Over the last few years, I’ve walked into more gun stores than I can remember. Tiny shops and big box stores, from Fairfax, Virginia to Portland, Oregon. But the moment I stepped into Holland & Holland’s gun room in New York City, I knew that I’d stepped into a whole different class of gun store, one where I would be lucky to ever be able to buy even a used gun off the rack . . .
I took the same train into the city that had brought me to work every day since I could land my first internship, but instead of hopping on the subway and speeding off to some run-down office building, I stepped out onto Park Avenue and started walking south. Just two blocks down from Grand Central terminal, I took a right on 40th street and kept walking until I hit Madison Avenue. Buried deep in the heart of that posh section of New York is a nondescript office building, 10 East 40th Street, squeezed between two larger more modern structures. Nothing about the building’s exterior betrayed the jewel that resided on the 19th floor — no sign, no awning, only a small brass name plate on the directory behind the security desk that bears the name Holland & Holland.
Holland & Holland started making firearms in London in 1835, and just a few short years later the company swept the field in the “rifle” category for the best firearms in the world. Ever since then, H&H has been known for making “bespoke” firearms, a fancy way of saying that all of their guns are hand-made and tailored to suit the buyer. Naturally, H&H has a warrant from the Crown to produce firearms for their usage.
The company’s philosophy has changed little since those early days, and while H&H is best known for their magnum safari cartridges (.375 H&H Magnum being the most popular) they long ago expanded into shotguns as well.
As the elevator doors opened on the 19th floor, I still wasn’t entirely sure that I had the right address. Nothing on the door leads you to believe that you were walking into anything but another law firm’s offices. But turn the corner in their vestibule and you are instantly greeted with the most beautiful looking gun store that I have ever seen in my life. Two glass cases, tastefully lit, showcased lines of stunning shotguns and rifles. And in the center of the office were two leather-topped tables with H&H shipping cases. It felt like I had stepped back in time, to a point before high-tech polymer was the king of the firearms accessory market.
David, one of the salesmen who staff the store, greeted me at the door and welcomed me. I had emailed earlier in the week on the off-chance that I would be able to poke my nose in for a quick peek at how the other half (well, 1%) buys guns, but what I got instead was a personal guided tour of H&H’s entire line of firearms and accessories. It would be over two hours before I stepped back out on 40th Street again.
While H&H has traditionally been known for their safari rifles, the most popular firearms these days are their shotguns. According to David it goes back and forth every once in a while as to which sells best, but shotguns are leading at the moment. I asked David to walk me through the product line, starting at the shallow end of the pool. Their definition of “shallow end” is about $35,000. Plus or minus, depending on the the dollar’s strength against British pound, that is.
All of H&H’s firearms are hand crafted, as far as something can be hand crafted and remain accurate these days. The internal parts for all of their firearms start out as a solid block of metal and are CNC machined into the rough shape of the finished part. Then one of their craftsmen hand-fit each and every part to ensure that it’s as snug and reliable as possible. I asked David about getting replacement barrels for their shotguns, and apparently the tolerances are so tight that the parts are no longer interchangeable between guns. If you want a new barrel, you need to have one specially made for your particular firearm.
Speaking of hand crafted, I was admiring the rib on one of the shotguns when David pointed something out. “See these marks?” He pointed to a series of parallel grooves that ran perpendicular to the barrel for the entire length of the tube, which reduce glare in the sunlight. “These are all hand engraved, starting farther apart at the breech and becoming more fine and closer together at the muzzle. Someone sat down and engraved each one freehand.” The same treatment was given to items as seemingly insignificant as the thumb safety, with the ridges hand-engraved and the word “SAFE” embellished with gold lettering.
David wasn’t done showing off. He grabbed a side-lock shotgun off the rack and disassembled it on the table, revealing that even the internal parts had been engraved with intricate scrolling. Really brings new meaning to the phrase “spared no expense.”
For each model of shotgun, there are two distinct levels of quality. The lower level is the standard or “Royal” feature set, with case-hardened metal (for that Damascus steel look), straghtforward engraving and fine wood. That’s not to say the “standard” engraving is isn’t impressive, but why stick with just “impressive” when you can have “astonishing?”
The higher grade is their “Royal Deluxe” model, which features distinctly superior looking wood and much more intricate engraving as the standard fare. There’s a leather-bound book on one of the tables where you can select which engraving style you want, and for a little extra dosh even have it personalized just for you. After all, custom firearms are their stock in trade.
I asked David about the kind of people who work behind the scenes, whether they come from a family of gun makers or if they simply apply out of the blue. Apparently the majority of the talent is recruited straight out of high school, and after a five year internship they’re given a 10 year contract to work for H&H. Master craftsmen teach their skills to the next generation of gunmakers, and the cycle repeats itself for another fifty years.
Before we moved on from the shotguns, David wanted to show me something rather interesting. I had never heard of a “paradox” gun before, but it’s something that Holland & Holland had cooked up years before. It was massively popular when India was still part of the empire, but after Ghandi kicked the Brits out, the gun fell out of favor. H&H had started offering it again recently and it was doing pretty brisk business.
The idea behind a paradox gun was that it’s a standard side by side shotgun, until the last two inches of the barrel. Instead of continuing the smooth bore, the last few inches were rifled. For slugs, it means higher velocities than standard slug barrels but with the same glorious accuracy. And for standard shot it’s like having an improved cylinder or “IC” choke in the gun with none of the ill effects of a slug barrel on the shot pattern. In short, the perfect shotgun for hunting.
At that point, I felt that I needed an answer to the $64,000 question. “Who actually buys these things?” There’s no doubt that they’re exquisite, but what’s their market? According to David, buyers are typically older gentlemen who are finally rid of their children and have a little disposable cash to throw around. Mix in some stock brokers and investment bankers (the same guys who wear $8,000 watches and run up bar tabs that require reporting to the IRS) and you have their typical client.
Then again, some of their clients don’t fit that mold at all. One guy to whom David has sold a firearm was a sanitation worker for his entire life. He scrimped and saved enough that he could finally afford his dream gun. If that isn’t the definition of the American Dream, I don’t know what is.
The relatively advanced age of the clients also has an effect on the popularity of certain calibers. In shotguns, David said that the most-wanted bores come and go. Some years the 12 gauge is more popular, other years the 20 gauge is supreme. These days, it’s a toss-up between the 20 and 28 gauge guns. I asked David why, and his theory is that the older clients simply don’t want to carry that much weight around. Plus, the guns seem to balance better in 20 gauge. He handed me a 12 gauge side by side round lock shotgun, and the gun felt like I was holding a bolt of satin cloth. Well, a bolt of satin around a tube of lead. Then he swapped out the 20 gauge, and it felt light as a feather and more responsive to my movements. I could see his point, it just felt better.
Their caliber of client aren’t the type they’d pull into the store with street-level retail operations, although they tried that in New York for a while. They ran a standard street access showroom, but the signal to noise ratio was simply too high to justify the number of man hours it took to keep the doors open. So when they were offered a good bit of change in exchange for their existing location, they took it and bought the stunning view they now enjoy. From their windows, you can see the Empire State Building towering in the foreground, and the Freedom Tower finally taking shape downtown. In fact, they take full advantage of the view, encouraging sometimes reluctant customers to point the rifles out the window to test optics — sometimes having to reassure them that the glass means that while they can see out, no one can see in.
While the days of being able to window shop at a Holland & Holland storefront may be gone, there was a good story that David passed along about one memorable experience. They were used to random people walking into the store to check things out, so when an older man in a track suit wandered into the shop while David was setting up for a cocktail party, he wasn’t surprised. David offered to help the man or get him something to drink, but he replied that he was “just looking.”
After a few minutes the man turned and announced, “Okay, I’m ready.” David thought that this meant the man was ready for his cocktail, but the man shook his head, pointed to a couple guns on the wall, and said “I’ll take them.” David confirmed that the man realized how much these guns cost, and the man pulled a checkbook out of his sock and wrote a personal check for the full amount. Another reminder that it’s never a good idea to judge a book by its cover.
While buying off the rack is rare, it still does happen. David told me that some clients have walked in needing a couple shotguns for an upcoming safari. And that’s the only time they really run into any problems with New York’s onerous gun laws. Holland & Holland don’t sell any firearms that the State of New York finds particularly objectionable, and the gun room is indeed a licensed FFL holder, so most transactions are cash and carry. But New York, in its infinite wisdom, has a “one gun every 90 days” law that went into effect with the SAFE Act and according to David, that’s the first regulation that has impacted their ability to hand clients guns.
As one can imagine of bespoke items, walking in off the street and buying a gun off the rack isn’t exactly standard procedure. Holland & Holland keep a supply on hand as display models, and if you’re really in a hurry to drop $100,000 then you can certainly buy one. But for the real experience, it takes a little more time and patience than buying a silencer. Once the details of the firearm are worked out (which model, what barrel, what caliber, which engraving pattern) the fitting process begins. That involves working with a shooting instructor to get just the right measurements to ensure that the gun feels absolutely perfect for the shooter.
Part of that fitting process involves determining if the shooter is left or right handed, as not only do they fit the controls to suit the dominant hand, but also curl the triggerguard to provide a smoother feel to the trigger finger. Then, over the course of a year or more the gun is manufactured at Holland & Holland’s facility just outside London. When the gun is nearly ready, it’s sent out to have the delivery box manufactured, an (amazingly) optional step.
When you think of a Holland & Holland gun, you inevitably picture them in their leather and felt case with all the trimmings. But in reality, the cases come separately — and at an additional cost.
As David put it, they’re a gun maker. The price is for the gun only.
I handed back the $180,000 shotgun that I had been fondling, and David locked the case. “Most people these days only know us for our shotguns,” he said as he moved to the next case down, “so I’m glad you know a little about our history with rifles as well.” He reached for a double rifle in the first slot, with a Swarovski scope mounted on top. The juxtaposition of the cutting edge polymer-encased scope and the hand-crafted finely engraved double rifle was a little jarring. I asked if they worked with any other scope manufacturers besides Swarovski, and David replied that whatever scope you choose, they will build rings for it. Yes, I said that right. You hand them a scope, and they will custom machine rings for that specific scope.
It makes sense, since even the scope mount itself is custom machined. H&H uses a proprietary dovetail on their barrel ribs, and then attach a scope mount that they say can return to zero no matter how many times the scope is removed and replaced. It’s a neat trick, and a necessary one for those looking to take a trip to Africa and keep their scope safe and sound in the first class cabin while the gun rides cargo.
The double rifles were nice, but the real jewels of the collection (in my opinion) were the bolt action rifles; specifically one very nice example in .375 H&H Magnum.
I’ve felt some nice bolt action rifles in my brief time as a gun writer, but I have no doubt whatsoever that this one takes the imperial cake. It looks like a modified Mauser action, but it has been hand-fitted and polished to the point where there is no play whatsoever in the bolt. Working the action feels like slicing into a stick of butter with a very sharp, very hot knife. Smooth and effortless would be the two words I’d use to describe it, definitely desirable if a lion is charging your way and you need to reload quickly.
As my visit was winding down, I started wondering why anyone would drop that kind of change on a bespoke shotgun over one, say, one of Beretta’s very nice under/over models. Is there something that makes the H&H inherently better? “I have a Beretta,” David confided, “and in terms of accuracy, it’s about the same. But it [the Holland & Holland] just feels so much better.” And that’s the selling point. It’s like the difference between a Ford Focus and a Maybach. They’ll get you to the same place just as fast, but one is most decidedly more comfortable than the other.
One of those cars will also retain its value better than the other. While a normal production shotgun will probably never be as valuable as the day it comes in the box, a Holland & Holland is an investment. According to some people, while the gun will drop in value in the years immediately after it is built, give it 5 to 10 years and you’ll start to see somewhere around a 5% appreciation rate every year over the original sticker price.
As soon as I handed back the rifle, I knew that my time in that rarefied air was growing short. I had spent a blissful afternoon fondling beautiful shotguns and rifles that cost orders of magnitude more than my car, and I finally understood why someone would want to spend that much money on a bespoke firearm. Everything — from the rib on the shotgun barrel to the polished trigger — was hand crafted to perfection. And best of all, the shotgun is fit to your specific features and needs. For those who have the cash and the inclination, there really is nothing better.
As I discovered, that’s the difference between a normal firearm and a Holland & Holland. It doesn’t shoot any better or function any better than a factory fresh Remington, but the look and the feel of the guns is far superior to anything I had ever touched.
Back out on the street, life continued as usual. Taxi cabs trying to run down pedestrians, people flocking to the nearest Starbucks and business executives walking around talking on their cell phones. All oblivious to the wonders that were housed in a nondescript building right above their heads.