The company was founded in 1835. Whilst many talk of, “The sport of kings” being horse-racing, shooting has also been a popular leisure pursuit favoured by aristocracy. Holland & Holland are the most revered gunsmith. They are often described as the “Royal” Gunmaker with Royal Warrants gracing the walls of their prestigious Gun Rooms in London, New York and Moscow.
A rare opportunity was presented to me to visit the factory on Harrow Road. The invitation to see arguably the finest guns in the world being created by time served craftsman and craftswomen was eagerly accepted.
I have visited several watch factories, toured car production facilities and observed everything from high-end shoes, jewellery and bespoke suits being expertly made. However, I have never previously been to a gun maker, although I have been a member of a gun club and enjoyed clay pigeon shooting.
The first room I entered was the stockroom. Wooden shelves are lined with walnut stock blanks, presented in various shades, with different degrees of patterning. The finest wood comes from the root bowl of a walnut tree native to the the north east of Turkey.
High day time temperatures and cold nights lead to the trees growing in spurts. The rocky ground, encourages roots to reconnoitre subterranean strata resulting in beautifully patterned wood. It reminds me of terroir, so critical to the growth of grapes used for the finest wine. Climate, the composition of the ground and topography all influence the character of the growth.
The fruit of 300 years of pedestrian growth is highly prized. The trunk and root bowl are pulled out of the ground, not felled, sawn into planks and profiled into stock blanks. Seasoning is critical to ensure the wood is ready for the skilful hands of the artisans at Holland & Holland.
I fell for the charms of a particular stock blank. Once sprayed with clear water, black lines, were revealed, or fiddleback as it is termed. The grain bestowed an appealing character which imparted warmth and splendour.
In some cases stock blanks have to be matched when purchasing a pair of guns. Gun making etiquette dictates the grained patterns must match.
Experienced gun fitters based at the Holland & Holland Shooting Ground, note precise measurements to paper. They consider; “The Stock Length”, “The Bend” and “The Cast”. The measurements are followed and the stock is expertly fashioned into the perfect anatomical shape. The precise fit ensures comfort and ease of use.
The stock is bespoke, no compromises are countenanced.
Solid forgings of EN24 steel are honed into tubes. The best London guns “are made on the demi-bloc”, as my host explained. The two tubes are joined in the middle at the breech end of the gun, hence the lumps which go into the action are integral to the barrel.
Cheaper guns may employ a monobloc system where the barrels are sleeved. However, Holland & Holland does not seek expedience or low-cost, placing greater importance on the pursuit of excellence.
The solid forging is trued up “between centres” and carefully drilled, with high pressure cutting oil helping to take away the swarf. Then the tube is placed on the lathe again “between centres” to check it is true.
Reaming and shaping the cone shape of the choke are the next stage of the time consuming creative process.
The tubes are reintroduced to the lathe for the final exterior cut. The concentricity of the tubes is checked with accuracy of + / – 1/1000th of an inch.
I watched with incredulity at the time consuming process of cutting, centring, drilling, centring, reaming, cutting and checking. Any excess or surplus material is removed. Lightweight strength and perfect balance are key attributes of the finest barrels, reminding me of a high-performance race car engine.
Then the tubes are passed to another craftsman to have the lump machined. The culmination of the department’s activity is the silver-brazing of the tubes at the breech, creating a permanent union and the creation of the barrels.
The action provides an airtight chamber, supporting the cartridge and sealing in the gases when the gun is fired. The action has to withstand the firing of the gun, something which is independently tested by the proofing house.
The face of the action supports the base of the cartridge and ensures the firing pin precisely impacts with the primer.
All parts must fit snugly, providing even distribution of explosive forces and by default less wear. Moreover, the close union between surfaces mitigates the risk of excessive recoil or impaired user comfort.
This obsession with fit, is ubiquitous at the factory, primarily because of the omnipresent black soot which is in the air and on the walls. Metal surfaces are subjected to a film of black soot, then the action is carefully closed and then opened. Any high spots will have displaced the soot and the craftsman will deftly wield a file until a perfect union is achieved.
Engraving is something I cherish when admiring a fine example of haute horology. The skills employed at Holland & Holland are equally attractive, embracing artistry and craft, delightfully distilled and providing sublime outcomes.
Luxurious engraved scrolls can depict wildlife scenes or in some cases the purchaser can allow their imagination to be realised, with unique designs expertly delivered by the craftsman’s hands. Gold inlay can impart a noble persona congruent with the status of this “Royal” Gunmaker.
The concluding phase of the gun manufacturing process is the finishing. All aspects of the gun are brought together and expertly refined for the purchaser’s delectation.
Chequering to the stock is added prior to delivery.
Subtle fine-tuning and adjustment ensures smooth operation.
The repeated application of oil to the stock provides a rich character.
Quality control is exacting. Peerless perfection is a prerequisite for all guns bearing the Holland & Holland name.
We live in an age where goods are designed and made with intrinsic obsolescence, designed to fail shortly after a warranty period expires. Holland & Holland do not subscribe to this philosophy. A gun with minimal maintenance will conceivably outlive its owner.
Traditional craftsmanship and timeless beauty are the preserve of Holland & Holland. They are an English aristocrat in gun making terms as exemplified by the cut of their jib.