An overseas client asked me recently to resolve an argument with a client of his own. It went like this: “He reckons that Atkin was a third class gunmaker. I said that Atkin follows Purdey, Boss and Holland & Holland in the second row of fine gunmakers. Do you have a different opinion? William Powell might be an example of a third rank gunmaker”.
How we all like pigeon holes to put things in!
It is not the first time I have heard such debates and there is definitely a perception abroad among those interested in collecting British guns that there were ‘tiers of quality’ and that these can be ascribed to various makers in order to establish value and confirm quality. some Americans have even taken the trouble to show me tables they have concocted to show these ranks and offer a definitive ‘league table’ of British gunmakers.
Unfortunately for those who would prefer life to be more ordered than it is, such ranking systems are utter nonsense.
Look at a plain boxlock with Rigby (London) engraved on the action. Then look at an identical one with Darlow (Bedford). Does the presence of the name ‘Rigby’ elevate the gun to a higher level of quality? Clearly not. The quality is what it is. Quality can be established only by examination of the gun.
Another example: a Holland & Holland must be better than a Stephen Grant because the former is a ‘top tier’ maker and the latter a ‘second tier’ maker. A fairly common view. Again, on what basis? If the Grant is a better gun (which it will be if comparing a Holland ‘Badminton’ or ‘Dominion’ with a Grant side-lock of best quality), then it is a better gun. quality is where you find it.
There are thousands of comparisons to be made which totally disprove the idea that British gunmakers can be ranked. OK, I hear you ask, “What about Boss? they only made best guns”. So they did, but is a Boss hammer gun of best quality any better than one made to the same quality at the same time by Henry Atkin or by B. Norman of Framlington? No.
Some may argue that Boss, Purdey and H&H all had London factories and other makers had their guns made in Birmingham. Maybe you have a Holland & Holland ‘Badminton’, their second quality sidelock. It was very likely made by the Birmingham firm of A.A Brown. Or perhaps you own a ‘Dominion’, the back-action H&H built on a Scott & Baker patent. It would have been built in Birmingham too. I can complicate this a little more by pointing out that the Birmingham manufacture of these guns is no indication of inferior quality. Birmingham gunmakers could, and did, make guns of the very highest standard; certainly the equal of any London firm.The output of W&C Scott alone is sufficient to prove this point.
What of the ‘second tier’? Well, firms like Grant, Atkin and Beesley made guns in-house. They also used outworkers like Hodges, Robertson and Perkes, all London-based and prolific ‘makers to the trade’. All were outstanding gunmakers and made some of the finest sporting arms ever to leave a workshop. They all provided services to he ‘top tier’ makers as well. So, the lines are blurred.
But, many will argue, there is no smoke without fire. If there is a perception of a hierarchy, there must be some truth in it. We need to address that argument too. I would reconsider the whole basis of tiers. They are categorically not indications of quality. I suggest that because they are more widely known, they offer ‘Brand Value’. This does matter in the marketplace.
Brand Value dictates that a Purdey boxlock will make more money than a Wilkes boxlock of equal quality and condition. It will do so purely because more people have heard of Purdey and the ‘show off value’ of having a Purdey to impress your friends is greater than that of Wilkes, of whom few will have heard. Brand Value is real in the marketplace and has to be considered as part of the valuation process of a gun. It has nothing to do with quality.
When I value a gun, I do so by considering a range of factors: Brand Value, Original Quality, Current Condition, Mechanical Desirability, Rarity, Provenance. This allows me to value the gun on its merits. I will look at a Boss and a Beesley and determine that the Boss is ahead on Brand Value, because more people know and revere the name of Boss than they do Beesley. It may be that the same examination puts the Beesley ahead on Original Quality. Some Beesleys are better made than some Boss guns. Current Condition reflects the kind of life a gun has endured. A worn-out Purdey will be out-scored by a lightly used Bonehill in this regard. Mechanical Desirability shows us that it is easier to sell a second model Holland ‘Royal’ than a first model and therefore it is worth more. Rarity determines that a 28-bore Lancaster sidelock will score higher than a 12-bore by the same maker because there are very few 28-bore sidelocks in circulation. If your plain boxlock belonged to Ernest Hemingway, it will be worth more than if it were owned by Mr Smith the butcher. That accounts for Provenance, if applicable.
So, next time you get into a discussion about the relative merits of gunmakers, remember that scores of them produced guns in a whole range of qualities. A famous name is just that: famous. A well marketed brand which equals enhanced prices in the shops. Please avoid the trap of believing that gunmakers can be ranked by name to equal quality or status. They should not be, and cannot be ranked this way with any reliability.
By the way, if you ever want to see what class of gunmaker William Powell was, get hold of the locks and action from an 1860s or 1870s hammer gun and worship at the alter of best gun making.