The enduring influence of the gunmaker’s gunmaker.
[by Terry Wieland]
FOR SUCH A MOMENTOUS EVENT— momentous in the world of gunmaking, at any rate—remarkably few details are recorded. All we know is, on a September day in 1948, Charles L. Woodward made his way from his shop in Bury Street, St. James’s, to James Purdey & Sons in South Audley Street.
Gunmakers—even old gunmakers—are active people, and it’s a pleasant stroll from Bury Street up to Piccadilly, along to Half Moon Street and up South Audley. It being London in September, very likely it rained, and three years after the end of the war, London’s hard-hit West End was still clearing away the rubble.
A month earlier, London staged the 1948 Summer Olympics—the first since Berlin in 1936—and it was judged a success, although it has been known ever since as the Austerity Games. There were no new arenas, no Olympic village. Events were held in facilities that survived the war, such as Wembley Stadium. Athletes were housed in disused army barracks and, with rationing still in force, were asked to bring their own food.
Such was the state of London and the West End gunmakers in the lean years after 1945. With a Labour government nationalizing industries, “modernizing”production, taxing the upper classes out of existence, and generally creating a socialist paradise,the rarefied world of Holland & Holland, Purdey, and Boss was on the brink of oblivion.
Gunmakers that came through the Blitz unscathed now faced the challenge of selling luxury goods in an austerity world, finding clients to replace those killed in the war or impoverished by the postwar, and convincing news hooters—if any existed—that owning a London gun is its own reward. In a world of mass production, that was a daunting prospect.
James Woodward & Sons, whose modest shop in Bury Street belied its place at the “top of the tree” in London gunmaking, suffered greatly in the war. A bomb damaged the shop at 29 Bury Street badly enough that the gunmaker was forced to take refuge with Grant & Lang, some doors down at No. 7. Compared to some, it got off lightly; still,the tiny company ended the war with few reserves.
"America profited handsomely from the war— from both wars, in fact—and there was no shortage of wealthy Americans to buy the finest guns. But many Americans preferred over-and-unders..."
Unlike Purdey, which had grown on its reputation, invested well, and owned property in London, Woodward was, and always had been, a family owned business with a handful of craftsmen and tiny production. Its most valuable asset was a reputation for making the “very best” guns; its second-most valuable was its patented over-and-under shotgun.
In 1948, Charles Woodward, grandson of the founder, was ready to retire, but he wasn’t about to surrender the Woodward name to just anyone. If there was to be a takeover,the only suitor he would consider was Purdey. And so, on that September day, he strode from Bury Street up to South Audley to ask Tom Purdey to purchase JamesWoodward & Sons, Gun & Rifle Manufacturers.
AT THE TIME MR. WOODWARD ARRIVED, bomb damage was still uncomfortably evident on the façade of Purdey’s majestic building at the corner of South Audley and Mount Streets, but otherwise the company had come through the war admirably. Its machine-tool business, for war production, had been profitable, and although the company faced the same postwar commercial difficulties as other London gunmakers, it was in far better shape to face them.It was even in a position to acquire the assets of others.
When Woodward first approached Purdey about a possible sale that summer, he was turned down. Purdey’s business advisers concluded that, with a production of just three(!) guns a year, a handful of craftsmen, and a small client list,Woodward simply had nothing, really, to buy.
Also, in its 150-year history Purdey had never acquired anyone, although this was common practice in the industry. At that moment, for example, H&H was acquiring the assets of W. J. Jeffery; Stephen Grantfirst merged with Joseph Lang in 1925, then took over Charles Lancaster, Frederick Beesley,and several others.
On Charles Woodward’s second approach, however, Purdey took a closer look.
As a going concern,Woodward may have been going nowhere. Its client list may have been redundant, its work in progress worth a few pounds at best, and its craftsmen, although highly skilled, super annuated. What Woodward did possess, however, and what Purdey badly needed, was the Woodward over-and-under shotgun. That was the jewel, and well worth the price.
To understand why it was so important, we have to go back 25 years to the early 1920s. The economic disaster in the aftermath of the Great War presented the London gunmakers with a situation every bit as dire as 1945.With the English market devastated and the European market nonexistent, London gunmakers turned to America for salvation,and all the prominent gunmakers made regular sales trips to the United States.
America profited handsomely from the war— from both wars, in fact—and there was no shortage of wealthy Americans to buy the finest guns. But many Americans preferred over-and-unders, and for an English company to prosper in the States, it needed one. Although Purdey had made several attempts in this direction over the years, its over-and-unders had never come close to the two premier English designs, the Boss and theWoodward.
In the summer of 1948, Tom Purdey had just returned from a sales trip to the United States, where several potential buyers inquired about over-and-unders. Purdey had barely resumed work on its own design when along came a chance to simultaneously acquire the highly respected Woodward, gain a substantial foot hold in a vital market, and remove a rival.
Purdey made it plain to Charles Woodward that if he aquired Woodward’s company, his firm wouldn’t continue any Woodward gun except the over-and-under. The famous Woodward side-by-side, with its hallmark arcaded fences, would die.
James Purdey & Sons acquired James Woodward & Sons for £300, plus an additional £144 14s 6d for parts, materials, and work in progress. For five years, it would also pay 10 percent royalties on ammunition sales and repairs from Woodward’s client list. After more than a century and roughly 5,000 guns and rifles, the Woodward name disappeared from the roll of London gunmakers.
In 1889,G. T. Teasdale-Buckell, “T-B,”the editor of Land and Water, wrote a series of profiles of London gunmakers. He made the point that these were genuine London firms, not merely sales shops representing “country makers,” and included only those companies producing the very finest work: Purdey, Charles Lancaster, John Rigby, Boss & Co., Stephen Grant, and James Woodward.
Teasdale-Buckell’s articles were later compiled in a book, Experts on Guns and Shooting, a reference used to this day. For whatever reason, Teasdale-Buckell didn’t include his article on Woodward in the book, and that omission has contributed to the reclusive air surrounding the company.
No one knows anything about James Woodward or his background, except that he was born in 1814 and in 1827 apprenticed to Charles Moore, where he worked his way up to the position of head finisher. Around 1844, the company moved to 64 St. James’s Street, Woodward was made a partner, and the company name was changed to Moore & Woodward. Moore retired around 1851, Woodward took over the business, brought his sons into it, and in 1872 the firm became James Woodward & Sons.
The year 1851 was momentous for the London gun trade—the year of the Great Exhibition in which Lefaucheux exhibited his break-action, inspiring Joseph Lang to build the first such London gun. One can imagine no more auspicious time for an ambitious gunmaker to take the London stage, and James Woodward did exactly that. His competitors included such graduates of the Manton school of gunmaking as James Purdey, Thomas Boss, and Stephen Grant.
Woodward wasn’t only a gifted gunmaker with impeccable taste, the highest standards, and a unique flair; he was also a talented gun designer. Over the next 60 years, he, his sons, and his employees made a significant impact with a wide range of patents, as the London gun trade enjoyed what Michael McIntosh called “the most momentous half-century in the history of shotguns.”
It was a half century in which the break-action side-by-side as we know it was conceived, developed, and perfected. Historian Donald Dallas refers to this half century as the “pursuit of perfection,” and it’s hard to argue that the London trade (abetted by its cohorts in Birmingham) didn’t achieve that.
The London gun progressed from the pinfire, through centerfire hammer guns, to hammerless; Purdey developed the double underlug, Scott (of Birmingham) the Scott spindle, and together they became the standard bolting system used today. John Stanton perfected the rebounding hammer; Frederick Beesley designed first the Purdey action, then the Lancaster—the premier hammerless self-openers of all time.
That isn’t the tip of the iceberg or even the tip of the tip: It is the crystal atop that tip, and the patents of those years, many still in wide use around the world, filled three volumes published by Crudgington & Baker.
Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, conceived the Great Exhibition, and its success owed a great deal to his backing. So, too, did the many shooting sports in England. Because he was an enthusiastic deer stalker and wing shooter, those activities became all the rage at every level of society, and it was this enthusiasm (to say nothing of money) that allowed the London gun trade to flower.
Competition was intense, and every fine gunmaker looked for something to set his works apart. Lesser makers, unable to make true “best” guns, sought gimmicks. A “best” gun, by the way, is a gun that no further effort or expense can improve. It is a maker’s finest effort, with nothing spared. Today, the term is tossed around to describe all manner of machine-made (albeit expensive) junk.
Only Boss & Co. made the making of best guns a fetish, printing maker of best guns only on its trade label. Everyone else, Purdey included, made different grades of guns.
Each, however, did have a few products that became its trademark. With Purdey, it was the Beesley-designed self-opening sidelock, while Stephen Grant liked side-lever guns. James Woodward & Sons set itself apart, in a way, by not setting itself apart. Throughout its history, the company made a wide range of guns and rifles, incorporating virtually any feature a client might like. No single Woodward patent became a standard feature of a best gun, but that doesn’t mean that Woodward wasn’t an active inventor.
"After an almost-50-year hiatus, the London Woodward was back. But then, in several important ways, the Woodward never left."
Before the advent of the hammerless gun, different makers sought ways of automatically cocking hammer guns, to save steps when the birds were flying . Woodward, always an admirer of underlevers, patented a self-cocking design, with the underlever cocking the hammers as well as releasing the barrels. It was called “The Automatic,” or sometimes “Automaton.”
It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time the word automatic was associated with a shotgun, and it causes some confusion today when automatic means “machine gun.”
With the advent of hammerless locks, Woodward adapted this pattern, using the underlever to cock the tumblers. “The Automatic” became a popular Woodward model, and the company even produced them for other makers— a common practice.
Woodward was known (to use a hackneyed term) as “the gunmaker’s gunmaker.” Its quality was never in doubt, nor its workmanship. During the company’s century of existence, it made fewer than 5,000 guns and rifles; the serial numbers begin in the 3,000 range (probably taking over where Charles Moore left off) and end at 7,184 in 1948.
Woodward was also a “shooter’s gunmaker.” By this we mean that a man who knew guns, and shot his guns a great deal, would go to Woodward because he knew he would get a gun that would last under hard use. One finds many old Purdeys in almost-new condition, shot little, purchased by men who had made money, felt they should shoot “the best,” and assumed that meant a Purdey. One finds very few pristine Woodwards. They were made to be shot, and shot they were. Woodward’s direct rival in the London trade wasn’t Purdey, but Boss. The firm was of about the same size, situated a few doors down, at No. 73 St. James’s Street, and, until Boss was purchased by John Robertson in 1892, produced relatively few guns, but ones of exquisite quality.
British gun historian Donald Dallas points out that they were the only two makers that did their final finishing, not with emery cloth on a wooden block but with ultra-fine #8 files. Those files are almost impossible to find today. Boss and Woodward believed fi ling gave guns a “crispness” that couldn’t be achieved with less exact polishing blocks.
In 1892, Robertson purchased the struggling Boss & Co. from Thomas Boss’s nephew, and Boss entered a new era. Robertson was one of the foremost outworkers and designers in the trade, and he brought Boss to a new level of innovation, modernizing its products and even improving its already legendary quality. Among Robertson’s inventions was, first, his single-trigger mechanism (1893), followed in 1909 by the famous Boss over-and-under.
Woodward’s shop, not to be left behind, designed (but never patented) its own single trigger, and its own over-and-under in 1913. The firearm was called, incidentally, an “under-and-over” or, occasionally, the “vertical double.”
Until that time, no English company had made a really successful over-and-under. Part of the design problem was a bolting mechanism that didn’t make the gun excessively deep. Boss solved that problem by using the ancient cannon trunnion for pivoting the barrels. The trunnions were attached to the barrel block beside the under-barrel, rather than beneath it. The result was a slim, graceful gun.
Woodward’s patent employed the same principle in reverse, placing the trunnions in the wall of the receiver. If one was better than the other, no one to this day has proved it.
Woodward’s timing, however, was unfortunate. Boss had time to establish its over-and-under before war engulfed Europe; Woodward did not. After 1918, the Woodward was being offered in the midst of economic devastation. Woodward catalogs from the 1930s describe the over-and-under as “the gun of the day.” The copy also points out that the firm built its first “under-and-over” in 1908, before the Boss appeared, but was dissatisfied with it and spent five years perfecting a new design.
The catalogs also tacitly point out who the real rival was when they assure clients that “We do not build our guns down to a price—they are built up to a standard of excellence in design and workmanship unsurpassed by any other fi rm. Nevertheless the prices of our guns will be found to compare very favourably indeed with those of other firms making best guns only.” (Our italics.)
For the record, when that catalog was issued in the 1930s, a Woodward “best” side-by-side sold for £120; the “Under and Over” gun, “Made in best quality only,” was £140—£40 more than a Ford 8 saloon.
JAMES PURDEY ACQUIRED WOODWARD effective January 1, 1949. All Woodward guns disappeared except for the over-and-under, which was renamed Woodward/Purdey.
In his history of Purdey, Richard Beaumont includes an appendix listing all the subsequent modifications to the over-and-under design. They included slimming the receiver, redesigning the firing pins to maximize the blow to the primer (a noted weak point of the Woodward), modernizing the locks, and strengthening the fore end. The bolster was moved inside the frame and out o f sight, giving the gun c leaner external lines, and introduced a rounded Purdey top strap to reduce cracking, combined with a Purdey-style safety and top lever. Similar alterations were made to the smaller gauges, which included 20, 28, and .410 bores.
The first Purdey/Woodward over-and-under, a 12-bore, was delivered in 1950, and it has been a mainstay of the Purdey line ever since. Together, the Woodward and Boss designs inspired (and, in many cases, were the models for) what we now know as the modern over-and-under shotgun, made from Japan to Germany, Italy, and now the United States.
In 1995, James Purdey & Sons announced that once again it would offer guns, both over-and-unders and side-by-sides, with the name J. Woodward & Sons engraved on the locks. It also resumed the Woodward serial number sequence where the count had left off in 1948. After an almost-50-year hiatus, the London Woodward was back. But then, in several important ways, the Woodward never left.
Its old location on St. James’s Street now houses a Swiss private bank, the Bury Street premises no longer exists, and the old workshop in Blue Ball Yard, off St. James ’s Street, is a discreet hotel mews. As for the walk from Bury Street to South Audley, it is nothing like it once was.
Charles Woodward might not recognize this new London, but he would certainly recognize his family’s most famous legacy.
Wieland dates his awakening to what a really fine gun feels like to a day in 1991 when Michael McIntosh dragged him bodily to a booth at a gun show and placed in his hands a Woodward 28-bore over-and-under. The asking price was a then-astronomical $75,000. Wieland didn’t have the money, but he still has the memory.