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What Is An English “Best Gun?”

What Is An English “Best Gun?”

Two English best guns, an Holland & Holland 12g Model De Luxe and 28g Royal

Understanding what “best quality guns” are when it comes to fine, English-made shotguns.

Having dealt with so-called “fine” firearms for decades, the question “What exactly is a ‘best gun?’” comes up a lot. Explaining what a best gun is can be challenging because it’s more of a concept or ethos to building a gun, not something that follows a set of rules or criteria. As such, the term is used quite liberally, especially when it comes to shotguns. Moreover, best quality shotguns made by English gunmakers are rare by any measure, giving them an almost mythical status. This makes the term “best quality” even more abstract.

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The use of “best quality” goes back to the early 1800s. The words describe just that: the best gun that could be built. Most of the time, the term “best quality” is used, and it refers to a gun or rifle made to order, or bespoke, by an English gunmaker such as Boss & Co., J. Purdey & Sons, or Holland & Holland. These firms are known for producing firearms built with the best materials, craftsmanship, and design to produce guns made to the highest standards in both form and function, regardless of the time or cost required. For these select English makers, a “best quality” gun is actually their “standard” model, and these guns have literally set the standard worldwide by which all other double guns are compared.

A Purdey 12g Extra Finish O/U and 12g Best Quality

Shotgun Quality Versus Grade

For many, “best quality” describes a gun that is so well made, it is wildly expensive. It’s true. For the most part, they are produced one at a time and made by hand. Due to the level of expertise and time required to make them, best quality guns have always come with very high price tags. Simply put, making a gun by hand to such high standards is terribly inefficient and offers no economies of scale. Thus, new guns deserving the “best quality” title have price tags that match the price of a house. Still, no machine has been invented that can produce the subtleties that trained hands can do, and the demand for such items continues today. 

A page from Westley Richards & Co.’s seminal 1912 catalog.

In the English gun trade, the term “quality” is used, whereas an American gun company might use the word grade. The Birmingham makers often offered a variety of different grades, or qualities, of guns. For example, “gamekeeper’s” guns were made with little to no embellishment and were often based on a boxlock action in which a functional version could be made without requiring a high level of skill or expense to produce. 

There’s a Variety of Best Quality Guns

Most of the London makers known for best quality guns, at one time or another, also made guns to be sold at a lower price point. These lower-priced guns were offered as an effort to put their guns in the hands of customers who were either not willing or not able to afford a best quality. However, if one wants the features on a gun that a certain maker is famous for, that buyer often has to step up to the best quality gun to get them. At the same time, most makers also made highly embellished versions of their best guns. These are simply deluxe or exhibition grades, made to the same demanding standards as a best quality, just with more bling. 

A Westley Richards 12g Modele De Luxe

It is important to remember that the amount of embellishment on a gun does not make it a best quality. Some best quality guns were made with no engraving at all. Purdey’s and Westley Richards & Co. are both well known for the guns they produced with no engraving. Westley Richards still produces a gun today that originally was referred to in company literature as a “best quality, plain finish,” colloquially known as a “gold name” today. 

Gold name guns are made just as well as any best gun by Westley’s, but the case-colored receiver has no engraving, only the maker’s name in gold. Purdey’s is also famous for the “unengraved” guns they produced, often referred to as “funeral” models due to having no engraving and only a deep black finish on the metal. Again, the level of engraving does not make a gun best quality; it is simply a component that may or may not be present. 

A pair of Purdey 12g “unengraved” hammerless self openers

Best Quality Guns Are Visually Pleasing And Function Flawlessly

To me, a best quality gun is the sum of its parts. They are perfectly blended to be pleasing to the eye and flawless in function. However, there are no hard and fast rules on what makes a best gun. You just know it when you see it, or rather, feel it. The proportion and scale of best quality English-made guns are often what gun enthusiasts admire about a gun, but have a hard time articulating. It is the expertise of the action filer, the stocker, and the barrel maker who can produce a gun with no excess. These gunmakers have the skill and are given the time, with no consideration of costs, to do it. 

A Westley Richards 12g Heronshaw, best gun.

As it has always been, best quality guns made in England are a luxury good and a sign of wealth. As such, best quality guns have been marketed to royalty, aristocrats, and other affluent customers. It is safe to say that anything described as a “luxury” item is going to be out of my price range. Even though I may never own a gun that costs four times as much as my first home, I do still marvel at their craftsmanship, ingenuity, and beauty. These features make me interested in knowing about luxury guns. After all, the breechloading gun has its origins in the best quality guns invented and made by the English gunmakers of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Learning about these guns helps me have an appreciation for what a good value a Spanish gun might be, where a lot of the influence on American-made guns came from, or why my vintage English-made boxlock is cool even if it is not considered a best gun. If you’re anything like me, best quality guns can inform your choices when shopping at lower price points and help you identify quality characteristics that set some shotguns apart from others. 

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