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