The finer points & process of ordering a gun
by Vic Venters
Photographs Courtesy of Westley Richards
David Brown has been around best guns for more than a half-century—and is someone who’s both commissioned them and taken orders for them. A collector of vintage Boss guns, he provided the financial backing for Purdey finisher Peter Chapman to set up on his own in the early ’70s as an independent gunmaker. If you don’t know of him, Chapman (long retired) made some of the best sidelocks in London during an era when quality at Britain’s famed houses wasn’t what it should have been.
When Brown wanted to order a best-quality .410 for himself several years ago, he visited the Westley Richards stand at the Dallas Safari Club Convention and met then Managing Director Simon Clode, who, as Brown described in a short article in Westley Richards’ online blog, The Explora, “put an absolutely beautiful detachable-lock .410 in my hands and—as all good salesmen know how to do—simply waited.
“By this point in my life I’d seen a good many truly best guns and had some idea of what I was looking at.” His first thoughts were: “Is this some sort of special project gun that was not likely to be repeated or was he actually producing guns of this quality today?
“After due diligence, I determined that Westley Richards really was producing guns like this and, more importantly, Simon was regarded by people in the know as absolutely honest and reliable in his dealings. Very shortly after the Dallas show I left a call for Simon, and he called me back from Las Vegas. I placed a verbal order, the order forms were sent and so it began.”
Two characteristics of ‘handmade’ are aesthetic beauty and handling.
Brown’s knowledge and vast experience make his order an instructive case study for those considering a new best-quality British gun. I asked him what was most important for a first-time customer contemplating a commission.
“First, learn as much about fine guns as you can,” Brown said. “Ask collectors and experts, and research and read—but take what you see in magazines with a grain of salt. Then decide what you really want or really need.” In other words, discern what purpose your gun will serve.
Historically, British sporting guns were built for a specific purpose—guns for driven game, for example, had very different configurations than those made for live-pigeon trap shooting or those for waterfowling. In 12-bore, for example, game guns were built around a 2½" cartridge; pigeon guns 2¾"; and 3" or longer for waterfowling. Each was weighed, balanced and stocked appropriately for the task at hand.
This can still be said to be true today. Broadly speaking, purpose will influence your gun’s bore, overall weight, point of balance, barrel length, chamber length, chokes, rib shape and stock dimensions and configurations.
The stock will be made to your measurements. One point, I think, bears some elaboration, and again it centers on purpose.
Talented shots—natural shots—can wield almost any gun to good effect, but correctly fitted most of us will shoot better; and if you’ve been fitted with a purpose in mind, you’ll certainly shoot best. For example, longish high-combed stocks are frequently prescribed in Britain for formal driven shooting where there are unobstructed fields of fire and time enough for elegant, practiced gun mounts. Measurements may be tuned to help deliver patterns slightly high, to build in extra lead for oncoming birds.
But for the gunner whose game is, say, ruffed grouse or woodcock in the thickets of North America—where you may have one leg over a log and are anyway off balance when a bird flushes from where you least expect it—a slightly shorter, easier-to-mount stock will probably serve you better. Explain to your fitter what you mostly intend to shoot and the conditions in which you pursue your quarry, and during the fitting process ask for targets that approximate your game.
Who Will Make Your Gun?
In olden times, when transportation was slow, a customer might have chosen a gunmaker because he was nearby. And a gentleman in the traditional English sense of the word (landed, probably titled) often inherited his gunmaker because it had been his father’s or grandfather’s. Pedigree was important; associations with the aristocracy were too; and both were in some sense guarantors of quality.
Nowadays, said Brown, your first and foremost consideration should be the integrity of the gunmaker. A new commission, regardless of maker, will require a considerable outlay of capital and equal measures of patience and trust. “You should be very, very careful about the company you choose,” Brown said. “Do your research and ask people who’ve had guns made.”
That doesn’t mean pedigree is irrelevant; and if you select a long-established gunmaker, consider the maker’s historic strengths—the types of firearms the company is renowned for. For example, today there are any number of companies that can build a fine double rifle, but if you intend to take one afield for dangerous game, the stakes can’t be much higher, so choose a maker that has a reputation for making double rifles.
With a commission, you and your gunmaker are entering into a relationship that will, at the very least, last several years and possibly your lifetime. Your input into the build process can be granular—depending on your knowledge, expertise and inclination—or you can let the gunmaker lead. If you’ve picked your gunmaker wisely, either path will lead to your satisfaction.
When Brown ordered his .410, he knew exactly what he wanted and what he needed to provide to the gunmaker. He had his stock measurements sorted and had a stock blank that had been squirreled away since the 1970s that he provided to Westley Richards. He specified a barrel length of 28 inches fitted with Teague multi-chokes. “This was a gun to really use,” he said, “not just to swing around in the parlor.”
He debated back and forth between the classic splinter forend, which he likes best, or a beavertail. “I knew ninety-nine percent of the shots were going to be on the skeet field, and sub-bores get hot very quickly, so a beavertail it would be.” Brown had a .410 Parker with a beavertail shape he liked, so he took measurements and photos and sent them on.
Brown had in mind for engraving small fine scroll surrounding game scenes (after illustrations in William Harnden Foster’s classic New England Grouse Shooting), with the fences ornamented with carved depictions of eryngo, a thistle-like plant native to Texas. This was a personalized aesthetic signature that would make his gun unique. Initially, he hoped to have his old friend Geoffrey Casbard—who he’d met through Walter Clode [Simon’s father] in 1969—engrave it, but Casbard unfortunately passed away before the gun could reach him.
Instead, Simon arranged for David and Bradley Tallett to do the work. The results speak for themselves. “I’ve often thought that modern guns and their owners place far too much emphasis on engraving, sometimes at the expense of fit, finish and the lines of the gun itself,” Brown said. “However, when it came right down to it, I was as fixated on the engraving as all the others I’d been critical of.”
Let the Gunmaker Lead
Not everyone has the benefit of a half-century’s experience with best guns or the time to learn the finer points of choosing wood and engraving. Your gunmaker will offer expert help as needed.
“We often head up the project now, especially with our highest-grade Modèle de Luxe and Modèle de Grande Luxe projects,” explained current Westley Richards Managing Director Anthony Alborough-Tregear. “Clients want us to create masterpieces for them. They want the very best of everything. Most clients need plenty of advice and guidance; we expect very little from them. If they let us run with it, the final product will exceed all their expectations.”
And this expertise isn’t all about aesthetics and “show” guns. When Simon Clode was rebuilding Westley Richards, he cultivated a staff and a company culture imbued with a passion for shooting and hunting. Alborough-Tregear is cut from the same cloth. “Our guns and rifles actually get used, often in cases where a hunter’s life depends on reliability,” he said. “We understand the importance of balance, handling, pointability, reliability and—in the case of rifles—accuracy.”
Heritage & House Style
Only a handful of British gunmakers have survived from the 19th Century into the 21st with factories and unbroken histories, and each has its own “house style”—distinctive aesthetics that have evolved over the centuries. Boss, Purdey, Holland & Holland, Westley Richards—the action shapes of one maker are distinct from the others; so, too, gunstock shapes and proportions. The file-up of triggers, safeties, toplevers and trigger guards differ from brand to brand—sometimes subtly, sometimes very visibly. The blade of the One Trigger, for example, looks like no other—and its shape properly belongs only on a Westley Richards. Standard house engraving patterns have lasted because time has shown they complement the lines of each maker’s gun and enhance the beauty. As the customer, you have considerable latitude to create something unique, but keep in mind it will look best if it falls within the broad parameters of your gunmaker’s heritage. Respect that.
The Waiting Game
Had you wanted a new Westley Richards just before the First World War, you would have visited the company’s London retail premises at 178 New Bond Street, and there you would have been met by an expert staff and an inventory of hundreds of guns and rifles: up to 40 different types of shotguns and 80 models of double rifles, not including ball-and-shot guns, magazine and single-shot rifles, revolvers and pistols, and the odd harpoon or sealing weapon. Each model of shotgun would have been available in a variety of grades and in different bores, with choices in barrel length, stock measurements and engraving patterns. If a configuration suited you, Westley Richards would have easily altered it to meet your gunfit or choke requirements in a matter of days.
And a best-quality Westley Richards expressly “built to order” might have been ready for you from the Birmingham factory in Bournbrook in as little as 10 weeks—“during which time it would have engaged the attention of fifty or more skilled craftsmen . . . and, in addition, that of expert cartridge loaders and shooters on the testing ground,” noted Managing Director Leslie B. Taylor in 1913.
Those days, regrettably, have passed. More than a century of contraction in the traditional gunmaking trade has shriveled the ranks of craftsmen worldwide, apprentices are few and fought over, and completion times for new commissions are no longer two or three months but two or three years. “Have patience,” counseled Alborough-Tregear. “A new gun or rifle is truly bespoke and built by a small team of highly skilled individuals, each contributing to the finished article. If a single craftsman falls ill or goes absent, it can cause a knock-on effect, disrupting the team’s production process. There simply aren’t a dozen other guys out there who can do the job.”
And lavish engraving will probably not hasten delivery. One-of-a-kind projects not only take considerably more time to design and execute but also capable engravers are often booked many years in advance and have time slots scheduled for each commission.
If a gun doesn’t arrive for its intended slot—regardless of the reason—the engraver will need to rebook it into his already tight and crowded schedule. There’s also an equal possibility that the maker delivers the gun on time but the engraver isn’t ready to take it. It will have to wait until he is. Such is the price of art.
If today’s client requires patience, what then should he expect of his gunmaker? “Honesty throughout the build process,” answered Alborough-Tregear, “especially if the gunmaker is running behind. Communication with the client is important and is welcome, but that doesn’t mean you have to contact him every week.”
Factory visits are encouraged. “We really enjoy visits,” said Alborough-Tregear. “It shows the client what we are really about. And it’s good for the gunmakers too; they feel appreciated and like to show off their skills and knowledge.
“The final product will be beautifully built, with real care and attention to all aspects, including any casing and tools. Making a gun by hand is simply a slow process. Luckily for us, most of our clients understand that.”
Made by Hand
As noted, Westley Richards in the 19th and early 20th centuries sold “stock” guns and rifles as well as those “built for me.” Though guns in the latter category were expressly made to suit a client’s most rarified requirements and were generally more expensive, both types were, as the company stressed, “handmade.”
As a period catalog stated: “Westley Richards guns are handmade throughout; no two guns are just alike, each gun has an individuality of its own, which can only be contributed by the bestowal of personal skill and trained craftsmanship.” More than anything, it was this attribute that signified a British sporting gun’s prestige and worth and differentiated it from less-expensive Continental and American competitors.
A century on, Westley Richards still steers this course. “A machine can assist with the manufacture of basic components, but a man puts his soul into a gun,” said Alborough-Tregear. Two characteristics of “handmade” are aesthetic beauty and handling. No machine-made gun has these qualities in the same way, as the machine isn’t capable of adding the human touch. Today a machine can work to microns, but it doesn’t appreciate the “feel” of what it has made. With a handmade gun, everything that goes into building it—barreling, actioning, stocking, finishing—is carefully considered, and individual skills are used to interpret each aspect. Collectively, this produces in real terms a truly unique piece—your gun or rifle will be like no one else’s in the world.
And that’s the beauty of a gun built for you.
This article originally appeared in the first printed edition of Westley Richards’ The Explora journal, an oversize publication printed on heavy stock and containing expertly written articles on guns, gunmaking and sporting traditions. The 176-page magazine is illustrated with lavish four-color images throughout. The Explora is available for $50 (plus postage) by visiting westleyrichards.com.