Bespoke William Evans double rifle
Today, very few gunmakers have the skills available to build double rifles and no more than a hundred or so of these exceptional sporting arms are built annually throughout the world. What's more, the number built in one of the largest calibres of all, the awesomely-powerful .500 Nitro Express, can be counted on one hand. Therefore, if you are in the fortunate position of being able to purchase one of these masterpieces and use it as the maker intended, then exclusivity is a given.
The William Evans ‘best' double-barrelled sidelock rifle has been used by generations of sportsmen, including professional hunters, who have literally entrusted their lives to them. This configuration comes into its own when hunting dangerous game, where the ability to fire a second shot quickly and reliably is vital. So attached have some customers become to their rifles that they have even given them names. One Canadian has named his William Evans .470 Nitro Express double rifle ‘Elizabeth' after Her Majesty The Queen.
Rifles have always played an important role in the history of William Evans, a business which still bears the name of its founder, who set up shop at 95a Buckingham Palace Road in 1883 and then in 1885 moved to 4 Holden Terrace in the Pimlico district of London. By 1888 his reputation, and the business, had grown enough for him to move to a more prestigious address - 4 Pall Mall Place. In 1896 the company moved yet again, this time to 63 Pall Mall, opposite St. James's Palace. The move to St. James's, the heart of London's ‘clubland', further strengthened William Evans' client list and the company attracted the patronage of members of several prestigious gentlemen's clubs, such as White's, Boodles and Brooks's. By being close to the Houses of Parliament, the company soon attracted members of the House of Lords and House of Commons to its premises, HRH Duke of Connaught and HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught being amongst its distinguished clients.
Based in this prestigious area, William Evans made his name catering for the requirements of the professional classes. The backbone of the client list included ranking officers in the Guards Regiments who were measured for sporting guns and rifles at its premises before being posted to various parts of the Empire. At one time, the Military even wrote to William Evans specifying that all rifles of specific continental calibres, such as 7.50 and 8.50, had to be sold to them so that soldiers could easily utilise ammunition taken from the enemy.
During the 1920s and 1930s William Evans was one of 30 or so such businesses operating in the St. James's and Mayfair areas of London and became synonymous with the manufacture of high quality, reasonably-priced sporting arms. This period also saw the emphasis being placed on William Evans rifles in all calibres, from .280 to .600, in both double-barrel and bolt-action form.Today William Evans is still very popular with clients who prefer to deal with a relatively small, bespoke manufacturer. Consequently, clients are very loyal and the descendants of several families who purchased guns in the early 1900s still return them for servicing!
When it comes to building the highest-quality rifles, William Evans is still offering both conventional bolt-action and double rifles.
Bolt-action rifles are made to order, usually on original ‘98 or Magnum Mauser actions, although other actions, such as Hartmann & Weiss, are available. Barrel lengths and weight depend on the calibre selected and the client's specific sporting requirements. The walnut stocks are available with either a classic straight comb or discreet Monte Carlo with cheek piece, in all cases hand chequered and finished with best English oil. Bolt-action rifles feature fixed scope mounts or quick detachable mounts with open sights and can be embellished with customised engravings. Double rifles are even more exclusive, being specifically manufactured to fulfil the client's most demanding wishes and personally fitted for ease, speed and accuracy of mounting to the shoulder, on the line of sight. Automatic or manual safety catches are entirely at the client's preference, as is the choice of walnut wood and engraving. Open ‘express' sights are standard, but quickly-detachable scopes may be fitted.
The very special double rifle featured here is a .500 Nitro Express sidelock ejector which was ordered by a customer in Canada for use in Africa, where it will have its first outing this year. Such a fascinating example takes approximately three years to craft, from the time the order is placed to the customer taking delivery, during which time it will be exclusively hand-crafted in England.
The action plates and body of William Evans best guns such as this are entirely hand-engraved and although the company's bold foliate scroll engraving comes as standard, many clients specify their own bespoke engraving, as is the case here.
In keeping with this gun's intended use it features engraving of African elephants, a theme inspired by previous William Evans double rifles. A key feature of the embellishment is that it is in the ‘relief' style, which creates a very distinctive two-dimensional effect that is heightened by the action's bright ‘coin' finish, in contrast to the hues of brown, blue, green and ‘straw' generated by a traditional colour case hardened finish.
Equipped with a bolstered back action sidelock, a classic double-rifle design feature which leaves more metal in the bar of the action for maximum safety, the gun features top-lever opening and a manual safety catch. Sporting a rolled trigger guard, this stunning example of the gun maker's art also incorporates a double-trigger mechanism which features an articulating front trigger.
The barrels on this particular example are 23" long, a length specified by the customer and somewhat shorter than the 26" or 28" normally chosen for very powerful rifles to help minimise the considerable muzzle flip which occurs when a shot is discharged. The shorter barrels do, however, allow slightly faster handling and make the gun easier to handle in thick undergrowth, an important consideration when most shooting of this type will be done when the quarry is 50 - 100 yards away.
Due to the massive recoil generated by a large calibre such as this and the relatively short distance to the quarry, very few rifles over .416 feature telescopic sights. This is particularly so in the case of double rifles, this example conforming to tradition by featuring a shallow V-type rear sight incorporating gold inlay, together with a hooded muzzle sight with a flip-up moon-sight for use in low light conditions.
How a double rifle fits its owner is of critical importance because of the potential need to bring it up to the shoulder very quickly. The fitting process is therefore much like that for a shotgun as opposed to a bolt-action rifle which can usually be shouldered in more leisurely fashion. In this case the stock, made of the highest-quality Turkish walnut, features a cheek-piece on the left-hand side, a pistol grip and pistol grip cap with trap. This example tips the scales at a hefty 11lb, which Alastair Phillips of William Evans in London describes as being ‘about right'. However, such is the huge recoil generated by the discharge of a .500 Nitro Express cartridge, that it is still necessary for the person firing the gun to have their weight firmly on the front foot to ensure they remain upright and ready to discharge a second shot quickly if required.
“A bespoke gun such as this is a very personal thing,” Alastair Philips emphasises. “Not only will it fit you perfectly but can also be used to reflect your personality. In this case the client wanted the engraving to feature one of his intended quarry species, but one client asked us to engrave an image of himself kayaking down his favourite river and another wanted his collection of sports cars immortalised on the action.”
The price which has to be paid for the privilege of owning such a stunning example of the gun maker's art is necessarily a high one, reflecting the high number of hours invested by artisan craftsmen in its creation.
William Evans double-rifles start at £75,000 (plus VAT) and even though one such as this with its exemplary engraving cost its owner considerably more than that, it is still comparable with the cost of a luxury car, numerous examples of which will probably be owned by clients with the wherewithal to indulge their passion for big game hunting. But while the car will almost certainly shed value faster than the average person could earn it, top-quality guns will generally retain their original purchase price and prove a good investment over time.