The godfather returns
After 170 years of dormancy, the fabled name and ingenuity of Joseph Manton is back, in the form of a groundbreaking triple-barrelled 20 bore.
I 'd heard the rumours. Although, to be honest, anyone with the slightest proclivity towards gunmaking had – it was big news. The legendary name of Joseph Manton, the irrefutable godfather and leading innovator of the British gun industry, was back. And under the management of three serious fanatics, word on the grapevine was that the company had picked up right where the revered Old Joe had left off, with cutting-edge designs immediately destined for the vices.
The pièce de résistance of their proposed four-gun range was to be a triple-barrelled 20 bore – a unique tribute to the prodigy himself. It sounded a tad ambitious, to say the least.
That was in 2010, and now, clasping a warm brew on a frosty morning in Sudbury, Suffolk with the brawn and brains behind this renaissance – Geoff Walker, Ian Spencer and Dick Castleton – here it is, in front of my very eyes…
A priceless peer
To understand the true scale of the feat these men have undertaken, we must first delve into the past and touch upon the frenzied career of Manton himself. “It's widely recognised that without him,” starts Ian, the affable director, “the gun industry simply would never have taken off. He trained everybody.” And indeed he did.
Arriving in Mayfair in 1789 as a fresh-faced 23-year-old, his fame spread like wildfire, his tutelage highly sought after. Thomas Boss, Charles Lancaster, William Moore and James Purdey – the pedigree names of contemporary gunmaking – all enjoyed spells under his fabled instruction. The latter admitting that “but for him we should all have been a parcel of blacksmiths”.
Manton was hugely inventive, registering twice as many patents as any other gunmaker, and can claim a large portion of responsibility in perfecting the flintlock and developing the form and style of the double-barrelled sporting shotgun as we know it today. Colonel Hawker described him as “the greatest artist in firearms that ever the world produced”. High praise indeed from such a celebrated marksman.
There's no doubt he was a genius, but the dogged pride he took in his work proved to be a noxious apple in his otherwise sparkling barrel.
“One of his main problems was that he was highly litigious,” explains Geoff, a flintlock gun collector of epic proportions. “Anyone who he thought had breached one of his patents, he chased through the courts. It cost him a fortune and ended up bankrupting him.”
“He rather foolishly took on the government,” Ian interjects. “And lost. On top of this, he was a big gambler. He ended up twice in debt, yet managed to crawl his way out and re-establish himself.”
By the time of his death in 1835, and despite his topsy-turvy fortunes, Manton had left a humbling legacy – a legacy that has remained largely dormant until recent years. “Fifteen years ago, the company holding the name went into liquidation,” starts Dick, a retired engineer with an unbridled enthusiasm for gunmaking, “and I was just in the right spot at the right time to take over the trademark.”
In 2010, Ian and Geoff climbed aboard – both of whom knew Dick through using him for restoration work – and with the lively injection of time, money and passion, the Manton fire was reignited.
“Once registered as a limited company, we got straight to work, starting with the Legend, a side-by-side sidelock, as it was relatively easy to make,” says Ian. “And then we set about designing the other shotguns in our range.”
“The three-barrelled gun has long been a dream of mine,” states Geoff, “and what a journey it's been watching this come to fruition.”
The triad talk with a modest calm about the venture thus far, but stepping into the unknown of tackling a unique triple-barrel configuration, while not jeopardising the handling, balance, function and beauty that comes with such a reputed name must have inflicted the odd restless night.
“It is a great name to be able to put on guns that still bear his innovation,” says Geoff. “He was an absolute perfectionist – if anyone got anything even slightly wrong they had to go away and do it all again. We're trying to continue that ethos in making best London shotguns.”
Manton had a tenacious ambition: to constantly push the boundaries of gunmaking, striving to produce the world's finest sporting arms. Few would argue that he failed. “He was a pioneer,” adds Ian, “and he would have undoubtedly embraced the technology available today and exploited the potential of advanced machine tools. For this reason, we have no hesitation in using them in our quest for engineering perfection – we want to create the best possible shotguns we can. However, we also know precisely where cutting-edge technology ends and the craftsman's eyes, hands and experience take over.”
“He certainly would have been thrilled to watch the wire-cutters slice through spring steel that's been hardened,” adds Dick, who monitored the pieces through every step of their production. “It's an amazing process – he would have been the first to jump on the bandwagon.”
And similarly to how Manton was always on the lookout for the best in the business, the trio too are in contact with multiple engravers, stockers, finishers, etc. to ensure they create a piece of ultimate functional art.
So, have they succeeded?
Do one-legged ducks swim in circles?
The images testify that beauty hasn't budged an inch. The classic Manton engraving – although one of the custom-made variables – is every bit as striking as Manton flintlocks of yesteryear. And the stock figuring showcases the dark ripples that guns bearing his name were associated with – the very best of the walnut tree, nearest the roots and naturally dried for several decades.
From above, the Tribute looks like your run-of-the-mill side-by-side, and from the flank the barrel depth is actually reduced from that of routine over-unders due to the way in which the third barrel nestles into the groove between the two atop. But what boggles me most is the lack of influence inflicted on the weight and handling.
I had fully primed myself for a chunky instrument, with noticeably more bulk, but this is simply not the case. Even with the additional 28" barrel, action rejigs and added sidelock, this 20 bore weighs 7.75lb – similar to that of regular 12 bores.
Having got my head around this impressive detail, I turn my attention to the balance – something that was of momentous importance to Joseph Manton. And, happily, I can report that here too they triumph, with the balance about an eighth of an inch in front of the hinge pin, very slightly nose heavy, but all the weight between the hands – as a gun that is destined to see routine action in the field should be.
In fact, the glittering report snowballs when put to use. It handles beautifully – the added weight provoking a smooth and controlled swing. “There were several obstacles along the way,” confirms Dick, such as the complex logistics of three ejectors, but on admiring its exquisite intricacies, it's unquestionable that the hurdles have been trampled. Emphatically so.
This unique masterpiece carries a production time of 21 months, with the team aiming to manufacture six guns a year from their range, which also includes the aforementioned side-by-side (the Legend), a stunning bar-in-wood design (the Signature) and an over-under currently in the final stages of development (the Legacy).
Actually, hold on… I do the Signature an injustice. It too adorns the table in front of me, and, with an unbroken river of finely figured walnut flowing from fore-end to butt, it is both utterly distinctive and elegant. But the Tribute – so aptly named – steals the show.
Turning over the piece to track the cuts and chases of the scroll, I see that the triggerplate bears the serial number 11502, a continuation of where Manton left off before his company went under in 1842, seven years on from his death. A beautiful touch that only a beautiful gun could fulfil.
Joseph Manton, a man renowned for his unrelenting pursuit of precision and perfection, would be proud. Proud of the passion. Proud of his lasting legacy. But mostly, proud that these three men are a cut from the same innovative cloth. The groundbreaking triple-barrelled Tribute has come to form via skilled hands and incredible robotic technology, but – as intended – the looks and design herald back to the great man himself. The godfather of British gunmaking returns.
Contact Ian Spencer on +44(0)1440 821717
Gauge: Three 20 bore barrels
Barrel length: 28" as standard, or to order
Choke: Fixed, to order
Lock/Trigger: Two sidelocks and one triggerplate (also available in single triggerplate configuration)
Stock: Straight-hand or semi-pistol grip
Production time: 21 months
Price: From £69,300 (ex. VAT)
Gauge: 12, 20 and to order
Barrel length: 28" as standard, or to order
Choke: To order
Lock/Trigger: Single triggerplate
Stock: Straight-hand or semi-pistol grip
Production time: 18 months
Price: From £48,600 (ex. VAT)