Gun Review: Purdey 1883 English Sporting 12 ga. Shotgun [Content Contest]

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By Gabriel Carter

One gun that I’ll never sell or give away — except to my son — belonged originally to my great great grandfather, Weetman Pearson. It’s a Purdey side-by-side in 12 ga., one of a pair that started the building process in 1883 and was finished in 1884. For any who doesn’t know, Purdey is one of the great English sporting gunmakers. The family gunmakers are based in London on South Audley street, and have been making guns since 1814. A new matched pair will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of £100,000. An antique matched pair will go for auction anywhere between £30 – £250,000 depending on condition and history . . .

Single guns such as this one are obviously less expensive. Second-hand unmatched guns fetch around £15,000 in reasonable condition. A new one will run around £55,000.

In the case of this particular gun, its history is what makes it special. Particularly its 20th century history. I don’t know how much shooting my great great grandfather did with it, but I’m assuming a fair bit. Around 1920 he gave it to my great uncle John.

Great uncle John was a staff officer with the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium, and was evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk under the onslaught of the Nazi blitzkrieg. As any good officer would, he had his batman carry all the paperwork while he looked after the most important thing: his pair of Purdeys.

As he was queueing to board one of the evacuation boats he was hit by bomb shrapnel, losing his left arm. He was evacuated onto a boat clutching the one surviving gun to his chest, and it made it all the way back to England with him.

After the war he was unable to shoot it, and Purdey turned their engineering genius to producing a 12ga. pistol that he could still use on high birds. Great uncle John still had the Purdey languishing in his safe, though. As fate would have it my father turned eighteen just as great uncle John was looking to shift some of his gun collection and wondering what to give his nephew as a birthday present. Lucky dad!

When I turned eighteen my father gave it to me, and I shoot it throughout the season, and a little less frequently out of season.

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The gun is a 30″ barrel 12 gauge self-opening double-trigger sidelock ejector, side-by-side, weighing in at a pretty light 6 lbs. 2 oz. More than 100 years and one Nazi bombing down the line, it has some slight wear to the finish, and a few small scratches here and there, but otherwise is in damn near perfect condition.

It comes in a Purdey-made leather hard case (sadly not the original, as that one suffered too much water damage at Dunkirk, and was replaced in the 1960s when the gun was given to my father).

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Engraving

As can be seen in the images below, the gun is Number 1 of the original pair (Number 2 being either shrapnel and rust, or a trophy in Fritz’s grandson’s cabinet somewhere in Germany).

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Note the number ‘1’ on the safety and barrel.

The hand engraved scroll work on the action is low key but (in my opinion) a beautiful example of fine craftsmanship. The simple design is a classic piece of understated elegance, with a great patina. Where engraved sporting scenes came to dominate the fashion in early 20th century English sporting guns, this is just a figurative pattern and – again in my humble opinion – far more timeless.

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Woodwork

The hand carved walnut woodwork runs on the darker side, and was fitted to my great great grandfather back in 1893. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I inherited his diminutive stature of 5’5″, and so the relatively short stock (15.5″) fits me like it was built for me. Perfect cheek-weld every time without even thinking about it.

The grain is, again, understated, but beautiful. My photography doesn’t do justice to the patina and the lustre of it. It’s almost like it has a depth that is greater than its physical presence.

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The fore-end is light and slim, with a very fine chequer, and fits the barrels without even a hair’s breadth of gap. A far cry from my Beretta Silver Pigeon or my 682 Gold E, which are both rattly pieces of mass manufacturing by comparison.

Barrels

The blue on the 30″ barrels is slightly worn around the muzzle and where the fore-hand sits, and there are a few small scratches, but otherwise the barrels are good as new. It’s only chambered for 2.5″ cartridges and not proofed for magnum loads. Of course, the barrels can’t handle steel shot. But throw soft shot down them and they’ll eat it up all day long and growl for more.

Choke is set at full on the right/three-quarter on the left. That’s considerably tighter than the more usual half/open and that’s because the gun was originally built for shooting on my great great grandfather’s estate in the south of England, which has some of the highest pheasant drives in the country.

Action

Smooth is an understatement. Both triggers break at four pounds exactly, every single time, like the proverbial glass rods. The opening lever locks very positively, but can be operated with a bare minimum of force. The safety sets with a crisp ‘click’, but can be manipulated easily even with a bare thumb in the pouring rain. Ejection is strong and positive, spitting out even cheap and nasty cartridges without breaking stride.

There really is nothing to fault with the engineering here – again the gun was entirely hand made, and after 133 years it functions flawlessly.

Handling and Ergonomics

The combination of a feather-light gun with a short stock and 30″ barrels makes for a gun you can carry all day in the field, shoulders faster and easier than you can think, and swings like a dream for those tantalizing high birds. Combined with the tight chokes, it’s a lethal combination, whether shooting on open ground or through small gaps in overhead cover.

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The ergonomics are perfect for me, though anyone else’s mileage may vary. It was built for an ancestor with the same size and build as mine and the dedicated craftsmanship shows through.

The double-trigger and slip grip, with no hint of a pistol grip, makes for effortless transition and follow-up shots. The controls are silky smooth meaning that firing and reloading happens almost instinctively.

Recoil is as you’d expect from a relatively light 12 gauge, but the superlative build quality and the perfect fit mean I can shoot hundreds of rounds through it without feeling at all battered.

Specifications:

Gauge: 12, 2.5 inch cartridges
Barrel length: 30 inches
Weight: 6 lbs. 2 oz.
Value: priceless

Ratings (out of five stars):

Craftsmanship:  * * * * *
I’d say they don’t make ’em like this any more, but they still do. The Purdey workshop and show room are eminently worth visiting for anyone in London, if only to ogle the eye-wateringly priced hardware.

Reliability: * * * * *
It’s run for 133 years without a single issue that I’m aware of – apart from the front bead falling off two years ago. Purdey didn’t charge to repair a 131-year old gun and had it back to me by special courier inside 24 hours from when I dropped it off.  Their gunsmith was “appalled” to hear that one of their guns had “failed” after a mere century and third. I won’t knock a star off for one minor repair in 133 years.

Aesthetics: * * * * *
It might not be your thing, but as an example of 19th Century classic English sporting firearms craftsmanship, it is impeccable.

Ergonomics: * * * * *
While I have to admit that YMMV, it fits like it was built for me. Which, due to heredity, it kinda was. At least for game, I shoot better with this gun than any of my others.

Lethality: * * * * *
I was tempted to be harsh and knock off a star for its inability to take magnum loads or steel shot, or cartridges chambered longer than 2.5″. But then I thought that was pretty ungenerous, and since with its tight chokes it’ll eviscerate any birds lower than 100 feet, I can’t really knock it.

Customize this: N/A
Why would you want to?

History: * * * * * 
It’s been in the family since it was built; it’s been to war and come back…it really is the definition of an heirloom gun.

Value: N/A
It’s a gun that money can’t buy. Literally. I’m not selling. If you wanted something similar nowadays it’ll cost you in the ballpark of a new luxury car. But the build quality, reliability, service from the maker, and history cannot be replicated.

This particular gun has lasted in my family for well over a century and is still going strong; it will hold its value indefinitely. Even translating its original retail price to a new gun of around £55,000, that works out as just £415 per year – worth every penny.

If you have huge amounts of cash to spare, and want to treat yourself to a classic gun that will be bringing smiles to your great great grandchildren’s faces in 100+ years’ time (and holding its value well as an investment, too) then you could do a lot worse than take a look at a modern Purdey.

Overall: * * * * *
There is literally nothing I can fault on this gun. It’s beautiful, effective, reliable, and has emotional appeal in spades.

 

comments

  1. avatar Tyler Kee says:

    This was an awesome read. Thank you for sharing.

    1. My pleasure – something I’ve been meaning to write up for ages, but the content contest gave me a reason to finish it.

      Thank you for reading!

      1. avatar Tile floor says:

        The gun market has become saturated with concealed carry pistols and AR variants. As such, most reviews cover these firearms, which is a good thing since it helps consumers make informed decisions.

        Your review, however, was a breath of fresh air and really interesting to read. An elegant firearm with a great backstory. Nicely done

        1. Thank you! 🙂

          I could in theory have written on one of my other guns, but they’re all pretty run-of-the-mill, and therefore not hugely interesting.

          On the other hand it’s probably fair to assume that many folks won’t have had the chance to look at an heirloom gun in as much detail – and it’s been a pleasure sharing the story with the TTAG readership. Thank you for reading!

  2. avatar mattb says:

    Very cool

  3. avatar germanguy says:

    If that isn’t cool gun wise, I don’t know what else is.
    Thanks for this article.

    1. Haha, thank you – I do think it’s pretty cool, and certainly it’s great to be able to share some thoughts on it with the TTAG readership!

  4. avatar jwtaylor says:

    “It might not be your thing…”
    No matter who you are, if this isn’t “your thing” you’re wrong. Just wrong.

    Gorgeous and perfect. Thank you.

    1. +1 on this… although I am a bit biased! 🙂

  5. avatar FormerWaterWalker says:

    Good job! Do I take it correctly you reside in Britain? Sorry about no pistol for you…no it’s not my “thing” but I am an antique dealer who appreciates great craft,beautiful wood and patina. Like a great painting as it were…

    1. Thank you!

      Yes I am a Brit, resident in the UK… but in the (unlikely!) event my article won the contest I’d still be keen to get the pistol, if it would be possible to ship to a US APO in Afghanistan – which is where I work.

      1. avatar jwtaylor says:

        Which province? Spent a couple of years in the south and east myself.

        1. Kabul mainly, though we also work throughout central and western Afghan, and have done the odd bits and pieces down in Kandahar and Helmand.

          Were you there in uniform or as a contractor?

        2. avatar jwtaylor says:

          Army, mostly embedded with the ANA and ANP. Went though Phoenix quite often. Get out to the tank graveyard of you get a chance.
          Nice climate in Kabul.

        3. The one on KMTC? We train up there regularly, and yeah it’s always fun to stop and have a wander around the old Sov armour.

          Thank you for your service – I’ll buy you a beer if you’re ever over in the UK.

        4. avatar jwtaylor says:

          That’s the one. Climb the mountain and look down on it. Didn’t realize it was in the shape of a skull till then.

        5. Should re-name it: “Punisher Park”…! 😉

  6. avatar PeterK says:

    I am happy to live vicariously through you a bit. That is work of art.

    1. Haha, well I’m happy to give you and others that chance. I’m lucky enough to own a great piece of history, and a beautiful one at that – thank you for reading and for commenting! 🙂

  7. avatar ActionPhysicalMan says:

    Any damage from the shrapnel?

    1. None that I can definitively say come from that.

      There are two scratches on the stock somewhat deeper than I’d expect from normal wear and tear – but I can’t definitively say they were caused by the shrapnel vs. (for example) a stumble when climbing over a barbed wire fence…

  8. avatar Geoff PR says:

    Next holiday, go to Dunkirk and see if you can find the remains of its twin in the surf.

    Drop that off at Purdey and see what the fellow behind the counter has to say…

    🙂

    1. LOL, sadly I suspect the metal-detector / treasure hunter crowd have probably already picked up anything of value from those beaches…

      I can always fantasise, though, about finding a scrap of metal with the matching serial and the No. 2 – if any company would rebuild a gun from that, I suspect it would be Purdey!

  9. avatar miforest says:

    wow, just wow. fantastic .

  10. avatar neiowa says:

    Going to the Continent on a little “Expedition”? Boy, don’t forget to pack my swagger stick and the Purdys.

    1. Yep, pretty much – far more civilised way of going to war, back in those days…! 😉

  11. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    Mr. Carter, I tip my hat to you and your predecessors.
    I hope your son values that beautiful double as much as you obviously do.
    Thank you for writing that up. I travelled back in time for a brief journey while reading that.

    1. Thank you very much – appreciate your comments.

      I hope he does too, though for now he’s only just starting to walk… so I’ll probably give it a few years before starting him on the 12ga.!

      In time I hope he comes to appreciate its heritage, and the connection he has to history by shooting it: literally, linking back to the end of the nineteenth century right there in his hands.

  12. avatar John P. says:

    As with all tools, behind every gun there is a story. Some are more interesting than others. Thank you for sharing your very interesting one!

    1. Thank you!

      Certainly far more of a story to this one than to any of my others (which are all perfectly decent, but haven’t travelled through the C20th as this one has).

  13. avatar Dave e says:

    Great story, thanks

    1. You’re welcome – thank you for reading!

  14. avatar LarryinTX says:

    Astonishing. And the contest is off to a healthy start. Tell me, doesn’t Purdey make double rifles, as well?

    1. 🙂 Thank you!

      Yes they do make double-rifles, and in fact also bolt-action rifles as well.

      I’ve never shot one, sadly, and only handled one once – when I took my gun in to have its front bead repaired. But from that brief exposure I’d say they seem to be absolutely on par with the shotguns in terms of quality and craft.

  15. avatar anaxis says:

    Such a beautiful shotgun; it’s always been a dream of mine to go pheasant hunting with one like that at least, since I’ll never be able to afford owning one. More high quality pictures would be sweet, and I wonder if there are any photos of his ancestors bearing those guns floating around.

    The only time I’ve seen anything like that Purdey up close was when I was visiting Rothenburg a.d. Tauber, and stumbled into a hunting store/gunsmith which sold antique & new heirloom-quality rifles & shotguns. The proprietor offered to let me inspect a side-by-side which they had just finished engraving; I was fascinated and didn’t want to put it down, until my wife pointed out the price tag: €17,000. They also had a WW1-era engraved presentation Luger for sale, which had belonged to a Field Marshal (von Bülow, IIRC). That pistol was easily the most expensive firearm I’ve ever seen, and I could’ve bought 3 or 4 Purdeys for the price of it….. but I’d almost rather have a matched set of those shotguns.

    The optimist part of me hopes #2 isn’t still rusting away at Dunkirk, but instead got picked up by a German (or American later) and still exists. Yet the pessimist part feels that it if it had been picked up by a German, it probably was lost during a bombing raid; or got repatriated but thrown into the Channel at war’s end; or was captured by Ivan and recycled into Soviet tanks/AKs…… {sigh}

    You’re a lucky man to have such a beautiful & functioning witness to history.

    1. Holy moley, von Bülow’s Luger would be a hell of a piece of history – not surprised that has a steep price tag…!

      Honestly, it’s a brilliant gun to take hunting. Light, well-built, versatile – nothing to fault. But a “tragic boating accident” genuinely would be tragic, so I try to keep it on dry land! 🙂

      I would absolutely love to discover one day that the No. 2 gun survived the War and is still being used. Wouldn’t matter who it ended up with, so long as it was still in one piece and working.

      But I wonder whether anyone who picked it up would have known its value?? It might have gone home and just be “grandpa’s old beater shotgun” somewhere in the Rheinland. Who knows!? I guess that’s a key reason why I’m glad to be able to share the story a little wider.

      Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting!

  16. avatar Swarf says:

    “t like it has a depth that is greater than its physical presence.”

    You poetic bastard.

  17. avatar wrightl3 says:

    Awesome story and beautiful gun. I hope it last you and yours many generations to come.

    1. Thank you very much – and I sincerely hope so too!

  18. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    Wonderful.

    I’ve had a chance to handle a couple of Purdeys in my time as a ‘smith. Their quality is timeless.

    1. Thank you!

      You’re absolutely right with “timeless”: they really are guns that look just as fine 100+ years on as the day they were built.

      There aren’t that many guns (or objects in general) of which that’s true. I’d put a few guns in the genuinely timeless bracket:
      • Colt Navy Revolver
      • Purdey SxS
      • (early) Colt 1911
      • M1 Garand
      • Lee Enfield Mk III

      I’d also put a very few other pieces of engineering into the same bracket:
      • Spitfire Mk IX
      • Avro Vulcan
      • P51D Mustang
      • Aston Martin DB5
      • Land Rover Defender
      • Willys MB Jeep

      Obviously there are others, and that’s a very subjective list, but that’s my own personal ‘hall of fame’ for timeless design!

      In any case, thank you for reading and for your comment – and I hope you have a chance to shoot the next Purdey you get to work on! 🙂

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        Oh, I didn’t get to work on the Purdeys. They needed nothing from me. I got to be just a normal guy afflicted with “Nice Gun Disease” where I was making stupid noises to my wife and complaining “But, but, but… I didn’t have a mid-life crisis! I didn’t get the mistress or the red convertible sports cars! Why can’t I have a really nice shotgun? Huh!? Huh!? What do you mean, ‘no?’ ”

        I would add the SR-71 to your list of timeless bits of engineering.

        1. No argument on the SR-71, that thing looks like Thor’s hammer had a baby with a ninja throwing axe…!

      2. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

        +2 on the Land Rover defender. I love those tanks.

        1. 🙂 I have one as my farm truck: Defender 110, Army surplus sale. Great vehicle – as you say, a real tank!

  19. avatar jwm says:

    1893. That would have been the period of transition from black powder to smokeless. Wonder which this Purdey was built for?

    1. I honestly have no idea. But given that the original buyer, my ancestor, was not short of cash I’d assume he paid for the best of what was available.

      Certainly it handles modern cartridges without breaking stride, and the barrels are in great condition despite being shot frequently for the last 133 years, so I’m guessing great great grandpa opted for a smokeless capability…?

  20. avatar Ken says:

    Anything known about current state of the 12 ga. pistol they worked on for him?

    1. Yes – spoiler alert, as I may write that up for a future piece… but in short:
      • 12ga. SxS pistol, ejector, single trigger
      • 16″ barrels, both choked at one and-a-half
      • stock very similar to the Sig Brace
      • all controls extended so as to be reached without shifting grip
      • intended to be shot with a loader standing by you (but instead of passing a new gun over, he just reloads your pistol after you’ve broken it open)

  21. avatar Mad Anthony says:

    Well written throughout, and particularly enjoyed the Reliability section

    1. Thank you!

      Yeah that cracked me up. I honestly expected to be treated with snooty disdain, and quoted £1,000+ to solder the bead back on some time next month. But the guy was like:
      “I am so sorry, sir, this almost never happens… Are you shooting next weekend? Right, well then we’ll rush it through and courier it to you. Cost? No sir, we certainly wouldn’t charge for repairs when one of our guns fails like this through no fault of your own.”

      Brilliant. Honestly I was grinning / PMSL for about a month…!

  22. avatar Karl Rettger says:

    We have a shooter at the Northbrook Sports Club in Hainesville, IL. who collects Purdey shotguns and uses them to shoot Fitsac and Sporting Clays. He taught me allot about early shotguns, and one night on the lighted skeet fields, we switched shotguns and I ran a couple of rounds using one of his Purdeys. SWEEEET.
    Perfect balance, fantastic triggers. Now I’m spoiled for life. NICE.

    1. “…collects Purdeys” – lucky guy!!!

      Using them to shoot fitsac / sporting, in my view, is exactly what he should be doing with them when not hunting. Personally I wouldn’t put that much wear on mine, simply because I don’t have a collection (!) and because of the history that goes with it: even if I could afford to replace the barrels, I don’t want to have to. But more power to him, certainly! 🙂

      And lucky you getting to shoot some skeet! I have done that a few times, and it’s great fun isn’t it – for long guns, they just balance right and therefore point so damn fast!

      Anyway, thank you for reading and for commenting.

  23. avatar Jim Brant says:

    Very good story, I forwarded to my brother who is much more into firearms than me. He sent: “There is a website that seeks to reunite broken pairs of British guns.”

    matchedpairs.com

    Long shot, I’m sure, but …..

    Thanks for writing

  24. avatar Some wanker says:

    It sure is….Purdey… but seriously. Nice shotgun.

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