Handmade guns, the epitome of bespoke high-end field sports, are becoming obsolete. Cost, speed and profit are to blame, but is Boss & Co the saviour of one of the UK’s oldest traditions?
In a luxury world, handmade is considered to be the best; be it cars, watches or tailoring, an item made by hand has value, soul, and care within it. Handmade is of the highest quality and is made specifically for the buyer to their exact requirements.
The costs for such items are higher, as the skilled labour to create them is hard to find, and the manhours needed to complete them are vast, but many are happy to pay the price for perfection.
Nowadays, handmade is a dying art across many industries thanks to streamlining, increased performance and falling cost of modern machinery, the desire to sell more products and a drive to become more profitable.
More and more, machining is used in the production of goods once thought of as handmade. We may not be told that this is the case at the time of purchase, but it is happening. Fast.
A sector that was once reliant upon skilled labour to create a top-quality handmade product is gunmaking. It is a little-known fact that the UK, and London in particular, produces the world’s finest sporting guns and that Great Britain is famous around the world as the place to buy the finest shotguns and double rifles.
In the early 1900s, the UK had hundreds of gunmakers, sadly now only a handful remain, and those numbers are falling faster than an airborne grouse on a shoot.
Taking a walk around the streets of London in the late 1920s would have seen many gunmakers, from fully-stocked shops to busy factories and test centres to component makers aplenty along the way.
Of course, in these times, it was essential for a gentleman, and many a lady, to own a sporting gun and, before that, perhaps a set of duelling pistols.
Today, guns are less commonplace, but the market for high-quality sporting guns remains strong, and country sports have a global following.
The best gun will cost upwards of £100,000, representing the very finest money can buy — the range of bespoke options is almost infinite, and the precision of the shot is unsurpassed.
Order a gun of this type today, and you’ll need to be prepared for a wait of some years; bear in mind that most guns are ordered in pairs, and you’ll also need to double your budget.
In Europe, there are many specialist training schemes for gunmakers, as there are for watchmakers and tailors, but here in the UK, we don’t have the same luxury—an incredible omission when you consider our illustrious history within the industry.
As skilled workers retire or pass away, their skills are lost with them. Once that knowledge is gone, there may be little choice but to move to machines to replace humans to do the same job. Some might call that evolution, but it’s a sad loss of a great part of our heritage.
It’s fair to say that in this modern, technical age, not many young adults look to gunmaking as a profession; in fact, many don’t know it exists at all.
Less than 100 years ago, gunmaking was a thriving industry, and while Britain continues to make the finest guns in the world, we are in danger of losing our craft and, with that, dies a worldwide reputation for being the best.
But is it too late to revive? Who is to blame for the loss of handmade gunmaking, and why doesn’t anyone seem to care?
The decline of handmade has been endemic across many sectors, largely down to cost-effectiveness.
Where once large factories stood filled with workers, we now have the capacity to instruct a machine to do the same work or, in some instances, move manufacturing to other countries where labour is cheap, even if that means a reduction in quality.
As a manufacturer, you can comfort yourself knowing that if the end-user is happy to pay the same amount for a product that costs you less to manufacture, then why shouldn’t you?
But this isn’t a case of cost; it’s a matter of doing the right thing.
Despite leaps in technology, a mere machine cannot replace the human in all instances. A Michelin-starred restaurant is unlikely to replace a trained chef in the kitchen, a robot can’t measure you for a bespoke suit and does your luxury car have the same gravitas if it is made on a sterile production line with hundreds of others?
It is for this reason that not all gunmakers will embrace technology purely to make more guns or to reduce costs, but the numbers who remain committed to tradition may surprise you.
Many names are synonymous with the higher end of gunmaking; the likes of Purdey and Holland & Holland are probably the most recognisable. Both brands are now owned by luxury conglomerates which manufacture fashion and accessories as well as fine guns.
While handmade guns are available from both brands, modern machinery plays a part in the manufacturing processes of each.
Can a part machine-made gun still be classed as handmade in that case? And if major brands are taking an easier option, does that mean the slope of decline is already very slippery?
Both brands form part of what is known as the holy trinity of gunmakers, the best of the best. The first part of the trinity is the oldest, called Boss & Co, who were established in 1812.
Boss continues to make guns, by hand, from its London gun factory in the same way they have always done and, incredibly for a company with such a long history, it has always remained in private ownership throughout, remaining a stalwart of tradition and heritage.
Their strapline is Builders of Best Guns Only, and they are the last of the truly handmade gunmakers in the UK, relying on hand and eye to create each gun in a process that takes some 1600+ number of manhours. An excerpt from a Boss sales brochure published in the 1920s captures their ethos perfectly.
“We would say from the outset that we make only one grade of gun and have never placed a second quality make upon the market. This policy has enabled us to retain the services of the finest workmen in London and to give them continuous employment.
“The advantages of attending the production of the best work only are manifold. There is no opportunity for the work of inferior men to be utilised in the economy of the workshop, which is frequently the case when more than one class of weapon is produced”
“The owner of a Boss gun has the satisfaction of knowing that he has the best gun that money can buy and that no one has a better one. The Boss gun has, therefore, always a standard value, whether new or second-hand. Our output is limited strictly according to the amount of first-class labour available.”
A visit to the Boss factory, they do not have a store, is like taking a step back in time. Benches are filled with hand tools and paraffin flames for ‘smoke blacking’ to check fitment tolerances.
Metal is being hammered and filed with care. Fine wood is hand-shaped by eye using chalk lines as a guide. Chequering is carved, perfectly straight, by hand with a small sharp tool.
While many guns are in-build, each will take years to complete, and the patience required for each task is unimaginable.
What’s different about this gun factory is the number of young faces. Each seasoned worker has an apprentice alongside them, learning to be the next master craftsman.
Traditional methods are used, heritage is foremost respected, and a passion for the subject is apparent within each worker. The fact these traditions are being shared, ready for the next generation to carry the baton for several more decades, is commendable.
Not only is Boss bringing along the next generation of gunmakers, but the owner, Arthur DeMoulas – a lifelong Boss collector and experienced shooter, is also protecting supply chains of key materials to ensure supply lasts as long as the new apprentices he now employs.
In addition, he is steadfast in his belief that the best gun is a handmade gun and that Boss has to pay respect to the gunmakers who made a London gun so revered. To lose the tradition of handmade would be a sad chapter in gunmaking history and to the forefathers of the London gun trade.
London will never again experience the gun making buzz of the 1920s; certainly, it will never see as many gunmakers within the city, but 100 years later, London remains the go-to for those who want to buy the best guns.
One day, we will look back to a time when handmade stood for something, but today, we can all celebrate that Boss & Co will build handmade guns for decades to come, long after all others have dropped man for a machine.
More information on British handmade Gunmaking
If the above article has inspired you to explore the world of British handmade gunmaking, we would recommend you visit the official Boss & Co website at www.bossguns.com.