Autumn is the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" and—as John Keats omitted to mention—the sound of shotguns and the thud of birds falling to the ground. From Aug. 12, the date on which grouse come into season, until the beginning of February, which sees the end of the partridge and pheasant seasons, the rituals of game-bird shooting play themselves out in Britain as they have more or less for centuries.
Ever since the Georgian gunsmith Joseph Manton, who perfected the double-barreled shotgun, opened his shop on Davies Street in London's West End in 1789, the shotgun has been a part of British life. More than 200 years later a "Best London" gun is still the ne plus ultra of sporting firearms and is exactly what it says: a shotgun made in London to the exacting standards born out of craftsmanship perfected over generations. Even the accomplished northern Italian gunsmith Franco Beretta, who opened an eponymous London showroom in 2005, goes so far as to describe the British capital as the "recognized cradle of sophisticated -shooting."
But while shooting carries with it the somewhat upper-class connotations of house parties and black-tie dinners in stately homes, the surroundings in which the weapons are made—around which this culture is built—are altogether less prepossessing. I happen to live very near one of the most hallowed sites of gun making: the Purdey works in Hammersmith, West London. A pair of Purdeys remains one of the quintessential appurtenances of an English gentleman. The firm's showroom, at the junction of Mount and South Audley streets in the heart of Mayfair, is a sepulchral shop that still carries with it the whiff of empire; its Long Room has altered little in a century. A built-to-order double-barreled over-and-under Purdey shotgun, on which the barrels are arranged one atop the other instead of side by side, will cost close to £80,000. And yet Nigel Beaumont, Purdey's managing director, insists that "Purdey's is not charging anything more than its living margin."
It is certainly not squandering money on swanky manufacturing premises; the low buildings in the lee of a viaduct carrying an overground section of the London Underground resemble an urban chop shop. But they house a trove of the generations-old craft skills in the seven gun-making trades: barrel making, action filing, trigger and lock making, ejector making, stocking, engraving, and finishing. Each takes five years' apprenticeship to learn and a lifetime to master.
I am a veteran of many factory visits, from the cigar-rolling rooms of Havana to the tweed mills of Scotland, and the litmus test that marks a good one is if I come away wondering how they manage to make their products so cheaply. And, even at 80 grand—£77,625, to be exact—I have to admit that a Purdey represents good value. Notwithstanding the cumulative number of years of expertise that goes into making each one, the cost has to be amortized over the life of the gun. Given that the oldest Purdey that regularly comes back for servicing is a 12-bore side-by-side hammerless ejector from 1883, the annual cost suddenly begins to seem more reasonable.
It is the same story a couple of miles away at the Holland & Holland (or Double Dutch, as it is known colloquially) factory on Harrow Road. Like Purdey, Double Dutch has a smart showroom within range of Berkeley Square, but its workshops are to be found along an eclectic stretch of Victorian houses and shops to the north of fashionable Notting Hill. They were purpose-built for the firm at the end of the 19th century, and on a rainy summer day the view over a nearby graveyard is not the most cheery.
Once again, what is remarkable is not the location but rather the reservoir of artisanal skills. One does not need to possess a killer instinct to appreciate the work that goes into turning tubes of steel and blocks of Turkish walnut into heirloom-quality objects that are also pieces of functioning machinery capable of decades of use. In the basement of the factory, the old engine room, there are now sophisticated multiple-axis milling machines able to transform a short, squat bar of steel into the beginnings of a gun action; barrels are bored out of longer walking-stick-size lengths of steel. But this takes only a few hours; thereafter, the steel and the wood pass through many craftsmen's hands to emerge as long as two years later as a sporting gun.
Although Holland & Holland may be better known for its rifles, it also makes fine smooth-bored shotguns. The skills needed to make them are a curious mixture of engineering, aesthetics, and that ineffable quality that elevates a craft skill to the level of artistry. Gun making has its own vocabulary to describe the arcane processes that create a gun: "striking up" and "tinning" are just two of the terms used to describe aspects of making the barrels and fitting them together. The pattern in the wooden stock is called "figuring," and the stock is described as having a comb, a hand, and a toe.
And then there is the engraving: executed by hand, the more involved and intricate work can take hundreds of hours. On my visit I was fortunate enough to see a wildfowling piece that had just been completed for a customer; weighing around eight kilos and firing four-bore cartridges, this was a truly massive piece of artillery, designed for bringing down geese. But the engraving was most remarkable, a narrative work in itself depicting deep-carved wildfowl scenes. It was a museum-quality piece—and at £250,000 it should be. Moreover, this is the sort of gun that even bird lovers would approve of: it is highly unlikely that it will ever be fired. One would have to be mad to take such a beautiful piece of work out into the field.