Bespoke gun fitting
Creating your very own bespoke shotgun might sound like a flight of fancy, but this alternative to an off-the-peg model is more affordable than you might think, and it’s laden with benefits, says Alastair Phillips of William Evans.
Purchasing a made-to-measure shotgun was once the preserve of an elite few with sufficient funds to invest in a bespoke English sidelock costing tens of thousands of pounds. Now, with the advent of customisable models which start at under £8,000, that goal has become much more attainable, tempting an increasing number of sportsmen and women down the bespoke route.
There really is nothing like having a gun built to your own specification. For starters, you will eliminate poor gunfit. Most people use a shotgun that they have inherited, or purchased off-the-shelf, so the odds are against them from the outset. If you have one made to your specification, however, it will fit like a glove, be comfortable to use, and make a significant difference to your ability to hit the target.
This is particularly so if you are anything other than ‘average’ in terms of physique. Off-the-shelf guns are designed for the average man and so will not fit everyone. And, given that a poorly fitting gun would probably have to be modified anyway, why not have one made?
The bespoke approach is particularly important when choosing a side-by-side. With this configuration your field of view takes in not just the rib but also the tops of both barrels. The element of distraction that these cause will be much more pronounced if the gun doesn’t fit. Details such as the amount of cast (offset) incorporated into the stock are therefore much more important, generally ranging from –3/8" at the face for a side-by-side compared with 1/8–" for an over-under.
Equally as important as the physical aspect of owning a well-fitting gun are the psychological benefits. Simply knowing that the gun you are shooting with has been tailored to your exact dimensions and requirements will give you immense confidence in the field. And, of course, it is very special knowing that a team of craftsmen and women have created something solely for your enjoyment.
Making it fit
I’d always recommend having your gun fitted by a skilled instructor who will use a try-gun to obtain precise stock dimensions to suit you. The cost is usually around £200 for a two-hour session, but rather than just go for a one-off visit, I would suggest booking a block of lessons to create a solid basis for investing in a gun that will fit you perfectly.
At William Evans, we refund this cost should the client place an order. When he/she comes back to see us we select three or four guns at the top and bottom ends of their budget, explain the differences if necessary and then go through the specifications.
The custom process
The process of creating a bespoke shotgun should be fun, something that you will treasure forever and never tire of recounting to your friends. The key is to find a company you like, can trust and enjoy working with. It’s a process that may take just one visit or several to bring to fruition.
When a prospective client visits us at William Evans, I first discuss with them the type of shooting that they are likely to be doing and the usual quarry, and establish a realistic budget, before working through each of the points that follow to eventually arrive at their ideal specification.
While most game Shots will default to a standard side-by-side 12 bore with 28" barrels, choke in the right and in the left, that won’t suit everyone. One of the great joys of going bespoke is that it allows you to tailor gauge, barrel length and chokes to your own dimensions as well as your intended quarry.
The client’s physique and health will be a major factor when it comes to choosing the calibre and weight of the gun. For many, the 12 bore remains the most appropriate, not least because it is the most versatile in coping with a wide range of quarry, from grouse to geese, but because it offers the widest availability of cartridges. However, while a tall, strong man may have no problem shooting several hundred cartridges a day through a heavy, long-barrelled 12 bore, such a gun might be totally unsuitable for someone who is of slighter build or struggles because of a recurring injury, such as shoulder or back pain.
The 20 bore is very popular and may be best for those who are of lighter stature or who are looking for a lighter gun, while the 16 bore is increasingly requested.
When it comes to barrels, there’s no question that 28" are the safe option for off-the-shelf guns, for the very good reason that this length tends to balance out an average stock (14–15" in length, from trigger blade to the centre of the butt). We offer a choice of barrel lengths from 25–31", the shortest resulting in a gun which is light, fast and manoeuvrable for shooting walked-up quarry in woodlands, and when used with a 28g cartridge is more than adequate for most pheasants. Longer barrels are ideal for taller clients with a focus on high birds.
In most cases, the normal 2" chamber will be fine. However, if you are likely to be doing a significant amount of high-bird shooting and regularly using 2" cartridges, we recommend 3" chambers as these allow the cartridge case to open fully, reducing back-pressure and recoil as well as providing the option to use 3" cartridges. An increasing number of clients are opting to have barrels proofed for steel shot – a wise investment in terms of future-proofing the gun.
And the rib? The standard game version is best for most, although a small number of people prefer a higher, file-cut rib to reduce glare and increase the subconscious self-centering of the gun.
I find that a lot of time is often spent discussing choke with clients. My preference is for fixed choke as it means there is one less variable to think about. Sometimes clients who are ordering a pair will ask whether they should choose a different choke combination for each gun, but in my mind this just complicates the issue. Where the specification includes fixed chokes, I suggest at least starting off with tighter chokes, as you can always take metal out at a later stage, and it is significantly more difficult to put it back! In my mind, choke is very under-rated, being tight enough for all but the most extreme situations, yet not too tight for typical ranges at which most people will be shooting their quarry.
Whether or not to opt for multi-chokes is a common quandary. The whole point of having your gun custom-made is to reduce the number of variables so that you can focus entirely on your shooting. Multi-chokes do of course allow the more experienced Shot to tailor the level of constriction to the quarry, range and cartridge choice – for example, they may shoot grouse in August and September, then high pheasants from October onwards. However, unless you fully understand the benefits and capabilities of each choke, this feature is more likely to just serve as another distraction and ultimately detract from your shooting.
The next choice to make is whether to go for a double or single trigger. On an over-under, the single trigger is normal, but on a side-by-side my preference would always be for a double trigger, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the single trigger mechanism on a side-by-side is much more complex and therefore less reliable. It also carries a significant cost premium – £1,500 in the case of our Connaught model – while being less flexible than a double trigger, which allows you to easily choose which barrel to shoot first without having to fiddle with a selector.
Choosing a stock
Choosing a stock is a matter of personal preference. Whilst the conventional straight-hand option is still the most popular for game guns, the Prince of Wales design offers a better grip and is now very popular. I tend to advise against fitting a recoil pad – the standard stock with checkering in the mid-point is generally the best option as it will not snag on clothing or affect gun mount. However, if you regularly use heavy-load cartridges, are particularly sensitive to recoil or of slight build, a pad can be useful in terms of maximising your comfort, which is paramount to good shooting. Before making this decision, though, I would suggest first using a lighter load, perhaps 28 or even 24g rather than the standard 30 or 32g game cartridge, to see how you get on.
The bespoke option also allows you to choose the wood which is used to make the stock. Again, this personal touch adds immeasurably to the experience of owning and shooting your new gun. You may wish to specify a wider, beaver-tail fore-end to keep your hand off hot barrels (for a side-by-side), thereby avoiding the need to use a barrel protector or wear gloves. On a smaller calibre gun, specifically a .410 or 28 bore, this feature design also provides more purchase and makes the gun more manoeuvrable.
Once you have finalised the specification of your ideal shotgun, you will then be able to look forward to the day when you take delivery of a product that has been hand-crafted specifically for you. And, if you love shooting, experiences don’t get much better than that.