Rifling the past

Rifling the past

Shooting is hip. It’s not just about firing a gun but handling a brand that has been hand-crafted for almost 200 years, as Josh Sims discovers.

“It’s true that shotgun licences are in decline,” concedes Richard Purdey. “The generation that used to keep one loaded by the back door has passed on. But interest in shooting is seeing a steady increase. There’s more access to it – and it’s become a popular corporate event. However, the fact is that most people given a chance to try it instantly become hooked. It’s very addictive seeing that little black disc disappear in a puff of smoke.”

Purdey, perhaps more than most, should know. In the London underworld, his surname is even slang for a shotgun, which is some back-handed accolade. A sixth-generation member of the family that established what is one of the most famous names in gun-making and director of the company which, since 1994, has been owned by the luxury goods giant Richemont, Richard Purdey learned to shoot young, even if much of his career has been spent in the premium cider industry. “They’re materially very different,” he says. “With guns you’re working with metal and wood, and of course you don’t get pissed shooting.

But the process of creating a respected brand is much the same; it’s about quality and integrity.” Perhaps this is why, although cashing in on country sport’s new-found popularity might have been tempting, and given that competitors the likes of Holland and Holland and Beretta have relaunched themselves as much as lifestyle brands as makers of elite shooters, Purdey has stuck to its guns.

This is the same ethos of specialism espoused by founder James Purdey who completed his seven-year apprenticeship in gun-making in 1805 and established his own business nine years later, winning Queen Victoria’s reputation-making custom in 1838. Although Purdey now has a growing clothing line – and it is considered necessary that the brand supplies shooting enthusiasts with all they need to enjoy the sport to the same functional and quality standards as the guns themselves – two-thirds of the business remains in making what Purdey calls its “raison d’etre, the guns, these works of art.” Not that the skills cannot be applied to things other than guns.

One of Purdey’s latest products is a high-precision mechanical belt buckle, designed and made in a collaboration between Purdey’s gunmakers and inventor Roland Iten. It is not cheap at £10,500, but then it is hand-made from steel and rose gold and inlaid with fossilised mammoth tooth. That the skills find other application is just as well.

Works of art, of course – and it is onlyin the last 50 years that the decorative fine rose and scroll bouquet engraving of gun parts of the kind Purdey has been practicing since the 1850s has actually become internationally recognised as an art form – have a limited customer base. That is especially the case when only around 70 are produced each year.

“Other brands may go down the lifestyle route – by virtue of the market being so small it has an exclusivity that is appealing to the lifestyle market,” says Purdey.

“But I think it’s good that we stick to what we’re good at.” That, however, has not meant the company has been devoid of innovation or unconscious of the risks of resting on its reputation. Indeed, as Richard Purdey notes, companies that do not move forwards do not stand still, but tend to go backwards. Purdey has consequently launched two new styles of gun over the last year.

One is the entry-level Sporter; machine-made but hand-finished, a method made possible by the advanced CNC machinery Purdey has invested in – comparable, Richard Purdey says, to Bentley launching its Continental GT while providing a means to aspire to the bespoke products and a means of funding their skills and labour-intensive creation.

The company’s second new launch is a world first – the Damascus, a 20-bore over-andunder made from high-tensile steel. It was three years in development and comes with an asking price of £100,000-plus and made possible only by the recent advent of an ultra high-tech “powder metallurgy method” of steelmaking developed by Swedish steelmakers Damasteel.

“It’s a flight of fancy really,” explains Purdey, “but one that shows that we’re not frightened of working with new materials or combining art with the latest technology.

From a purely financial point of view everything about the project was screaming ‘don’t do it’. “But it is all the more important for a very traditional brand to express the idea that we are forward- looking. It invites comment, but it’s also inspiring to our craftsmen, who have to work out how to do it.

“After all, there are not many artefacts still in demand that have not changed much materially since about 1880.

We need to look for new ways of doing things.” Fortunately, Purdey adds, Richemont has taken a hands-off approach to its ownership of the business that has allowed such advances to be made at its own pace and in line with market demands. It has even cherished its history. Richard Purdey may be quick in his response to just why he was headhunted to join what was once the family business, but it all plays to what remains an esteemed heritage.

“Well, Richemont wouldn’t have asked me to come on board as chairman if my name had been Joe Bloggs,” he says, with a chuckle. “And the Purdey name has always been there – I didn’t change it by deed poll. But of course I grew up shooting and first joined the company as an 18-year-old. Being back has felt a bit like coming home.”