The apprentice – Jamie Johnston
Will Pocklington spoke to 23-year-old Jamie Johnston, apprentice ejector worker at James Purdey & Sons, about his decision to pursue a career in gunmaking.
What made you want to pursue a career in gunmaking, and how did you end up at James Purdey & Sons?
I started working at a clay pigeon shooting club in Northolt when I left school. That is where my interest in shooting and guns started. I remember my boss telling me I couldn't be a trapper for the rest of my life, and suggested I get in touch with Nick Holt. I duly did, and he set me up with Rigby and Co., where I worked for 18 months before they relocated and I applied for an apprenticeship position at Purdey. Thankfully, my application was successful.
So how does the apprenticeship work?
The apprenticeships take roughly five years to complete, but can vary dependent on the department you are in and how quickly you learn.
To start with, I did a bit of everything, which helped to identify where my strengths lie and the areas I find most enjoyable.
I did some woodwork, finishing and actioning and eventually ended up in the ejector department for the over-under guns, which is where I specialise now.
How does it feel to be working at Purdey?
Working here is brilliant. Obviously there is the prestige of working on the finest of English-made guns. We are a small team in comparison to some other gunmakers. There are perhaps 40 people in the workshop – four or five in each of the eight departments.
What does your role entail?
I work in the ejector department, where we deal with all the work inside the fore-end of the gun – regulating the ejectors, building the drop which regulates the opening of the gun, and connecting the cocking rods with the ejector arms which link the lock with the fore-end. In terms of the whole gunmaking process, I'd say it is the most mechanical of stages – lots of moving parts.
At the moment, it takes me about three weeks to build the full ejector mechanism. But I'm getting quicker.
How valuable is it to be able to learn these skills from master craftsmen?
It is so important. The apprenticeship is a mixture of practical, on-the-job training and watching the more experienced guys out there. They'll talk you through it, explain to you exactly what they are doing and let you watch. They might do half the job and then say “Now you've watched me do it, have a go at it yourself”. It's a great way to learn.
My tutor is Phil Butcher, the head actioner. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience.
Are there many other young people entering the trade?
There are seven of us on the apprenticeship scheme at Purdey, spread across the different departments. I think it is fair to say that the number of young people entering the trade has declined over the last few generations.
The average age in the workshop here is probably around 40 years old, so apprenticeships are crucial to ensure skills are not lost.
Do you have any advice for other young people who want to enter the trade?
Be patient, get your head down, show an enthusiasm to learn and soak up as much as you can from the master craftsmen out there. Learn from them.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Seeing the finished product really is quite special. When you can see the gun in its entirety and think ‘I've played a part in creating that', that's a great feeling. Testing them and actually seeing them working is a real privilege, too.
And the most challenging part of your job?
The stage where you start connecting everything together can be quite tricky, but with a bit of practice it gets easier. The regulating side of things – having to take the mechanism apart and put it back together – is quite intricate and often fiddly.
We work to imperial measurements and extremely fine tolerances – thousandths of an inch – so things have to be spot on. A microscopic error can make quite a difference.
Your ultimate ambition?
In five year's time, I hope for the apprenticeship to be done and dusted and have the confidence to be working on my own more.
In 10 year's time, I'd like to be head of department and then, further down the line, hopefully working my way up to being a senior and master craftsman.
The ejector work was traditionally part of the actioner's job – there wouldn't have been an ejectors department – so I'd like to try my hand at working in the action department as well.
Favourite Purdey gun?
The sporter appeals to me most, probably because of my clay pigeon shooting background. I've actually used one before to shoot clays, which was an experience in itself.
If you could work on any gun of any calibre?
I prefer to work on the smaller calibres. There's something about the smaller parts that excites me. I find them more fun to file-up, more challenging, and so the sense of achievement is greater I think when they are completed.