In the May/June 2008 issue I wrote an extensive article titled “Touring the London Trade,” describing a walking visit to London’s gunmakers. This past summer, after attending The Game Fair, near Birmingham, I decided to revisit the “tour” to see what had changed in the ensuing 14 years.
In general, I found that many craftsmen, partly due to the pandemic, are now choosing to work from home. Some continue to work for the major makers, but others have become independent and are working for themselves.
Overall, I was quite cheered that for many of the best-gun companies, it remains business as usual—at least in terms of them maintaining workshops and showrooms. That said, it was disappointing to know that I would not be visiting one maker I had written about in 2008—William & Son—which is no longer in business.
Armed with the list of gunmakers I had spoken to at The Game Fair, I took the train into London, hopped on the Tube and began my quest. I exited the Tube at Piccadilly Circus, and then skirted around Pall Mall—passing (with restraint) the sporting-clothing specialists Farlow’s—and walked toward St. James’s Street. Knowing that many gunmakers these days are open by appointment only, I had called ahead to set up a visit with William Evans.
William Evans, Ltd. (67A St. James’s Street)
William Evans Gun & Rifle Makers has been building high-quality side-by-sides, over/unders and rifles since the company was established, in 1883, by William Evans, formerly of James Purdey & Sons and Holland & Holland. Today the firm not only continues the tradition of excellence in producing shotguns and rifles, but it also has a large line of clothing, accessories, footwear and gun services and operates Bisley Shooting Ground, in Surrey.
My next stop was an easy walk across St. James’s Street to the new location of Holland & Holland. Since my original article, H&H was purchased by Beretta and the gunroom moved from Bruton Street to the third floor of the Beretta Gallery.
Holland & Holland—in the Beretta Gallery (36 St. James’s Street, with a separate entrance on Jermyn Street)
Established in 1885, Holland & Holland has a long history of building the finest handcrafted shotguns and rifles. A visit to the new showroom confirms that the company’s legacy is fully maintained today. In addition to a gunroom there is an extensive collection of clothing and shooting equipment.
If you have time, you should consider the short journey (by Tube or Uber) to the Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds, just 45 minutes from London in Northwood. There you will enjoy first-rate shooting instruction as well as a handsome lodge with an exquisite restaurant and lounge.
Leaving Holland & Holland, I turned north on St. James’s Street, crossed Piccadilly into Mayfair, and after a short walk arrived at South Audley Street—the home of James Purdey & Sons.
James Purdey & Sons (57-58 South Audley Street)
Audley House is the famous home of James Purdey & Sons. Since 1814 the company has been recognized as being a premier London gunmaker, and the firm’s showroom displays an array of bespoke shotguns and rifles. From 1820s muzzleloading flintlocks to modern side-by-side and over/under shotguns to bolt-action and double rifles, the firearms are second to none. Those who are extremely fortunate get to see the Long Room, which houses portraits and memorabilia and where there used to be a “well” in the middle of the room that James Purdey the Younger could look into and follow the work of the craftsmen below. Purdey’s complete line of shooting attire and accessories is also on display and is a must-see.
From South Audley Street it’s a short cab or Uber trip to visit Watson Brothers, just north of the River Thames.
Watson Brothers Gunmakers (41 Tower Bridge Road)
Watson Brothers was founded in 1885 by brothers Arthur and Thomas Watson and today is owned by Michael Louca, a Purdey-trained gunmaker. Louca is recognized for specializing in smallbore shotguns as well as round-body side-by-sides and over/unders with the famous coffin-shaped taper at the back of the action. A visit to Watson’s should include an opportunity to see the on-site workshop and various best guns in production.
From Tower Bridge Road it is another cab or Uber ride—this time south of the Thames—to John Rigby & Co.
John Rigby & Co. (13-19 Pennsbury Place)
A pioneer in every sense of the word, John Rigby & Co. is the third-oldest gunmaker in the world. Established in 1775, Rigby initially specialized in dueling pistols and fowling pieces as well as handmade shotguns and long-distance rifles. And to this day the firm’s rising-bite double rifle is the standard for big-game hunting in India, Africa and elsewhere around the world. The showroom has an extensive stock of hunting gear—reflecting the company’s broad reach in that world—and a visit to the gunroom and workshop is an experience not to be missed by any shooting aficionado.
From Pennsbury Place it is a short cab or Uber ride to the showroom and workshop of Boss & Co, also south of the Thames.
Boss & Co. (110 Kew Green)
The original title of the company, established in 1812, was “Boss & Co.: Builders of Best Guns Only,” and this still applies today. Throughout the firm’s history, Boss has always been privately owned and dedicated to producing innovative and exquisite guns. The new 1812 Edition is an ambidextrous sidelever shotgun made in a side-by-side version and a rising-bite over/under. When Boss & Co. came under new ownership, in 2015, the company moved from its central-London premises on Mount Street (where at one time it had been next door to William & Son) to its present workshop and showroom, featuring the firm’s exquisite shotguns and accessories.
Best Guns Beyond London
Although the premise of this article is about visiting London gunmakers, there are a number of companies building guns of the highest quality that have facilities and workshops just outside of London. Some are only a short train ride away, and some have excellent shooting grounds. All are worth the time to visit while in the London area.
Atkin Grant & Lang (St. Albans)
In addition to a long history of making best guns, Atkin Grant and Lang specializes in the restoration of classics with the names Henry Atkin, Stephen Grant and Joseph Lang. In addition to the company’s showroom and workshop, AG&L has an on-site shooting ground offering a wide range of targets as well as excellent instruction.
E.J. Churchill Gunmakers (High Wycombe)
A world-class shooting ground, fully stocked gunroom and pro shop are just part of the shooting and gunmaking experience at E.J. Churchill. The company also offers exceptional driven shooting in season.
Carl Russell & Company Gunmakers, Ltd. (Hatfield)
Experienced and innovative, Carl Russell & Company Gunmakers has created a destination gunroom in the historic Hatfield House, in the Metropolitan Green Belt, outside of London. Shotguns, rifles and all manner of shooting attire and equipment are available on the premises. The workshop is complete with a time-served gunmaker to carry out servicing, repair and renovation.
When planning a trip to the UK with the idea of visiting some of the world’s best gunmakers, there are obviously many options in London and beyond. For example, I have not had room to cover makers in Birmingham (for example, Westley Richards, William Powell, A.A. Brown & Sons), The Midlands (Longthorne Gunmakers), southern England (Charles Lancaster Gunmakers) and Scotland (McKay Brown, John Dickson & Son, Graham Mackinlay & Co., James Crockart & Son). You might even have to make several trips to see all that the region has to offer . . . . In any case, you will no doubt return home overwhelmed with all that you have seen—and, if you’re lucky, perhaps even having purchased a new best gun.
Chris Batha’s most recent book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting chrisbathashooting.com, which also includes schedules of shoots and clinics with the author.