simple as it might seem. Extra finish, special engraving or embellishment with precious metals, enamel or gemstones can vastly in-crease the cost of a gun and may set a false benchmark with regard to fundamental quality. Any sporting gun may be “blinged up”.
A further problem is that some of the makers represented here are so exclusive that they have no standard price. So, one creates the list by considering guns representative of their oeuvre. Whatever way you cut it, a little subjectivity creeps in.
I have had the good fortune to shoot eight of the guns listed. I cannot vouchsafe the shooting qualities of all of them or indeed confirm their long-term reliability save where I have used them on several occasions or they are owned by friends. All impress or even astound in their craftsmanship and finish.
Some names not featured here are omitted because production is much diminished and their elderly makers are not taking new orders. I have also left out two great Continental names because I have insufficient experience of their guns. One modern English company, Ray Ward, might well have featured were this list compiled a year hence. Also, I have recently been impressed by the father-and-son team Max Ern in Germany. Its gunmaking is exquisite but its guns do not come into the “rich list” category though far from lacking in fundamental quality.