Gunning for greatness

Bespoke gunmaking is a craft appreciated by royals and the rest for centuries. We look at what the very best British gunsmiths have to offer

Right on target

Royal warrants recognise British tradition and craftsmanship – and nowhere is this more evident than in the production of fine sporting shotguns and rifles.

The main centre of the trade is London, where one of the leading names in the world, royal warrant holders James Purdey & Sons, is based.

“London has been a centre of excellence for the craft of gunmaking for well over 200 years,” says Richard Purdey, director and former chairman of the firm founded by his forebears in 1814. It has held a royal warrant since 1868.

Guns are built in its Hammersmith factory in west London, using British components such as barrel forgings from Sheffield. The craftsmen are trained in a five-year apprenticeship and specialise in one of the individual skills required such as the making of barrels, actions or furniture (the lock and trigger). After completing their apprenticeship, they earn the right to stamp their initials on the part of the gun they created.

“After completing their apprenticeship, the craftsmen earn the right to stamp their initials on the part of the gun they created”

Technology supplements these skills. Computer-aided design and manufacture allow component parts, machined to tolerances of less than one thousandth of an inch.

A bespoke gun such as a classic Purdey game gun will take 18 months to build and could cost in the region of £75,000. “A Purdey is an investment to be handed down through the generations,” says Richard Purdey.

Hundreds of miles away in eastern Scotland, Michael Lingard lives and works in the small village of Friockheim in Angus, supplying guns to the Prince of Wales.

“Thanks to the high level of craftsmanship, there is a very strong interest in British-built guns both in this country and worldwide, particularly from America,” he says.

Lingard, who began as an apprentice in 1973 before setting up his own business in 1980, builds guns to a customer’s specification. British customers are likely to place an order for 12-, 16- and 20-gauge guns with a view to shooting grouse, pheasant and partridge. The American market favours quail shooting and opts for smaller 20- and 28-gauge guns.

“Building a gun is not a one-man job,” he says, explaining that he draws on other specialists, from precision engineers to engravers.

Lingard is well known for the exceptional quality of his walnut stock blanks, all of which he sources personally in Turkey. Back at his Friockheim workshops, he takes the air-dried stocks and further reduces their moisture content to 8-10 per cent.

“It’s extremely satisfying to take a blank of the finest walnut and turn it into a magnificent stock,” he says.

Clients bring in their existing guns or measurements from a shooting school to establish the length, bend and cast-on or cast-off (the specialist term for how the stock is shaped and carved), depending on whether they shoot from the left or right shoulder respectively.

For Lingard this craft, which includes repair and maintenance as well as manufacture, is almost a vocation. “It is not only an occupation but a way of life,” he says. “And it is a real pleasure to work with discerning clients who appreciate the workmanship whether it be on a new gun or a replacement stock.”

Prices for a single shotgun would start at around £38,000, with a delivery time of 18-30 months. Engraving, another specialist art, and design skills are at extra cost, as are fully fitted gun cases for these masterpieces.