The Life of Reilly

Gene Williams shares his original research and findings, shedding further light on the fortunes of E.M. Reilly.

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Guns & Gunmakers|September 2019

E.M. Reilly always seemed enamoured with Paris and as the 1867 Paris Universelle exposition approached, he meticulously prepared an exhibit that was extensively lauded. It won him gold and silver medals, led him to became a “gun maker” for Napoleon III, and in February 1868 to open a branch office (EM Reilly & Cie.) at 2 rue Scribe, Paris where orders for his guns could be taken.

The store was located in the Grand Hotel near the Gare du Nord, a prime location. This branch office remained open for the next 17 years. The first extant gun with 2 rue Scribe on the rib is 14983.  

His case labels changed at this time to feature the two medals won at the 1867 World’s Fair and often (but not always) mentioned both branch addresses. Two and a half years later after the battle of Sedan Napoleon III fell from power; the medals disappeared from Reilly’s case labels for a while, yet continued occasionally to resurface on both labels and in advertisements for the next 15 years.

Reilly's affinity for France was well known. In Fall 1870 he was prosecuted for attempting to smuggle 2,000 shells to his Rue Scribe address, a violation of UK neutrality in the conflict, and in 1871 offered to sell 6,000 Chassepot rifles (stored in Birmingham) to the new French Republic.

In 1876 some Reilly labels and publicity began advertising a connection to the King of Portugal and by 1882 to the Kings of Spain and The Netherlands. Also around 1876 he changed the description of the company in ads to "Gun and Rifle Manufacturers" (as did many other English gun makers).

This description was sometimes, but not always, used on his trade/case labels for the next 15 years. In addition around this time 315 Oxford Street began to use a slightly different case label and later, also for a short time, a different label for revolvers but with the same shape advertising "Breech Loading Gun & Rifle Manufacturers."

In addition, from as early as 1868, Reilly had evinced an interest in penetrating the American market. He acquired an American agent (Joseph Grubbs, Philadelphia), had his guns advertised in mail order catalogs, and exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia centennial along side very high-standard British guns such as Purdey, and won a medal.

 Reilly again exhibited at the 1878 Paris exposition and again won medals.

By 1880 Reilly sold a third more - soon to be twice as many - serial numbered, hand made bespoke guns than both Holland and Holland and Purdey combined, this in addition to a very active business in guns sold under license from well known gun makers including revolvers (Trantor, Baumont-Adams, Walker, Colt, etc), rook rifles, repeating rifles (Sharps, Winchester, etc.), as well as merchandising every type of gun accoutrement - re-loaders, cartridges, shells, cases, etc. and sustaining a huge business in previously owned guns. Reilly told the 1881 census taker that he employed some 300 people in his firm, a very high number for the times, an indication of the extent of his gun manufacturing and sales business.  

Reilly told the 1881 census taker that he employed some 300 people...

Around 1881 per advertisements it appears that Reilly made a business decision to stock ready-made guns and sell them off-the-rack as well as selling his usual bespoke made-to-order guns. This might account for the soaring number of guns serial numbered per year, which grew from about 650 numbered in 1880 to some 1050 in 1882. It might also account for certain discrepancies in serial numbered guns from this time forward such as 303xx which would have been numbered in late 1888-early 1889 but still has "Not For Ball" on its barrels (a stamping discontinued in 1887). If this were the case, Reilly probably serial numbered his off-the-rack guns when sold and his bespoke guns when ordered and a deposit put down.

In November 1881 Oxford Street was renumbered; ”502” became “16 New Oxford Street” and “315” becoming “277 Oxford Street.”

The first extant gun with either of the new addresses on the ribs is SN 23536. (In spite of the formal change in numbering, the old numbers occasionally appeared in Reilly ads and on gun ribs for the next couple of years).

Reilly’s business was booming and gun production topped 1000 a year. Reilly reportedly was making long guns for other London gun-makers and around this time began importing cheap Belgian-made revolvers in parts which he assembled in his buildings, engraved and sold.

He exhibited at the 1882 Calcutta fair (a British Empire only affair) and won a medal and was highly praised for his exhibit at the 1885 London International Inventions Exposition where he again won medals.

Reilly guns dominated live pigeon shooting contests throughout the 1880’s and big game hunters in Africa used his guns and advertised the results...

Reilly guns dominated live pigeon shooting contests throughout the 1880’s and big game hunters in Africa used his guns and advertised the results (including Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-American and perhaps the most famous of all African explorers, Dr. David Livingston, and noted Victorian era African hunter and author Frederick Selous).

 In July 1885 Rue Scribe was closed. The reasons for this are not known - hand made guns were being sold at a very high rate; it may have had to do with the departure of a long-time partner (possibly a M. Poirat?). The last extant SN’d gun with rue Scribe on the rib is 27340 (there are three guns with later serial numbers which have only "Paris" on their barrels; However, these may have been ready-made prior to 1885 and only numbered when sold off the rack).  

Note: In the early 1880's Reilly apparently opened a small satellite branch of 2 rue Scribe, Paris at 29 rue du Faubourg, St. Honore, Paris for a short time. A couple of gun case labels show the store would have been in existence after the November 1881 change in Oxford Street addresses but before the July 1885 closure of 2 rue Scribe. An advertisement/paid-for article with this address appeared in Jan 1886 London press touting a win by an Italian (a well known marksman) at the Monte Carlo pigeon shoot (an important event); whether the address was on the rib of his gun or on the trade/case label is unknown.

No newspaper ads for this branch exist (and it was a prestigious location - Coco Chanel's apartments were above it in another century - which should have been publicized). No extant guns have thus far been found with this address. Perhaps this store was occupied while the Grand Hotel was undergoing renovation?

 Reilly exhibited at the 1889 Paris World's Fair, the “Tour Eiffel" Exposition Universalle, and may have won a silver medal. However, by this time advertisements for Reilly guns had significantly declined and he did not publicize the medals if he won them.

A nasty law-suit on easement limitations to the Salavation Army Hall behind his establishment at 277 Oxford Street was litigated. The fact is, something changed with the firm after 1886; Reilly's guns regularly won competitions and were donated to be given as prizes at high-end shooting competitions; but the company just gradually disappeared from mass-media print.

In July 1890 EM Reilly contracted broncho-pneumonia and passed away. Reilly's sons Herbert H. and Charles A. were young. His wife Mary was in her 40's. Business was still lively. Who ran the company during these years is not known though widows did successfully manage companies in England at the time after the deaths of their husbands.

By 1894 Reilly guns were no longer being mentioned as winners in pigeon shoots; Reilly victories and promotional donations of guns as prizes had been a prominent feature in London papers for 25 years. His 28 year old eldest son (possibly illegitimate but acknowledged) Edward Montague Reilly, "gun maker," who was involved with the company in some way, died in 1895. 

In 1898 the company closed 16 New Oxford Street where it had been located for 50 years; 277 Oxford Street remained open.

Bespoke guns continued to be sold in the early 1890’s at a goodly clip but as the decade advanced, and factory mass produced guns with steel barrels began to compete with Damascus, the demand for these hand-made and measured guns in a middling cost category seemed to decline. (Many London gun-makers began to have problems in this time period). 

Reilly advertisements in mass media, an almost daily occurrence in the London press since 1833, declined markedly as the 90's progressed. In response, with sales diminishing, closing the finishing facilities at 16 New Oxford street while retaining the shooting gallery and smaller sales and manufacturing spaces at 277 Oxford Street would seem to have been logical.

Reilly advertisements in mass media, an almost daily occurrence in the London press since 1833, declined markedly as the 90's progressed.

The last extant SN’d gun from 16 New Oxford Street is 34723.  

After 1898 the trade/case labels changed to reflect the marketing of magazine guns and advertised the medals won in 1876 (Philadelphia), 1878 (Paris), and 1885 (London) and 1873 (Vienna) (although there is no evidence that Reilly actually exhibited in Vienna). On his presentation cases, the company description changed back to "gun and rifle makers" although the company was still "Gun and Rifle Manufacturers" in phone and business directories.

In 1903 the Company vacated 277 Oxford Street where they had been quartered for 44 years while the building was being renovated and moved 300 yards down the street to 295 Oxford Street.

The company apparently was run by Herbert H. (Bert) Reilly and Charles A. Reilly, EM Reilly’s sons. The first extant gun with 295 Oxford Street on the rib is 35422. The company remained at 295 until bankruptcy was declared on 06 June 1912. The last extant gun with 295 on the rib is 35678. Reportedly during this period at least one gun was built with J.C. Reilly and the old Holborn Bars address on the rib. 

Bert Reilly opened a small gun shop, E.M Reilly & Co., at 13 High Street, Marylebone in 1912 after the bankruptcy. No advertisements can be found for the shop though per London postal address, telephone and business directories they identified themselves as "gunmakers." No guns with this address on the rib have been found.

The date of its closure is not noted although it is listed in London telephone directories up to 1919.  

In August 1922 The Reilly name was bought by a sporting goods dealer named Charles Riggs (most Reilly history summaries put the date of purchase as 1917; this is belied by the dates of newspaper advertising). Riggs apparently decided he could use the name to promote his premium line of guns (possibly built by Osborne/Midland). Whether a Reilly had any say in the design of these Riggs-Reilly guns is unknown.

Riggs remained in business until 1966. His “Reilly named” guns have six-digit serial numbers and appear to begin at around 130000. A Riggs "Reilly" with a serial number in the 150000’s is known to exist. 

The Reilly's sold all types of guns in various qualities using all types of actions. Reilly serial numbered about 33,000 guns from circa 1825 to 1912, all built by them. The guns that they made had an artistic elegance and balance, which is unmistakable. Reilly was one of the first to use highly figured French walnut for their stocks and their engraving, for the most part floral scroll work, was consistently classy. Reilly's best guns were as good as those produced anywhere in England at the time.

Gene Williams has produced an addendum to this article, consisting of Reilly serial numbers and other data of interest to Reilly owners. It is published in this Month’s VGJ under separate title.


Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on

Guns & Gunmakers|September 2019

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