by Terry Wieland
As the late, great American essayist, A.J. Liebling, once wrote of boxing, “You can trace the modern fighter back to antiquity by who punched who in the nose.” It’s a straight linear progression.
Similarly, for the better part of two and half centuries, one could trace the making of the best English guns by who apprenticed to whom, learning the trade, the nuances, the ins, the outs, and the techniques that have made English guns the finest the world has ever seen.
For example, John Manton worked with John Twigg, Joseph Manton with his brother John, James Purdey, Charles Lancaster and Thomas Boss with Joseph Manton, and so on. In some cases, a craftsman in the 20th century found himself using tools made by a forebear a century earlier, to whom he could trace his apprenticeship lineage directly.
The apprenticeship system has been the bedrock of fine gunmaking in England since there has been fine gunmaking in England, and that’s a long time indeed. Those who think such an archaic approach could, and should, be replaced by technical colleges and the like either don’t understand apprenticeship, or fine guns, or technical-college education, or all three.
Originally, an apprenticeship was seven years. A lad of 14 or so would be bound to a master craftsman, live in his house, work with him seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day, and slowly learn everything he needed to know about how to file a lock, bore a barrel, or shape a walnut stock. The “master” was paid a fee by the boy’s family — in effect, tuition. At the end of seven years, he would pass a test to show what he could do, be certified as a journeyman, and begin his career.
Gradually, the terms eased. Seven years became six, then five; work weeks were shortened, as were daily hours. Apprentices were bound to companies, rather than individuals. But overall, the requirements were the same, and qualified craftsmen came out the other end — men capable of doing extraordinary work.
In Spain, the system was much the same. Aspiring gunmakers might go to the Escuela de Armas in Eibar (School of Gunmaking), but when they finished their three- or four-year course, which included a variety of technical skills, like operating a lathe, they would then apprentice to one of the fine gunmakers, like Armas Garbi or Pedro Arrizabalaga. The skills learned there, from master craftsmen, simply could not be taught in a school room.
In England, the number of companies offering apprenticeships dwindled until, now, there is Holland & Holland, James Purdey, and Westley Richards. Most of the independent craftsmen working today are graduates of those very tough schools. As the world changed, however, many worried about the future. How long could this continue? And if those companies ceased to train their own craftsmen, who would step in?
After all, the more independent-minded finished their apprenticeship and then went out on their own. On the surface, this meant Purdey or H&H lost their investment. In fact, it is more complicated than that, since many were on their own — technically — but continued to work for their old employer “in the trade.” Of course, if they emigrated to the U.S., as many did, and do, that’s not possible.
Anyway, the good news is that the reconstituted John Rigby & Co. has just announced a formal apprenticeship program within the company which they are calling the “Rigby Academy.” I say “reconstituted.” In fact, Rigby has been back in London, where it belongs, for more than a decade after its ignominious sojourn in California. The name and the company records were purchased by the parent company of Blaser and Mauser in Germany, and the new Rigby was placed under the directorship of Marc Newton.
One of Marc’s many good qualities is that he reveres the company’s history and traditions, and combines this with a sense of what modern shooters need and demand. The result is a return of the legendary “Rigby rising bite” in double rifles, and also the return of genuine Mauser 98-actioned Rigby bolt rifles. All are made to the level of quality that Rigby of London delivered a century ago.
The Academy’s five-year program mirrors the industry apprenticeship as it now exists. It’s a five-year course, overseen by Newton and the company’s qualified craftsmen. At the end, graduates will receive a certificate and be invited to apply for a permanent position.
Right now, more qualified English gunmakers are retiring than are being replaced by newly qualified craftsmen. This does not bode well for the English gun trade nor, for that matter, all of the fine guns now in the U.S. that require periodic attention. (When you’re 125, you might require periodic attention, too.)
Efforts like the Rigby Academy will help to remedy this. The English gun trade has been pronounced dead or dying more times than I can count, but it always seems to rejuvenate itself. Here’s hoping.
Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland has been accused of being an anachronism himself. He takes it as a compliment.