James Woodward & Sons is the last of London’s great sporting gunmakers to receive book-length historical treatment—and heretofore for sound reason. Although reverentially regarded by connoisseurs for the quality of their guns—and especially for their superb “Under & Over” design of 1913—as a family the Woodwards seem to have been exceedingly private; indeed, they even took pains to conceal the identity of the firm’s craftsmen, depending instead on the bona fides of their guns to make their case to the buying public. Relatively little about the firm was recorded contemporaneously, and only a smattering of Woodward records survive—and they are, compared to those of Purdey, Holland & Holland and Boss, scanty in detail.
Despite the challenges, Dr. Nicholas Harlow has done an admirable job uncovering the life, times and designs of London’s most enigmatic gunmaker in his new book, James Woodward & Sons. He begins with a history of the Woodward family and firm, and then covers the company’s production and patents from 1871 to 1909. The bulk of the book, though, is devoted to the firm’s over/under, which despite being made by Woodward in small numbers (233 during a 37-year period) is considered one of the world’s greatest O/Us, a design influential not only in rarified best British gunmaking but also to Continental and Italian makers, notably Fabbri and Perazzi. It remains, in only slightly modified form, the flagship gun of Purdey, which purchased Woodward in 1949 largely for the design. Harlow continues with a history of early pre-Woodward Purdey O/Us, then Purdey-Woodward production and concludes with a chapter on the design’s variations and enduring importance.
It is fair to state that this is a book only Harlow could have written. A trained historian, Harlow commands an impressive knowledge of British firearms, thanks in part to six years spent in the sporting-gun department of Bonhams Auctioneers. Since 2016 he has worked as gunroom manager and historian for Purdey, and he has trained an academic’s eye for thoroughness and accuracy in interpretation as he’s combed the archives at Audley House and elsewhere. Harlow’s research was funded and assisted by longtime Woodward collector Joseph “Joe” Toot, former President/CEO of The Timkin Company, a steel and industrial corporation.
Early adopters of Woodward O/Us were mostly British, including Thomas Sopwith, designer of WWI’s famously agile Sopwith Camel fighter plane. (Those fortunate enough to have handled or shot a Woodward O/U might note that Sopwith’s predilections in airplane design extended to his choice in shotguns.) But more than half of Woodward’s O/U production came to the US during its inter-war heyday, mostly to American business magnates and tycoons. The gun’s design evolution, its variations and its many iterations are cataloged in impressive detail. Harlow provides not only gun facts but also entertaining brief bios of many of Woodward’s rich and often eccentric purchasers. Perhaps most important to the story is Harlow’s research into the Hill family of gunmakers and particularly Charles Hill, a Birmingham-born craftsman who was the O/U’s co-patentee and the true inventor of the design. Those technically inclined will enjoy the discussion of other “Woodward-type” over/unders—notably those retailed by Henry Atkin, Ogden Smith & Hussey, and E.J. Churchill—and their mechanical differences to the original Woodward (and likely all built by the Hills).
Some may bemoan that there isn’t more on Woodward’s exquisitely made side-by-sides, but the book was written to mark the 75th anniversary of the purchase of Woodward by Purdey, where the legacy of the O/U lives on.
The 224-page hardback is fully illustrated with color and black & white photographs, including rare archival images. It was printed in two editions, all signed and numbered by the author, with a run of 250 cloth-bound copies with illustrated dust jackets priced at £75 ($92). An additional 25 deluxe editions bound in scarlet leather, to mimic Woodward’s house case lining, and with a blue cloth-bound slip case are priced at £495 ($608). To order, email [email protected].