In the 19th century, Harris Holland and his nephew Henry William embodied the highest level of skill in the world of British gunmaking. Since 1835, the firm they founded has supplied royalty and presidents; Theodore Roosevelt was a client. Today, their names – Holland & Holland – live on through the continuing tradition of the company’s unrivalled craftsmanship.
Holland & Holland is unique among its peers – which include James Purdey & Sons and Brescia’s Luciano Bosis – because all the various gun components are still made by hand in its own factory. Purpose-built in 1895, the discreet red-brick building on London’s Harrow Road is south facing to maximise the amount of natural light for the 42 craftsmen within. Each stage in the process is still performed with the naked eye and requires an artist’s skill and precision.
Passing through the heavy steel security doors (painted Holland & Holland green), visitors are led downstairs to the lower ground floor, where the ‘rough work’ takes place and the gun’s action block and barrels begin life as high-grade steel billets and drop-forged bars of solid steel respectively. Like a Michelangelo sculpture taking shape from a slab of marble, the action block slowly appears, and the surfaces, smoothed by a process known as spark erosion, begin to resemble a steel chunk of Swiss cheese. It’s a process that takes more than 50 hours, to create just one, albeit major, element of the over 200 working parts that make up the finished gun. The process requires 12 hours of turning, boring, grinding and lapping per tube (as each proto-barrel is known).
Upstairs in the barrel and actions shops, the craftsman of today can put on his apron and pick up exactly the same tools he would have done 150 years ago. He may even have made them: a Holland & Holland apprenticeship lasts five years, prior to specialisation (there were 350 applicants for just six places this year), and during this time trainees make the hundreds of tools required for the various stages of gun production. I watched an apprentice carefully applying a fifth layer of linseed oil to the handle of a file and realised that such tasks give the sense of pride and ownership, and also the acute understanding of the entire process, that are required to become a master of the craft. Forty years on, quality manager Paul Faraway, who joined Holland & Holland at the age of 16, still uses the tools he made as an apprentice. On a work bench, a steel file is engraved ‘1936’. ‘We’re not using old techniques for the sake of image,’ says Faraway. ‘There is simply no better way to make guns of this quality.’
There are other time-honoured processes. Barrels need some 230 further hours of work: filing (‘striking the tubes’), soldering, ‘tinning the ribs’ (fixing in place the metal struts that join the barrels) and smoothing the bore. Next door, the action and other components are prepared with meticulous patience, all with the traditional smith’s smoke lamp, whose sooty deposits mark the raised areas that require additional attention. The parts for each gun are numbered – they are unique and will fit no other gun. Every element must be flawless. Passing through the shop, Faraway pauses to show me a special commission, the action for a one-off triple-barrelled shotgun, specially designed for a longstanding client. ‘Quite a tricky design,’ he notes, with understatement.
The highly polished stock begins life as a block of straight-grained walnut that is dried for up to two years to ensure it does not warp. It is then hand-shaped to fit comfortably to the client, like a Savile Row suit (or two suits, since guns are always made in pairs). It then takes two weeks just to apply all the layers of linseed oil. The most eye-catching example of artistry is the engraving on the action. The standard Royal Scroll pattern takes 150 hours and the Classic Acanthus 240 hours, says Kirsty Swan, a specialist engraver with Holland & Holland for 18 years. More detailed game scenes and those requiring gold inlay can take up to 500 hours. Many of the best engravers are in the UK; clients may have to wait several years if they want to secure a particular artist for their commission.
‘For many owners, guns are not just weapons; they are pieces of art,’ the foreman tells me. Holland & Holland turns out 50 guns a year. Michelangelo worked faster than that.