Purdey's road to Damascus

Vic Harker looks at a remarkable new gun from James Purdey & Sons.

The mystique that surrounds the great English Gunmakers remains as strong as ever. The great names; Purdey, Holland & Holland, Boss and a handful of others, some who are now not even in existence still resonate with the shooting public. Reflected in the high prices secondhand examples of their work continue to make in the sale rooms, this is very much a two edged sword so far as the existing makers are concerned. While it might be gratifying to have such a high value put on your work, to still have a century's backlog of secondhand guns in the market place cannibalising the sale of new guns must be exasperating. On the other hand it does reflect the brand strength of these great names and it is to their credit they continue to maintain it.

This is much easier said than done, great products make great brands, not the other way about, and yet in the United States for example, many gunmaking companies with previously huge brand strength, substituted quality for volume and have almost ceased to exist. Nothing exemplifies this more than that a Beretta pistol is now the standard sidearm of the US Military.

In contrast James Purdey & Sons is a thriving example of a company that well understands the importance of retaining a reputation based on excellence, and constantly striving to enhance it. Purdey however do not maintain these high standards of quality in a soot blackened Victorian factory. This may come as a disappointment to those who have visions of craftsmen in Dickensian surroundings filing away on pieces of metal by hand. Craftsmanship of the highest order abounds in Purdey, but where manufacturing operations can be carried out by modern technology without sacrificing quality they are used. If this were not the case this famous London gunmaker would have closed its doors years ago.

Ian Clarke, the manager of the machine shop, has experience in the aero space industry and the manufacture of Formula One racing cars. He employs cutting edge technology with computerised milling centres and wire erosion, and is open to any new technology that represents higher quality and keeps costs down. "We are making guns of a higher quality than ever before, employing modern processes where possible and our gunmakers where we can get a better result," he says.

We had a very enjoyable chat over lunch at West London Shooting School where we had met in order to look at Purdey's new Damascus gun. I suggested that most Purdey customers, most particularly what you might describe as the traditional ones, don't give a damn how their new Purdey is made as long as it's up to the high standards the makers have always maintained. Richard Purdey, the charming and urbane ex-chairman of the company, was inclined to agree though he made clear customers are welcome to inspect the factory and its methods of working if they choose to. Clearly Purdey are very proud of the modern innovations they have introduced to their production over many years which is reflected in the simply brilliant quality of their current guns. This brings us to their 20 bore over and under Damascus gun. My knowledge of Damascus steel did not extend beyond knowing that Damascus barrels are made by hammering strips of high carbon steel and other steels over a mandrel which makes barrels with naturally produced patterns and colours.

The process to produce the steel for Purdey's Damascus gun is very different and has been developed by Damasteel, a company in Sweden. The two constituent steels are manufactured by rapidly solidified powder (RSP technology) created in a nitrogen filled chamber that is finally brought together in layers like a marbled cake. This provides pure steel of exceptional hardness. The end product is an ingot that is then twisted to create the unique Damascus patterning, the material can then be forged to provide the barrels and all the action component parts with a tensile strength of 30-50 per cent greater than conventional steel. The Purdey Damascus gun is therefore extraordinarily strong and durable. There are eight in production, including a 12 bore and a 28 bore over-under and two 20 bores, the prototype of which I had been invited to inspect.

My first question to Nigel Beaumont, the present chairman of Purdey was: "Why make such a gun?" Admittedly at this point I was not aware of the benefits of this new kind of Damascus steel apart from its beauty, but I suppose the answer is in part because they can. Made in very limited numbers it must also surely be a demonstration of Purdey's innovative thinking and state of the art production which is producing their guns to ever higher standards.

The Purdey over-under, built around James Woodward's design, whose company they acquired in 1948, will be familiar as regards the jointing and bolting to many shooters who own the better quality kind of Italian over and under, most notably Perazzi. The bifurcated lumps with bearing surfaces at the sides of the action and the locking bolt coming through the breech face is by far the most elegant solution to over-under shotgun design, which is why it's copied by almost all the best makers.

In its original form with sidelocks the Purdey OU is drop dead gorgeous and handles beautifully. Close proximity to any gun from this famous maker reminds us that they and a few other British gunmakers wrote the grammar for this particular type of shotgun, and in the most subtle of ways their work is invariably the best. This new Purdey 20 bore over-under is no exception, other than for the unique beauty of the Damascus steel from which every single component is made. I was both so surprised and beguiled by this gun and the story of its creation as related over lunch, I almost forgot the reason we had foregathered was to shoot it! Weighing a fraction under 7lb ideal for this type of gun, I hit the first dozen targets without conscious thought, always the best way but the little Purdey made it so easy. Then I woke up, but the gun still shot like a dream. In matters of stock dimensions I don't know what they measured, in any case it doesn't matter, Purdey will of course individually fit each gun.

The configuration in terms of the comb's profile, the radius of the grip and just about every other area, is where the London makers leave the continentals for dead. This should come as no surprise, in the late 19th and early 20th century the London gun trade without any constraints on cost developed the game gun for a discerning and wealthy clientele, many of whom owned the best shooting in the world. The Purdey Damascus gun, though made in small numbers and priced at over £100,000, is not intended as a collector's piece. Ian Clarke asked one of the first customers for the gun what he was going to do with it: "Shoot the shit out of it!" he replied. "I was delighted," Ian says, "our guns are built to be used."

Regardless of Purdey's long history, the company is 200 years old in 2014; its list of illustrious customers, Audley Street, the Long Room and everything that goes with the brand, the most attractive aspect of the company is its people. Including the present principal Nigel Beaumont, everyone on the team shares a total lack of pretention and all have the same enthusiasm to not only maintain the company's reputation but push the envelope even further to create guns that are not just as good as those of the past but even better. The Damascus gun, beautiful and intriguing, is just one example of how they are succeeding.

Purdey Damascus, £104,575, www.purdey.com


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