The clay pigeon flicks into the air, an orange blur against the green trees. I wait for it, my 1927 Purdey side-by-side—the classic double-barrel English shotgun—snug against my shoulder. It’s what shooters call a lively gun, the weight balanced just ahead of the center so it’s quick and responsive. It moves lightly as I trace the arc of the target’s flight. The clay reaches its apogee and seems almost to pause. I squeeze the trigger, leaning into the light recoil.
Then I watch the clay continue on its path, untouched, and disappear somewhere into the 3,000 acres of the Hudson Farm shooting club in northwestern New Jersey. Missed. Badly, too. I thumb the locking lever and the gun opens with a crisp, satisfying click—the same sound Purdey customers have been hearing since company employee Frederick Beesley invented the self-opening action in 1879—and the spent shells pop out.
The shotgun I am holding is what is known as a best gun. An elegant handmade union of engineering and aesthetics, it represents the highest level of the gunsmith’s craft. Only a few companies in the world produce a best gun, and their names are legendary: Holland & Holland and Boss & Co. in England, Fabbri and F.lli Rizzini in Italy, A. Galazan in the United States. But Purdey, which has been on South Audley Street in London for 125 years, is the standard for game guns—and has been almost since the day James Purdey founded the firm back in 1814. It’s certainly had some glamorous customers: Clients from Buckingham Palace include Queen Victoria (who purchased a matched pair of pistols for the Imam of Masquat in 1838), Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, and George VI.
At the moment, however, none of that seems to make any difference to my aim. Another safety-orange disk goes up, bright against the green, and sails into the woods. I missed that one, too.
"You were doing fine until you started thinking," says George Gibson, the retired oilman who owns the guns we’re using plus another pair of Purdeys from 1935 and a single from 1844. He uses the guns regularly for birding and shooting clays. They are in near-perfect condition. "Don’t think," he tells me. "It’s an extension of your body. Just point."
I can’t help but believe that if these guns had been tailored for me, I wouldn’t be doing so badly. Each new pair of Purdeys (they’re usually made two at a time—in English-style shooting, one gun is fired while a loader readies the other) is entirely bespoke, crafted to the measurements and requirements of its owner. Fitting isn’t a simple matter of inches and ounces. Customers are asked to visit the West Lon- don Shooting School—or select clubs abroad—to discuss how they’ll use the gun: whether they’ll be hunting English style, with beaters driving the birds; Continental style, going from one predetermined position to another to shoot; or Upland style, in the field, with dogs. They usually spend a day with one of the adjustable try guns. While the client shoots, a fitter notes his or her preferences and adjusts the parts until they are in the right proportions.
Michael McIntosh, author of the definitive history Best Guns, says that "when a gun is fitted to you and your shooting style the way a Purdey is, it’s a seamless connection with the body—there’s no aiming. Where you see is where you shoot."
It takes Purdey between 18 months and two years to produce the classic side-by-side it’s famous for. Construction is not just a matter of fitting premade pieces together, as it is with most guns. Each part is crafted in relation to the others: The barrel’s size determines the size of the action, which in turn determines the size of the lockwork, and both must be joined to a perfectly shaped and balanced stock. Every part is handmade to tolerances as fine as a five-thousandth of an inch. Applying the finish to the stock alone requires several weeks, as one layer after another of oil is rubbed into a piece of Turkish walnut selected by the customer. Beginning craftsmen at Purdey undergo a five-year apprenticeship before they join a staff of around 35 and can start signing their work.
"I can get a gun that goes bang pretty much every time you pull the trigger for two hundred fifty bucks," Gibson says. "But shooting a Purdey, that’s just a different experience. It’s kind of like a Honda versus a Rolls-Royce."
A basic Purdey side-by-side starts at around $95,000, an over-and-under at slightly more than $115,000. That’s before such extras as a pistol grip stock ($785), a leather-covered recoil pad ($1,375), and a single-trigger action for a side-by-side ($5,680). Engraving beyond the traditional rose-and-scroll pattern can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost. If you want Ken Hunt—a legendary Purdey employee gone freelance—to engrave a hunting scene on your gun, the company will put you in touch with him, but his work can run upwards of $90,000 and tack on two years to the turnaround. (Hunt, who is 71 years old, has cut back to four guns a year.) Even at those prices, a Hunt-engraved piece can be a solid investment. Christie’s London held a sale recently—the specialist in charge was Ian Andrews, formerly of Purdey—in which a Hunt-engraved side-by-side from 1973 went for $235,000.
I slide two more shells into place, close the gun, pull it tight to my shoulder once more. Two clay pigeons go up and this time I don’t aim. I point my finger at the disk and the gun goes with it. There’s a loud report and in the sky a cloud of tiny fragments. I squeeze the trigger again and the other target is gone, too.
"Now that," Gibson says, "is what makes a Purdey so beautiful. All you have to do is see and point. Effortless."
James Purdey & Sons is located at Audley House, 57-58 S. Audley St., London. For more information call 44-207/499-1801 or log on to purdey.com.
For those who love the character of an older Purdey—or simply don’t want to wait for a new one—there’s a booming secondhand market. Overall, so-called best guns hold their value well, says Gavin Gardiner, a gun specialist for Sotheby’s London: "There’s an initial depreciation when you turn the key, as it were, but after that, if you take care of them there’s a steady upward curve." In 2005 a buyer at Sotheby’s paid $175,000 for a pair of Purdey over-and-unders that had cost $86,000 in 1987. "More and more," Gardiner says, "I see people buying Purdey guns as design or art objects." While engraving adds value, condition is the main factor, so it’s key to go to a reliable dealer. Purdey itself sells a small number of previously owned guns and the company will advise clients on buying and selling at auction. Other good sources include Griffin & Howe (908-766-5171; griffinhowe.com) and Gun Vault on Fox Hill (207-834-6470; gun-vault.com).