This article was prompted by a recent series of questions and answers in the BBS section of doublegunshop.com. With the hope that any knowledge may turn out to be useful, I present the following:
Often when we have a British game gun or a British rifle, we know little of the manufacturer. The British gun trade saw its heyday at the beginning of this century, and now, sadly, many of the names found on the guns in service today relate only to long-lost makers. In days gone by, Birmingham and London were virtual rabbit warrens of gunmakers, retailers, and sporting outfitters. Now, except for a few surviving makers or the names of a small group of famous but now-defunct makers, the origins of so many guns still extant is very vague indeed.
What is not commonly appreciated in the United States is that very many guns and rifles bearing the names of both obscure and famous makers were, in fact, made by others. In some cases, the true manufacturer was as well-known as the name of the seller. In many cases the true maker was even more obscure.
Perhaps the most common example of this is shown by that most common of British guns - the boxlock shotgun. It is a simple fact that very many, if not most, boxlock guns were manufactured in Birmingham by makers who were happy to take orders from other gunmakers or sellers who did not have the option or inclination to make these guns themselves. It is very often the case that even London marked and proofed boxlock guns were actually the product of Birmingham workshops. P. Webly or Webly & Scott, among many others, made many thousands of these guns and they will be found bearing the names of some of the best makers. Retailing outfitters such as the Army & Navy Cooperative Society, Ltd. are believed never to have actually made any of the guns bearing the Army & Navy name. These guns were turned out by 15 or more British makers and, on a much more limited scale, a handful of Continental or even American makers. Similarly, Manton & Co. (founded by members of the same family so famous in muzzle-loading days in England) ordered guns to be retailed in the Indian colonial market. The practice of retailing is well established in Britain and should not be viewed in the same light as American "general store"-type guns. Many English-retailed guns were of excellent quality and some were very finely finished indeed. However, one must be aware that a name on a rib does not a maker make. A fine boxlock from Hardy Brothers (a fishing tackle maker) or Harrods's (the London department store) probably began life in a Birmingham workshop.
Many of the better names in London used Birmingham as a factory as well. Churchill's "Crown" grade guns were built by Webly & Scott, as were Cogswell & Harrison's "Konor" guns. Some of the most well known London makers offered less-expensive boxlock guns, such as Holland & Holland's "Shot & Regulated" or Purdey's "E" grade. Both of these were, as the expression goes, "bought from the trade". It is perhaps not too much to suggest that if one finds a boxlock gun or a plain-quality sidelock from a maker best known for "Best" guns, it was likely built elsewhere.
More unusually, some of the most famous London makers had more expensive guns built for them by Birmingham makers. For example, Joseph Lang experimented with a variety of innovations around the turn of the century. Such guns as the "Vena Contracta" with its reduced-diameter bore or perhaps a gun with an unusual trigger configuration will occasionally be found today. Many of these guns were actually manufactured for Lang by Birmingham makers. Often, these guns differ from the typical "London Best". They are generally not stocked to the fences and they may have fixed rather than replaceable cross-pins. Often, they bear the classic Birmingham signature or an exposed front lump (the bottom of the front lump shows through a slot in the body of the action bar).
Interestingly, some London makers also supplied guns and rifles to the London trade. The firm of John Wilkes, still in business and still operated by the Wilkes family, has built both shotguns and rifles for other makers. In an ironic twist, even Birmingham has seen this kind of local outworking. For example, some Westly Richards "Gold Name" guns were actually produced by Webly & Scott!
Very few British double rifles were built outside of Birmingham. With the exception of guns built on proprietary systems (such as Dougall's "Lockfast") or "Best" grade guns from the better London makers, many sidelock and perhaps most boxlock double rifles bear the name of the seller rather than the maker. The firm of P.Webly built very many of these rifles and the Webly action is that which is most commonly found on guns from retailers like the Army & Navy or gunmakers like William Evans. The firm of W.J. Jeffery, so famous for its association with far-flung colonial fields, ordered most of its later guns and rifles from smaller makers in Birmingham, John Saunders, sadly an almost unknown craftsman, built quite a few shotguns for Jeffery. Jeffery's famous double rifles were often turned out by the family-operated firm of D. Leonard and Sons.
The production of magazine rifles in Britain has always been negligible. The famous London firm of John Rigby & Co. is famous for its production of Mauser-action magazine rifles. Rigby has never claimed to make the actions themselves. Whether from commercial Mauser actions, those brought in as war souvenirs, or those purchased recently from other Continental makers, Rigby has always succeeded in turning them into finely finished and functional rifles. The Edinburgh firm of Daniel Fraser supplied rifles to the famous big game hunters of the late 19th and early 20th century, including W.D.M. "Karamojo" Bell. Bell's Frasers, beautifully reworked in Edinburgh, began as Mannlicher-Schoenauers from Austria or Mausers from Germany.
It is a shame that so many gunmakers of such great talent are destined to be forgotten or forever unknown, simply for the sake of commerce. However, their work survives, giving silent testament to the skill with which they were crafted.
Birmingham Gunmakers by Douglas Tate (Safari Press, Long Beach, 1997) Perhaps the best single work on the Birmingham gun trade. A wealth of information on lesser-known makers and those who "sold to the trade".
Modern Sporting Guns by Christopher Austyn (Sportsman's Press, London, 1994) Excellent work on guns and rifles from the head of the Sporting Arms Department of Christie's auction house. Discusses the various London, Birmingham, and provincial makers, with a focus on "Best" guns
Shotguns and Gunsmiths, the Vintage Years by Goeffrey Boothroyd (Safari Press, Long Beach, 1993) Includes general information of a great number of British gunmakers, past and present.
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