I first met Danny McCallum in 1987 at the Safari Club Convention, at that time he was working alongside Robin Hurt who had sold his operation to TGT and was serving a 5 year handover. Danny was the hard living Professional hunter and I was a hard living ex professional oil field diver, we had quite a few things in common! The following year we were the guests of the Italian Safari Club chapter hosted by Stefano Ricci, a memorable affair where we cemented a friendship which has lasted many years.
Going on Safari with Danny has always been on my ‘bucket list’ so I am pleased to have ticket that off (for the second time), having just returned from spending another few great weeks in the Tanzanian bush, in his company. The ‘Hunt with Danny’ goes back on the bucket list once it is ticked off!
I had intended to do an interview titled “A beer and a smoke with Danny McCallum” for which I shot the photograph above but never managed to get the interview done as we diversified at every attempt. I think anyway that for those of you who want a truly relaxed safari with one of the very few remaining ‘old school hunters’, a third generation hunter and man who has taken 135 lbs Elephant and 54 inch buffalo amongst other things, that you should go hear the stories yourself. I can assure you it is an experience you will never forget nor regret.
For the Safari I went armed with a Westley Richards .500 double, a .300 bolt action and 3 cameras, a Leica Monochrome which unfortunately broke after 5 days, a Canon 5D Mk3 which broke on day 6 and a Leica M240 which survived the trip. I had good intentions of posting to this blog from the bush but the days were long and the satellite was slow, so it was not to be. I now look forward to posting some photographs from the trip as they are ready over the next few days.
So Jozef, tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Well, I am 22 years of age and come from Sint Truiden which is a small town with a population of 40,000 people in the Flemish region of Belgium. My interest in shooting and guns comes from my father taking me to shooting ranges from the age of about 15, shooting his pistols and rifles. In fact most of my family are into shooting and I have been around some very nice guns from a young age so it has been my passion for many years. I don’t do much hunting in Belgium as you are not allowed to shoot until you are 18 and you need permission off the government to shoot over a certain piece of land, you also have to have a licence which costs you around £300 annually, it is not as easy to take up as it seems to be in the UK.
How did you begin your journey into gun making?
I left school at the age of 15 and decided to get a job in construction laying tiles and doing masonry work. I did this until the age of 19 but it was not the job I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. I knew guns and gun making were my true passion and it was this I needed to pursue a career in. I obviously knew about the gun making school in Liege as it is only 30km from my home but I was undecided as to whether it was the route I should go down. I spoke to Victor Petslers who runs a gun makers in Sint Truiden and is well known in the area, he advised me I should study there before looking for an apprenticeship with a gun maker. I gave it a long hard think, weighed up the pros and cons and took his advice. I told my boss construction wasn’t for me and I would no longer be working for him and without telling my parents I joined the gun makers school in Liege!
Why didn’t you tell your parents? What did they say when they found out?
Because I thought they would say it wasn’t a very good idea! But in actual fact when I did tell them they were very supportive and have been throughout. They were a little concerned because gun making is such a small industry and also the school is in the French speaking area of Belgium and at the time I couldn’t speak French!
How did you cope with the language barrier? Did you have to take French lessons?
No I didn’t take any French lessons I picked up a lot from my Flemish friends at the school and also from my teachers. Most of my learning was trying to speak it and making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.
What languages can you speak?
I speak Flemish, Dutch, French and English.
What about Brummie?
Not yet but if I carry on working next to Adam it shouldn’t be too long before I’m fluent!
What was the gun making school like? What was a typical day?
I spent three years there, as I joined the school when I was 19 I only did 3 days a week. Younger students who join the school at say 15 or 16 have to study other subjects as well, subjects you would be studying at school for example. In my first year it was quite slow and basic as we learned very simple things such as how to hold a file and how to use the machines and other quite boring things. I found it a little hard going back to school after being out to work for the last few years. The second year we were given a boxlock barrelled action and we had to make all the working parts from a solid piece of steel, all the springs, locks, lifters etc. As well as having lessons on machining, physics, metal work etc. In the third year we had to buy all the components to make a boxlock ejector and make the gun from scratch. We didn’t stock the gun as we weren’t taught stocking as part of the three year course. If you wanted to do stocking you had to stay on for another couple of years after the first three years of metal work. At the end of the third year you choose a gun that you are interested in and you had to give a presentation to your teachers and gunsmiths. A typical day would start at 08:15 with work on building your own gun until 12:00, then from 13:00 to 17:00 we would have more lessons.
What gun did you do your presentation on?
The Martini Henry falling block rifle. I am very fond of this style of action and in my opinion it’s the mother of all falling block rifles.
How many students attended the school? What different nationalities?
Well the school was not only for gun making it also had an engraving section, jewellery making and tool making. There were around 200 pupils in total from a range of different countries like France, Germany, Italy, USA, Iran and even Ethiopia. Most of them in their 20’s but we had older students as well, the eldest being 46.
Any British Students?
Did you have accommodation at the school?
I caught the train in everyday as it’s only 30km from my house. There is no accommodation at the school, foreign students have to find their own which can be quite difficult!
Have your friends at the school found apprenticeships as well?
No, I am the only one to have left and got an apprenticeship. They have all stayed on at the school. Some are now studying stocking or engraving or whatever they were interested in. I felt I wanted to get an apprenticeship and learn on the job.
Why did you choose Westley Richards?
To be honest it was the first place that came to mind. My passion and ambition was to work on big game double rifles and I knew if I wanted to do that I had to come to Westley Richards. Growing up I read a lot of books on big game hunting and Safaris and had come across the name and the guns many times. I also followed the blog and had read that Westley Richards had a very good apprenticeship program in place. I emailed Lloyd who replied the next day and in no time at all I was making my very first trip to England to come for an interview.
So how is your apprenticeship going so far? Would you recommend the gun making school to young gunsmiths of the future?
I am really enjoying it here so far, it’s only been a few weeks but I feel I’ve learnt a good amount already. You have a good team here and the gunmakers are happy to help and teach me things. I hope to progress my knowledge and skills and work on some big double rifles and one day I hope to be able to hunt with a Westley rifle. I would recommend the school to future gunsmiths as it’s a very good base from which you can build your knowledge, however an apprenticeship has its benefits because you learn on the job and you have much more one on one time with experienced gunsmiths.
A few comments and emails I have received in response to the post on single shot rifles, showed interest in the rifle, but raised the question of being able to reduce the cost of making the rifles by utilising CNC machinery and making batches of actions. This is a practise I am not exactly in favour of, I have tried it and backed away from it.
Westley Richards is, and probably has been for many years, better equipped to deal with batch machining and production than any other gunmaker in the country, I am sure we were the fist to own CNC wire, EDM and Milling, and certainly the only one with industry standard quality control at Aerospace level. Together with our sister company, Westley Engineering, we can justify the expense of running CNC machines on an economical basis. We need the machines for that business, they do not use the full 24 hour capacity and as such we can put our gun work on as needed, filling machines capacity and justifying new machines should we need them. We have the machines, the capacity and the batch machining knowledge, we just choose not to use that method.
A CNC machine will essentially ‘do as it’s told’, you put a block of steel in the machine and it doesn’t care if it makes 7 x 12g actions or 7 different a .410, 28g, 20g, 16g, 12g, 10g & 8g for instance. The same applies if you are making double rifle actions. I appreciate that this is a very simple way of looking at it, batch production is most efficient, but I don’t ever want 7 or 10 of the same actions at one time, the orders don’t come in like that, pairs and three’s yes, but the days of The Maharajah’s of Patiala and Alwar ordering 6 or 8 of the same gun are over, for now! The problems with gunmaking are not in the machining’s it is what happens with the machining’s after you have them. We make hand made guns and there are only so many pairs of hands to make them!
At Westley Richards we have programmes for each type of action we build, we aim to constantly improve our guns and rifles on an ongoing basis, minor alterations here and there, many that most people may not even notice. I personally have never been satisfied that we have nailed every nuance of a best gun, I never will be enough to say, “that is it”, no more modifications. We can always improve and more importantly we can, and are happy, to adapt our designs for the person who wants a light 577 or a heavy 470 a new calibre or whatever. We remain flexible to our customers requirements because we only build to order, and modifications start with the action.
Putting actions from ‘batches’ in stock means that when you make a design alteration you will either have to write off the actions and replace with a new batch, or wait to implement the improvement until you have used all the last batch of actions. That for me is a bad practise and is the reason I am so against this method of production. Our portfolio of guns and rifles is larger than any other gunmaker in the country with more than 20 different action sizes and shapes. 10 of each at £6000 a set of parts is …. I think you get my point.
A group of CNC machines can produce far, far more actions and parts in a year than we can ever complete as guns and rifles to a standard both you, and we expect. There have, over the years been quite a few ‘engineering sorts’, those people who are masters of the CNC who have said they can make best guns ‘without gunmakers’. They have not ever succeeded to my knowledge. Shirley & O’Farrill, or O’Farrill and Shirley I am not sure went first, a recent start up, they who took some of my workers last year and pronounced that we were doomed because they were going to be so efficient making rifles, have just ceased trading, I wonder how many batches of actions they left behind? Quite a few from the reports I received!
So yes, I could build 20 cloned single shot rifles and send them through the factory as a batch, but I doubt many people actually want a cloned rifle from us, and frankly, it is not what we are good at. If it came to an order I am sure 20 people would not choose the same calibre, some would want small, some medium, some large. Westley Richards are good at delivering you exactly what you want, we enjoy the challenge of something different and I believe this shows in our work. We do not want to sell you what we have sitting on a shelf and want to get rid of, it is not what we are about. We want to make something special and It may take some time to get it, but we certainly hope it is worth the wait!
A very nice bonus for me before departing to Africa, was the arrival back at the factory of the latest magnificent work for us from Paul Lantuch. This subject matter of lions was chosen to get Paul in the right frame of mind to start work on the “The Africa Rifle”!, another .600NE which will be the pair to last years “India Rifle”. I know Paul and I were both nervous about this concept at the start of this project but neither of us, nor anybody here at the factory is now!
Our ‘Sutherland Safari Bag’ has been a very popular product of ours for many years. Made here in our own workshops at the factory, we use the very best organic leather we can source. This leather, from Sweden, has a wonderful and unique quality and patina. It was chosen because not only does it reach a beautiful aged character quickly, but is tanned in a manner that will provide for a very long life. The bag is available in two sizes, in full leather or combined with a classic hard wearing canvas. In addition we now offer a new “Buffalo” leather version of the bag in dark brown.
Recently, in time for the Christmas rush of initialling, we received our new blocking press from New York, a simple but superb machine which executes blind or foiled initialing with finesse. With production of our leather goods limited, please consider placing orders for a personalised bag as soon as possible. The bags don’t take as long as our guns but they do take some days to get ready when initialed.