The Clay Pigeon whirls over a green field groomed to simulate a grouse moor. Braced against my right shoulder, the Purdey 12-bore shotgun follows the tiny black saucer easily, and then, with a barely perceptible pull on the trigger, blasts it to bits.
I was at the West London Shooting School near Heathrow Airport, trying out two guns from James Purdey & Sons. Purdey is one of the few London gunmakers that still make sporting weapons the way they did in the 19th century. Even a novice like myself can appreciate the fine balance of the guns, the crisp way they eject spent shells, and their elegant antique looks.
Many gun fanciers consider Purdeys the tops (purdey.com). "They are old-school stuff; they are beautifully made," says Nicholas Holt, who owns Holt's, a London gun auctioneer, and looks after the Queen's gun collection. Other high-end British gunmakers include Boss & Co. and Holland & Holland.
The original James Purdey set up shop on Princes Street just off Leicester Square in 1816. The company quickly became gunmaker of choice for gentry and royalty. Purdey was at the forefront of changes in gun technology in the 19th century, then time came to a halt. Chairman Richard Purdey, great-great-great grandson of the founder, says Purdey shotguns "have remained much the same since...the 1880s." The Purdey family sold the company after World War II. Since 1994 it has been owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont.
500 hours of handwork
Making guns the Purdey way takes about 500 hours of handwork at its factory in Hammersmith, in West London. Prices start at around $89,000 for side-by-side game guns, so named because of the position of the two barrels. Over-and-under models start at about $105,000. Elaborate engraving on the metalwork and other custom features can add tens of thousands of dollars to the price.
Over time the guns have proved to be a good investment. Joe Hall, who owns a gun dealer called Matched Pairs in England's County Durham, reckons a gun made in the 1930s, which might have cost $600, would in good condition fetch about $27,000 today. Buy a new gun, however, and its value is likely to fall in the short term, especially if you pay Britain's 17.5 percent value added tax (U.S. residents are exempt).
Like Savile Row suits, Purdey guns are bespoke — crafted to fit the shooter — usually through measurements taken by a West London Shooting School instructor. He will use a "try gun," which can be adjusted until size and sight lines are perfect. Purdey stocks new guns in its South Audley Street shop for customers who don't want to wait 12 or more months for a custom job. The company produces only about 75 guns a year. Nearly all are shotguns, which shoot a spray of pellets for hitting birds or flying man-made targets. Half go to U.S. customers. One such purchaser is Leslie H. Wexner, CEO of Limited Brands Inc. About 15 percent go to collectors who likely will never shoot them.
At the factory, some 35 workers, all men, ply their trade at long wooden benches cluttered with metal scraps and hand tools. Recently, Robert Seddon was filing a pair of gun barrels to Purdey's distinctive, flowing shape and boring out the insides with a lapping machine that cuts finely with a mixture of emery paste and oil. "They need to be able to hit the same spot at 40 yards," he says.
Purdey craftsmen achieve extraordinary precision with handwork. Philip Butcher uses a can of burning oil to smoke the edges of the joint between the barrels and the rest of the gun to help create a tight seal. He snaps it shut, then opens it, and files the imperfections still coated with smoke. Repeated over and over, this process can shave metal to within a thousandth of an inch, he says.
Seven different crafts are represented in the shop. Purdey prizes stockers, who carve blocks of walnut, purchased from the Kurdish region of Turkey for $1,200 a pop into elegant gun stocks, or bodies. Mark McCarthy, a stocker, says the most demanding part of the job is chiseling in the rich, checkered pattern that goes on Purdey guns. He puts in up to 100 hours, squeezing in 20 to 30 lines per inch in a crosshatch pattern. McCarthy also bores hollow cylinders in the stock to make the gun lighter and "slightly nose-heavy" so it seems more agile.
Decoration on Purdey guns has long been understated. That is no longer what some clients want. In fact, the great change of the past few decades has been the emergence of artist engravers, whose work can overshadow that of the gunmakers. The best known of these independent engravers is Ken Hunt, who began as an apprentice at Purdey in the 1950s and also worked for legendary engraver Harry Kell. In his workshop on the top floor of his house in Surrey, Hunt inlays vivid representations of game animals into the metalwork using colored gold. He commands about $90,000 over the gun's price. At 70, he has cut back to about four guns a year.
Certainly, the guns I shot performed beautifully. To my surprise I broke most of the targets until Tim Cole, my instructor, had me try hitting clay birds coming off a 60-foot tower — a tough assignment. Cole's sage guidance helped. But using such pedigreed guns seemed to make things a lot easier.