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The skills and history that make the world’s finest sporting guns

April 22, 2024
5 min

Even though the store fronts on Mount Street and its corner with South Audley Street change at much slower rate than Bond Street, it’s still a surprise to find that the gunsmiths, James Purdey & Co. have occupied the same corner spot pretty much since the street first came into existence in the 19th Century. As it turns out, the entire building was conceived for the company to serve as showroom, factory and, even, living quarters for the Purdey family. It is a continuity of use that’s extremely rare; there are only a handful of older stores in London.

James Purdey & Sons is one of the best-known gun-makers in the world with a reputation for hand-making guns to the highest standards possible. It’s history goes back to the turn of the 19th Century with James Purdey working as a stock-maker for Joseph Manton (the most famous gunmaker of the age). He set up his own business in 1814 and was doing well enough to take over the former Manton’s premises on Oxford Street in 1826.

Following that move, James Purdey and his son (also James) built up the business through a combination of technical innovation (Purdey were quick to adapt to breech, as opposed to muzzle, loading), craft excellence and acumen to the point when it made sense to put all the operations under one roof at the South Audley Street premises. That building was also a family base is part of the reason why the building retains so much of the accumulated character of the brand – there’s a discreet, clubbable atmosphere that’s palpable from the moment you walk through the showroom doors – Purdey literally lives in its history.

Purdey manufacture. Photograph © Kasia Bobula for QP Magazine UK

The heart of the building is the famed ‘Long Room’ that has served as family HQ, archive and boardroom over the years and while the family has departed (Richemont are the current owners), the portraits, ledgers, ephemera and, above all, the guns make it a living history rather than just a museum. And it’s where I caught up with Andrew Ambrose, the director of gun sales to talk about who buys Purdey and how Purdey have weathered the past few years.

I started by asking whether there were pure collector buyers (these are objects of some beauty), “There are some that will buy and put the guns straight in a cabinet, but it’s a small percentage of the market and there’s no discount in pre-owned values against guns that have been used. There is some interest in more historical pieces but as Purdey only offer a quite limited range of gun types that’s changed very little over time, the interest is as much in provenance as anything else”.

“The great majority of our guns are for use and that’s really our first question when a customer visits or gets in touch”. With increasing numbers of international clients, we really need to know about where the gun would used and what at – whether that’s pheasant in Europe or quail in the US”.

The process, whether it starts with a customer walking in or making contact through social media (I’m not sure whether Purdey are on TikTok just yet), is properly bespoke with initial conversations taking place at South Audley Street, followed by fitting(s) at the Royal Berkshire Shooting School – even ‘off-the-peg’ guns need adjusting. After settling on the type, clients are invited to choose the wood (Turkish walnut - Purdey advise against more exotic woods) and to consider the engraving that will go on the action and trigger surfaces. Once the order is made, it’s around 9-12 months until delivery and at least 1,000 hours of work, though more complex work adds months.

Manufacturing is at Purdey’s Felgate works in, appropriately enough, Hammersmith, which contains all the technology, machinery and craft expertise needed. Everything is made entirely in-house, save some engraving work where a client has requested a particular external craftsman. Purdey moved here in 1979 workshops near Paddington. Security is tight, naturally enough but once within. Its clear that space and light for the craftsmen is the first priority – they get the first floor with its large windows and skylights, while machining and CAD are on the ground floor.

The ground floor is similar enough to any precision engineering set-up, there are multi-axis CNC machines, spark erosion, a CAD suite and various testing equipment. Purdey are careful to maintain the balance between machined perfection and the latitude the craftsmen need, this being a hand-made process above all.

Upstairs, the various specialisations have their own areas within the workshop including actioning (assembling and adjusting the trigger, firing and ejector mechanisms), stocking (the wooden parts), barrel-making, engraving and finishing. Each part is critical, but it’s with the barrels that the craft experience really shines through as the two tubes need to be carefully mated so that the gun shoots true through each barrel, all the while preserving the balance and ensuring the integrity of the joins.

Purdey manufacture. Photograph © Kasia Bobula for QP Magazine UK

Completed barrels then pass to the actioning benches where the complex firing, safety and ejector mechanisms are adjusted and fitted and then to the engraver, ‘stocker’ and finishers – each with their own sub-divisions and arcane language: discs are nippled, fences and beads filled by hand, lock-plates let in and actions are headed-up to the butt. All of which accounts for the 1,000 plus hours each gun takes to complete, not forgetting the months needed to allow the ‘slocum’ oil to properly penetrate the walnut wood. It’s a time-honoured process that’s not amenable to shortcuts.

One change that Purdey has made is the introduction of a slightly simpler gun, the Sporter. It’s an ‘over and under’, designed to be a little less time-consuming to make and less customisable, therefore significantly less expensive (at £42,500 + VAT), but whether completely bespoke or but whether completely bespoke or entry level, Purdey guns embody a degree of craft excellence that is truly impressive.