By Deborah McKown, Shotgun Life
Superb handcrafted shotguns and rifles from James Purdey & Sons have been venerated by shooting aficionados and royalty alike ever since the company opened its doors at 4 Princes Street, near Leicester Square, London, in 1814.
Now, 200 years later, Purdey marks the illustrious occasion with the Purdey Bicentary Trio gun collection, which features a new 12-gauge side-by-side game gun, a 20-gauge Damascus over-and-under as well as a .470 express rifle. The Purdey Bicentary Trio is accompanied by new sets of Purdey apparel and accessories to enjoy the momentous celebration in high style.
Each gun in the Purdey Bicentary Trio will feature engravings characteristic of the era in which they were created and bear a bicentenary logo along with a special serial number. The Purdey Bicentenary Trio will be presented with a floor-standing display case also bearing the bicentenary logo. A companion specially commissioned oak and leather treble motor case is based on an original that was custom-made in the early 1930s for King George VI’s Purdey guns.
Although the bicentennial of James Purdey & Sons is observed with the establishment at 4 Princes Street, the company’s origin dates back to the 1690s when John Purdey purportedly traveled from east Scotland in pursuit of work. Once in London, he joined family members who prospered there.
John’s second son, James, was born in 1739. James was a blacksmith in the Minories — the gunmaking quarter near the Tower of London. It’s doubtless that James performed barrel work on behalf of local gunsmiths.
James’ own son, also christened James, was born in August 1784. He would enter an apprenticeship at age 14 with a brother-in-law, the gunsmith Thomas Keck Hutchinson, and initiate the Purdey gunmaking tradition. Under Thomas, the young James forged Damascus barrels from old horseshoe nails for flintlocks.
In 1805 James finished his apprenticeship at Hutchinson and subsequently earned a position with Joseph Manton of Oxford Street. Manton was hailed as “The greatest artist in firearms that ever the world produced” by the illustrious marksman, Colonel Peter Hawker.
After three years at Manton, James had risen to Head Stocker. It was in 1808 when James saw an opportunity to advance his education and career by joining the prestigious gunmaker, Reverend Dr. Alexander Forsyth, at 10 Piccadilly. Dr. Forsyth had invented a new lock technology and James spent the next four years at Forsythe as a lock-filer and stocker.
Finally, James started his own shop in 1814 at 4 Princes Street. From the modest storefront, he set out building single and double flintlock guns, dueling pistols and rifles.
James’ reputation at Manton’s and Forsyth’s contributed to his early success. Specializing in bespoke guns, he appealed to a distinguished clientele. To better serve them, James expanded into shooting equipment and accessories.
The venture prospered. On August 1, 1826, James took occupancy of 314½ Oxford Street, the site of his former master, Manton. It became the most prominent gun shop in London. James’ customers included English aristocracy and Indian royalty. Charles Darwin had ordered guns and supplies for the voyage of HMS Beagle and Queen Victoria commissioned a pair of double-barreled pistols for presentation to the Imam of Muscat.
James Purdey the Younger.
Peer recognition officially arrived in 1841 when James was voted into the prestigious Master of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers of the City of London.
James had married in the early 1800s. The couple’s initial child was a girl named Mary, after her mother. On March 19, 1828, the couple’s first son was born. Known as James the Younger, he would in due course lead the firm through groundbreaking innovations that spanned the eras of muzzle-loading flintlocks to breech-loading, hammerless ejectors.
James achieved a milestone in 1857. Edward, Prince of Wales granted the company a Royal Warrant of Appointment as a gunmaker issued to tradespeople who provide products or services to a royal court or personages.
In 1865, James and his son, James the Younger, modernized the low-velocity, short-range rifles of the time to accommodate ammunition that was faster and more accurate over longer ranges. Their accomplishment resulted from boring deeper grooves in the barrel — eliminating the time-consuming practice of ramming bullets down onto the powder charge. Simultaneously, the Purdeys offered a breech-loaded, two-winged bullet. The bullet’s high speed and flat trajectory reminded James the Younger of the new express trains — coining the term “express rifle.”
On February 12, 1868 the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII, granted Purdey the Royal Warrant of Appointment. Ten years later another Royal Warrant was issued by Queen Victoria. Royal Warrants have been regularly awarded to Purdey through the years.
In 1870, Purdey patented the now-ubiquitous, thumb-operated mechanism that allows shooters to open breech-loading guns while maintaining grip on the stock. The Purdey innovation proved to be revolutionary during a period when the underlever action was typical on breech loaders.
In 1879, Purdey stockermaker Frederick Beesley invented the Beesley self-opening system, which employs residual energy of the mainspring into opening the gun and ejecting the spent cartridges. Patented in 1880, all Purdey side-by-side hammerless guns and rifles have used it ever since.
James acquired leases at 57–60 South Audley Street, Westminster, and between 1881 and 1882 built Audley House — a spacious and fashionable concern highlighted by sumptuous showrooms. The Audley House Long Room, originally a bustling office, is revered as a cherished destination for gun enthusiasts.
As the business thrived, James the Younger had a son, Athol, who would go on to operate the company through the flourishing Edwardian era and into World War I — overseeing Purdey’s entry into weapons components and equipment for the British War Department.
Athol’s sons, James and Tom, both joined the firm in the 1920s, taking over its management in 1929. The number of gun orders rose steadily during the struggling economy that followed World War I, but difficult times returned with the onset of World War II. Once again, Purdey supported the war effort by manufacturing precision tools and gauges.
Although Purdey had been making over-and-unders since 1923, it acquired competitor James Woodward & Sons of London in 1948. The Woodward purchase gave Purdey access to long guns celebrated for agility and strength — especially the over-and-unders. Purdey initiated an enhanced design in 1950 that incorporated Woodward’s elements. The synthesis has been progressively refined over the decades and remains vibrant today.
In the aftermath of World War II, with the premium gun trade looking bleak, Jim and Tom Purdey sold their majority shares to Hugh and Victor Seely, although the brothers kept a hand in supervision of the operation. The company passed to the Purdey’s nephew, the Honorable Richard Beaumont, who held ownership until 1994. When Tom Purdey retired in 1955, Richard Beaumont assumed leadership of Purdey. Richard’s wife, Lavinia, led the foray into Purdey’s quality shooting apparel and designed the early clothing herself.
In 1977, at a family gathering in Wales, Richard Beaumont proposed to his young cousin, Nigel Beaumont, the idea of entering into an actioner’s apprentice at Purdey. Over the years, Nigel ascended to Managing Director and ultimately Chairman in 2007.