Issue 15 September 2020

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An Irish Gunmaker in London

Stephen Grant came to London during the Irish Famine and prospered.

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Guns & Gunmakers|January 2020

Stephen Grant was the son of a grocer, born in Ireland in 1821. He apprenticed to William Kavanagh of Dublin, completing his training in around 1843. and then crossed the Irish Sea and headed for London, where he began working as a gunmaker for Charles Lancaster. This period was one marked by the Irish Famine. Between 1845 and 1851 around 300,000 native Irish went to the mainland in search of a better life.

London was a hostile climate for young Irishman but Grant succeeded at his chosen craft and was retained by Lancaster until his death, in 1847. Management of the firm was taken over by Lancaster’s sons and, shortly afterwards, Stephen Grant moved to St. James’s Street to work for Thomas Boss.

Both Boss and Lancaster had reputations for building guns of the highest quality, so as a gunmaker, Grant would have proven himself to be in the first rank.Stephen Grant is believed to have had a facial disfigurement, hence the side-on portrait. His wife clearly didn't mind; they had nine children.

Grant worked for Thomas Boss for about a decade, until 1857, when his employer died. Then in his mid-thirties, Stephen Grant went into partnership with Boss’s widow and became Managing Partner of the firm. He remained as such until 1867, when he started his own business at 67A St James’s Street.

So, the earliest gun to bear the name ‘Stephen Grant’ dates from 1867 and the earliest number recorded is 2480. This was the era of change-over from pin-fire to centre-fire and early Grant guns are to be found, made to both patterns, centre-fire quickly taking over.

Grant clearly formed a strong relationship with Edwin Hodges, a gunmaker to the trade with Islington workshops. Hodges built guns for most of the London ‘names’ at one time or other and was a clever inventor, as well as a skilled gunmaker and astute businessman.

Grant guns built on the Hodges forend-cam patent of 1866 are relatively common. They generally have a Jones under-lever action. Early examples have non-rebound locks and later ones have rebound locks. The next Grant & Hodges collaboration was the 1871 triple-bite action, with twin bolts acting on lateral projections attached to the rear lump. All these guns are generally of back-action, peninsular-lock form.Classic 'Grant & Hodges' 1871 patent sidelever No.251, the best known of Grant's hammer gun styles.

The 1871 pattern is perhaps the best-known and classic ‘Grant Side-Lever’ that collectors refer to. However, once the patent rights to the Purdey bolt lapsed, Grant started building some bar-action, side-lever guns with a simple Purdey bolt rather than Hodges’ more complex system.

Grant started the 1870s well, with an order from Queen Victoria for a pair of hammer guns to gift to her son, the Prince of Wales. He got one for his birthday and one for Christmas. They are 16-bores built on the Hodges 1866 pattern and cased individually.

He went on to build hammer guns for the Earl of Aylesford, the Duke of Marlborough, the Earl of Antrim, the Duke of Buccleuch, Lord Carrington, the Duke of Rutland, the Marquis of Donegal, the Earl of Wiltshire and my ancestor, and part name-sake Edward FitzGerald, Duke of Leinster.One of a pair of 16-bore guns built for 'Bertie' the Prince of Wales in 1870. The action is a Jones under-lever with back-locks and Hodges patent forend-cam, No.2996 of 1866.

As well as Edwin Hodges, many of Grant’s guns from this period were built by another London maker to the trade, John Robertson. Robertson had a supreme reputation as a gun maker and Grant won gold medals and First Class certificates at the Paris and Sydney exhibitions for guns finished and stocked by Robertson. Of course, Robertson went on to become owner of Boss, the firm that Grant had previously served as both employee and partner.

This period is, in my opinion, the most interesting one for Stephen Grant guns. From 1867, when Grant started in business, to 1880, when Robertson sold him the rights for a hammerless, lever-cocking gun, invented by Horatio Phillips, Grant was building, predominantly, best-quality, centre-fire hammer breech-loaders.

He continued building hammer guns into the 1880s but by 1882 was already offering hammerless side-locks. In 1889, the company style became ‘Stephen Grant & Sons’. Use of the distinctive side-lever extended into the hammerless era and both his trigger-plate guns and his hammerless side-locks featured it, almost always on the right-hand side of the gun.

Stephen Grant died in 1898, so guns in existence built during his lifetime span a period of thirty-one years. Those bearing simply ‘Stephen Grant’ on the locks were made between 1867 and 1889; a period of just twenty-two years.

Grant's trade label from 67A St. James's Street, where he set-up in business in 1867.

During his lifetime time, Grant achieved Royal warrants from The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the King of Spain, the Russian Court, Queen Victoria and the Sultan of Turkey. Not a bad effort for an Irish grocer’s son, at a time when being an Irish immigrant in London was akin to being Jamaican in the 1950s. Historian David FitzPatrick wrote: ‘To their great indignation, the Irish overseas tended to be lumped together as ignorant, dirty, primitive Paddies’.

As the son of an Irishmen living in England, I find it appropriate to carry a gun built by an exiled Irishman. I have always appreciated Grant’s hammer guns for their grace, under-stated quality and attention to detail. You never find a bad Grant from this period. He was clearly a demanding employer and he employed the best men in London to undertake his work. His hammer guns of the 1870s and early 1880s stand comparison to those of Purdey and Boss in every respect.

Grant side-lever hammer guns always create interest when they come up for sale. A number of discerning collectors and sportsmen really appreciate them. Grant may not be a household name in the way that Purdey or Holland & Holland are but to those who know, there is nothing quite like a best Grant hammer gun, made during those twenty-two short years in which only his name adorned the lock plates.

Among the luminaries listed as customers in Grant's books, the Prince of Wales is noted here against gun No. 3899.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|January 2020

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