William & Son’s resident gunsmith on barrels, contemporary engraving and why it takes up to 18 months to hand craft a shotgun
Photography Morgan O’Donovan
“I’ve been with the company for 13 years. Before that I worked in Asprey’s gun room for ten years. But, when William Asprey started up William & Son in 1999, I soon joined him. William & Son is his legacy, it’s truly a lifestyle brand whether you are here for watches, guns, jewellery or leather goods.
I’ve done this job since I was 15. In 1969, when I started, we had apprenticeships. I used to work at a local gun shop in Cheltenham – I was more of a runner there. Taking bits here, getting cartridges, taking stuff upstairs for clients. When you came to the last year of school they’d ask you, ‘what do you want to do?’ and I thought, ‘oohh, guns are good, why not’ – gunsmith, that’d be handy.
“We work with loads of people on the guns – they’re all specialist markets, it’s all very niche. You get barrel makers and stockers. I come under the terminology of a ‘jobber’. So I do a bit of everything really – metalwork, woodwork, stock fitting, regulating, jointing. Bit like a car mechanic. Everyone’s specialised – The barrel man will just do the barrels. Most of them are in West London – Heathrow, Middlesex way. The engraver’s in Shropshire.
In here, most of it’s done by hand, with either an emery cloth or a file. I’ve also got a lathe for screws turning, a band saw, sanding disks for the woodwork and a grinding wheel as well as a burnishing wheel. So most of it’s about fitting bits in, getting bits welded up. A lot of what we do is about maintenance. It’s like a mechanic in the garage against Ford as a manufacturer. Once the garage has sold the Ford you take the car to a mechanic. It varies with different makes as well, it’s not only our guns we do all sorts of makes. Servicing, overhauling, loose screws – it sounds basic but a loose screw can do a lot of damage. We buy and sell a quite a few guns from auctions so you’d bring those in, check them over, clean them up and get them ready for the shop.
It’s all got to do with the way they’re manufactured. Cross-pins you can repair, you can tighten the guns up – they’ve got solid pins in them. With regards to cheaper guns, within a space of time they will devalue and the repair costs become more than what the gun’s worth – then they buy another one. These William & Son ones can go on forever if you look after them. It’s only bad repair work that’ll damage them, or misuse. Think about it like this: I’m just selling my car, I’ve had it for ten years – it’s had it by now. Every decade or so you need a new car, that’s how it works. I’ve got guns in here from 1910 as good as they were when they were new.”
“It’s not a problem putting together your dream gun in here. There’s nothing time and money won’t solve. A lot of this is hand-made but if you need to make the tubes especially as well, then it takes even longer. It takes 12 to 18 months, maybe longer, to make a gun. They’re unique. If I had a supply of everything we could halve the time, but the man who makes the barrels can only produce so many. It’s not as if you have a stock of 16 bores. Plus the barrel-maker may already be working on some, so you may have a two month wait before he can start on yours. Mr Cusack does the engraving for us, but – yet again – he’s only got one pair of hands. If he’s engraving a gun, or there are two or three in front of yours, you could be nine months waiting. You can get others to do it but I keep to him because you get a bit of continuity. He’s never lets us down. There’s no point in shortcutting it. They may do a good job but it’s not going to be in his style. Some people nominate their own engravers, which can be problematic in itself, in terms of price and time. But that’s their prerogative. Rose and scroll was the old favourite in years gone by; now people just want bolder engraving.”
“If you look at the stocks against the older ones they’re not as good, generally. It’s about 1,000 hours roughly to manufacture it. And that’s not in one go, it’s spread over a long period – all sorts of things come into the equation. We have about 90-odd stock blanks in here. They’re Turkish walnut, in pairs. When a client is ready to pick a bit of wood, you find out what time he’s coming and you lay them all out on the table. He’ll select which particular one he wants and if he doesn’t like any of them you find something he does like.
I don’t think the business will change much, it’s too niche. You either want one or you don’t. If we got orders for 50 guns a year we couldn’t supply it. It’s a bit like Morgan’s and specialist cars – people want them because they’re not out there. Once you start filling showrooms up with them it takes what they actually want away from it. It’s a bespoke service, these people don’t need these guns and that’s why it’s a very whimsical trade. I always revert to cars: you’ve got a Ferrari and a Maserati, then you’ll see something else – a Discovery for the shoots or the Burley horse trials and it’s very similar to that. It’s not that they need it. How many watches do people collect? It’s something nice to have. What else do you do with money? I think the gun makers will always be there but I’m more worried about the components, the suppliers, the case makers, spring makers – that’s all shrinking. The customers, though, will always be there. They’re successful people who build their own heritage basically.”
William & Son, 14 Mount Street, Mayfair, London W1K 2RF