Ammunition & Innovation In Purdey Gunmaking

Ammunition & Innovation In Purdey Gunmaking

Caroline Roddis is a freelance journalist and consultant specialising in shooting, wine, cigars and whisky. She is a keen shot and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers.

I am standing in the Purdey ammunition store staring at a box of bismuth cartridges emblazoned with the company’s smart branding. Unremarkable, perhaps, except discrepancies in the logo and text demonstrate that this box is almost three decades old. 

Eley introduced bismuth cartridges to market around 1995, and this box is one of the survivors from stock Purdey commissioned around the same time. It’s far from the only curiosity nestled next to the decidedly more modern boxes available to clients – particularly eye-catching is the molyshot, made from molybdenum, that’s even older than the bismuth. 

Given that the brand is synonymous with more than 200 years of tradition, this evidence that it’s been consistently at the forefront of experimenting with new ammunition could be seen as slightly surprising. The impetus behind this quest for the new, however, is quintessentially Purdey. 

“It's the fact that a client might ask us and we should know what we can serve them,” says gunroom manager Dr Nicholas Harlow. “We accept that we are going to end up building guns that will outlast us, so we’re always seeking to understand what’s possible.”

It’s not just their gunmaking clients who benefit from this constant inquisitiveness: as a heritage brand and reliable source of cartridges, Purdey deals with ammunition queries from the wider shooting community on an almost daily basis. Many of these are reflective of the widespread uncertainty around what non toxic shot is available, how it performs and what should be used when. Given the amount of debate in the industry on this topic, the snail-like pace of the final Health and Safety Executive report on lead in ammunition (delayed until, according to MP Robbie Moore, “later this year”) and the sheer amount of conflicting opinions available, these questions are perhaps inevitable as shooters try to muddle through an uncertain landscape. 

Indeed, scroll through a hundred different views on whether or not you can stop a pheasant with steel shot and it’s hard not to feel like there’s a dearth of reliable thought leadership on this subject, which is surely why some manufacturers have started to align themselves with particular types of non-lead ammunition – or indeed invent their own. Is Purdey, whose only branded cartridges (bar of course those vintage bismuth) are currently lead, doing itself and its customers a disservice by not following suit?

Dr Harlow explains that Purdey will look to commission both branded steel and bismuth once the technological and material evolutions involved in developing these have been bedded in, but that constricting its clients’ options runs contrary to its commitment to building pieces that can be cherished for centuries. 

“We’ve got people now looking at guns that are 120 years old and asking if they can convert them forward. The fact those guns are still in service, and still being serviced, is indicative of something.” 

The sense of responsibility to Purdey clients comes from centuries of lessons learned. When, at what might have felt like a similarly seismic technological shift for shooters, the demand changed to breech-loading shotguns over muzzle-loading ones, Purdey owners with guns just a few years old faced a bill around half the cost again to convert them for cartridges. This is one of the reasons why Purdey advocates to its clients that the guns they commission should be suitable for steel. “From a new gun perspective,” says Dr Harlow, “we don’t think it’s responsible to sell without the caveat of what might happen in the future.”  

This measured approach extends beyond protecting the value of clients’ investments, at a time when the developments and implications of each new ammunition type are unclear. Proofing for the most robust option has meant that Purdey owners, who last season reported shooting on estates and moors that mandated only steel cartridges, weren’t left with red faces and without a day on the peg. Nor were those owners sporting guns which were noticeably more unwieldy and less elegant than those without a fleur-de-lys: the Purdey commitment to improvements in materials and technology means that these guns aren’t built particularly differently to their forebears. 

With a global client base that’s often to be found on some of the most prestigious and demanding shoots, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Purdey is constantly innovating to ensure it’s ready for anything. Ask for Teague chokes, for example, and you’ll find that not only has Purdey been fitting them since 1996, but that five chokes are already included in the cost of a gun. Why? Because clients have asked for them, and Purdey would rather offer them ab initio rather than subject the client to the cost of re-proofing later on. 

What about clients who aren’t ready for the service and maintenance required for a full Sidelock? Rather than compromise the quality and efficiency of that action, or ignore the changing requirements of its clients, Purdey introduced the Sporter and the Trigger-Plate as versatile options that meet these needs while retaining all the benefits associated with its world-class gunmaking.

By not clinging to an anachronistic image of either its own brand or its clients’ needs, Purdey is clearly forging a stable path for the next century and beyond. All that remains is to see how many more curiosities end up in the company’s ammunition cupboard before the industry arrives at a definitive conclusion on cartridges.