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Purdey Rifles

At the funeral of King Edward VII, nine crowned heads of Europe assembled to pay their respects. It would be the last time they were to gather. Among the mourners were Kaiser Wilhelm II and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A few short years later the First World War, sparked by the assassination of the latter, had ravaged the continent and put to rest the old theory that by having inter-connected royalty at the top, major conflicts could be avoided. The monarchies were never again to hold the power and influence they had on that day in 1910.

These heads of state all had one remarkable thing in common. They were customers of a small firm of bespoke gun and rifle makers in London’s South Audley Street. That maker was, of course, James Purdey & Sons. Today the firm operates from the very same premises and caters to royalty still; be they in the traditional mould, or the Hollywood variety.

Purdey has been in business for long enough to have covered all the major developments in sporting guns, from flintlock to hammerless side-lock ejector, to bolt action. The firm has made rifles on just about every major mechanism put to use in the 19th century and various generations of Purdey craftsmen and proprietors were key inventors of mechanisms that were commercial and practical successes, many are still incorporated in rifles being built today.

Since our interest here is principally in the modern production rifles being constructed at the London factory and sold through Audley House, we shall not dwell on every type of rifle Purdey made in the past. However, some acknowledgement of  the step-changes in design that were Purdey contributions to the overall progress of the rifle is in order. 

If we start our examination in the muzzle loading era, when a customer walking into the shop, in 1830, with a new rifle order on his mind would be asked to part with just over £39 for a single-barrel rifle, or £73 for a double. These would, of course, be percussion guns. Purdey’s wares have always been expensive. To put the purchase cost of these rifles into perspective, the same gentleman could hire a skilled housekeeper for £15 per annum, or a house-maid for £8.

Improvements in firearms and ammunition went hand-in hand. As well as considering the development of the action, we must consider the ammunition and means by which the bullet was stabilised and made accurate at long range. Purdey registered his ‘Self-Expanding Purdey Bullet’ in 1852 and, though rejected for military use, it proved ideal as a sporting round. It was a two-part bullet comprising of an iron plug mated into a lead conical bullet. The plug, upon detonation of the powder, pushed into the lead bullet and expanded the base, causing it to grip the rifling. This was very effective in improving the accuracy of a muzzle loader. 

However, the next Purdey projectile would have more widespread resonance and for it he coined the name ‘Express’. The plan was to increase range. Muzzle-loading rifles were then low-velocity, but with impressive accuracy to 100 yards. Beyond that range, the poor trajectory limited their potential. The main problem was that if more powder was placed behind the bullet, it would strip in the rifling. Purdey designed a bullet with ‘wings’ and a two-groove rifling profile with a slow turn that could handle a heavier charge. He built the first in 1851: a rifled 16-bore, and followed it with a true rifle calibre (40-bore) in 1852. The two-groove express remained popular until breech-loaders took over from muzzle loaders and it extended sporting ranges to 300 yards. The term BPE, ‘Black Powder Express’, and later N.E, ‘Nitro Express’ continues in use today and denotes a heavy bullet moving relatively fast, with a flat trajectory, as to Purdey’s mind, did an express train.

By 1858 pin-fire had made an impact, heralding the future of breech-loaders and the demise of muzzle loaders. Purdey sold a 40-bore rifle of this type in 1862 for £84. Initially built on the modified Lefaucheaux action. Breech-loading rifles soon began to feature the stronger Henry Jones screw grip, patented in 1859. Purdey’s own invention, the double under-bolt was patented in 1863 and, teamed with the 1865 Scott Spindle, became the most popular double rifle (and shotgun) operating system in the country. Everyone wanted to copy it, so it also made the firm a lot of money in royalty payments.

Pin-fire, of course, gave way to centre-fire in the 1860s and Purdey kept abreast of the developments in firearms and the changing demands of its customers. By the 1870s Purdey had a strong trade in rifles for domestic and foreign use and made them in several qualities: ‘Best’, B, C, D and E. In this period a best double rifle cost about £88. For a B grade hammerless rifle the cost was £50, for C grade, £40, for D grade, £30 and for E grade £25 (I have rounded the prices down to the nearest pound).

Readers surprised to hear of Purdey selling a range of grades should consider that such terms are relative. The C,D and E quality guns were boxlock (Anson & Deeley) in design and the lower grade guns were primarily made elsewhere and finished at Purdey’s factory. The small calibre rook rifles that were popular in the 1880s were made for Purdey by Redman in Birmingham and retailed for £12, for example. 

Birmingham gun-maker Samuel Allport made Henry patent falling-block rifles for Purdey, as well as boxlock rifles, which were regulated and finished by Purdey gunmakers, in London. The practice of selling guns in a number of quality grades began in the late 1870s and ended before WW1. The practice enabled the firm to cater to the colonial market and offer a full range of options to the customer constructing a practical battery of weapons for a foreign adventure or posting. All these weapons are clearly stamped on the bar flats with the grade nomenclature, so they are easy to determine, if in doubt.

Throughout the development of sporting rifles, gentlemen would often experiment with their own ideas, in their own time, and those with means would have their rifle maker construct their brainchild so they could try it out, often in the company of friends. Purdey’s rifle regulation books offer some interesting insights into this, as a page showing the order of a .410 rifle by the Marquis of Ripon, among others, in 1883. No doubt they were experimenting with these for running boar shooting, at which Ripon excelled.

In the hammerless era, which was cemented at Purdey with Beesley’s 1880 spring-cocking, self-opener, production of double rifles concentrated on these best side-locks and Purdey phased out the sales of lower quality boxlock models. A huge range of calibres were delivered, mostly reflecting the fashions and developments of the time. Nitro powders replaced black and calibres were reduced accordingly for most purposes, with the demise of the old ‘bore rifles’ for dangerous game, in favour of nitro-express cartridges in .450, .470 and .500 calibres with various chamberings. The Beesley action remains the centre-piece of Purdey’s best double rifles, which are entirely hand built and regulated in London, in the traditional manner. 

Purdey medium double rifles can be found chambered for the British military .303 calibre, for which empire-builders would be assured of a ready supply of ammunition anywhere in the world. Notable among these are rifles built as Beesley self-openers but with a modified spring-loaded version of the Jones screw grip. When operating these, you need to be aware of your fingers on the guard, if you don’t want a nasty surprise when closing the rifle.

Alongside their bespoke double rifles, Purdey sold imported bolt-action stalking of Mauser and Steyr-Mannlicher manufacture. This was common practice in the early years of a the twentieth century and went on alongside other mundane sales, like Tranter revolvers and Winchester Model ’76 repeating rifles, which Purdey sold as a sporting version in .450 calibre, holding nine shots, as well as the popular smaller calibres. The colonial market also demanded combination gun/rifles but Purdey was wary of their limitations and recommended a 16-bore double rifle with interchangeable 12-bore shot barrels in preference. Many of these alternatives gradually dropped off the catalogue listings at Purdey but the demand for bolt-action rifles endured.

Alongside their famous double rifles, Purdey developed a style of bolt- rifle, based on a Mauser action, that became the London standard for stalking rifles. Beautifully hand built, they have fixed barrels and best grade walnut stocks, with build quality matching the hand work put into every Purdey product. 

Unfortunately, in modern terms, that means a price tag of £70,000, which is an eye watering sum for a bolt-action hunting rifle without any apparent bells and whistles. These are no continental show pieces with elaborate carving or engraving. They are simply very fine, hand-built rifles, meticulously constructed, tested and finished; understated London excellence. However, the time had come to look again and see if a different approach could improve the product and ease the cost of production.

To address the situation, Purdey decided to go back to the drawing boards and, in true Purdey style, tackle the project from the ground up and see if a solution could be found. The mission was to build a rifle with accuracy as the paramount concern, then to look at how it could be made and retain a traditional appearance; the kind of appearance a Purdey customer demands.

First off, the issue of bedding the action and barrel into a wooden stock was addressed. The most accurate modern rifles have a metal chassis onto which the (often plastic or composite) stock is fitted and the action is then dropped into this. They also have free-floated barrels. So, Purdey used British expertise in CNC production to develop a titanium chassis for the action, which extends into the fore-stock to impart stability. 

Titanium is stronger than aluminium and lighter than steel, making it the ideal material for imparting the desired stability with a neutral weight penalty. Precision engineering today allows replication and fitting of parts with phenomenal accuracy. The production benefit of the system is that it takes fewer man hours to bed the rifle to the stock and the, newly stabilised, stock can accommodate a free-floated barrel with confidence that it will not move and affect accuracy, whatever weather it encounters. The aesthetic benefit of the internal chassis is that it is invisible when the rifle is assembled.

Nick Harlow, at Purdey, told me the US market requires an accuracy guarantee from manufacturers these days and Purdey were determined to be in a position to offer one. Their prototype rifle, built in .300 Win Mag has impressed reviewers on the range with its test groups. Marcus Janssen claimed 3” groups, in blustery conditions, at 600 yards at Bisley, with 1/4” groups at 100 yards, rising to 1 1/2” at 300 yards. Those statistics should impress even the toughest critic and will certainly make any hunter confident that, in field conditions, the rifle will out perform most of those pulling the trigger. 

These performance figures attest to the success of the project as envisaged. Nick Harlow told me “The same attention to detail goes into our bolt rifles as into anything else. Accuracy had to come up to a level with quality’. It has taken eighteen months to arrive at this point but the hard work has paid off.

The age-old custom of UK manufacturers salvaging old Mauser actions from overseas military contracts has been unsatisfactory, even to the casual observer, for years. Purdey are using new actions for their new rifles, built in England on a modified Mauser profile, machined from a single piece of steel. It features a three position safety (including a position allowing the live rounds to be ejected while the bolt remains ‘safe’). The new actions also avoid any issues with US import that thumb-recessed Mauser actions may attract. Options available include short, standard and magnum Mauser actions and Purdey claim to have over 200 chambering options, all conforming to the latest CIP regulation profiles. Barrels are hand-lapped and London blued and can be had from 22” to 26” in length.

‘Scope mounts have been changed from the Smithson type used on the traditional rifle, to Apel mounts on the new model, enabling rapid, single-handed fitting and removal in the field. Other refinements include sling swivels bedded into the stock, leaving the barrel unencumbered, and a thread protector that screws flush and is beautifully mated to the barrel profile, when in place. 

Triggers are industry-leading quality and pulls are set to 2 1/2 lbs as standard. The Turkish walnut stock has a pistol-grip and engraved grip cap. The platform is designed to be modified and customers can upgrade any part of the rifle to their taste and pocket. Considering the huge price differential between the new model and the previous one, there is a lot of money left on the table to be spent on custom engraving, (it comes with standard fine rose and scroll), wood upgrades or other refinements. While discussing ‘refinements’ the standard model comes without iron sights, so if you want them, you will have to specify them as additions.

Purdey are fortunate to have a team of specialists to call upon when embarking on a new project. Nigel Musto was a key part of conceptualising the new rifle, alongside Tom Nicholls. Stocker Mark McCarthy brought the finer points of his craft to finalising the profiles of the woodwork and finisher Ian Sweetman, who worked at Westley Richards on bolt-rifles before joining Purdey, was another important influencer. 

On a personal note, I was pleased to hear of Ian’s involvement. When I was Managing Director at Atkin Grant & Lang back in 2010, Ian was an apprentice in our workshops. When I left, I encouraged him to seek a formal apprenticeship at a larger factory, looking at the long-term benefits of doing this, against the immediate inconvenience of travel and disruption to his lifestyle. I told him then: “If you get properly trained at one of the big firms, you will have a well-paid job for life, one you can take anywhere you like”. To his credit, Ian has walked the hard yards and is now ideally placed to be one of Britain’s next generation of top gunmakers. I was delighted to hear of his importance to the new rifle project.

The two incarnations of Purdey’s standard bolt-rifle now come in ‘Classic’ specification and ‘Safari’ specification. The former is aimed at the medium stalking-rifle market, while the latter is a magnum Mauser type action for larger calibres, like .416 Rigby and .458 Lott, suited to Africa. The Safari also has higher grade walnut and express sights as standard.

The first production rifle in Classic specification is a 7mm Rem Mag, which has been touring the gun shows of the world, to some acclaim, and the Purdey team will promote it further this year. Orders are reportedly healthy and customers ordering a battery of rifles from Purdey will find the addition of a £25,000 bolt-rifle more palatable than a £70,000 one. In price, it sits alongside the current Rigby ‘London Best’ rater than attempting to tackle the sector of the market that buyers of the ‘Big Game’ or ‘Highland Stalker’ inhabit. 

The new model shows Purdey is still a company looking to work with the best practitioners of the gun-making and engineering trades in order to keep progressing, while retaining the integrity of traditional quality and aesthetic values that have served it so well in the past.

Alongside Purdey’s new bolt-rifle, the traditionally-built, self-opening side-lock, ejector double; largely unchanged since the end of the nineteenth century, is still the flagship product of the firm’s range, with a basic cost of £167,000 and limitless options for customisation and engraving. 

Another project in the pipeline is the development of an over & under double rifle , built on the same platform as the current model ‘Sporting’ shotgun. Production is being brought back in-house, though the collaborative process with Perugini & Visini which was behind the conceptualisation and launch of the ‘Sporting’ model, continues. Manufacture of the over & under rifle will be carried out entirely at the London factory. With an estimated price starting at £40,000, this trigger-plate action over & under will offer affordable excellence in a rifle that is a radical departure from Purdey’s traditional platform. It will make a Purdey double rifle relatively affordable and represents an exciting new direction for the firm. I look forward to testing one in the near future.

What I found at Purdey this month, is a company still pushing the boundaries, still ambitious and striving for innovations that will improve their products, their manufacturing processes and customer satisfaction. A great deal of money has been spent on factory re-building, firearms development, staff, and product showcasing in the last five years. There is a vigour in the manner in which the staff go about about their work and a pride evident in their custodianship of, perhaps, the most recognisable name in British gun making.

Purdey Rifles (basic prices, excluding VAT):

Double Rifle (self opening side-lock) up to .500 calibre: £167,000.

Double Rifle (self-opening side-lock) .577 or .600 calibre: £172,000.

Safari bolt-action rifle: £25,000.

Classic bolt-action rifle: £25,000.

Sporting (over & under) Double Rifle: £40,000.