Tom Nicholls, 39, craft manager in the workshops of venerable British gun-makers James Purdey & Sons, talks about bespoke fittings, eye-watering price-tags and why a good gun takes 1,000-plus man hours.
How did you get into this, Tom?
Family. My father worked for Purdey for 45 years before retiring in 2012 and I joined as his apprentice finisher in the finishing department.
Were you a gun-toting ‘cowboy’ as a kid?
No. I wasn’t really into it when I was younger, which is weird, I suppose, because of my father doing what he did, but I did find it interesting.
What’s a typical day like?
We start quite early, at 7am, and the majority of the 27 guys we’ve got working on the bench will arrive around then. We divide the gun-making process into eight different shops: We’ve got a barrel shop where they make the barrels; an actioning shop where they make the action; locks and triggers are two separate shops; there’s the ejecting shop; the stocking shop which is where the wood is added to the gun; the engraving shop and the finishing shop. There’s no one in the factory who can build a gun from start to finish; it’s just too complex.
Sounds like it’s highly skilled stuff.
The apprentice scheme here lasts five years and in that time you learn one trade because it takes so long. It then takes at least another five years to get good at it. Each man has one gun that they’re working on at any one time, unless it’s a matched pair. It’s pretty linear, predominantly bench-based, but it’s fairly active and it relies a lot on your training and high levels of concentration. It’s not just manufacturing something, it’s manufacturing something that costs an awful lot of money.
How much money?
It varies, but for a ‘best’ gun you’re looking at around £110,000 plus VAT (around Dh750,000), dependent on spec; the more involved the engraving, the higher the price. Our Sporter, which is our entry level over-and-under gun, retails at £37,300 plus VAT.
What are the other choices when it comes to buying a sporting gun?
It’s personal taste and the type of shooting you’re going to be doing. A side-by-side – where you have two barrels side by side – is very traditional and it would predominantly be used for game shooting rather than clay pigeon. The over-and-under gives you a bit more versatility between the two different disciplines.
How many hours go into making a new gun?
Around 1,200. It’s hard to put that into context until people come into the workshop to see us at work, which is something we encourage the customers to do. You put a bit of soul into it; each gun forms a big part of your life. There’s nothing less than 100 hours in each shop.
How is a bespoke gun made to fit the client?
The customer will come into Audley House, our gun shop in Mayfair, and the sales team will sit with them and ask what they are trying to achieve. From that point on, it’s entirely bespoke, apart from the internal parts of the gun, which stay fairly standardised. They’ll go for a gun fitting and all of the customer’s measurements will be taken, and they’ll be taken out to use something called a try gun; you can adjust all of the measurements of the woodwork and various angles on it to achieve the perfect fit.
Is there lots of personalisation?
There can be – engraving is probably the largest area where the customer can do that. We have our levels of decency that we stand by, but you can put pretty much put anything on a gun. We’ve had fully carved ones with animals and scrollwork, we’ve had fully inlaid gold guns. I don’t think there are many other things you can buy today that are as bespoke as a Purdey.
Do you do a lot of repair and servicing?
We have a dedicated department for that. We sometimes see people coming in with guns that are 180 years old and they’re still in daily use.
Are you a good shot?
I can in no way, shape or form claim to be a good shot! I’m pretty good with a rifle but not so great with a shotgun. I do get to shoot an awful lot because of the shoot tests that we do: I’m the first person to shoot every Purdey that comes through the factory, and that’s quite an honour.
Is there much demand for bespoke guns from clients in the UAE?
We’re seeing a growing demand, mainly for engraving – falcons and gold inlay. Everyone is so individual and trends come and go.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
I love it all. I’ve grown up doing it and I love the family atmosphere here. There are guys who are starting their apprenticeships as teenagers, and there are guys who’ve been here 46 years and aren’t even showing any signs of wanting to retire. I also enjoy the sheer joy of producing something that is so beautiful. For me, it’s always been about making things – I always liked building bikes and I love to take things apart and put them back together again.
Is there any new tech at play, too?
Yes. Since 1999 we’ve been using CAD and CAM design – but it’s a very minimal part of the process. As with any business you have to move forward as well as honour the skills of the past, and I’m sure that James Purdey [who founded the company in 1814], would have been doing the same thing if he’d had it available.