On the occasion of the company’s 125th anniversary
By Douglas Tate
With the recent 200th anniversaries of London gunmakers Boss (in 2012) and Purdey (in 2014), it was easy to feel that anything less than a bicentenary was a mere flash in the pan. Yet E.J. Churchill’s 125th birthday this year provides the ideal occasion to look at the company’s history and what is going on with the firm these days.
Photographs by Terry Allen
For much of the past 125 years, the relationship between British gunmaker E.J. Churchill and the US shooting public has stirred intrigue. Almost from the beginning, circa 1891, East Coast swells en route to Monaco swung by Churchill’s in search of the perfect gun with which to knock down live pigeons.
In 1898 one of them, W. Gould Brokaw, ordered a 26-1⁄16″ quail gun for use on his bobwhite plantation in North Carolina. It was an epiphanic moment for the gunmaker, as Don Masters in his book House of Churchill implies: “Clarence H. McKay introduced W. Gould Brokaw to Edwin John Churchill at 8 Agar Street, Strand . . . . both tycoons placed the first of many orders for guns. About twenty-five years later, Robert Churchill attributed his success as a gunmaker to these gentlemen.”
Churchill’s still has a thriving in-house gunmaking team.
In its prime, between the world wars, E.J. Churchill was one of the most successful London gunmakers, selling more guns than some of its more celebrated competitors combined. This despite having no proprietary action of its own. Churchill’s early reputation hinged on its pigeon guns by the firm’s founder, Edwin John (“Ted”) Churchill, who had been indentured to Dorchester gunmaker Charles Jeffery. Churchill gravitated to London, where he found work with F.T. Baker and “gained a reputation as a first-class pigeon shot,” according to Masters.
Ted died in 1910, and his nephew Robert ascended to the helm. It is almost entirely to the credit of the latter that Churchill’s enjoys the reputation that it does today. Robert Churchill was a contentious figure. He jettisoned heavy, long-barreled guns of the type favored by pigeon shooters and embraced 25-inch-barreled batons. Sold as “XXVs,” these guns provoked intrigue from the outset. More important, they provided Churchill’s with a unique selling proposition that, in the absence of a propriety action, convinced clients to switch brands.
One who did was the Prince of Wales. The day before he met the American divorcée who would become his wife, the man who was briefly Edward VIII ordered a pair of Churchill “best” Premier Quality sidelock ejectors with signature XXV barrels. The year after HRH bought the Churchills, he sold Bob Churchill his 16-bore, 30-inch-barreled Purdeys. Others followed the royal example, and Churchill promoted his XXVs as a “revolutionary development . . . better balanced, far less tiring to use and carry, more comfortable to handle and quicker to shoot.” He cunningly proposed his short guns as ideal for “average or poor shots with higher aspirations.”
Churchill combined his short barrels with a special high, tapered rib that gives the shooter an optical impression of length. Despite controversy, XXVs were a hit. Both boxlocks and sidelocks in every quality were offered, and other gunmakers paid Churchill’s the ultimate compliment by offering short-barreled guns of their own.
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The XXV was especially popular with quail hunters and men of smaller stature, but by the time of Robert Churchill’s death, in 1958, the British gun trade was in decline. Soon inexpensive Spanish copies of XXVs became available, and by the ’70s Churchill’s was running on repairs and reputation. The company went through a series of sales and mergers, but it never received the capital investment needed.
When management recognized the inevitable, the US was the natural choice for auctioning off the remaining stock. According to Masters, the powers that be were “adamant that the auction should take place in one of the southern states, so Chris Brunker, a director of Christie’s auction house, flew to Texas . . . .” The sale was held in 1981 in Dallas, and Brunker prepared a poignant statement: “This sale marks the end of an era . . . . It is also the first time that the stock of a top-class gunsmith has been sold in this way since the Joe Manton sale in 1818.”
In total 98 new side-by-side shotguns were offered, many of them smallbores. One set of three comprising 20, 28 and .410 Regal models with a pre-sale estimate of $18,000 to $24,000 went for $40,000, and the Dallas Morning News reported that, for a going-out-of-business sale, the auction was “a pretty ritzy affair.” The total achieved on the day was $680,200 before buyers’ premiums. One English magazine wrote: “It is perhaps fitting that the town which had so unwittingly featured in the death of one of America’s greatest and most controversial Presidents should also witness the demise of the company built up by the man who was arguably the greatest and most controversial gun maker of the them all: Robert Churchill.”
The return of Churchill’s was announced in 1997 when Sir Edward Dashwood purchased the name and record books from holding company Harris & Sheldon. Dashwood sent out a press release saying he was looking forward to restoring the business to its former glory.Today Churchill’s is once again a premier concern. The firm is based at West Wycombe Park, 30 minutes from London’s Heathrow Airport. “I feel very fortunate to have been able to resurrect the gunmaking name of E.J. Churchill,” Dashwood said. West Wycombe and its 5,000-acre estate have been the home of the Dashwood family since 1698. The House is one of the finest surviving examples of Palladian architecture in England. Built between 1740 and 1800, it was conceived as a pleasure palace for the 18th Century libertine Sir Francis Dashwood and hosted Benjamin Franklin.
I asked E.J. Churchill Managing Director Rob Fenwick about a continued link with the US. “We have a lot of clients come in from the States to shoot,” Fenwick said. “We offer a service to collect
clients from London airports. The key is that we have so much to offer.
“Many clients come over and shoot at the shooting ground before they go on to shoot game with us. We have a wingshooting agency, so we arrange a lot of grouse, pheasant and partridge shooting for them. They then tag on a practice session at the shooting ground. They also get kitted out in the shop when they are with us.
“We do a lot of in-field instruction where the instructors actually go with the clients on the game shoot. They stand and look after them, load for them and help them with etiquette if they haven’t done it before.”
Regarding the sporting agency, Fenwick said: “Edward and I are friends with many of the estate owners and game keepers, and I love taking clients to new places, some of which they have never even heard about or knew existed. We have now extended this to shooting abroad, as well, so we take people to Spain to shoot partridge, wild boar in Turkey (huge ones!) and South Africa for plains game or bird shooting. The next step for us is fishing, and probably by the time this goes to print we will have some exciting plans to announce in this area.”
Shooting kit is available both at the shop and online. “We offer really great shooting clothing and accessories. All are top-end brands that we know are perfect for shooting clients, whether they are new to the sport or seasoned professionals. . . . . See our website for a good idea of our offerings, as we also have an online shop.”
Churchill’s still has a thriving in-house gunmaking team, with five full-time gunmakers who concentrate on repairs and servicing as well as working on new guns. The firm offers best English guns like the Premier models made for the Prince of Wales, but individuals with less-deep pockets can be accommodated as well. “We took a very different direction about seven years ago with our guns,” Fenwick said. “We decided to put more effort into finding good partners from abroad and using our skills to work with them to make lovely guns at less cost. The concept was simple: to produce a very reliable gun that could be made to measure for the client within six months and be good value for money.”
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Churchill’s offers a range of three affordable side-by-side game guns made by Arietta, in Spain: the Crown, Regal and Hercules models. The firm’s O/U selection includes the Coronet by Zoli and the Crown from Perazzi, both makers in Italy, as well as the Regal and Hercules by Demas, in France.
Regarding special pieces commemorating Churchill’s 125th anniversary: “We are making a special one-off gun with a top-end Italian gunmaker,” Fenwick said. “I can’t say more at present, but it will 100 percent be in line with our ethos: stunning to look at, reliable, beautiful handling and finished to a high standard.
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“We are also making a gorgeous limited-edition watch with our English watch partner Bremont. This will be a piece that has never been done before in the watch world and will be linked closely to the gun world. We are only going to make 125 units and have already had 50 reserved by great clients who love the E.J. Churchill and Bremont brands. We are also working on an exclusive membership for 125 individuals to join. These will be offered to our regular clients who use us for many services and support us in so many ways.”
All guns can be test fired at the shooting ground. I shot there not long ago and will say that the clays course was a challenge and the flurry a hoot, but perhaps the most impressive station was the driven-grouse butt. One stands on undulating ground in a perfect representation of a dry stonewall butt topped with turf. Claybirds whiz past hugging the contours at speeds suggesting red grouse pursued by harriers.
In a feature titled “Ten of the UK’s Top Shooting Grounds” the British magazine Fieldsports had this to say about the place: “The shooting ground itself has played host to major clay shooting world championships and is regarded as one of the finest facilities of its kind in the world. Combine this expertise with their 150 shooting stands and six clay shooting disciplines, incorporating three high towers (where you can shoot targets higher than 150 feet), purpose-built grouse butts, Skeet, Compak and English Sporting. These layouts provide an excellent opportunity for game shooting clients to prepare for even the most challenging of birds in the field. All clay shooting disciplines are used religiously by Olympic-standard athletes in advance of major competitions.”
E.J. Churchill’s long appeal for Americans began with pigeon guns, moved to quail guns and now extends to target and driven-game guns. By offering a selection of shotguns at various price points and the opportunity to shoot them at sporting clays and game, Churchill’s future appears bright.