A few years ago a gentleman, from a long standing family of customers, came into our showroom huffing and puffing, “This sodding gun is broken” or words to that effect. The gun in question was made for his great, great grandfather in 1892 and looked as if that was the last time it had been in the factory.
At first glance, it was surprising that the gun had even been out shooting and allowed to break. The ‘tell tale’ sign of wear was the fact that the ejector box was showing through the wood, the forend was all but worn away. I recall at my first Safari Club show in 1987, a Californian, a regular ‘tyre kicker’ as we call them, putting a calling card between the barrels and breech face of one of my used guns for me to find in the morning, indicating ‘it’s loose’. The shotgun in front of me that day could accommodate a paperback novel.
I proceeded to explain to the Gentleman that a quite considerable amount of work needed doing to the gun in order to make it reliable and safe once again, that perhaps it would be more economical to ‘retire the gun’. I was told in no uncertain words to fix the damned thing and to do so at very little cost. “I am 86 years old and this will be my last season, after that we can both retire” We fixed the gun up, it lasted the season and was duly retired.
My message here is that guns, like cars do need servicing. It almost seems a common misunderstanding that the cost of our guns means they will work forever without ever needing a service. With many of the guns in active service that we, and other makers made now ‘antiques’, servicing and ensuring the safety of the firearm for both you and others in the field with you, has become even more relevant.
James Sutherland’s .577 Hand Detachable Lock Rifle with Single Selective Trigger.
Next weekend I am fortunate enough to be heading to Tanzania for 3 weeks of hunting and photography in the Rungwa bush, from my side, this is long overdue! It has been a good few years now since I last took the time to go to Africa, so I am looking forward to it very much.
I don’t actually ‘own’ a double rifle, I have plenty at my hands but not one with SC on the oval, I find it more interesting to try whatever happens to be lying around at the time. Hence the photographs of Sutherland’s .577. I went to the vault this morning to see what we had and put my hands on this, thinking that I should give it a trip back to the bush. Alas, there is no Elephant where I am going and anyway I think this rifle ( is too heavy for an old fart ) and only deserves that sort of hunt, if it is to return to Africa it should be to do what it is used to doing.
I am taking instead the ‘baby brother’ a .500 WR and the back up a Leica M.
If there is any rifle I have held which has stories to tell, this is the one. It has hardly any checkering left, oil oozes from the stock, is bruised and dented but is tight and fast to the shoulder. A quite wonderful rifle.
One of Malcolm Lyell’s more famous customers whilst managing the Westley Richards Conduit Street shop was Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. Through his Ambassador in London he had ordered an ‘Ovundo’, over an under, detachable lock shotgun, which was stolen prior to delivery during a raid on the shop in 1932. The Sun Insurance company paid out to Westley Richards the sum of £120 in insurance money.
In 1950 a detective from Scotland Yard visited the Conduit shop asking about 2 Westley Richards serial numbered guns. These were noted in the ledger as “Stolen in Raid on Conduit St. Nov 28 1932″ and shown to the policeman. The next day the police brought the 2 guns in question back to the shop and returned them. Lyell subsequently obtained a cheque from the Bournbrook factory for £120 and sent it to the Sun Insurance Company. They in turn rang up and said a Director would be coming to see him the next day. He duly arrived and thanked Lyell profusely, complimenting his honesty. Fortunately he didn’t ask what the value of the guns was, nearly 20years after they were stolen!
One of these guns has now surfaced twice during my time at Westley Richards. The first time many years ago, dealer Gary Downey called and asked me to look up the serial number. I did, sent him the journal entry above and said I would notify the police in USA to collect it. I let it ride awhile that they were stolen gods and we had still had title. I am sure it caused a moment of concern. Now once again this week, Lewis Drake has called and asked me to look up the number and received the same dismal news that he needed to send it back as it was stolen. He said I could have it for what he paid!
A Similar Gun to that stolen in the Conduit Street Raid. A 20g Westley Richards Ovundo
Lewis Drake currently has this gun which is supposed to be a gem.
Rifle No. 16855 was completed in April 1913 for His Excellency Sardar Zafar. The rifle was specified with detail, I imagine by a keen sportsman who knew exactly what he wanted. The rifle has an unusual walnut extension wrapping over the top of the barrels which surrounds the express sights and tangent sight which are engraved out to 1000 yds. A WR long pattern telescope was also fitted for that extra distance! The rifle also has a special chamber in the butt to hold 5 live rounds of ammunition as well as extra wide sling swivels, single selective trigger, bolted safe and side plates.
Elaborately engraved for the time, the rifle has 3 gold inlaid scenes and again unusually, an enamel portrait of the owner on the top lever. The top of the barrel is inscribed in gold in Farsi.
“Ordered by (Hazrate-e-Sardar Zafar haj khosrow khan-e-Bakhtyari) Year 1330 [Islamic calendar]” equals to 1911 or 1912
The rifle shoots perfectly with modern ammunition and the only alteration made since the rifle was new was adapting the rifle to accept a more modern telescope, presumably done by an owner unable to master the 1000 yds. tangent sight!
The copy of the daybook with specifications of the rifle.
A Westley Richards .360 Single Shot Varmint Rifle made in 1923.
The Westley Richards single shot box lock and detachable lock rifles seem to be a rare beast indeed. Over the time I have been here I think I have only seen 3 or 4 really nice examples, one of which was a detachable lock Explora. I haven’t seen that many bad examples in that time either.
On the continent the single shot rifle seem to be a very popular item, at least I always see plenty of very elaborate examples made by the Austrian makers at the shows. I admit I am not sure who actually uses them, how many people do or if the people making them do actually sell them!
I have been asked on occasion to make this type of rifle but the price has been a problem always and whilst I think they are a beautiful rifle I have never expected demand to be that much. From a gunmakers point there is not a huge difference in work between this single shot and a double barrel, there is still the barrel filing, actioning, engraving and stocking. Adding another barrel adds to the barrel work and a bit of extra lock work but besides that the same amount of time is required. When it comes to the question of price there is the common misconception that with only one barrel, it will be half the price of a double, and that explains why we have never made any in recent times!
I have always really liked this type of rifle, it makes for a very elegant firearm. A large collection I purchased years ago in Australia had within it a single barrelled James Purdey .246 which had been built on their over and under action by the look of it and whilst quite bulky was one of the nicest vintage rifles I ever bought, perhaps just because it was so unique. The new owner of that rifle was lucky enough some years later to find the consecutive serial numbered double barrel rifle in the same calibre.
A Westley Richards Rook & Rabbit Rifle with original telescope.
Back in the early 1970’s at a CLA gamefair, I had just spent some time at the Famars stand gasping in awe at the frankly heart-achingly beautiful engraving on display there.
I moved on to a well known British gunmakers stand with racks and racks of workmanlike boxlocks on display.
At the front of the stand sat an ageing gentleman.
Before him in a vice mounted on an old upturned log was a gun in the process of being engraved. He wore a ‘strong’ pair of glasses as he wielded his humble set of engraving tools that looked for all the world like old four inch nails stuck into bottle cork handles.
He was deftly attacking the metal and tiny chips were flying everywhere as he flicked them out of the steel action.
He worked at what seemed to be amazing speed, scarcely pausing between each cut, as the pattern developed before my very eyes.
I looked more closely, and observed that the work was covered in small slips and skids.I enquired how he managed to get rid of these blemishes.
‘I don’t bother ‘, he replied, ‘When they have been coloured and varnished, you cannot see them anyway.’
‘What about when the colour wears off after lots of use and you can see the faults .’
‘I don’t care, I shall not be here by then, and neither will he ,’ he replied, glancing meaningfully sideways at the manager/salesman talking to a potential customer.
‘How long does it take you to do a whole gun ?
‘They allow me just three and a half hours per gun !’
What a shame I thought, remembering the Famars stand. If they allowed a little more time for decoration, the product would appear far superior and could command a higher price.
Many of these guns are still providing good and reliable service, as they were basically very good tools, but now 40 years later, the engraving is beginning to show more as the colour wears off………… !
In comparison, it could be argued that an older Westley Richards gun ages gracefully, and that the higher quality of engraving to some eyes even improves with wear.
An example of the old adage…’You only get what you pay for .’
The main entrance to the factory and showroom, the lobby has the elephant skull display.
It is often considered a long way to Birmingham, it’s only 100 miles from London, not that far. An hour and 20 minutes on the train from Euston to New Steet or a couple of hours by car, all motorway driving and we are a just few minutes from the motorway junction, a large car park awaits.
There are few gunmakers existing in England today and none offer a destination to match what is found here at Westley Richards. This week we have entertained visitors from America, Russia, South Africa, the Middle East and England some of whom have been before and some for whom it was a first visit. Without reservation they all found the trip here worthwhile and quite unlike any gunshop they had been to before.
A wall of our previous Royal Warrants and the Medals won at International Expositions.
A view of the showroom
When we made the plans for our new factory we decided to lay it out so that visitors could not only see the history of the company but see also, at first hand, how we make our guns. The craft of gunmaking is a diminishing one making the opportunity to see it in action, rare. Our whole team is spread over 2 floors, management and the showroom staff downstairs and the gunmaking craftsmen upstairs on the 2nd floor. Divided into various workshops they ply their trade and alongside you will find our own leather department crafting the leather goods we offer. On the 3rd floor is our design and photographic studio as well as accomodation for the caretaker, which is me, yes “I live over the shop”!
The showroom contains a large selection of shooting clothing and goods which we have selected from brands you know well, as well as some I am sure you don’t. Combined with our own range of garments which is expanding and our own leather goods this make a unique offering to the sportsman, one that will not be a repetition of the normal tweed, tweed, tweed you see everywhere else!
The main gun vault displays both new and used guns of various makes.
Our selection of guns comprises all makes, you will not only find Westley Richards guns here but makes of all kinds. A visitor today could for instance be shown 3 original 500 Jeffery bolt actions, Holland & Hollands Royal rifles in 5 calibre’s, Purdey rifles and guns, Hartmann & Weiss rifles and over under shotguns, .410’s by Pursey, Holland and ourselves etc. the list goes on. At Westley Richards you will find people who are enthusiastic about the guns of all makes and wishing to share their knowledge, people who are not afraid to lay our guns alongside the ‘very best of the competitors’ so you can choose!
The gunmaking is carried out in the 5000 sq. ft. second floor workshops.
The view of the stocking shop.
Whilst we do try to avoid long tours of the factory floor as it can disrupt production quite badly, (gunmakers love ‘red herrings’!), we will always make the effort to show you the workshops and describe the various stages the guns go through from start of the order to completion.
Approximately 200 framed items of historical interest hang on the walls throughout.
Our collection of vintage Indian hunting photographs is second to none, these will be found covering literally every wall in the building, I have run out of space to hang anything more, much to my accountants delight and the dismay of my framer! The photographs are combined with Westley Richards ephemera and trophies collected in Africa and other parts of the world by our team and customers, some of which are truly unique.
The Irish Elk is one of many species found around the factory.
Even the bathroom has 20 pictures to keep you entertained.
I hope that you will come and visit us and see all this for yourselves, we look forward to welcoming you here.
You left the cavalry as a result of some sort of backfired attempt at better pay, returning home from the Korean war and resigning your commission in hope of promotion to Major and an increased salary?
Not quite, I had married too young and was not allowed a “married quarter ” when I returned from Korea and was posted to Bovington as an instructor. I had to find my own accommodation which I found it impossible, it was by the sea and a popular destination .
I was therefor stuck and got in a temper. I was also pretty sure by then that because I was not rich enough, or well enough connected socially, that I would never get command. My friend Piers was already adjutant, a good jockey and well connected to the Colonel of the Regiment Roscoe Harvey. I asked for an interview with the Colonel, was marched in and asked what I wanted, ”I want to resign”…. “Come back after lunch”. To my horror I went back and my resignation was accepted, I was literally out on my ear. I had 2 children and you were on the way . Quite a shock as I suddenly had no job .
Is that a move you have ever regretted!
Of course I regretted it, BUT, I was not rich enough to stay in the Cavalry!
How did you end up buying Westley Richards.
John Kelsey was my best friend from my House at Winchester College, he had a brewery in Leamington Spa. John knew Harry Rogers then owner of Westley Richards who was at the time trying to dispose of 52% of the shares. My solicitor employed a man to value it and see if there was any hope. I am not sure of the exact details but the shares came to £2000 and we also had to put in a loan.
Presumably that was a lot of money at the time?
Yes, a hell of a lot of money and it used up my ‘stake’ for the future.
When exactly did you ‘move in” after completing the share purchase?
You were born just before we moved to the Midlands. It must have taken about 12 months from leaving the Army to buying the company, so I started at Westley Richards sometime in late 1956.
Can you describe Westley Richards when you arrived, what was the condition of the company?
Unfortunately I think all the annual accounts from the start which were in the cellar at Grange Road, may have been destroyed. I can remember that the turnover was about £20,000 and loss making. The tool making (now Westley Engineering Ltd.) had only just been started and was in the building on the left side of the courtyard
Were there many gunmakers?
The gunmakers were upstairs in the main building, only 6 or 8 of them. There were also some in single shops, engraving , heat treatment, barrel blacking etc. Roy Hill who was foreman prior to Ken Halbert was a machinist, he had lost an arm firing a test shot with the harpoon gun in Birmingham.
The gunmakers at Westley Richards in 1950’s having tea in the top workshop.
Who was running the company at the time?
Harry Rogers ran it from the main office, he remained as managing director until 1974. I think that Charlie Eaves, a life serving member of the gunmaking team was the foreman and there was a man called Wheeler who had started the tool making side.
I remember you saying there were no loos, the place was very Victorian !
There were loos in the outside block at the end between the two buildings, glorified long drops actually, the water to flush them ran continuously under the seats . There was still gas lighting in areas.
The shop in London had been sold prior to your arrival, did you have the shop in Bennett’s Hill when you arrived?
Yes, and I kept the shop for quite some time, probably until the early 70’s. It was primarily selling fishing gear but had some second hand guns also. We had the Birmingham distributorship for both Hardy fishing tackle and ICI for the cartridges including Kynoch ammunition, in these days only the larger gunshops sold cartridges, later everyone was selling them. The shop served the local area taking in guns for repair and general business. When ICI and later Hardy stopped the exclusive area agencies we closed the shop and moved everything to Grange Road.
Where was your initial focus, on the engineering side or the gunmaking?
I went on various attachments in Birmingham. Mostly to Tube Investments in an attempt to learn something about Industry. I knew nothing about anything so no good trying to do anything in the Engineering, except that I had a few friends, Ian Ley of Leys Malleable Castings in Derby who kindly gave us some work, die making, and I think we kept the account for forty years. Then Harold Werner (Luton Hoo ) I think it was him who put me into Electrolux in Luton. I think we lost that account because the firm went out of business. I had a few other contacts who gave me a leg up. It is not what you know, but who you know. Of course my Gunmaking interest started with the Indian venture which you know all about
The Westley Richards Harpoon Gun
We don’t all know about India but we will get to that. The 50’s were the period of the White Hunter double rifle, some bolt rifle contracts with the game departments and also the whaling project. Did you have any involvement with any of these?
No, Harry was in charge of all this. The Harpoon business was still going on. It was the life saver as they paid on Invoice, not on results. I did once go on a trip to Norway to meet the Hector Whaling man, Bobby Buge . He was some sort of health freak who got into certain positions and expelled foul air form his stomach by farting, awful. The harpoon business came to an end due to protestors and the fact that GE, who were responsible for the electric cable, could not make one that lasted. It kept breaking, so that was that . It was a pity about the White Hunter double, Have any survived ?
Yes, we still see some from time to time, not our finest product but serviceable I guess!
Well it was made for the Game departments for a small budget, it was a practical rifle, built for a purpose at a price like the bolt actions we supplied them. This all came to an end after the Macmillan “Wind of Change” speech in 1960 and the independence of the African states.
I suppose in the late 50’s and 60’s the Americans started to replace the Indian Maharajah’s of the pre war years, when did you first notice a revised interest in English guns following the quiet period after the war? What did you do about it at Westley Richards?
I had tried to do a few things in the gunmaking. We introduced sleeving which was a success. As for new guns I had not got the knowledge nor the inclination to do much, I had the shop in Birmingham and I was shut out of London where all the action was and not even getting the repairs from Malcolm and no Gun orders or enquiries for the same reason. I was quite happy with the general repair business and of course the second hand guns and the antiques. We did later make an effort to revive the gun trade In cooperation with Albert Brown who I gave premises to and he made sidelock’s for us and Webley and Scott later made the barrelled actions for the Connaught shotgun model we introduced.
We also made on attempt to load our own cartridges in cooperation with Pino Fiocchi which provided nice visits to Milan ! We had not got suitable premises BUT the main trouble was that people were driving into the car park, picking up 1000 cartridges and by the time Stewart got back to the shop he had forgotten to do the invoice .
Do you think any of this was successful?
It all helped pay the wages! It also gave us the opportunity to visit America and sell our new guns which we did quite successfully.
When did you first meet Malcolm Llyell the former manager of our London Shop and by this time owner of our London Agency rights and Holland & Holland.
After I had bought the firm, though of course he was Harry’s friend.
Did you regret that that Westley had sold the London premises before you got to it?
Yes, very much.That whole business was a disaster. I hated it all and was most frustrated as the licence agreement didn’t allow us back in London, but was helpless. Westley Richards had been in London since 1815 and our guns had a similar reputation as the other makers in town, with prices very much in line with each other. We perhaps had a wider variety than the other gunmakers offered. The 30 years we were unable to have London premises took their toll on the reputation of the firm. By the time we were able to move back to London, when Chanel took over Hollands in late 80’s, we had been priced out of the market. You have seen the massive losses that Holland and Purdey have had since that time, the rent and staff demands exceed what is possible with gunmaking.
The Westley Richards shop at 23 Conduit Street sold to Lyell before WAC bought WR.
Quite a lot of people lay claim to being the first in India to buy the arms back from the palaces, you were the first…weren’t you!?
I seemed to think Malcolm also thought he went there first but perhaps not. Some of the auction houses but they wouldn’t have been looking for guns I suppose.
Malcolm may have visited India but he certainly didn’t get any guns out as I had to start making hat process possible. There were strict controls on Antiquities.
How did your first trip to India come about and when was it?
By chance I was looking through the WR ledgers. I noticed the huge amounts of weapons the Indian Princes had ordered .The used gun business in WR seemed to be the best and easiest business. I had a friend, Ian Elliot, who had a confirming house in Birmingham which had an office in Bombay. The idea was that he should provide the Export facilities if there was any business to be had. I put an advertisement in the Times of India and stayed in the Taj Hotel, Bombay. My luck came within a day. This was in 1959. A man called Murad rang me up to ask if he could come and see me. When he came, all he wanted was to introduce me to Bobby Kooka who was the Commercial Director of Air India and of course, an extremely powerful man. He had offices and managers all over India and parts of the world, he was also a very keen big game hunter. For some reason he liked me, helped me with all his managers ie when I was trying to get permission to allow the export of weapons. The work had to be done in Delhi and most of this work was done for me by T K Menon the Air India manager in Delhi. Bobby Kooka remained a friend till the day he died.
Did you buy any guns on this first trip?
Some success was achieved with the ad, I had a reply from the Maharajah of Alwar. He was of course a major client of WR. In those days the had no desire to sell the best rifles, only the junk. He took me to a room in the Palace and on the floor was a huge pile of English flint lock pistols about 200. I knew that there was enough money there on the floor to finance the whole operation without having to look elsewhere. It took 2 years to get this first lot out of India and back home. The rest as they say is history.
Walter Clode, Alison Clode and Bobby Kooka arriving on the inaugural 747 flight to India.
What were your first impressions of India
It was quite normal to me, I had already been to the Far East, Singapore, Japan, Ceylon so I knew what to expect. Then apart from the lack of cars and modern hotels it was very much the same as now. Nearly everyone spoke English, dinner jackets were worn at dances and grand dinners, just like home. One of the main advantages was that my would be competitors had no idea that the main language was English.
When you did eventually get the first lot of Alwar pistols out of India did you sell them from the Grange Road premises?
No, I put them straight in Christies auction in London. I needed the money back and at that time hadn’t established the contacts to sell them directly, they came later, Archie Walker the collector from America and Keith Neal.
Did they sell well?
Yes, they didn’t cost anything hardly! They provided the seed money for the continuing business which lasted for years, 40 years!
Over the years you became good friends with Malcolm Lyell and worked in each others interests to keep the companies going.
That was all very strange. My mind is a bit confused with the dates but presumably our relationship started with Hyderabad, then of course he made a nonsense of Mysore, most of which I rescued for him. Then he had the bright idea of making me his successor, he had taken a dislike to Jeremy Clewes, a delightful man. Anyway that all went flat as the Holland & Holland chairman, whoever he was, the Chairman of Baby Cham, had a massive heart attack and croaked.
Can we talk about the Hydrabad deal, it came about after you had done quiet a few years in India and was a partnership between you and Holland & Holland.
Yes, Malcolm Lyell had been to Hydrabad with Jeremy Clewes and David Winks, they inspected the weapons and catalogued them extremely well, they then attempted to buy them, Malcolm offered £150,000 and was told it was not enough, “Clode has offered more” to which Malcolm responded “of course he hasn’t, he hasn’t got the money”. “he has” Malcolm was told “he has been here many times”. It was a good play by the Maharajah’s men, I had never been there and had never offered and Malcolm walked away empty handed.
Did Malcolm not try to get hold of you?
Yes he tried, but in those days the phones were terribly unreliable and I was in America anyway so there was nothing much he could do except return home empty handed.
So how was it finally done?
I was in Geneva to see the sale of a load of silver furniture we had bought and put in auction. After the auction we were walking in town and passed a Jewellers who had a similar silver chair in the window, we walked in and talked to owner about India and he asked if we were interested in buying antique weapons. I asked if he referred to the Hydrabad ones, he said yes and that he could introduce me to the man handling the deal, that he was just over the bridge in his office at that very time. So I went and met the man and concluded a deal for the armoury, asking for a few days to go and get the money sorted. I did not have this amount of money! I returned to London and met with Malcolm and we agreed that he would put up all the money and I would do all the work, we would then split the armoury 50/50.
So when eventually it all arrived in England how did you divide it up?
It all came back to Grange Road and we laid it all out in the long attic. There was David Winks representing Hollands and myself, I won the toss of a coin and chose the first item, a pair of silver mounted flintlock rifles or something. Then David chose for Hollands and picked a Colt revolving rifle, I couldn’t understand why he had chosen such a plain and rather boring item, but was worried. David was a very shrewd and knowledgeable dealer and he said it was engraved by the most sought after American engraver of colts, I forget the name.
What price did you each get for your first items?
I think David got £80,000 for his and I got £10,000 for mine! They did feel guilty a few years later and gave me another £3000 to cover the expenses! Overall it was a great deal and good for both the companies.
You used to enjoy going to Las Vegas Antique Arms for the shows and poker, did you take this stuff over with you?
Very much so, it was always fresh stock, things which hadn’t been circulating the tables every year so we did very well. Most of the early armoury items I got out of India were antiques, the modern weapons, rifles and shotguns came later. Much of it was junk, I always liked the junk, matchlocks and other less expensive items, it made good money. I was never fascinated as much by the guns themselves, I liked the dealing and making the money to keep the business going.
We often wonder where all the money went from the India deals.The answer may lie in the roll-call of the original independent Gunmakers. We were the only one still going.
Did you ever regret the decision to buy the company?
No, I never regretted it. It is no good in life “jobbing backwards” I saw it as a challenge. Now piss off I’m tired, if you want more come back another time.
I talked to my father at his house in Worcestershire today, the opportunity was there and we were both quite unprepared. I hope some of the things we touched on are found of interest.
How might we define the word ‘reliable’? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is something or someone “consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted”. Such an epitaph might flatter those of us of a certain age but in our modern world, such a moniker might suggest a slightly dull, if worthy quality that is definitely not ‘trending ‘ or fashionable! Nevertheless, we are all instinctively comforted by the idea of reliable – the car that never lets us down, the aged relative who always remembers a childhood birthday or the loving parent who is the unswerving rallying point in a turbulent world. Moreover, we often link the qualities of ‘reliable’ with the similar concept of integrity, “ the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”. How all this relates to the function of the ‘big game’ rifle is the theme of this article.
I got my first taste of the meaning of ‘reliable’ and ‘integrity’ as a young man at public school. In the twilight of the stiff upper lip era, I soon learned that one was expected to front up and demonstrate moral fibre in order to prove one’s worth. At the age of 10 and three-quarters, this all seemed terribly unfair but this all-pervading attitude undoubtedly laid the foundations for adult life, where the ability to be true to your word and look someone (or your enemy) in the eye without blinking soon proved invaluable, both in business and in life.
However, I learned most about such values from my father and in particular, from the stories of his time as a young subaltern in the Indian Army during World War Two. At some point, he found himself in charge of a POW camp, where soldiers who had ‘run home to Mummy’ were locked up for a year in punishment. Apart from a couple of Indian NCOs and a handful of guards, he was entirely alone. One particular morning, due to a grievance about their food, the entire prison population mutinied, broke out of their accommodation and stormed towards my father’s single story wooden office. The guards were soon overrun and I think father rather assumed the end was nigh! He came out onto the verandah and stood his ground as the mob surged towards him. He reached for the Webley revolver at his side (made in Birmingham, a relevant fact for later in this story). He told me he knew it would fire reliably and so he reckoned he could take down six men before the inevitable end. This was his ‘moment’ – his end game. However, something inside him gave him great courage and allowed him to think with intense clarity for just a few seconds as the mob closed on the verandah. He took a step forward; the mob stopped in their tracks. In fluent Urdu, he told them he would not deal with a rabble but would speak to a nominated representative to hear their grievance. Soon, amongst much jabbering and gesticulation, a ‘representative’ was pushed forward out of the crowd. Father heard his grievance about the poor food and promised it would be investigated and appropriate improvements made, as necessary. This was all they wanted – the ‘representative’ spoke to the crowd and they all quietly wandered back to their blocks. Father retreated to his office and with trembling hands, poured himself a stiff drink and lit a cigarette. He was twenty years old.
Many of us have had a ‘moment’, whether in the armed forces or police or in the game fields of far-away lands. Such events are common on the battlefield, where chaos and mayhem are the norm, not the exception. Here, a reliable weapon will literally save your life. Such was the thinking of German firearms genius, Peter Paul Mauser during the development of his now legendary bolt-action mechanism. Through various iterations, he finally achieved engineering perfection in 1898 with the release of what is now called the Mauser ’98 bolt-action rifle. People far more knowledgeable than me have written many excellent tomes on the history of the Mauser rifle, so I won’t go into too much detail about this engineering marvel here. Nevertheless, I am not alone in believing that the design of this rifle mechanism has never been surpassed in over a hundred years. Apart from Mr Starley and his remarkable ‘safety bicycle’ of 1885 (pretty much the same design we ride about on today), I can’t think of many machines that were designed when Queen Victoria was still on the throne that haven’t been improved or updated in the intervening century! The Mauser 98, by contrast, was and remains a perfect engineering design. Why so special? Well, the trite answer is the ability to guarantee operational reliability and mechanical integrity anywhere, at any time, under any conditions. Although designed for the battlefield, it wasn’t long before generations of sportsmen discovered that the ‘operational reliability’ and ‘mechanical integrity’ of the Mauser ‘98 mechanism, so vital on the battlefield, were also rather useful when facing a charging lion in the depths of the African continent. What is so special about the Mauser ’98? Much is made of the ‘controlled round feed’ but to me it is the positive extraction of the case from the chamber by the full-length non-rotating claw extractor that is more important. Above all, it is the positive ejection of the case from the chamber via a fixed blade ejector that makes me desire a rifle of this design more than any other.
I have been around rifles all my life, mostly in the military of one form or another. In more recent years, I have discovered stalking both here and abroad and have a particular penchant for chasing wild boar. For most of this period, I have made do with relatively cheap, mass-produced sporting rifles that do NOT come with the benefits of the Mauser ’98 action. Most of the time, this is all fine; however, a recent ‘moment’ has convinced me that I must, simply must, give up normal life (food, clothes, that sort of thing) until such time I have replaced my ordinary rifles with those built around the wonder that is the Mauser ‘98 bolt action (I am on my way and am now the proud owner of an excellent M98 rifle in .275). What was this life-changing moment? Well, on enthusiastically pulling the bolt backwards to eject the spent case before chambering a fresh round, I suffered something that would not look out of place in the Cirque du Soleil! Rather than seeing the spent case ping off into the undergrowth to my right, it instead did a perfect back flip within the receiver of the rifle, before coming to rest on top of the remaining live rounds in the magazine but now facing the bolt face! In a matter of a second, my rifle was rendered useless. I soon cleared the problem by a mixture of prodding and shaking but the damage was done. Plunger ejectors and tiny little extractors? No thank you, never again!
OK, this particular ‘moment’ happened on the range but it doesn’t take much imagination to think how such a trivial issue could be life threatening in Africa or Alaska etc. Peter Paul Mauser certainly thought so because he rejected such a ‘push feed’ bolt mechanism long before he reached his zenith in 1898.
So, what is the moral of this story? Well, many so-called ’experts’ will tell you that modern push feed rifles are more accurate and perfectly reliable enough for deer stalking and the like. They may have a point but I am now on a crusade – for me, I demand guaranteed reliability and mechanical integrity in my sporting rifles and nothing less than the Mauser ’98 action will ever achieve that in my eyes.
Indeed, Africa is beckoning and so a larger calibre rifle, with Mauser ’98 action of course, will be required before I finally pull on the ‘Eric Morecambe’ khaki shorts. My father trusted his life to a firearm made in Birmingham and I can think of no better place to conduct my own personal pilgrimage in search of my rifle Nirvana. Because I do have to eat occasionally and because it is hard to explain why we should sell the house and move to the shed in the garden so I can acquire my boyhood dream rifle, I have to save up. So, long before I decided to write this article, I started my own saving fund for the sole purpose of buying my next special rifle. Hopefully, if things stay as they are and we don’t end up going to war against the French or similar in the near future, I should be in a position to beat a path to Pritchett Street sometime towards the end of next year. There, with my father’s words ringing in my ears, I shall take that ‘step forward’ and order a perfect machine based on the Mauser ’98 action, built from metal and wood by master craftsmen who truly understand that ‘reliable’ and ‘mechanical integrity’ have as much relevance today as they did all those years ago. Then, regardless of whether I ever need to find great courage or think with intense clarity for just a few seconds in the fields of Africa or elsewhere, at least I know I will be equipped with the ultimate tool for the job.
My thanks to David Hack for this guest post, my second entrant to win my fully signed up, leather bound copy of the Westley Richards book, “In Pursuit of the Best Gun”!