By Chris Batha
EJ. Churchill Gunmakers was established in 1891 by Edwin John Churchill, who set up a workshop in London at 8 Agar Street, the Strand. In 1899 Edwin was joined by his nephew, Robert Churchill. Edwin was a renowned pigeon shot who used this experience along with his gunmaking skills to make and fit pigeon guns for clients.
It was common at the time for gunmakers also to supply their own brand of cartridges for gamebirds as well as pigeon-shooting competitions. Both Edwin and Robert were considered ballistic experts and often consulted for Scotland Yard in murder inquiries involving firearms.
Beyond the company history, the mention of E.J. Churchill often conjures up discussions of the iconic Churchill XXV shotgun, with its relatively short 25″ barrels and unique, raised, inverted-V rib. Arguments for and against the rib have been carried on among sportsmen since the rib’s introduction, during the development of the XXV, from 1913 to 1915.
There are various tales regarding the genesis of the Churchill XXV. A strong favorite is that Robert was practicing for the Monte Carlo live-pigeon shoot when he somehow plugged the end of the barrels of his 30″ pigeon gun with snow. Being completely unaware of the blockage, he fired the gun and bulged the muzzles; so he cut back the damaged barrels to 25″ and shot the gun in competition.
The fabled Monte Carlo pigeon ring was smaller than standard rings, which meant that competitors had to shoot quicker to drop the pigeons in the ring. It could be attributed to Churchill’s “instinctive” point-and-shoot technique in tandem with the faster dynamics of the shorter-barreled gun, but such was his straight shooting that he began to experiment with the fine-tuning and manufacture of the XXV.
The other variation on the XXV story was that the shorter barrels were the result of a workshop snafu. A shotgun in for an annual strip and clean was dropped accidentally and badly dented at the muzzles. With the season fast approaching, the client was told that the barrels could be shortened at the point of damage, retro-choked and used for the season and that new replacement barrels would be made for the following year. The client enjoyed such an upturn in his shooting success that he not only kept the shortened gun but also ordered another with 25″ barrels to create a pair. Truth or fiction? We probably never will know for certain.
In the early 1900s there were hundreds of gunmakers covering the length and breadth of Great Britain. Except for some proprietary patents and designs, all of the guns produced were similar, with only the makers’ names and reputations and the quality of the finish separating them. Robert Churchill was the P.T. Barnum of gunmakers, and early on he identified what his customers really wanted: “simply to be able to shoot better.”
His most inspiring marketing strategy was the introduction of the “instinctive shooting” style and to make a gun that complemented it—the Churchill XXV. And to complete the plan he opened a shooting school to teach his instinctive-shooting technique. The XXV was a great success, with nearly 400 guns sold between 1923 and 1924 and 368 sold in 1927-’28. Publication of Churchill’s books How to Shoot (1938) and Game Shooting (1955) kept interest alive.
The Instinctive Shot
Churchill Gun Club was opened at Crayford in Kent, a short train ride from central London. The one famous shooting instructor there was Norman Clark, who subsequently moved to Holland & Holland and was a mentor to Ken Davies. The “Churchill style” still is being taught there by Ken’s successor, Chris Bird.
In Churchill’s Shotgun Book (1955), Robert Churchill’s teaching went hand-in-glove with the use of his Churchill XXV shotgun. The primary emphasis was—and is—placed on the drilled practice like that found in kata (or “form”) in the martial arts. The practice consists of performing the fundamentals of footwork, posture and gun mount, with total faith placed in hand-eye coordination to put the pattern on the bird without any reference to the bead or the lead—in the same manner that one would catch a ball. The practice requires hard focus; a smooth, well-practiced gun mount; the butt of the gun being placed in the shoulder pocket and the comb into the cheek; the swing speed being achieved by a transference of weight onto the back foot; and the shot being taken without pause or check.
And the perfect gun for the job was—and in many cases still is—the Churchill XXV.
The Technical Case for the XXV
As mentioned, the XXV had not only 25″ barrels but also a unique V-shaped raised rib. The raised rib required a higher comb, and Robert Churchill’s idea on stock fitting was that a higher comb with less drop placed the head in a more natural position.
A shotgun’s barrels—both their length and weight—impact swing speed, recoil and, to some extent, muzzle flip. Churchill discovered that shorter barrels are more responsive than longer barrels, as they start faster and swing faster.
The combination of Churchill’s instinctive-shooting method (the speed of swing and a smidge of muzzle flip) with a raised rib ensured that if the trigger were pulled without pause or check as the muzzles passed through the head of the bird, sufficient lead would be created to place the cloud of shot on the bird. When shooting driven pheasants at the average height of around 30 yards, which was the norm of the period, it was, indeed, a deadly combination.