Today’s British Gunmakers are still making rifles based on designs that are over a hundred years old. Diggory examines some of the best.
Purdey are still based in South Audley Street, at Audley House, possibly the most iconic name in the British gun trade. It has been the firm’s home since the move from Oxford Street in 1881. At the time of the move, Purdey were still owned and operated by the family, with James Purdey ‘the Younger’ in charge.
Two years earlier, one of Purdey’s former employees, Frederick Beesley, was busy perfecting his design for a hammerless gun; one that would break the mould. Beesley had left Purdey’s to set up on his own in 1878 and, like most new businessmen, he probably needed a cash injection to help get established.
Beesley’s design was for a self-opening, spring-cocking side-lock unlike anything yet developed. It was so clever and perfectly conceived that it has been Purdey’s sole side-lock action ever since.
Beesley and Purdey agreed on a deal and the 1880 patent was sold for £20 plus a royalty of five shillings per gun made. Purdey quickly exercised his option to pay £35 more to acquire full rights and dispense with future royalties.
The first Purdey/Beesley double rifle is recorded as a .450 with serial number 10905 and was delivered in 1881. It has since been made in just about every conceivable calibre. Purdey made 419 double hammerless rifles between 1880 and 2000 (a small number of these will be lower ‘C’ and ‘D’ grade A&D actions) and they are still making them on Beesley’s patent today.
A new Purdey side-lock ejector double rifle in a dangerous game calibre will cost around £150,000 plus VAT.
Holland & Holland
Holland & Holland did not enter the hammerless side-lock market with a groundbreaking design like the Purdey. The action that became famous as the ‘Royal’ began with a bar-action side-lock originating with Scott and adapted by Holland & Holland as their ‘No.2 Royal’ to differentiate it from the dipped-edge lock version of the original ‘Royal’.
It emerged in 1887 as Holland & Holland’s best gun, becoming a self-opener in 1923 with the introduction of Holland’s patent system featuring a coil spring under the forend. The firm were quick to adopt the over-centre type ejector, now universally known as the ‘Southgate’ in conjunction with the ‘Royal’ side-lock. It is a very reliable combination and has been incorporated into double rifle design in all calibres; perhaps most famously as a .500/.450 nitro express for President Theodore Roosevelt for his 1909 safari.
For many, the ‘Royal’ is best known as a side-lock with hand detachable locks. This feature was introduced in 1908 and in 1912 the iconic .375 H&H magnum made an appearance. Combining all these Holland patents, we can construct a classic: a Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ single-trigger side-lock ejector double rife with hand detachable locks in .375 H&H. Personally, I’d forgo the single trigger.
Today a double rifle by Holland & Holland built on the classic ‘Royal’ platform described above will cost in the region of £160,000 pus VAT
London may be the home of the best known gunmakers and have a reputation for quality that is second to none. However, Birmingham was the source of most of the invention and most of the production of quality sporting guns during the heyday of the trade.
Westley Richards began making Anson & Deeley patent double rifles immediately after patenting the design in 1875. The ‘boxlock’ is perhaps the most durable and dependable action for double rifles ever produced. Its popularity with hundreds of gunmakers and tens of thousands of sportsmen is no accident. Even today, Westley Richards base their standard gun on the A&D, though nowadays they use modified ‘Southgate’ ejectors rather than their in-house designed ‘Deeley box’ ejectors that were popular from 1886 until WW2. Properly made, the A&D is virtually indestructible and with few moving parts, no complications and large limbs, it is very forgiving, even when abused in the way places like Africa or India could abuse sporting rifles.
A more sophisticated addition to the Westley Richards house style emerged in the shape of their hand-detachable’ boxlock, designed in 1897 by Westley Richards employees and patented by John Deeley and Leslie Taylor.
The hand-detachable locks were conceived originally to do-away with the visible pins in the action of the A&D gun. However, the benefits derived at the time were dual – to make a gun safe in transport, when hired help could be untrustworthy, or to quickly remove and replace a broken or faulty lock when no gunsmith or tools were available.
Westley Richards will make you an A&D action fixed-lock dangerous game calibre double rifle or a detachable-lock version today for £45,000 and £65,000 respectively, plus VAT.
If Purdey have their spring-cocking side-lock, Holland & Holland the ‘Royal’ and Westley richards the derivatives of Anson & Deeley’s brainchild, Rigby can also claim heritage with a strong imprint, which traces its roots back to the last days of the 19th century.
Rigby double rifles in black powder calibres and in nitro express form are most recognisable when they feature the distinctive dipped-edge lock-plates and the ‘rising-bite’ mechanism of their classic side-lock rifle. This can be traced back to the patent of Rigby & Bissell taken out in 1879.
The distinctive features of the action are the rocking-lever operating the rising third bite on the top of the action. It is a complex, clever and difficult to make design that works in tandem with the 1863 Purdey double bolt, as indeed to all the actions mentioned in this article.
The heyday of the Rigby ‘rising bite’ was the late 19th century and it fell into disuse as the firm concentrated on more straightforward A&D action rifles. However, in 2015 Rigby commissioned a build of 21 brand new double nitro express rifles on the classic platform. The new rifles are stunning and a triumph for the firm who have proven many critics wrong in adapting the 1879 design into a fully up-scaled, big, double rifle that has been received very well by the sporting public.
Rigby will deliver you a .500 calibre nitro express ‘rising bite’ double rifle for £95,000, plus VAT.
All these top firms are selling 19th century designs, and marketing them as if there is nothing better nor more modern on the market. Despite over a hundred and twenty years of progress; progress that has seen the motor car transformed from crude to complex, the rise of technology and telecommunications, medical advances of which the Victorians could only have dreamt; yet in terms of meeting the needs of the sporting rifle buyer in search of dangerous game, these old designs have never been bettered.
The sporting double rifle of the London or Birmingham patterns described here delivers everything the buffalo or elephant hunter could wish for. What is also relevant is the fact that gunmakers working today, though far fewer in number than those once inhabiting the huge factories at the turn of the 20th century, are capable of producing the first class workmanship that was demanded by the best firms then, as now.
Without those skills, these designs would not be possible to make into bespoke guns today. Advances in technology in the last twenty years have helped enormously but the final product is still reliant on men with files and draw-knives.