Dr. Nicholas A. Harlow is the gunroom manager for James Purdey & Sons, in London. The gunroom—and Harlow’s de facto office—is the Long Room at Audley House, headquarters for the 209-year-old gunmaker since 1883. In it Purdey has taken commissions from British monarchs and aristocrats and from most of Europe’s crowned heads of state. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff planned Operation Overlord within its chamber, and her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II dined around its table. For a devotee of best-quality gunmaking, a visit to the Long Room is as a journey to Jerusalem for a pilgrim. It’s the job of Dr. Harlow—or Nick, as he prefers—to bid you welcome.
A historian by education and training, Harlow joined Purdey in 2016 after stints with Bonhams Auctioneers and gunmaker Anderson Wheeler. As gunroom manager, Harlow can answer technical questions about most any Purdey gun or rifle, when and where to service them, and what ammunition to shoot through them as well as most any inquiry about the firm’s rich heritage and history. He also maintains the firm’s voluminous archives and historical artifacts and will, for a fee of £62.50 ($77.50), provide Purdey owners written histories of their guns or rifles. He has authored a book on Tom Purdey and is currently at work on the first-ever history of gunmaker James Woodward and the firm’s influential sidelock “Under & Over” to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the company’s sale to Purdey. And should you wish, he’ll happily take your order for a new gun or rifle or for any of the pre-owned examples that rest in racks along the Long Room’s walls.
Purdey’s business—like that of Britain’s other celebrated heritage brands—is built on customers from around the world, but Covid threw a viral spanner in the works. Brexit—Britain’s departure from the EU in January 2020—complicated gun production. And rising clamor to ban lead shot in the UK as early as 2024 is posing new challenges for traditional British gunmakers.
This past summer I sat down with Harlow in the Long Room to discuss these issues and how Purdey has responded.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and readability.
The last few years have been tumultuous. How has this affected Purdey?
During the pandemic, we stopped production for only about a month, which was government mandated. So we were able to at least keep producing and finishing guns to a rough deadline. Shipping became problematic, because the airline capacity dropped off hugely. So there were a lot of guns completed, but we then had to sit on them until we could send them out.
Did orders for new guns tank completely during lockdown?
We definitely felt the impact greatly, but we did get orders. We actually had clients tell us, “We’d like to support you. What can we buy?” It was really nice to know that people value the brand enough that they’re prepared to offer that support in the most practical way, really. Most of our guns, though, are sold in person. When we came out of lockdown, it became a case of juggling the various health rules and requirements of different countries: Can we go and see you, or can you come see us? So there were clients who wouldn’t order until they’d be able to come in.
Since the pandemic ended, have orders picked up?
Yes. We have definitely seen pent-up demand. There were people who would’ve bought in 2020 perhaps or ’21, and they’re coming through now.
The Purdey website notes that about 80 percent of the company's production currently consists of over/under guns.
Well, we have three types of over/unders: the sidelock Purdey/Woodward [£146,000, or $181,000], the Trigger Plate [£70,000, or $87,000] and the new Sporter, introduced in 2022 [£42,500, or $53,000]. The trend to over/unders has been in place since I’ve been here and goes back longer.
And the new Sporter is now made entirely in London, like the rest of the line?
Covid gave us a little breathing space to redevelop the Sporter to be built purely in-house. This twinned with Brexit, because prior to that it was easier to move guns and components between us and Perugini & Visini, in Italy. With Brexit, this process became much more bureaucratic, complicated and time consuming. And time is a metric that changes how much something is going to cost. So it then became viable to launch the new Sporter at the same price as the old one.
What is the target market for the new Sporters?
It is a fixed-lock design and is an all-rounder—there isn’t a dedicated clay-target action or a game action. Some people have described it as an entry-level Purdey. The advantage to making it entirely in-house is that it will be made to the same standards as our Trigger Plates and sidelocks. So we can offer a level of bespoke at that first level: Would you like the Sporter, which has a few options; or the Purdey Trigger Plate, which has a few more; or the sidelock, which has every option we can attach.
Is there a typical Purdey customer these days?
I think if you averaged our clients, most would probably be in their late 40s and upward. You’ll get men and women who come to us because they want the best engineering and metallurgy. They want the best handling, the best fit—a state-of-the-art gun or rifle with the Purdey name on it. Others are more interested in the history and heritage and craftsmanship.
I’m guessing many Americans are more interested in the latter.
Yes, I think more of the Americans are invested in that aspect and why it is so appealing to that specific market. And again, I wonder if that perhaps relates to how they grew up with guns and shooting. But we’re very keen to stress to people, yes, you’re buying into history, but in that history we build guns that handle instinctively in a way that you just don’t find as much anymore. America is still the biggest single geographic market that we operate in.
How does the British market differ?
From my experience, a lot of clients we see now did not grow up shooting with their father or grandfather. When they take it up, they go to the shooting grounds. And that, I think, is perhaps one of the reasons why over here the over/under is more predominant, because they’ll go to a shooting ground, they’ll learn and then they’ll buy their first gun—and they’ll buy what they were trained on. With our Trigger Plates, I think we’ve started to sort of tap back into British shooters who would otherwise perhaps have gone for higher-end Italian makes, the sort of shooters who want a nicely made, good-looking modern gun but for which they can do an element of cleaning and maintenance.
A new Purdey at any level is a significant investment. How do you seal the deal?
There are three main points when we’re selling a gun: the gunfitting, the factory tour and selecting their own stock blank. We carry out our gunfittings in-house at our shooting grounds [Purdey at the Royal Berkshire Shooting School]. Picking the blank is exciting for the buyer; it’s about their imagination, their taste and their personality. When you show someone the factory, it’s about them just absorbing Purdey characteristics and quality, the craftsmanship and the effort that goes into the guns. Before a tour I’m sometimes told, “Well, this gun is X price. What does that get me? Why is it so expensive?” After the tour they say, “Now I know what makes a Purdey. Sold.”
Purdey has such an intimate connection to royalty and aristocracy. Do some visitors find that aura a bit intimidating, perhaps especially for Americans coming from, say, more egalitarian hunting traditions?
We’ve made a concerted effort to be far more approachable than our reputation might lead people to think. Historically, people may have felt that, with a company like Purdey, the approach was: You come to us because you know guns and what you want, and if you don’t know, we are not here to teach you. But the point of Purdey is not to scare people off. While to call us inclusive is perhaps an oxymoron, we strongly believe that even if our guns aren’t attainable for everyone, an experience here should be accessible and welcoming for all.
In what ways?
A lot of what I do here is deal with people who come in and who may never buy from us but who’ve been recommended by friends who own Purdeys or have always heard of us. So I explain: “Yes, of course you can walk in; yes, you can ask us questions.” I think it is nice that people should go away thinking, They didn’t have to, but . . . .
A lot of people know you through the very detailed gun-history certificates you prepare for owners of older Purdeys who want to know more.
We formalized the history certificates a few years ago, and it’s amazing how popular they’ve become. During the lockdown, demand was going nuts. We probably do about 200 a year.
Isn’t it enormously time consuming to prepare these, particularly for a secondhand gun that likely wasn’t purchased from Purdey?
We need to support those clients as much as clients ordering new guns, because . . . .
Because they may come around some day and order a new gun?
True. But provenance also supports the secondhand market and validates what they have in their possession. The reputation that we have in the secondhand market is what, I think, eventually pulls people back, because they see the Purdey name, its reputation and all of its history. So you have to feed both sides, because they interact with each other.
Is there now more emphasis on pre-owned-gun sales?
We have always carried secondhand. It allows us to carry guns at price points that we couldn’t otherwise. It provides another choice for a client who perhaps doesn’t want a new Sporter but whose budget may be at a similar price point.
There is no shortage of pre-owned Purdeys for sale with gun dealers in America and at auction. Why come to Purdey for one?
At Audley House we’ll have a very select group of guns, usually from the 1970s and later. What is important to note is that secondhand guns sold here come with a two-year warranty. If someone buys a secondhand gun from us, we have to be able to stand behind it, so we pre-select very carefully. It’s not like buying a gun at auction, and maybe it’s still good, but then maybe it’s not. Or maybe it can handle steel or maybe not.
That brings up the possibility of lead shot being banned next year in the UK.
The nontoxic-shot issue will have the greatest impact on older existing guns, as we had already been building steel-shot-suitable guns for the last five years.
That means tougher steels with higher tensile strength?
Yes. We changed the steel in our actions and barrels several years ago to handle steel shot, and they are proofed for it.
In what models?
All of them. We felt that was the only option. There’s been a lot of discussion between various members of the traditional trade, and some say, “Look, it’s an expensive gun. Tell your clients to pony up and pay for the bismuth.” But the point of Purdey’s is to say to a client, “We can build you a steel-shot-capable gun.” And we do. The only time it’s ever really been a problem is when you get a client who wants fixed chokes tighter than recommended with steel.
This year marks the 110th anniversary of the Woodward over/under, and next year is the 75th anniversary of Woodward’s acquisition by Purdey. Compared to Boss & Co., Holland & Holland and Purdey, why is so little known about Woodward?
Unlike Purdey, most Woodward records and archives have not survived or been found. Woodward were a very quiet company and seem to have focused on simply producing best-quality workmanship. Everything about Woodward guns was first-quality, and it is testament to their skill that Purdey still build virtually the same over/under as they produced a century ago.
Can you reveal some of what you’ve uncovered in your research for your forthcoming book?
What I’ve found remarkable is just how consistent the Woodward action has been in its design. Apart from minor tweaks, the examples we build today are virtually identical to those of a century ago. Perhaps that is what has made it so popular with other makers and for almost all of that time.
Dr. Nick Harlow’s forthcoming book, James Woodward & Sons, is expected to be available in early 2024. For more information, contact [email protected].