In 1870 Holland & Holland did not exist. In fact, it would be six years before the firm’s founder, Harris Holland, was to take in his nephew Henry and create the iconic brand which now graces London’s Bruton Street. Rather than being a gunmaker, Harris Holland was a tobacconist, whose passion was competitive shooting. He was a good shot with both rifle and shotgun, regularly competing in live-pigeon competitions at Hornsey Wood Tavern. He appears to have gained enough kudos among fellow shooters for them to start asking him to get them guns and rifles like the ones he used so successfully himself.
Seeing a clear business opportunity, Harris ordered guns made to his specification and retailed them from 9 King Street, Holborn, under the name H. Holland from around 1846. His nephew Henry Holland joined him in 1876, when Holland & Holland became the company style. The individual makers of H. Holland guns are lost to history but they would have been trade makers in London and Birmingham.
Nigel Brown believes Harris Holland later took a practical role in gun production himself. He may well have done but it was not until 1893 that Holland & Holland built their factory on Harrow Road and even then they continued to have their hammer guns and lower grade hammerless guns and rifles built in the trade, to their exacting quality standards. One of his earlier efforts made its way to Scotland, which is where I found it.
Visiting an estate near Dumfries in June, I went to see a local part-time gun dealer. He had a pile of old, worn and rusty hammer guns accumulated over the years from local farmers. Amongst the scrap was an example of Mr Holland’s enterprise, in the form of a 12-bore back-action hammer gun with non-rebounding locks and a Jones under-lever.
The 29” damascus barrels bore the 98 New Bond Street address, which Harris Holland’s firm occupied from 1858 until 1960. H. Holland number 1697 cost me half the current price of a safari shirt from Holland & Holland’s shop in Bruton Street; and it was a punt as I did not have a wall gauge with me when I shook hands on the deal. I do not recommend readers follow my example in this respect!
The barrels were pitted badly, with a few dents for good measure. The bores measured tight at .719” but it was originally a 13-bore (.710”) and therefore close to being out of proof now. No wall gauges meant I had to risk it or leave it. On top of all that, the forend wood was badly split and a section had broken off and been badly glued. The horn finial had long since departed. Still, I had a feeling I may be lucky and handed over the price of a tank of diesel and the deal was done. Sometimes you just have to go with a hunch.
Back in the workshop the wall gauge showed 30 thou even at the bottom of the worst pits. We were in business! Clean them out, re-proof in London for standard nitro proof with the chambers extended to 70mm then re-brown the exteriors. By the time we had the barrels clean internally, we had 29 thou’ and 32 thou’ minimums in the walls. Barrels good. Now for the rest of it.
Decades of crud dissolved in a bath of surgical spirit, after I got enough WD40 into the pins to ease them out without damaging them. Sometimes they have to be drilled out; but my luck held again. The engraving emerged and was lovely and crisp everywhere except on the trigger guard, which had been worn almost smooth. The fences even displayed some original case hardening colour.
Locks were good internally, with burnished springs and bridles still gleaming after the debris had been rubbed away. Somebody had filed one of the trigger sears in an attempt to adjust the trigger pulls; an amateur attempt that needed rectifying, which is a job for the expert hands of Dave Mitchell, who can turn out this kind of work to the original quality. Meanwhile, I turned my attention to the stock.
When I found the gun, I was pleased to note that the stock had no cracks and retained the original chequer. These are important considerations. Repaired cracks are impossible to trust and badly re-cut chequer cannot be put right without thinning the hand and weakening it. Figure and colour were lost under the accumulated dirt.
On with the surgical spirit; wipe it on with wire wool and rub, wipe off with kitchen roll. When the stock is bare, work on the chequer with surgical spirit and a small brass wire brush until that too is clean. Next, steam out the dents and use the heat to draw further oil from the wood. Then, work through the grades of wet-and-dry paper to smooth out the scratches and dents and sharpen up the angles. Using a cork block keeps things straight.
At first I was sadly disappointed, the wood looked like a piece of oak from a kitchen cabinet! Days of putting red oil (alkanet root) into it followed and it began to take the colour. If you can’t get the figure, at least get the colour right; it makes all the difference.
Once I was happy that we had got as much contrast as we were going to get, on went the oil finish (I make my own from an old recipe of raw linseed oil, carnuba wax, beeswax, terebine driers and venice turpentine). Days of rubbing on and rubbing off followed, until the grain was sealed and the finish one befitting a fine old gun Finally, the bulk of the work was done. But what of that problematic forend?
Options: Make a new one myself. The problem is that I am no gunsmith and it would take forever. Results would be uncertain, actually they would be predictably unacceptable! Perhaps get one made by a professional stocker? The problem here is cost - no change from £750 even at trade prices! The last option is to patch the damaged areas with dove-tailed inserts. It was looking like this would have to be the route taken. I packed my bags for a shooting holiday in New Zealand and left it with Dave. I’m confident I’ll be scaring pheasants with the gun before Christmas.
Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on