Bespoke Beauty: Touring Holland & Holland’s London Gun Room Collection

Oxford Circus has long been one of London’s premier shopping centers, but if you start walking southwest of that extremely busy crossroads, the crowds thin and the stores become increasingly expensive. This is the Mayfair area of London, a place where you’ll find a Bugatti dealership across the street from an Aston Martin dealership. The area is home to many of the world’s most prestigious 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: what H&H simply calls, The Collection.

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As you probably know, Holland & Holland 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 that, Holland & Holland have been buying back some of the more historically fascinating examples of their work their nearly two centuries of operation, and have 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 they’ve accumulated 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 are happy to make anything the customer wants. Of course, that flexibility comes at a price. “Anything can be done” he exclaimed time and again, the unofficial motto of the shop. The only question, then, is the price tag involved.

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 H&H master gunsmiths 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 are willing to go to please their customers. As Murphy 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. He’s spent years there finishing guns 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. The modern records have been digitized for easy access, but the full historical records are frequently 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 had been produced through the decades.

Most of the firearms in The Collection are there for exactly that purpose: illustrating a specific style or mechanism a customer might choose. 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 meet each 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, virtually 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.

For the process of fitting shotgun to shooter, Holland & Holland has a gun in The Collection to showcase the history of that process as well.

Holland & Holland actually holds a patent on this specific device, which is a tool used to measure various aspects of a gun’s fit– length of pull, drop at the heel and comb, cast, pitch, etc. — to ensure that their shotgun is perfect for each customer. 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.

The tool is then measured and the specifications are transmitted to the factory to produce the firearm. This is one of the first tools used by the then-new Holland & Holland to ensure a custom fit. It was actually 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 have 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 one of the Nizams 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. 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.

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The detailed engraving and inlaid gold in these shotguns is amazing.

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The care and detail that went into each one is an indicator of 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 when the Indian nobility was still permitted to sell their wealth overseas.

Holland & Holland didn’t do anything to restore the guns. They are largely in the same pristine condition they were in when they left the factory. It’s another clue that the guns were owned more as status symbols than working firearms, an attempt by the Indian nobility to show their English masters that they were their equals.

While any the guns produced at Holland & Holland are beautiful enough to be kept on a wall as pieces of art, in reality most of firearms are purchased by people who fully 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 usually use them.

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One of the more interesting examples of custom-produced firearms is a bolt action rifle in .303 British. The action is that of a modified Mannlicher-Schoenauer 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 intended for him to use for hunting while stationed in India.

According to Pat, one of the primary reasons people choose a specific caliber these days isn’t the intended game, but the availability of ammunition. Most air carriers these days will happily transport firearms, but ammunition is technically a hazardous cargo and not all carriers agree to ship it. That’s 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 army, it was guaranteed that he’d  find some to fuel his passion for hunting. So rather than opting for a more exotic caliber designed and manufactured by Holland & Holland, he went for the locally available option. That wasn’t the only .303 chambered gun H&H made for that reason — not by a long shot.

During the Second World War, Holland & Holland did their part protecting England from the Nazis by producing sniper rifles for the British armed forces. Hand-picked 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 more than a little TLC. The guns were given a new stock as well as some upgrades to the mechanics of the firearm. H&H added a scope mount (called a “scope pad” across the pond) as well as a telescopic sight to the rifle before sending it overseas for use on 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 least expensive Holland & Holland firearm you can buy, clocking in at well under five figures.

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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 a gun but also them a complete mechanical once-over including a trigger job and other mechanical improvements.

H&H never just made something pretty, they also improved its function as well. Good looking guns, but good guns, first and foremost.

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Not only are Holland & Holland masters of fine details, but they are also master gunsmiths. One of the best examples of their work can be seen in the main display case of 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 higher velocity projectiles, the thought at the time was it was better to increase the mass of the projectile to boost 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.

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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 over time and results in more of a firm shove. This makes the gun relatively easy to handle despite the immense piece 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 one for them, but the value of the gun is greatly reduced and the uses for the gun are limited 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.

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There’s no doubt that the people of Holland & Holland are amazing at what they do, true masters of their craft. Another competing company in the same area of London that also produces fine firearms actually has a more impressive storefront, but only Holland & Holland makes every single gun from scratch, to each customer’s specifications every time. Truly bespoke firearms, made by master gunsmiths and engravers as they have been doing since the early nineteenth century.

Browsing The Collection at Holland & Holland’s Mayfair shop was an experience I’ll never forget. Firearms are things of beauty in their own right, but when you have the chance to experience guns of this quality, it’s only natural that you will also run into tiny slices of history as well.

On display in the H&H cases are fragments of England’s past, glimpses into the golden age of the Empire and the men who lived it. They are functioning pieces of art, preserved for the future, and still being manufactured with the same amount of care and skill that has made Holland & Holland famous for almost two centuries.

comments

  1. avatar RD says:

    Waiting for someone to make a “MADE IN AMERICA” comment.

    1. avatar Geoff "Guns. LOTS of guns..." PR says:

      The article was made (years ago) by an American, Nick Leghorn, in America.

      Ergo, “American Made”. 🙂

      (And I’m still jealous, that must have been an eye-popping, perpetually-droooling visit…)

    2. avatar rdsii64 says:

      This is your made in America comment

      1. avatar LarryinTX says:

        Think how wonderful those guns would be, if only they had been (fill in the blank)

        1. avatar Coach says:

          … in my safe.

        2. …chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor.

        3. avatar Geoff "Guns. LOTS of guns..." PR says:

          “…chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor.”

          Did you read the article? Any caliber is possible…

    3. avatar abolish the landlords says:

      Pretentious, classist, tat for glorified landlords… you ‘Americans’ should know better than to pander to it.

      1. avatar Geoff "Trolls, the other white meat" PR says:

        “abolish the landlords”

        Scum like you need to be put up against the wall and shot.

        Now finish cutting my lawn and don’t miss any spots… 🙂

      2. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

        abolish, said like a true Marxist. Our Founding Fathers owned many fine firearms in their day. Wouldn’t surprise me at all had some of them owned an H&H or two had they been available.

      3. avatar abolish the landlords says:

        if you want to support the so-called ‘elite’ manipulating and fleecing you for all your worth then, by all means, get down and perform fellatio on my British/French/Polish cocque…

        me, i support and promote republican direct-democracy… you know how hard that is in the UK?!!

        you know how hard it is to tell people that the answer to ‘knife-crime’ is a armed populace, in the UK ?!

        i don’t know what you call it in the US, but we call it ‘taking the piss’…

        “this is what happens to a disarmed populace” i tell people all the time… do they listen?! no, the f’ing morons think if it aint happenned to them then it wont.

        i would be happy to establish and communicate a UK equivalent 2A agenda but y’all seem to be more concerned with glorifying your own egos.

      4. avatar Bye Bye, Bourgeois Bye says:

        by the way…

        I doubt any of you bigots will ever have the chance, nevermind the wherewithall, to ‘grace’ the threshold of H&H, so why f’ing pretend, as i said before – as so-called ‘Americans’ you should know better and set an example.

        I can walk into Holland’s or any other fashionable boutique any time and with credit, and to be fair in time past they had their place in taking advantage of the moneyed elite and otherwise retarded bourgeois fools; there is a balance between quality and craftmanship, but what you will you never consider here, unlike a Tikka or a Remington, is Value.

        1. avatar RD says:

          Remington? Value? Spoken like someone who’s a more than a hair out of touch.

    4. avatar RGP says:

      I choose made in USA. By God, if I can’t buy it at Walmart, I don’t need it!

      1. avatar Sarah says:

        So I guess you don’t see a need for a handgun? Or it’s ammo?

      2. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

        RGP, what’s the difference between buying at Wal-Mart and buying in China?

        1. avatar RGP says:

          Actually I have avoided Walmart as much as possible for years…

          The last time I checked, most of what they had was Chinese.

  2. avatar possum says:

    Where’s the plastic gunms? all that and not one stiple

  3. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    Wow.
    And I thought the high end tables at SCI were impressive.

  4. avatar Vic Nighthorse says:

    Another article with no prices!;-)

    1. avatar jwm says:

      If you have to ask…. 🙂

      1. avatar Optimistic Engineer says:

        The article noted most were 5 figures (or more).

        This is for those who debate, commission a custom Bentley or a firearm to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.

        I like my gun collection. It is worth less than the median long gun in that room, buy at least a factor of 4.

      2. avatar Southern Cross says:

        Costs vary between those of a luxury car to a small house.

        But hand fitting is very expensive work and properly regulating double barreled guns is time consuming (and therefore expensive).

  5. avatar Kevin Craig says:

    Do they have Henry Bowman’s 4-bore on display?

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      He hasn’t finished with it yet.

    2. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      Kevin, I see you’ve read “The Book.” That was the first thing that popped into my mind when I read “Four Bore.” I said this once before; if you’ve never read Unintended Consequences by John Ross you should. Word of caution. If you find a copy it will be expensive. Mine’s not for sale.

      1. avatar Vic Nighthorse says:

        Digital copies are free online.

        1. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

          Vic, my 25 year old son says I’m technology impaired. Even if I knew how to download a free “book” I wouldn’t do it. A book is made of paper and ink. I can hold it. But if that’s all you got. Hey, go for it. Just read it.

    3. avatar southof16 says:

      I wonder if/when the storyline of this book will begin to play out??

  6. avatar ChoseDeath says:

    I… am SO jealous… God what an experience!

  7. avatar Ralph says:

    Like visiting a shrine.

  8. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

    Would love to see H&H, but I will never travel outside the United States again. Won’t even travel to some places within the United States. Not in this world. Would like to see the Cody Museum. Went there as a child. Wasn’t much more than a small roadside attraction at that time.

    1. avatar Vic Nighthorse says:

      The new and very nice Military Vehicles Museum is fairly close by as well. https://www.nmmv.org/

      1. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

        Vic, thanks. Another reason to go.

    2. avatar RGP says:

      I think Holland & Holland has a showroom in commie infested NYC.

  9. avatar Manse Jolly says:

    Heck, I don’t have enough free cash to even walk in the door of the place!

    Maybe gun broker?

    https://www.gunbroker.com/item/877965786

    1. avatar Optimistic Engineer says:

      To think ex-Prince “woke” Harry had to sell two.

      1. avatar Southern Cross says:

        He also sold two of something else, so no more heirs

  10. avatar jwm says:

    4 bore. That’s a 3 ounce projectile, right? Dinosaurs, the man must have been hunting dinosaurs.

    1. avatar RCC says:

      JWM
      It’s a 4 ounce projectile in round ball (1/4 of a pound). Potentially heavier with any shaped bullet. I imagine something like a 1000 grain plus minie ball and a lot of black powder.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        Just confirms what I was saying with better maths.

        Dinosaurs.

    2. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      They were called “stopping rifles” in their day – because they’d stop a Buff or Elephant.

  11. avatar former water walker says:

    Cool 😎 Been an antique dealer for quite awhile. I can’t compete with the dealers/collectors accquiring stuff like this. But I love quality…

  12. avatar Klaus Von Schmitto says:

    Isn’t it sad that the finest gunmaker in the history of Britain can’t even display a pistol in one of it’s cases.

    It’s hard to believe how far they have fallen.

    1. avatar GS650G says:

      They are lucky to still be in business.

      1. avatar Klaus Von Schmitto says:

        I meant how far Britain has fallen.

  13. avatar Otherwise... says:

    May I suggest for anyone who has the opportunity and is in or near Birmingham England, make an effort to visit the “Birmingham Gun-Barrel Proof House.” The cost is about 15 quid, but the lecture, the walk-about, and the untold number of various firearms to view is spectacular, along with some very interesting history lessons.

    Takes a bit of planning to set up, but it’s well worth it in my opinion.

  14. avatar Tyronne Long says:

    What is the big deal about ‘American made’ ? The last time Americans made anything truly unique was 50/60 years back when gas was under a buck and everyone could afford to drive these humongous gas guzzler which was quite a novelty if one doesn’t care about precision and performance. Best shotguns are English, best cuisine is French/Italian, best looking sports cars are Italian, best precision arms are Germans/Swiss, best fashion is French/Italian, best ………. Where is the best of ‘Made In America’??
    Why are Americans so obsessed with being ‘the greatest’ when in fact, it is but a figment of their imagination. So sad, so sad.

  15. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    As one of my instructors like to tell it, the Brummies who worked at best gun companies who made box-locks would say of the H&H guys “Ah, he’s nowt but a bar and back-work man…”

  16. avatar ken says:

    There used to be a video called Holland and Holland, A Look Inside on youtube. It’s an hour and fifteen minutes long and goes into history and follows the making of an H&H firearm. Fascinating video. Not on YT any more. A shame. Incredible workmanship (workpersonship? – as I recall, one of the featured engravers is a young female) and just phenomenal mastery of the various crafts involved.

  17. avatar Don from CT says:

    I was in London last summer and made the trip (pilgrimage??). The salesman was happy to spend an enormous amount of time with me despite the fact that told him up front that these were beyond my means.

    His comment was something to the effect of “you never know”.

    One other thing. A trip to only H&H would be a huge oversight if a visitor didn’t bother to also go see the Purdey showroom about a 10 minute walk away.

    The day I went to H&H I also got to spend about 45 min looking at and handling some equally amazing Purdey rifles and shotguns.

    Its amazing stuff and makes my Parker Repro and Beretta S07 look like a Chinese pump shotgun.

  18. avatar GluteusMaximus says:

    These are obviously absolutely gorgeous. Let’s not forget that these are really only for the nobility and various middle eastern rulers. A screwdriver is a dangerous weapon of war in the formally great nation. It really was not that long ago the sun never set on the British Empire

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