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Behind The Scenes at British Gunmaker Purdey

As Purdey celebrates its first anniversary in its new home, Luxury London takes a tour behind the scenes to discover the secrets of the esteemed gunmaker’s process

The Purdey factory in West London is tucked away between quiet streets and it takes me longer to find it than I anticipate. I soon learn though, that to celebrate the gunmaker’s 200th anniversary in 2014 the factory was completely rebuilt (it closed in December 2012 and reopened in June 2015) in beautiful Victorian weathered brick so that it blends into the surroundings.

While the premises looks unassuming from the courtyard, once I enter I am greeted by a huge portrait of the founder James Purdey: this is unmistakably a Purdey factory. The building even has its own compact version of (its Mayfair boutique) Audley House’s famous long room, affectionately dubbed the short room. Replica photographs line the walls, including an image of the only remaining associated family member, Richard Purdey. While the Purdey family no longer own the company – the Beaumont family took over in 1946 and then the Richemont Group in 1994 – Richard still works with the company on a consultant basis. Next to Richard is Nigel Beaumont who started as an apprentice to an actioner (a person who makes the action on the gun and fits barrels and lock plates to it) in the ’70s and worked his way up to become chairman of the firm in 2007. He is one of only a handful of people who know how to make a Purdey gun from start to finish.

The renovation of the factory has changed the traditional gunmaking process in many ways by introducing more space and facilities across three levels. A Purdey gun is made entirely in-house, beginning as a lump of steel in the machine room where it is cut into basic shapes that are then finished by hand. Machine cutting the steel is a relatively new method, which helps to reduce unnecessary hours of labour.

One of the most hi-tech advancements is the introduction of the rapidly expanding computer-aided design (CAD) team. Mapping out each individual order before it is made, the team can identify how the engineering will work. For example, they can test where the stress points are in the spring that releases and ejects the cartridge to ensure future parts last longer and are more efficient. Another major improvement that the company has benefited from is the construction of a range on the ground level that runs the full length of the building. Before this the guns would have to be taken to be tested at the West London Shooting School.

Out of the 81 people in the company around 45 work in the factory, and when I enter the sprawling workshop I sense that this particular room is where the real magic happens. While the tools remain the same for the craftsmen, the build has changed the ambience – natural light reaches every corner of the room and benches are laid out side by side in the order of the process.

Many of the craftsmen also have protégés (there are currently nine apprentices working in the company) as the future of the business is a priority. The employment procedure has remained relatively untouched for years: traditionally employees would join the company as teenagers and be taught by a senior specialist for five years before being officially declared a gunmaker by The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers. It is one of the few trades that simply can’t be taught using books.

It is one of the few trades that simply can’t be taught using books

Purdey still uses a traditional machine known as a lapping machine to thin the barrels, but the real precision lies in the hands of the barrel filer. Using time-honoured methods such as smoke blacking – where indentations in the soot indicate how the connected parts are touching – the craftsmen mould the pieces to an accuracy of the nearest thou (thousandth of an inch).

Each stage of the process has a background steeped in history. The finest example is the story of Frederick Beesley’s famous patent that Purdey still uses for its side-by-side game guns. Beesley was a stocker at the company when he invented the assisted opening mechanism in 1879 – after he left, Purdey purchased the patent. The mechanism allows shooters to reload more efficiently by using the remaining energy in the main spring to help the gun open and fire out the used cartridges automatically, so you can swiftly move on to your next target.

Locks and triggers craftsman Keith Ward recalls the writer Geoffrey Boothroyd visiting the factory. Boothroyd was a prominent figure in firearms literature and is often regarded as the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character Q. During a tour of the factory, Boothroyd became particularly fascinated by the rebounding lock device, a mechanism patented by John Stanton in 1867, which you can see on an over-and-under gun but not on a side-by-side gun.

“The history of rebounding locks actually goes back to hammer guns,” explains Ward. “With early models, before you opened the gun you had to pull the hammers back to half cocked. Now, instead of having to physically cock the hammers back, they rock back into safety or half-cocked so you can shoot and then immediately open the gun.”

The stock (the butt of the gun that is held against the shoulder) is made from Turkish walnut, costing around €1,000 per block, enough for one gun. After the action has been carefully fitted onto it, the wood is shaped to the customer’s bespoke measurements and hand chequered for grip.

Boothroyd was a prominent figure in firearms literature and is often regarded as the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character Q

There are two in-house engravers and I’m introduced to Tony Maidment who used to engrave bank notes. He moved to Purdey when notes were no longer produced on steel plates. He is currently working on an intricate creation and it is a masterpiece in itself: just like painters or sculptors, Maidment tells me he can easily tell one engraver’s style from another. The engraving is the most visible element of the gun, so the engravers sit down with the customer to discuss their desires, with many opting for images of pets, hunting scenes and even the addition of gold.

In the finishing stages the guns are hardened, assembled and tested, before around 30-50 coats of the company’s closely guarded secret oil slacum are applied over a three-week period -- resulting in that recognisable deep, rich gloss.

While modern advancements have shaved valuable time off the manufacturing process, they have in no way affected the exquisite craftsmanship and hand finishing that the brand is known for. These guns are exceptional pieces of British heritage, which is why they are often handed down through generations and why every single step of the process is at the will of the customer – you can even reserve a specific serial number if you wish.

Finisher Russ Nicholls shows me the gun hub to conclude the tour. He has a long history with the brand and all the tools to carve out a bright future. His father worked for Purdey for 46 years and his brother is one of the managers. Nicholls has been an employee for 11 years, but in Purdey time he’s only just getting started.

The gun hub is where all the models are kept, whether they’re new, in progress or part of the heritage collection. When surrounded by so many gleaming artefacts, the astonishing cost – both financially and in man-hours (it takes around 18 months to two years to make a model) – becomes considerably more understandable.

For those who can’t quite grasp the concept of this type of purchase, it helps to compare it to a luxury car: a possession you might dream about all your life so when it comes to the real thing, every intricate detail must be absolutely perfect. At this point I understand. Purdey is up there with Rolls-Royce – both manufacturers of working pieces of art. 

James Purdey & Sons, Audley House, 57-58 South Audley Street, W1K, www.purdey.com