How the famous Purdey Sidelock Side-by-Side gun was born

How the famous Purdey Sidelock Side-by-Side gun was born

Of all the men to hold the Purdey name, James Purdey the Younger was probably the most inventive. While his father established the business and built its reputation, it was under his watch that an impressive seven innovations were patented by Purdey (or the company purchased the patent), including the pioneering Purdey Bolts locking system and the Beesley self-opening action.

From the moment he took over the family business, he was determined to make a gun that couldn’t be bettered. So successful was he in this pursuit that the gun in question, the Sidelock Side-by-Side, has barely changed in more than 140 years.

James Purdey the Younger
James Purdey the Younger

“If you say the word Purdey to someone who shoots, this is the gun they think of because it was so widely adopted,” says Purdey Gun Room Manager, Nicholas Harlow. “It’s a feat of engineering and craftsmanship.”

James the Younger began selling the first Side-by-Side hammer guns to take a modern cartridge in 1865, and by the 1870s, Purdey had begun experimenting with hammerless actions. In 1881, he introduced a new Sidelock Side-by-Side gun, built around the Beesley self-opening action. This was invented by a former Purdey stockmaker, Frederick Beesley, and had been developed and patented with the help of James Purdey the previous year.

At the cutting edge 

It was a gun so radical for its time that it remains almost mechanically identical to the bespoke Sidelock Side-by-Side guns Purdey sells today, though ejectors would be added a few years later. Only subtle differences in styling can be detected, such as the shape of the action-bar of the original, crafted to mimic the soft curves and grain of wood, whereas today’s are most commonly finished with a beaded edge, creating the classic "Square Bar" shape so famously associated with the company.

Beesley’s action was such a game-changer that by 1884, it was used in nearly 65% of guns made by Purdey. Early adopters of the hammerless Side-by-Side gun weren’t necessarily the most famous of Purdey’s clients, but by the end of the 19th century, every crowned head of Europe had become a customer. "There were some people who were famously anachronistic, including King George V and the Marquis of Ripon, who stubbornly stuck to their hammer guns,” Dr Harlow explains. “But it says a lot for the ubiquitousness of this design that they stood out because they wouldn’t use it, instead choosing to use older guns.”

Since then, the gun has received only the smallest of tweaks, with minor modifications to the ejector system, but the heart of the action remains the same. It’s a design that has stood the test of time, with The Field naming it one of the best shotguns in the world in 2014, stating, “From the technical perspective, the Purdey gun is possibly the greatest Side-by-Side ever made.” 

But though the mechanics have remained almost unchanged, no two Side-by-Sides are ever the same unless bought as part of a trio. Every element of this refined gun is made bespoke to the client in the Hammersmith Factory – from the length and cast of the stock, to the engraving on the body of the action.  Over the years, modern manufacturing technology has been introduced to the seven stages of gunmaking, but every element is finished by hand and bears the maker’s signature.

Elegant, lightweight and lightning fast to load, the Side-by-Side remains an international best-seller.

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