Shopping for a gun? Aim high

On the shooting range, grouse moor or in the African bush, there’s nothing so much fun as a bespoke rifle or shotgun, says Aidan Hartley

Style

18 Jan 2017

I squeeze the first trigger and ‘BOOM!’ On impact, the charging buffalo staggers but still bears down on me, the size of a London black cab with 42-inch horns. I drop to one knee, aim again for the heart and stroke the rear trigger — ‘BOOM!’ Like a derailed train he goes down, stopping at my feet. I plant my boot on him and pose for a trophy photo that on Facebook will surely attract death threats from multitudes of animal-rights campaigners.

Well, that’s the daydream. Back in the real world, buying a very pricey gun is a rare experience of a similar order. You’d struggle to find an item that is more bespoke. A fine gun is unique. Cars, watches, wine, fishing rods, shoes and boats — these can be expensive even when mass-produced. A suit can be tailored in Savile Row, but when has a bespoke suit ever been as much fun as a gun?

And so in my hands today is a Holland & Holland .375 ‘Royal’ double-barrel rifle. I don’t want to ever let it go. Like the hero of a saga after he’s found a magic sword, I feel we belong together: the walnut stock snuggling into my shoulder, my left hand cupping its weight, open sights, scrolled engraving, perfect balance. Disregard the cost of £130,000 plus VAT. What’s important is that it’s one of the finest rifles ever made, a British-made bespoke gun. And I’m firing it.

When I first marched into Holland & Holland’s gunroom in Bruton Street I was after a .375 bolt-action, also the best of its type in the world. I was determined to make a purchase but felt thwarted when I learned the price — £31,500 before you’ve asked for any special extras.

My old friend M shot a bear in Kamchatka on Russia’s Far Eastern coast with the bolt-action .375. He recalls: ‘I had the skin prepared by a Moscow taxidermist. When it arrived in Paris my son H, four years old, spooked by the teeth and claws, hid under his bed, only to emerge 10 minutes later to set about it with a plastic sword, and then feed it with a toy salmon…’

Expelling spent shotgun cartridges
Expelling spent shotgun cartridges

But I’m not debating the rights or wrongs of sport hunting here. I like shooting. Simply that. I love sporting guns. A very long time ago in a remote part of eastern Africa, I helped on a contract to cull zebra that were breeding like rabbits. We dropped the stallions, scores of them, until it did feel quite sickening. Times change. The bloodlust abated.

These days I have a ranch in Kenya where the livestock rubs shoulders with elephant, lion, cheetah, giraffe, and antelope. Hunting has been banned — and I wouldn’t shoot an animal like a lion anyway, even to protect my cattle.

For now, the gunfire we hear around my ranch comes from poachers and bandits, who engage us in firefights while trying to kill our game animals. Across Africa, we see the poaching of mascot species like rhinos, but also the decimation of herbivores such as giraffe and eland — anything with a pulse — butchered for cheap meat to feed the bottomless maw of a runaway population too impoverished to debate animal rights.

In the H&H gunroom the salesman Allan, from South Africa, handed me the .375 bolt-action and I stood there, weighing the gun in my hands, peering down the Swarovski telescopic sight. Allan wanted to show me the heavier calibres, all the way up to the .700 Nitro express, the largest sporting gun invented.

I explained I could not see the point in the heavy stuff. More than a century ago — when there were probably 27 million elephants in Africa, compared with fewer than 700,000 today — ‘Karamoja’ Bell shot more than a thousand of them, favouring a much lighter .275 Mauser-Rigby (reduced recoil, less thump on impact). Jim Corbett used the same .275 on ‘man-eating’ tigers in India, but he did keep a heavy double rifle in case of mishaps.

I had never even held a double-barrel rifle, which resembles a side-by-side shotgun. When H & H invited me to their shooting grounds — where they measure up the buyer’s ideal weapon with an adjustable ‘try gun’ — they offered to bring along the double rifle, and soon enough I found myself in the lodge at the West London Shooting School, with its black rhino trophy head peering down from the wall.

It’s a slaughter. Clay pigeons are zinging over and I’m getting the kills. I’m using a William & Son side-by-side 12-bore shotgun, among the loveliest British-made guns you can buy today.

I’m too much of a bumpkin from Africa to get invited to posh shoots in Britain. I have no breeks or flat caps. But give me a flock of wild guinea fowl in the African bush over a driven pheasant shoot any day.

‘Still shooting birds, Colonel? Bang bang bang?’ a Duchess asked Richard Meinertzhagen, East African empire builder and hunter. ‘Just bang,’ he replied.

An expensive gun won’t make you a crack shot — but if you drop £115,000 on a pair of William & Son 12-bores, you’re likely to spend time improving your aim.

You have your good and bad days, but having bespoke guns fitted to your unique eye, size and style will also help you to shoot straight. Among the shotguns I tried, with one in particular I missed so many of the clays I was about to give up. I then switched to a 20-bore with a 16-inch stock (about 16 ½ is ideal for me) and my shooting became quite lethal immediately.

William & Son is within a few steps of Holland & Holland. It’s a lovely shop full of posh stuff like watches chosen by the owner William Asprey and his wife Lucy — but I don’t care for watches. I head for the gunroom where I meet Paul West, a gunsmith who has been in the trade since starting as an apprentice, aged 15, in 1969.

Paul explains how several gunsmiths will devote up to a thousand hours on his guns — with a delivery time of about 18 months. He said buyers ‘would be put out if you supplied them any quicker than that. They don’t want to see a row of guns. They want something special.’

The barrels, the stock made of walnut from Turkey, which the buyer selects, the action, the engraving (a picture of your wife, your dog, your totem bird) and the finishing — separate craftsmen tackle each job. Given the amount of work that goes into a gun, you can see why prices are sky high — and why William & Son make fewer than five guns in a whole year.

After two days of trying out guns I had a bruised shoulder, a bleeding thumb and a big smile. My wish list — the Holland & Holland double rifle, the .375 bolt action and the William & Son shotgun — would cost £331,800, including VAT. ‘Or we’ve got some second-hand guns over there in the cabinet,’ offered Paul. ‘We can find you something for a few thousand…’


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