The pride of Purdey
Finding an appropriate way to commemorate 200 years of gunmaking excellence was always going to be a challenge for James Purdey & Sons. But, as Marcus Janssen discovered, the end result is nothing short of spectacular.
In 2011, a top secret meeting was held in the Purdey Long Room at Audley House in Mayfair that would prove to be an important moment in the history of James Purdey & Sons. Led by chairman Nigel Beaumont, there was only one item on the agenda – how they were going to celebrate their bicentenary in 2014. It was surely an impossible task; they needed to come up with a way of appropriately commemorating two centuries at the forefront of the British gunmaking scene. Where would they possibly start? The truth is we will never know exactly what that meeting entailed, but almost eight years on, we now know where it led; to the building of three of the most outstanding examples of British gunmaking in recent years, the Purdey Bicentenary Trio.
Individually, like every Purdey ever made, Nos. 31200, 31201 and 31202 are each a celebration of the uncompromising quality that the company has been synonymous with since James Purdey opened his doors just off Leicester Square in 1814. Collectively, however, they amount to something more. With each gun representing key design, innovation and craftsmanship milestones in the company's illustrious history, and featuring engraving representative of the era in which each gun was first made, there is no doubt that the trio perfectly encapsulates 200 years of British gunmaking excellence.
No. 31200 – the 12 bore side-by-side
Regarded as the classic side-by-side, Purdey's hammerless, self-opening ejector is the model most associated with the celebrated gunmakers and is arguably the most iconic shotgun of all time. In continuous production since 1880, the only significant change made to Frederick Beesley's original design was the addition of ejectors in 1888.
Two key factors distinguish the Purdey side-by-side from those of other respected gunmakers. The first is the Beesley self-opening action. This invention harnesses the residual power of the mainspring to assist the gun's opening, thereby shaving fractions of a second off reloading time. The Beesley action combines ingenuity with sound engineering, resulting in high performance and reliability under the most arduous conditions.
The second factor, which makes the Purdey 12 bore side-by-side one of the most coveted sporting guns of all time, is the attention to detail. Highly skilled craftsmen ensure every gun fits properly, functions flawlessly, and is perfectly balanced.
No. 31201 – the DAMASCUS 20 bore OVER-UNDER
The second gun in the trio is a Damascus 20 bore over-under. Purdey built their first over-under in 1923, and in 1948 acquired James Woodward & Company, a London gunmaker noted for their outstanding over-unders. In 1950 they developed a new over-under which combined the best features of both. Progressively refined over the past 60 years, it is still in production today.
Their Damascus over-under, however, was launched in 2010. Unlike the traditional Damascus steel which was used to make gun barrels in the 19th century, this is Purdey's most modern innovation.
The Swedish-made Damasteel, which is three times stronger than that normally used in gunmaking, is hand-forged into billets from which all the metal parts are formed. The stunning Damascus patterning, unique to each gun, is the result of submerging them in an acidic chemical solution. The black background relief is where the softer of the two steels has been etched away, leaving the harder steel on top.
No. 31202 – the .470 Nitro Express double rifle
James Purdey had a particular passion for rifles, but until the advent of breech-opening barrels in the 1850s, rifles had relatively low velocity and short range. By boring deeper grooves in the barrel, and providing a corresponding two-winged bullet, James and his son, James the Younger, discovered a brilliant but simple solution to the rifling problem.
The innovation allowed for more powerful charges to be used and, consequently, Purdey rifles had far greater velocity, accuracy and range. It was James the Younger who coined the term ‘Express Rifle', likening the high speed and flat trajectory of the bullet to that of the new express trains travelling at speeds higher than previously thought possible.
The Purdey ‘Express' soon became a byword with big game hunters and Purdey exported many such rifles all over the world. They found particular favour in the second half of the 19th century with the Maharajahs of India, who commissioned engravings of exotic hunting scenes in the style of that era, with details embellished in gold.
The making of the trio
The thing that perhaps most appropriately sums up the significance of the trio, lies not in their balance, stunning aesthetics, timeless design or functionality, but in a hidden detail of the bespoke mahogany and glass cabinet that they are presented in. The cabinet, based on one that was made for King George VI in the 1930s, contains a brass plaque engraved with the names of 23 of the most skilled craftsmen in the gunmaking world today. In creating these three guns, these 23 lock, stock and barrel makers, actioners, trigger and ejector makers, finishers and engravers, accumulated almost 2,000 hours behind their respective benches in the Purdey factory. Just let that sink in for a moment. “These guys don't work to tolerances or even fractions of millimetres,” says production director Laurie Bayliss, “they work to perfect fit. And that simply cannot be rushed.”
Don't be mistaken, though, the Purdey name was built on innovation and forward thinking and, gladly, that philosophy hasn't changed. Just as the most cutting-edge designs and manufacturing techniques were used in the early 1900s, so Purdey have continued to invest in the most modern technology used in the gunmaking world today. “Where we use modern technology,” explains Laurie, “it is only to improve things and do things better. When it comes to quality, there is no room for compromise.”
However, there is no question about it, the heart of the Purdey operation lies not in the hi-tech CNC, wire cutting or spark erosion machinery, but in the old oil-stained wooden benches on which every Purdey gun is turned into a perfectly functioning work of art. “You could stick a bowler hat and a tie on any of our 26 craftsmen, take a black and white photograph, and say it was 100 years ago,” adds Laurie. “They work in imperial measurements and in their own unique language. They use words like tads and bears – I still have trouble following some of their conversations!”
In order to give me an idea of the time, effort and skill that has gone into the making of the Trio, I was invited to the Purdey factory to meet a few of the 23 men whose names are engraved on that brass plaque in the display case.
Joseph Lawrence, barrel maker
Joseph made the barrels for the 20 bore Damascus over-under, a complex process that involves braising two demi-block tubes, milling out the extractor slots, fitting the ribs and fins, and filing, shaping and polishing the barrels to perfection, a process that, on this occasion, took more than 120 hours to complete. “On average, it takes about 90 hours to a make a set of side-by-side barrels and about 110 for an over-under,” he tells me. “But making the barrels for a second gun to form a matched pair is, arguably, the most difficult thing to do as you have to work from photographs and a set of measurements. Not only must they look identical to the original gun, but the balance must be the same and they must feel the same in the hands.”
In terms of the rifle barrels, there is the additional challenge of ensuring that they are perfectly aligned so that they shoot to exactly the same point at the optimal range for that respective calibre. “It certainly can't be rushed,” adds Joseph.
Phil Butcher, action maker
Phil has been at Purdey for 42 years and was responsible for building the actions for both the double rifle and the 12 bore. The action is seen as the heart of the gun. In later life, a gun may be fitted with new barrels or restocked, but the action remains original. The rifle action took more than 200 hours to make. “The side-by-side was a pretty run of the mill 120 hours,” he says with a smile. “But there are more features on a rifle and they must be built to withstand much higher proof pressures. We have to investigate the properties of different materials as we strike the perfect balance between the thickness of the steel, the strength of the action and the overall weight of the gun. It's complicated and, as Laurie says, there is never any room for compromise.”
Kevin Murphy, ejectors
Kevin is the first stage gunmaker leader, overseeing all processes up to proofing (barrels, actions, locks and triggers, and ejectors). He also made and regulated the ejectors for both the 12 bore and double rifle, a complex and time-consuming process.
“Building the ejectors for the shotgun took over 50 hours,” says Kevin, “which is pretty much standard for that calibre. It took closer to 75 hours for the rifle.” The ejector systems are the same for both guns, but the different scale of the double rifle's ejectors makes it a bit more complicated. “Unlike other ejector departments in other companies, we are responsible for a lot more on the gun,” he explains. “We make the mechanism itself, we build the drop which regulates the opening of the gun, we build the connecting trip-rods which link the lock with the fore-end, and we build all the cocking work as well. So the first time that the gun becomes a working mechanism is when it passes through the ejector shop. When we're done with it it will actually cock and fire.”
In terms of the ejectors, Purdey uses a modified Southgate system, operating on a centre-arm which is essentially a lever which picks up the main springs and re-cocks the ejectors as it closes, making the gun easier to reload. “The famous Purdey self-opening action is so called because of the Manton self-opening lock,” explains Kevin. “And it is an easy closer because of the centre-arm system. As you close it, you are compressing a combined weight of 37lb of lock and fore-end mainsprings all with your wrist.” It's a complex system of cams and connecting rods and, by cleverly utilising the leverage and pivot point of the gun, all the momentum is around the cross pin (hinge pin).
“Regulating the ejectors is to get the timing of the two independent units the same and to get the distance right, because there is nothing worse than ejectors that fire spent shells different distances.”
James McDonald, finisher
“To work on these guns was an honour,” admits James. “It's nice to have your name on that plaque. To be honest, through the whole process of building the three guns, almost everyone in here has had some involvement. So I guess we can all say that we played our part. Barrel makers, lock makers, stock makers, ejectors, triggers, engravers, finishers, so many people are involved.
“Each part is made independently, so we, as finishers, get all of the different completed constituent parts and we make the gun work as one unit. Until it gets to us, the gun has never functioned as a gun, it has never been fully assembled before.
“Finishing happens in two stages – the first stage is to get all the mechanical work done, to put the gun together and make sure it works perfectly. The second stage of finishing is making it look like a Purdey gun – the hardening and tempering, the woodwork, final polishing, finishing the stock, recutting the chequering, remaking the pins in the action and ensuring it looks perfect.”
Tom Nicholls, finisher
Tom Nicholls spent over 120 hours finishing the 20 bore, although as second stage gunmaker leader, he was involved with the co-ordination of the project from start to finish. Tom is one of three Nicholls to have worked on the trio. His father, Bob, finished the 12 bore and his brother, Russ, made the locks for both the 20 bore and the double rifle.
“There's a lot of my family in those guns,” he said. “So when I see them now, I do get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. The co-ordination and logistics was a serious challenge because we had to have all of our top guys working on them, and they have to be booked a long way in advance. One of the guys who engraved the rifle (Simon Coggan) and I started talking about the engraving and design when the gun was being actioned. That's how far in advance we had to plan ahead.”
Tom then explains that the engraving work on the 12 bore alone involved three of the best engravers in the business, the father and sons team of Dave, Brad and Wez Tallet. Dave did the scroll work and the gold lettering, Brad did the Kell-style game scene vignettes and Wez did the deep carving and breech ends. “You will notice that the animals don't look perfect,” adds Tom. “That is intentional because they are exact replicas of original engravings that would have been done from memory or taxidermy, by guys who had never seen the real things. In those days, engravers didn't have hi-res photographs to work from!”
Although the creation of the Bicentenary Trio involved long, hard hours and complex logistics of bringing so many craftsmen together, every person I spoke to in the Purdey factory said that the process had been an immensely rewarding one. “A lot of what we do is done in the traditional way, the hard way,” added Tom. “But that gives you a huge sense of pride. At the end of the day, Purdey has always been at the pinnacle of gunmaking and, after 200 years, we are still striving to be the best. Every craftsman who worked on these three guns wanted them to be perfect, so whoever buys them, will invariably do so because they are things of beauty.”