By Arthur B. Atini
Special to OEL Magazine
“All art arises from the creative process, but not all creativity manifests as art.” – Charles Drago
In almost every instance, “Ten Best/Finest” lists are studies in sheer subjectivity clad in technobabble and presented with an air of authority designed to dissuade mere mortals from voicing contrary viewpoints.
For Outdoor Enthusiast Lifestyle magazine, a less, shall we say, disingenuous approach is called for.
I have enjoyed rewarding personal experiences handling and discharging a number of the firearms referenced below. The balance I have studied from a distance to the degree that I can confidently share my observations and describe them in both informed and, in some instances, impassioned terms.
As a (literary) artist, I am most powerfully engaged by the manners in which art and craft are conjoined masterfully in these guns. I embrace the credo that opens this piece; regardless of their technical superiority and the creative genius that might account for it, virtually no mass produced, off-the-rack shotgun rises to the level of “work of art.” We can have this discussion at another time, in another place. Suffice to say that, for me, the art of shotgun design is to be discerned in the engravings that embellish the firearm and elevate its larger aesthetic to the level of artistic expression.
So … Enough with the pontifications, already! Let’s take a quick look at the first six of ten bespoke shotguns that have captured my imagination. My descriptions shall be brief; your further consideration will be facilitated by my inclusion of links to respective manufacturers’ websites.
PURDEY – Established in 1814 and arguably one of the widest known and most deeply coveted brands, Purdey epitomizes the aesthetic of British aristocracy. Its London home in Mayfair could not be more fitting.
Side-by-side (with its revered Beesley action) and over-and-under shotguns are in every technical aspect beyond reproach. Engravings, in terms of media and design, are stately, elegant celebrations of the sporting/shooting life as enjoyed by royalty and the greater privileged class.
Or as Purdey puts it: “The art of engraving guns [was] developed alongside the gentlemen’s sport of game shooting. Not only does it help turn the shotgun from a cold metal object into a thing of beauty; it traditionally served a practical purpose, with discreet engraving softening the face of the metal, lessening reflection which might otherwise turn game.”
Recently, while visiting friends in London, I was invited on a trip up to the Midlands where I was afforded the opportunity to fire a bespoke Purdey side-by-side. The scene was out of a hunting print of the sort hanging in castles and gentlemen’s clubs. The sensory experience of discharging a flawlessly built firearm was immeasurably enhanced by the lineage and cultural cache inherent in a Purdey.
If the opportunity to handle a Purdey presents itself, seize it!
Striving for perfection, Famars describes its guns thusly: “Each day in Brecia, Italy, the Silicon Valley of gun makers, our craftsmen at FAMARS work each minute of every hour to keep true to the tradition of gun making; continuing to create all of our firearms by hand. Hand shaped, personally fit, and engraved with the finest detail, we at FAMARS are proud to continue in the footsteps that Mario Abbiaticao and Remo Salvinelli made so prominent back nearly 60 years ago.”
Patented sidelocks without cross pins distance FAMARS from its global competition. I shot an Excalibur at the Rhode Island home of FAMARS USA. There’s no finer word than “smoothness” to describe the action.
Perhaps this comparison says it best: In its perfect balance, exquisite design, and non pareil marriage of refined luxury and standard-setting performance, holding and firing a FAMARS gun is the sensory equivalent of being seated in and driving a classic Ferrari.
Purdey captured by mind. FAMARS owns my imagination and my heart.
PETER HOFER – If passing the test of time is any measure of a firearm manufacturer’s worth, then it is tough to quarrel with Peter Hofer. From the company’s website: “The seed for every new weapon model is sown in perfection and technical ingenuity, where the design and mechanics of the weapon are conceived and developed. A 500-year-old craftsman tradition is the foundation of our skill and know-how; it is the basis for the development of new and innovative weapon models.
“Every single weapon out of Peter Hofer’s workshop is the proud result of this unbroken tradition. Peter Hofer continues adding to this tradition with a high measure of innovation and new technical developments.”
I have yet to lay hands on a Peter Hofer, but if I had my druthers I would go for any of their variations of guns with sidelocks. Who in their right mind would argue with German engineering? But there is more to these firearms than technical brilliance steeped in tradition. Again from the website: “Engraving: Each of the five shotguns features a different bird. The typical feathers of the featured bird are engraved in relief on the top of the action, on the top lever and on the metal parts of the fore end. The concept is the same for all the shotguns of the set, the type of feather featured is different on every gun. The main engravings show wild bird scenes featuring the specific bird. There is a different bird and different scenes on each shotgun, but the five shotguns clearly show a common concept.”
Peter Hofer is on my bucket list.
PETER NELSON – Legendary London gunmaker Peter Nelson retired in 2012. To mark the occasion, he created a set of four Legacy Guns. As his son tells the story on the website: “Buyers of guns sometimes justify purchases in terms of their investment potential, which can be significant during times when stocks and real estate are shaky. But in recent years the returns have been strongest from top-of-the-line classics: guns so pristine, valuable and ornately engraved that they are rarely shot: guns known as ‘high art guns’.
“Readers know Peter Nelson as one of today’s finest gun makers – he having apprenticed as an actioner with James Purdey & Sons and been an independent gunmaker working from his home in Buckinghamshire, England since 1989.
“Nelson has made some of the world’s most spectacular guns and his extraordinary talents have attracted the attention of ‘best’ gun fanciers and collectors.”
There is no more rare or zealously sought after firearm than a Peter Nelson gun. Let the hunt begin.
HEYM – Heym is “Renowned worldwide for their handling, accuracy and durability. Each HEYM rifle represents over 150-years of experience combined with the best in modern materials, machining capabilities and craftsmanship. Specialized craftsmen hand-fit and finish every part of a HEYM rifle—‘Lock, Stock and Barrel’—in house to painstaking tolerances. This unique capability provides HEYM with full control over every aspect of quality, providing clients with bespoke services rarely seen in today’s gun world.”
That’s right, a rifle maker has slipped into our bespoke shotgun review. Why? Because HEYM marries “German quality with English styling” in a manner that is both unique and compelling.
Another one for the bucket list.
HOLLAND & HOLLAND – It was in 1894 that this legendary British gunmaker introduced the first modern “Royal” hammerless ejector to the world. From there: “The Holland-patent hand-detachable locks were introduced in 1908. With the addition of the 1922 Holland patent self-opening system, we perfected our ‘best’ gun. We have been building it ever since.
“The ‘Royal’ is the quintessential London ‘best’ gun, much copied by other makers but never bettered. The simple lock-work, proven ejectors and faultless self-opening mechanism ensure total reliability and ease of operation in the field.
“The ‘Royal’ has been favoured by discerning sportsmen for over a century. Our single-trigger has been an option since 1894 and is time-proven and reliable. The classic choice.”
“Classic” indeed. Art and craft combined – there’s my obsession again – is celebrated in the iconic “Royal” engraving of “deep foliate scrolls sits beautifully on our actions and locks. The potential for bespoke engraving is unlimited. Game scenes, precious metal inlays or personal designs can be incorporated. Holland & Holland engravers are artists working in metal and their ability to transform ideas into reality is limitless.”
Visit the Holland & Holland website for a thorough, thoroughly thrilling overview of this gunmaker’s exquisite lines.