According to its name, a “Best” gun sounds like it should be the finest shotgun a gunmaker builds. But that’s not always the case. With some makers, there’s a grade above “Bests” — “Better Bests”, I guess.
Holland & Holland calls these Modele de Luxes. At James Purdey & Sons, they’re known as guns with “Extra finish“, and the pair of 12 gauge Purdey sidelocks you see here are just that.
Overall, guns with Extra Finish are built to the same level as the maker’s standard Best-quality guns (or maybe a bit better, in the case of this pair). But as you can see, their engraving is taken to the next level (here’s a standard Purdey).
These two may have been engraved by Ken Hunt (aka “The Godfather of Gun Engraving”), a British craftsman who worked at Purdey’s and learned his trade from Harry Kell. Along with the gorgeous engraving, the guns are beautifully made all around. Check out the metal-to-metal fit and the way the forend iron fits onto the action. Then look at those perfect drop points on the stock.
Does all this make them worth $125,000? Perhaps. Even with twice that much money, you would have a hard time duplicating the quality of these Purdeys today. Personally, I don’t think you could do it.
PURDEY BEST EXTRA FINISH SXS PAIR 12 GAUGE: THESE APPEAR TO BE KEN HUNT ENGRAVED #266XX BOTH GUNS ARE IDENTICAL AND HAVE BEEN USED ON ONE DRIVEN HUNT IN THE LATE 50S THESE CAME FROM ORIGINAL OWNER 28″ SELF OPENERS 008 AND 022 2 3/4 DOUBLE TRIGGER EJECTORS SPLINTER FOREARM ENGLISH GRIP CHECKERED BUTT MAKERS MOTOR CASE NEW CONDITION 6LBS 11 OZ X 2 1/8″ X 1 7/16″ X 14 1/4″. Price:$125,000
It’s confirmed: Fox collectors are nuts. The auction for this 20g A.H. Fox XE ended Monday, and the final price was $24,002. That’s a lot for a gun with almost no original color-case hardening and a stubby stock. At least its provenance is sound. That must be what drove the price so high.
1921 A.H. Fox 20 gauge XE double barrel shotgun: According to J.T. Callahan, the Fox records indicate that this gun, SN 201509, a 20 gauge XE, was shipped on August 7, 1921 from Philadelphia to Abercrombie & Fitch of NYC, the original consignee. The gun was made with 26” barrels, choked IC (r) and M (l) with a LOP of 13 ½” and DOH of 2 5/8”. Weight, 5 lbs., 12 oz. — FINAL HAMMER:$24,002
JOHN WILKES A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF KELL-ENGRAVED 12-BORE SIDELOCK EJECTOR GUNS, NOS. 13802/3: 28-inch barrels with 2 1/2-inch chambers, about 1/4 and 3/4 choke borings, matted top ribs, the frames, locks and gold numbered top levers with best bouquet and scroll engraving and retaining virtually all of their original hardening colour, the inside of the fore-end irons with further bouquet and scroll engraving, gold washed lockwork, rolled edge trigger guards, 14 1/2-inch highly figured exhibition quality stocks, inlaid in gold with the entwined initials “W.D.”, 6lb. 9oz., nitro proof, in their maker’s presentation case with engraved fittings and canvas outer cover. ESTIMATE: £25000-35000 SALE PRICE: £53,900
The maker confirms that the guns were completed on 24th August 1935 for W. W. Dowding. The guns were engraved by Harry Kell with special flower and scroll work and the guns remain as originally built. The original cost was £220 with the case costing £13 15s and the matching outer cover a further £5 12s 6d.
W. W. Dowding
William W. Dowding, for whom these guns were made, was one of the Wilkes’ largest retail customers in the 1930s. He started to buy guns from them in 1931 and in the course of the next five years ordered a total of ten new guns as well as buying others and a wide variety of shooting requisites. The story passed down the family was that in 1933 Dowding challenged Jack Wilkes to make for him a pair of guns that were on a par with the best the London trade could offer. Guns 13802/3 were Jack’s response to that challenge. Many years later his sons viewed this pair of guns as his masterpiece.
To make them, Wilkes went to many of the best outworkers in the the London trade. George Lane and Bolter normally worked for Woodward; Mealey at the time was on Wilkes’ payroll, but had worked for Grant & Lang and several others in a very long career; and Willie Lane was shortly to join Grant & Lang’s payroll. The engraver Harry Kell is probably the only outworker now widely known.
The famous engraver Henry Albert Kell, aka Harry Kell, is one of the most famous individuals to emerge from England’s sporting-arms trade. Born in 1880, he was apprenticed to the trade in 1894. By 1900, his training was complete and he was engraving for his dad’s firm – Sanders & Kell.
Between the wars, Harry would inherit this business and build his own successful company. He would also establish a aesthetic style that would make him one of the most famous firearms engravers to have ever lived.
The 20 gauge E.J. Churchill Premier side-by-side you see here was probably engraved in Kell’s shop, and maybe even by Kell’s own hand. I say “probably” because Kell didn’t sign the work. This was typical for the time. What isn’t typical is the quality of the work, and like an actual signature, that’s what says “Harry Kell” to people who are in the know.
Over the years, those people have pushed the prices of “Kell” guns higher and higher. That means this nice little 20 gauge Churchill is in fantastic shape – and also a good place to sink some money for the future.
LOT 2168: 20 BORE E. J. CHURCHILL EXTRA FINISH (BY KELL) PREMIER PINLESS SIDELOCK LIGHT GAME GUN WITH ORIGINAL CASE. SN 4814. (ca 1932) Cal. 20 bore. 2-3/4″ Chambers. 25″ Chopper lump bbls with Churchill rib, gold inlaid “XXV”, are engraved “E. J. Churchill. (Gunmakers). Ltd” and “Orange St. Gunworks. Leicester Square. London.” on tops. There are 1-1/2″ pyramids of nicely cut scroll at breech ends. Damascened bbl flats are stamped with London nitro proofs for 2-1/2″ chambers, and “Choke”. SN is engraved on the bottom of each bbl. Splinter is engraved “Made in England”. Small, nicely scaled, pinless sidelock action is stocked to the fences, and features non-automatic safety (SAFE inlaid in gold), and Miller single selective trigger (original double triggers and interceptors are in envelope in case).
Sidelocks have grooved tumbler end cocking indicators. Action and lockplates are engraved with exceptionally well cut shaded scroll outlining vignettes of pheasants; a pair (cock and hen) flushing on bottom of action; trio (two cocks and hen) swooping off hillside on left lockplate; and another trio in meadow setting on right. “E. J. Churchill” is in scroll terminated riband on each lockplate. Blued top lever is gold inlaid with nicely rendered portrait of pheasant looking back over his shoulder. Engraving work most likely was done by Harry Kell, world renown engraver to the London trade.
Blued trigger plate is gold inlaid “The – Premier – Quality”. Double beaded trigger guard is engraved with matching scroll with SN in riband at grip. Finely figured and nicely marbled European walnut straight grip buttstock measures 14-1/2″ over ribbed horn buttplate, and features nicely shaped drop points, point pattern checkering with mullered borders, and a gold oval on toe line engraved with initials “G. P.” Matching splinter ejector forend has Anson release. Bore diameter: left-.613, right -.613. Bore restrictions: left -.010 (light mod), right -.004 (IC). Wall thickness: left -.028, right -.029. Drop at heel: 2-7/16″, drop at comb: 1-3/8″. Weight: 5 lbs. 6 oz. LOP: 14-1/2″. Original makers toe under (V. C.) case has stitched leather corners and inset leather rectangle gold embossed “Grant Pierce”. Front right of top is embossed “20g PHEASANT GUN”. Interior is lined in burgundy baize with celluloid Churchill labels tacked in. Case contains 2-pc cocobolo and brass cleaning rod with mop, Turks head and jag; E. J. Churchill marked round oil bottle; and snap caps. Along with envelope containing orig double triggers and interceptors, are an orange “A & F” hang tag with particulars of this gun, and orig key with tag marked “Grant Pierce”.
CONDITION: Excellent, original as found. Bbls retain 95% what appears to be orig black, with a few marks, thinning slightly at normal carry point. Action retains 30% orig case hardening color, balance silver to gray (color appears to have never been vivid). Lockplates retain 70 – 80% of their orig color. Trigger guard and top lever retain most of their orig charcoal blue. Stocks retain nearly all of their orig hand rubbed oil finish showing minor marks, as expected from normal use, along with a few light abrasions. There is a 1/2″ incipient check at rear of right lockplate, which also shows some minor chipping. Checkering shows little wear. Bores are excellent, bright and shiny throughout. Action is tight. Bbls are on face. Ejectors are in time. Trigger works. Case is very fine. Exterior leather has some minor discoloration, and some knocks and bumps. Orig handle is good. Interior cloth is fine with some rubs, marks, and repairs. Accessories are very fine. Snap caps show some scratches and marks. “A & F” tag is very fine with some creases and fading. An exceptional, dynamic, golden age game gun with some distinctive, well thought out, touches. Just a lovely gun. Estimate: $18,000-23,000
James Julia auctioned this piece of firearm/literary/American history today: this Westley Richards droplock double rifle in .577 Nitro Express that was once owned by Ernest Hemingway. The gun hammered down for $295,000. That’s without the buyer’s a premium of 15%. So whoever bought Papa’s mammoth double dropped around $340,000 to get it. Those are some deep pockets.
The gun would probably be worth $70,000 – $80,000 without the provenance. And who would ever want at .577 NE double rifle with a single trigger? Facing down a charging elephant is no time to run a quality check on something like that.
You can read more about Hemignway’s monster double in this article from Garden & Gun magazine.
If you really want a .577 and you missed out on Hemingway’s gun, go to Schwandt Classic Arms and take a look under double rifles. There you’ll see a better rifle for about half the money. It’s a Holland & Hollandy Royal in .577NE. It’s a sidelock (droplocks are over rated) AND it has double triggers. I’ve seen this gun in person and it’s awesome.
I don’t know if I would want to shoot a .577 NE , though. I’ve fired a .470 NE double rifle and that gun bounced my brain around pretty well. Anything more than that is too much for me.
It’s been tough winter here in New England – long, gray, snowy. I’ve had just about enough of it. So I’m glad it’s over 60 degrees out today. The snow is melting away and the ice on the rivers is breaking up. I’m hoping to get my canoe in the water in a couple of weeks.
The robins are back in the Boston area, so the woodcock can’t be far behind. I usually find woodcock in southern Maine towards the end of the March. They seem to work their way up the coast and I know a couple coverts that are right near the ocean.
The Purdeys should attract big-money attention from around the world. They’re all original, engraved by Harry Kell, and they have a solid provenance. It will be interesting to see what they bring. I think Julia’s estimate is too high. My guess is that they’ll hammer down for under $100,000. BTW: here’s another Purdey featuring Kell’s work.
The Souther Side-by-Side Spring Classic is coming up at the end of April. I’ve heard that this is a great event and I’m planning to attend this year. I hope to see a lot of nice, vintage double barrel shotguns, say hello to some folks, and do a little shooting. With a little luck, maybe I’ll find something really special like a W. & C. Scott Premier or a long barreled Grant hammergun.
The field trial season get going again in the northeast with the Southern New England Woodcock Championship on March 17th. I’m excited to get out and see some dogs run. I’m hoping to get my girl into at least one trial. She turned 8 this January, so I don’t think she’ll do all that well. But it’s fun to get out and try. And it’s always great to see folks. You can find out more about this trial and other upcoming events at this site.