A Flight of Fancy 

Malcolm Appleby’s Dragonfly Gun

Malcolm Appleby is back. Older readers may recall Appleby from 1992, when Shooting Sportsman introduced him and his totem engraving to America in my article titled “The Innovative Work of Malcolm Appleby” (Nov/Dec). More artist than craftsman, Appleby has never been part of the traditional school of British bouquet & scroll engravers. He is different from the rest—the consummate outlier.

Dragonfly larvae feature on the top strap and lever, with the lever’s thumbpiece being a dragonfly’s tail end depositing eggs.
Dragonfly larvae feature on the top strap and lever, with the lever’s thumbpiece being a dragonfly’s tail end depositing eggs.

His initial reputation was established by naturalism. He developed a radical style of engraving based on accurate depiction of detail. Rather than representing a woodcock in flight on the playing-card-size sidelock of a shotgun, he set out the bird’s wing in its detailed entirety across the lockplate of a John Wilkes game gun. Now Appleby has returned with another Wilkes gun, this time depicting the details of a dragonfly. 

A celebrated silversmith/goldsmith, Appleby has executed many non-firearms commissions in the years between the Wilkes guns. He engraved the orb on the Prince of Wales Coronet with the Prince’s insignia; a condiment set for 10 Downing Street; another for the permanent collections of the National Museum of Scotland, for which he created a 20-inch-tall silver cup and cover; the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes Trophy for De Beers; the 500th anniversary silver cup for the London Assay Office; and the silver centerpiece for the New Scottish Parliament. Appleby was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2014 New Year Honours for his engraving skills.

Gun engraving and design have always formed a significant aspect of the Appleby oeuvre. His revolutionary concept was to make a gun into a “totem” object representing a bird or beast. Scottish round actions by David McKay Brown were created in the form of a crocodile, a pike, a dragon and a raven. According to the Royal Armouries’ “Keeper of Weapons,” Graeme Rimer: “The Raven Gun was the first modern piece ever commissioned by the Royal Armouries and was intended to demonstrate our interest in preserving the craftsmanship and artistry historically so important in arms and armor.” Appleby’s design work also includes a set of six “bestiary” guns for Holland & Holland that were engraved by others.

His latest flight of fancy is the Dragonfly Gun. A .410 sidelock with 26-inch barrels by John Wilkes provides the platform for this particular exercise in entomology. “I have known the Wilkes family of gunmakers all my life,” Appleby wrote. “I first met Tom Wilkes while he was rough shooting with my father near our home in Kent (I was the gundog and bag carrier) at the age of 5. At 17 I was hawking my gun-engraving designs around the London trade. The only makers who showed any interest were the Wilkes family, though at first they did not recognise me as an Appleby. From then on I studied engraving at art schools, and by my 18th year I was engraving guns for Wilkes and working in the Beak Street shop during the holidays. I worked mostly on variations of traditional designs.

Appleby, who has never been part of the traditional school of British bouquet & scroll engravers, developed a radical style of engraving based on accurate depiction of detail.
Appleby, who has never been part of the traditional school of British bouquet & scroll engravers, developed a radical style of engraving based on accurate depiction of detail. 

“It was not until the early 1980s that I could afford to purchase a Wilkes sidelock in the white, to engrave in my own way. This resulted in the first of my ‘totem’ guns, the Woodcock Gun, until recently the only other Wilkes gun engraved in this way.

“I continued to maintain my contracts with Tom and John Wilkes until their famous Soho shop finally closed, in the early 21st Century. Tom died, and when later also John, I went to his funeral at West Wickham, Kent, and met once again the younger generation of the family. Later I was offered the chance to buy the .410 in the white and get it prepared for engraving. This was their final gun and built to the highest Wilkes standard. They ignored the fashion for long barrels and kept everything in form and function proportionate to the 26-inch barrels—that looked right for a .410. I am a life member of many conservation groups, including the British Dragonfly Society, and thought that my .410 would complement this top insect predator.” 

It may be serendipity or coincidence that Appleby’s career has been bookended by a brace of John Wilkes sidelock guns, but neither were random choices. Fine engraving has a way of finding its way onto fine guns, and the firm of John Wilkes certainly qualified as a fine gunmaker. Wilkes trade labels claim a start-up date of 1830, but the family firm so familiar to all of us who recall the old curiosity shop just around the corner from Carnaby Street probably began when one John Wilkes moved to London to work with famed actioner to the trade E.C. Hodges. A Wilkes catalog from 1910 reads “From J.D. DOUGALL & SONS,” a proud reference to the John Wilkes who was the workshop manager for James Dalziel Dougall’s London premises. 

Around the turn of the 20th Century John Wilkes struck out on his own. His firm sourced competitively priced guns made up in Birmingham using family connections to ensure quality, it provided gunmaking and repair services to other members of the London Trade when demand stretched the ability to meet it, and it built high-quality bespoke guns for a small group of retail customers.

Later, due in no small part to the writings of Michael McIntosh—a fan of both the gunmakers and their guns—overseas buyers discovered John Wilkes. Writing of the firm’s sidelocks in his book Best Guns, McIntosh said, “a number of Americans have discovered that superb workmanship is both available and more affordable than the Purdey or Holland catalogs might suggest.” Guns from this period feature all the typical Wilkes hallmarks of quality, style and finish. When the last John Wilkes and his brother Tom died, auctioneer Gavin Gardiner commented: “Wilkes were the last of the family-owned jobbing London gunmakers and could trace their origins back to 1820. The brothers, Tom and John, were fifth-generation gunmakers and were among the great characters in the London trade.”

The Dragonfly Gun represents change and transformation and is an apt symbol for the Wilkes Brothers’ ability to metamorphose from occasional gun-trade work to building best guns. Appleby is a more constant player whose imaginative scope appears to have been present from the start. His designs, which often include humor, have not always been strictly scientific.

“The design incorporates damselfly influences as well,” Appleby wrote. “The dragonfly eyes are finely engraved on the fences, and this contrasts with the deep carving of the legs and body parts on the action. Dragonfly larvae feature on the top strap and lever. The thumbpiece of the lever is a dragonfly tail end depositing eggs. I have engraved the rib with abstract patterns from the tail and abdomen.

“Though a top predator, the dragonfly also hosts parasites, which I have used on the pins as clusters of eggs. Wasps are partial to a bite, so I feature gold-inlay detail of wasps where the gold will not wear away. As a flight of fancy on the guard, there is a mermaid that has been caught by the monstrous larvae, her golden hair flowing as she is being devoured. She is not amused.

“Colour hardening is all-important in my overall concept, and the engraving and colour should complement each other. Something that has emerged over the years is how well deep carving and colour wear so well together. The guns that I carved and engraved over 30 years ago have worn well, with the colour retained in the lower surfaces. I also use bright-cut engraving that adds to the luster of the colour.

“Many skilled craftsmen and women work on a complete gun. I have tried to honour them by engraving their names on the forend iron within a dragonfly. There are no visible names amongst the engraving, which gives the design more scope to complement the form of the gun. I engraved the names of Tom and John Wilkes on the flat of the action. Tom never had his name on a gun; now he has. My name is on the flats as well.

“This process has taken tens of years to complete. Michael Lingard took charge of the final finishing. The case had to be the best and had to go with my dragonfly thoughts without upstaging the contents. The ash case was made in collaboration with me over its design by Angus Ross, a furniture designer in Aberfeldy, Scotland. He is a designer with an international reputation, and he is not a gun-case maker. The ash timber used was local to Aberfeldy. Years passed until I was advised to contact Alex Torok about the final fitting of the case. Again there was a great deal of discussion about the detail. I wanted olive green goatskin of two shades—darker for the lid and the gold-tooled lettering. French fitting for the tools, snap caps, oil bottles and cleaning tools by Mike Marsh. The snib catch for the case was specially made; I have a Staudenmayer case with something similar.

“Why is my name inside the lid? As the engraver, I have spent more time than anyone making this special .410; and as John Wilkes is no longer in existence, I feel justified in doing so.

“A small mention should go to the silver oval in the stock, again in proportion and not overstated. I rescued it from a J.D. Dougall Lockfast stock. Tom and John’s grandfather managed Dougall’s business for some time in the late 19th Century, so I thought it an appropriate tribute. The complete outfit is my tribute to the contribution that the firm of John Wilkes made to the London gun trade. For further John Wilkes references see the self-published John Wilkes, by Stephen Grist, 2018.

“I am currently working on a private commission for a set of four guns. At the age of 76 it is unlikely that I will engrave another gun in my totem style. Note that my original concept has been used by other engravers, but there is only one original.” 

According to Appleby, the Dragonfly Gun currently “remains in my collection, but everything has its price. I would prefer it go to a public collection either in the UK or the US.” For more information, email swapp@dircon.co.uk.

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