Oxford Circus has long been one of the premier shopping centers of London, but if you start walking southwest of that extremely busy crossroads the crowds slowly dissipate and the stores become increasingly expensive. This is the Mayfair area of London, one of the only places where I have seen a Bugatti dealership across the street from an Aston Martin dealership. It’s home to many of the world’s biggest luxury brands. Nestled in the middle of all that opulence is the London headquarters for Holland & Holland, makers of bespoke hunting rifles and shotguns since 1835. Behind the clothing-filled front rooms and down a back staircase of that shop lies one of London’s best kept secrets and the most fascinating assortment of objects I have ever seen: The Collection . . .
H&H makes custom guns — firearms designed and made specifically for each buyer to their exacting specifications. Therefore each gun has an intended buyer from the day it’s first laid down, a situation which makes it difficult for a company to accumulate examples of their work over time. To remedy, Holland & Holland have been buying back some of the more historically fascinating examples of their work from their centuries of operation, and has compiled them into their Collection that’s housed in their London gun room. I had the distinct pleasure of spending a few short hours there with Holland & Holland’s technical manager Pat Murphy, whose extensive knowledge of the guns left me nearly speechless.
One of the main themes that Pat wanted to convey was that of H&H’s attitude towards innovation — namely that they were happy to make anything the customer wanted. Of course, that flexibility comes at a price. “Anything can be done” he exclaimed time and again, the unofficial motto of the shop. One of the earliest examples he pulled out of the case were a pair of rifles with revolving cylinders, one designed to sport a detachable stock much like the C96 handgun of German fame would decades later. In this case, the customer wanted something interesting and the gunsmiths at H&H made that happen for him.
Another early example of innovative ideas in the Holland & Holland workshop is an engineering prototype of a rifle with an internally revolving magazine. This late 19th century firearm apparently never made it to the point of being a finished firearm, but the fact that a small shop like H&H was willing to stretch the limits of engineering and take chances with their designs shows how far they were willing to go to please their customers. Like Pat said, they were happy to make whatever the customer wanted so long as the customer was happy to foot the bill.
H&H’s shop definitely sounded like an engineer’s paradise from the way Pat described it. Pat himself spent years there finishing firearms for customers, and the technical expertise he brings to showing off the firearms really bring their stories to life. In the old days (when these revolving rifles were made) technical drawings were few and far between — there was at least one instance where a gun was designed on the back of a cigarette carton.
These days accurate technical documentation has been encouraged, but most of the designs of the historical firearms are lost to the ages. Strewn about the shop are a series of leather-bound books, which serve as the company’s official record of their firearms sales throughout the company’s history. Recorded in these tomes are the serial number of the firearm, the original buyer, and a reference to the location where the full measurements of the gun are kept, but that’s all. The modern records have been digitized for easy access, but the full historical records are incomplete and often the referenced material is missing.
The lack of a historical record from which to draw future inspiration for gunsmiths and customers alike was one of the primary reasons that Holland & Holland started building The Collection, as a representation of the styles, designs and mechanisms that were produced through the decades.
Most of the firearms in The Collection are there for exactly that purpose: illustrating a specific style or mechanism. The first case on the left in their collection houses some of the more interesting examples of shotgun designs through the years, showing off the many variations that have been produced in-house with modifications to the customer’s specifications.
Whether the customer wants internal or external hammers, the action release lever located over the action or under the trigger guard, or simply a different style of engraving anything is possible. But while the technical details are fascinating to an engineering junkie like myself, the real appeal of the Holland & Holland shotgun is in the customized or “bespoke” fit that your specific shotgun has. And for the process of fitting shotgun to shooter, there’s a gun in The Collection to showcase the history of that process as well.
Holland & Holland actually holds the patent on this specific device, which is a tool used to measure shooters to ensure that their shotgun is perfect for their specific body. The way it works is that a shooting coach uses this special shotgun during a lesson with the buyer, continually making adjustments until both are satisfied with the fit of the gun. Then the tool is measured, and the measurements are transmitted to the factory to produce the firearm. This is one of the first tools used by the then-new Holland & Holland, as the tool was built from a different company’s shotgun.
The Collection houses more than just the assembled trinkets and tools of an old and storied company, though. On the shelves and in the racks are firearms that shaped history, guns owned by some of the most influential people in the world and that were used in some of the most important conflicts of the modern age.
One of the more impressive firearms was a matched pair of shotguns owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad. These smoothbores were manufactured in 1885, 16 years after he took power, and serve more as a symbol of the influence of English culture and history during the Empire’s rule in India than anything about the Nizam himself. Matched pairs of shotguns were a symbol of wealth in England, and so in order to fit in with the English ruling class, the Nizam had these shotguns made for him in the heart of the Empire from the most respected gunsmiths in London. We know the exact owner thanks to the ornately inlaid family crest located in the stock.
The detailed engraving and inlaid gold in these shotguns is amazing. The care and detail that went into each one is a clue to the small fortune that was paid for the set. These guns were recovered by Holland & Holland from one of the descendants of the old Nizam after English rule in India ended, during a small window where the Indian nobility was still permitted to sell their wealth overseas. They didn’t do anything to restore the guns — they were in the same pristine condition in which they left the factory. It’s another clue that the guns were more of a status symbol than a working firearm, an attempt by the Indian nobility to show their English masters that they were equals.
While the guns produced at Holland & Holland are beautiful enough to be kept on a wall as a piece of art, in reality the vast and overwhelming majority of firearms are purchased by people who intend to use them. A lot. The secondary market for used H&H firearms is very active, and the guns will typically maintain and appreciate in value over time, but the people who buy a Holland & Holland gun actually use them in the meantime.
One of the more interesting examples of custom-produced firearms is a bolt action rifle in .303 British. The action is a modified Mauser rifle, finely tuned and produced for a British officer to take with him to the front. The reason for the gun had nothing to do with fighting, though — the gun was for him to use for hunting while stationed in India.
According to Pat, one of the primary reasons people choose a specific caliber is the availability of ammunition. Most air carriers these days will happily transport firearms, but ammunition is technically a hazardous cargo and the captain of your specific flight can decline to carry it for any reason whatsoever — including none at all. It has made for some hairy situations in the past where a hunter has spent every penny on the safari of a lifetime, only to find out that their ammunition didn’t make the flight and their specific caliber isn’t available locally.
In the case of the British soldier, since .303 ammunition was commonly used by the British armed forces it was guaranteed that he could find some to fuel his passion for hunting. So rather than opting for one of the exotic calibers designed and manufactured by Holland & Holland, he went for the locally available option. That wasn’t the last .303 chambered gun H&H made, though — not by a long shot.
During the Second World War, Holland & Holland did their part protecting England from the Nazis by producing the sniper rifles for the British armed forces. Hand-picked SM Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk. I rifles were selected from the factory based on their superior accuracy, and then handed over to the gunsmiths at H&H for a little TLC. The guns were given a new stock as well as some upgrades to the mechanics of the firearm, and H&H added a scope mount (called a “scope pad” across the pond) as well as telescopic sight to the rifle before sending it overseas to the front lines.
The end result — designated SMLE No. 4 Mk. 1 T, and continued service until 1991 as the L42A1 — wasn’t terribly accurate by today’s standards, but the craftsmanship present in the firearms is apparent to anyone who holds one. It also happens to be the cheapest Holland & Holland firearm you can buy, clocking in at $1,800 on average.
While Holland & Holland are known for their rifles and shotguns, they have also produced a number of handguns over the years. Current British law forbids H&H from displaying handguns in their gun cases, but behind closed doors and in the back of the shop they still have a few surviving examples. Holland & Holland itself produced single shot pistols mainly, but what they excelled at was embellishing and perfecting the work of other handgun manufacturers. Customers would buy handguns elsewhere and ship them to H&H for a complete workup, which not only included engraving the outside of the gun but also a complete mechanical once-over including a trigger job and other mechanical improvements. H&H never just made something pretty, they also improved the function as well. Good looking guns, but guns first and foremost.
Not only are Holland & Holland masters of fine details, but they are also amazing gunsmiths. One of the best examples of their work can be seen in the main display case in The Collection, namely their massive four-bore rifle. Back before the advent of modern smokeless powder, the limits of traditional black powder were nearing their breaking point. Rather than push the powder too far in terms of creating a higher velocity projectile, the thought at the time was it was better to increase the mass of the projectile to increase the muzzle energy. The end result of that line of thinking is the iconic four-bore rifle, of which this ornately carved firearm is a prime example.
The projectile for this gun is massive, but the nature of the propellant means that the gun is actually pretty easy to handle. Instead of the sharp recoil impulse of nitro based powders, the black powder cartridge means that the recoil impulse is spread out over time and results in more of a stiff shove. This makes the gun easy to handle despite the immense pile of lead leaving the barrel.
Speaking of black powder, one of the more interesting tidbits of the business behind H&H I learned was that they discourage customers from purchasing black powder firearms from them. If they really want a black powder gun they will make them one, but the value of the gun is greatly reduced and the uses for the gun are reduced as well. According to Pat, while some customers come in wanting black powder cartridges for recoil reduction reasons they typically are able to find a modern cartridge that serves the same purpose with the same level of recoil.
There’s no doubt that the folks at Holland & Holland are amazing at what they do, masters of their craft. Another competing company in the same area of London produces fine firearms and actually has a more impressive storefront, but only Holland & Holland makes every gun from scratch every time. Truly bespoke firearms, made by master gunsmiths and engravers as they have been doing this for hundreds of years.
Browsing The Collection at Holland & Holland’s shop in Mayfair was an experience I won’t soon forget. Firearms are things of beauty in their own right, but when you have guns of this quality it’s only natural that you will run into tiny slices of history as well. On display in the cases are fragments of England’s past, glimpses into the golden age of the Empire and the men who lived in it. Functioning pieces of art, preserved for the future, and still being manufactured the exact same care that they have been for almost two centuries.