Do you covet a matched pair of shotguns? Mike Yardley examines the shotguns on the market and what to do when you have your matched pair.
Many who shoot harbour an ambition to own a pair of shotguns. Mine began as a kid sneaking into my uncle’s gunroom to lift the oak and leather lid that concealed his vintage side-lever Grants. He was a stylish, traditionally minded sportsman and always had the kit to match (he once instructed his manservant to kick a new cartridge bag about the garden because he considered it looked too new). I loved the look and smell of those guns; though I never had the chance to shoot them, they are burned deep in my memory.
There is a certain magic about a brace of patinated English or Scottish game-guns of the Golden Era – especially in their original labelled and suitably weathered case with all the interesting bits and bobs such as load data, oil bottles, turnscrews, and so on. Surprisingly, some of these guns remain attainable, though if you are just looking for a brace of working guns there are sensible alternatives, not least new and secondhand Spanish sidelock side-by-sides and Italian doubles.
A pair of shotguns is a useful resource as well as an iconic possession. You may not shoot on double-gun days routinely, but many of us are favoured with the odd day at grouse or special occasion at which double guns are either permissible or required. A pair of shotguns also provides an instant spare should your designated or actual No 1 fail (it is often the case with older pairs, by the way, that one will have seen much more service than the other). When double-gunning was the norm on big estates, many invested in a trio for similar reasons – to have an instant spare. Some of the late-Victorian and Edwardian Big Shots tripled-gunned (though quartets are very rare). Sir Joseph Nickerson used a trio of Purdey 28-bore over-and-unders more recently, and trios are still used occasionally in Spain and South America.
What sort of pairs might one encounter today? A true pair of shotguns will be consecutively numbered and matched in all handling and visual respects. The barrels will be of the same length (though choking may differ), the engraving will be near identical, and the stocks should have similar figure (and, of course, dimensions). The shotguns may not be exactly the same weight but they will feel the same or very similar and be balanced accordingly. Matched pairs will also be encountered where the second gun has been made at a later date to mimic the first and will not have a consecutive number.
Consecutively numbered shotguns are just that – the numbers follow on but they may not be true twins. Machine-made guns – where variations are slighter – are often “paired” in this way. But companies like Beretta and AyA still offer true pairs at a surcharge (usually 10%). Composed pairs are guns that do not have consecutive numbers but are put together to shoot practically as a pair (the Editor, for example, has two Beretta Silver Pigeons that he uses as a practical pair al-though they are not identical in every respect).
Let’s now assume that we are in the market and set a potential budget. We know that the sky is the limit: it is quite possible to spend a quarter of million quid on a new pair of Purdeys or Fabbris if you are minded to indulge yourself. Let us be more realistic, though: £20,000 or thereabouts. What can you get for that sort of money? Well, £20,000 is more than enough to buy a beautiful pair of classic shotguns that should not only give a lifetime’s service but hold their value well, too. Pairs of better quality tend to be a better investment than other guns (as do single guns in original condition by the premier league makers).
A pair of vintage sidelocks by a top London name bought for £20,000 will probably have 30in, not very tightly choked barrels – original choke and barrel dimensions significantly increase value – and might not be that crisp. Pairs by excellent but less valued names will fall well within budget. And you might still get a pair of relatively modern but short-barrelled guns by one of the greats (25in, 26in and 27in guns are not especially favoured by the market). You could also acquire ideal spec, near-mint, 28in guns by a Birmingham or provincial maker. Pairs of best-quality boxlocks should not be discounted (indeed, they can be a great buy), nor quality Spanish or Italian guns (especially if your budget is limited).
Continental shotguns, if bought secondhand but near new in the UK, offer some particular bargains. I bought a superb pair of tight-scroll-engraved Zoli sidelocks some little while back for a lot less than £10,000. They would cost in the region of €30,000 each to buy new.
On the new shotgun front, you cannot go wrong with a pair of Beretta EELLs, AyA No 2s or GMK Arrietas (a pair of round-action Crowns will set you back only £8,000). EJ Churchill, William Powell and William Evans all offer quality Spanish-made but English-spec’d side-by-sides carrying their own names. The Churchill Continental range (made by Arrieta) has been a great success (and the top-of-the-line Hercules guns cost just over £20,000 excluding VAT for a pair, with two other options within budget). Williams Evans offers the well-made Grullas, which have impressed me with their at-tention to detail (particularly in barrel making and finish).
LOOK BEYOND LONDON
For less than £20,000 William Powell offers several pairs of well-finished 12-bore models. A brace of its 12-bore Monarch side-by-sides in a leather and canvas double gun case costs £9,900 including VAT. A pair of Eclipse – the firm’s round-bar model – in a leather double case costs £13,750 in 12-bore; and a pair of Linhope high-bird guns with a leather case costs £16,500. The firm also offers 16-, 20- 28- bore pairs and .410s at a 10% premium. Its Phoenix round-bodied over-and-under pair in 12-bore in a fitted case costs £13,080. I have no prejudice against stack barrels. I use them and am a fan of Italian Guerini over-and-unders, especially in sideplated and round-bar 20-bore form with longer barrels.
What do others have to say about pairs? Auctioneer Gavin Gardiner comments, “It is easy to forget that it was not just the famous gunmaking names that built best-quality guns. The market is currently so focused on Purdey, Holland & Holland and Boss that there are many very fine guns slipping below the radar and providing amazing value for money. Pairs by secondary names such as Stephen Grant, Henry Atkin, Joseph Lang and Edwinson Green all provide absolute best quality but often at two thirds of the price. While a best pair of Purdeys may be selling at auction in the region of £30,000, a virtually identical pair by Henry Atkin may sell for £18,000.” It is important to see beyond the famous name engraved on the gun and, instead, judge it purely on its quality, specification and condition.
Patrick Hawes of Bonhams notes that it is now difficult to buy an original pair of Holland & Hollands, Purdeys or Boss in good, crisp, condition for less than £20,000, unless they have been sleeved or rebarrelled or have problems such as thin barrel walls. But he also notes a “vast range” of pairs available below the £20,000 mark. “There are numerous other makers that represent fantastic value for money and are available for less than £20,000,” he says. “Makers such as Atkin, Grant, Lang and Churchill are the leaders for me.” He recently sold a pair of 30in rebarrelled Holland & Holland Royals with thin barrels for £18,000 including buyer’s premium, a sleeved pair of Purdeys for £13,000 and a pair of Atkin sidelocks for £12,000. A fine pair of Evans boxlocks made £6,500, a good pair of AyA 20-bores engraved by Bimendi came in at £10,000 and a pair of Beretta sidelock over-and-unders at £9,000. A pair of 25in sidelock AyAs – great if you can manage short barrels – made only £2,000.
Diggory Hadoke of Atkin Grant & Lang, a vintage gun enthusiast, recently offered an 1890s pair of best Stephen Grant side-lever 12-bores with new barrels by the makers for £16,000, and a pair of top-lever Grant 12-bores for £14,000. Both pairs were in their original oak and leather cases, with accessories and labels intact. All had good barrel wall measurements (something to check when buying old guns) and had been through his firm’s workshop for a thorough overhaul. “They were ready for another century of fair use,” he says. “We have a pair of Churchill XXV (25in) boxlock ejectors on spring-opening actions in very good condition at the moment for £9,000 and I have just put up a pair of beautiful damascus-barrelled 16-bore boxlock non-ejectors by Isaac Parkes, in a lovely two-tier oak and leather case for £4,500.”
His message was very similar to that of Gavin Gardiner and Patrick Hawes. By avoiding the “brand value” the market puts on Purdey, Boss and Holland & Holland guns, and concentrating on the most important factors for the canny buyer – original quality and current condition – the sub-£20,000 sector of the market still offers value, even where best sidelock ejectors are concerned.
CUSTOM BUILT FROM £7,000
Paul Roberts sells many English pairs but has done much to develop guns from Spain and Italy. “We struggled for years finding a source of consecutively numbered, truly matched, and reliable guns at a price that would suit the British market,” he says. “Pedro Arrizabalaga, a Spanish ‘best only’ firm filled our needs for some years. However, with the rise in value of the euro and the increased cost of Spanish gunmaking, we turned to Italy for custom-built over-and-unders in the English style. We now offer true pairs of custom-built B Rizzini plain, sideplated over-and-unders in 12-, 16-, 20- and 28-bore on dedicated actions from £7,000, cased and including VAT. This covers barrel- and stock-length choice, consecu-tive numbers, 1 and 2 in gold and well-figured stocks.”
Roberts sells round-bodied over-and-under pairs from £10,000 to £12,000 and de luxe, hand-engraved, sideplated pairs from £12,000 to £16,000 (depending on engraving and wood and case quality) and including VAT. Like William Evans, he offers bespoke side-by-side Grullas, which, in his case, cost £18,000 in 12- and 20-bore including first-class wood, rose-and-scroll engraving and a good case. “At the moment,” he tells me, echoing my own thoughts, “little-used pairs of top-quality Spanish guns represent excellent value, especially those made by Arrieta, Arrizabalaga, Garbi and AyA.” From stock, for example, he has an excellent secondhand pair of best Arrieta 20-bores in as new condition with long stocks and fine rose-and-scroll engraving, each gun with an extra pair of choked barrels. They are smartly cased and priced at £13,500.
Let me end by noting that you can still get a pair of new square-bar AyA No 2 12-bores from ASI for £11,690, or the elegant round-bar No 2s for £12,440; 16-, 20- and 28-bores cost slightly more. And if you want to bust the budget, a new pair of AyA No 1s will still come in at less than £25,000.
Double-gunning is a skill that requires practice and the best place to start is on a medium-height tower at a shooting school.
The rhythm of shooting pairs is different and there are special safety considerations. There is undoubtedly a knack to it. You’ll be surprised initially just how difficult it is to maintain your timing. You don’t need a true pair to practise but the guns will need similar dimensions, trigger pulls, weight and handling qualities.
The most important point of all is to control your muzzles and get in the habit of applying the safety catch before you hand the gun back to your loader.
Double-gunning demands a clear head because it increases the number of things one must think about as well as the number of potential mistakes that one might make.
Here are some basic principles.
1)The loader stands to the right rear of the shooter (assuming a gun firing off his or her right shoulder).
2) The fired gun is handed back with the right hand (the loader taking it with his left a few inches forward of the action body) over the right shoulder.
3) The fresh gun is taken by the shooter with the left hand, palm facing upwards to receive the gun. The shooter’s eyes, meantime, keep looking forward towards the birds.
4) The safety catch must be on when the gun is passed back to the loader; the shooter’s trigger finger must be off the trigger and the hand firmly wrapped around the grip behind the bow of the trigger guard.
5) Gun muzzles are held safely up as they pass from hand to hand.
6) When he is opening the returned gun, the loader must make sure that the muzzles are pointed safely, too. When he loads and closes the gun, the muzzles should be directed towards the ground (noting the potential danger to his own and other shooters). There is never a need for the loader to have his fingers near the trigger or touching the trigger guard.
7) The shooter should pass his gun back when
a single shot has been fired if no other shot is immediately anticipated, with safety reapplied.
These drills are from the BASC Guide to Shooting Game by Michael Yardley