Words by Dr. Nick Harlow, Gun Room Manager at Purdey and our in-house historian.
Welcome to Purdey Pieces, where each month we’ll hone in on a historical highlight from the Purdey archives. This week, the spotlight is on a particularly special gun, the Flintlock No. 86.
For those of you who have been to Audley House – and if not, it’s well worth a visit – you might have noticed the case of 12 guns in the front shop. Arranged in serial number order, each marks a key moment in the development of our guns, from muzzle-loaders all the way through to the designs we still build today.
As Purdey’s in-house historian, I’d argue that the most important in our history is the first of these 12 – the Flintlock No. 86. At 204 years old, it is not only the oldest gun in our collection, but also the oldest surviving double gun bearing the Purdey name. Its story is particularly intriguing – of all the items in our archive to choose from, there’s a reason this one made the cut.
When No. 86 was completed in 1818, the original James Purdey was in business at his first premises on Princes Street (now Wardour Street). He had already built a reputation for the highest-quality workmanship – after completing his apprenticeship as a stocker under his brother-in-law, he worked for Joseph Manton and the Reverend Alexander Forsyth, two of the finest and most innovative gunmakers of that age.
James Purdey went on to employ others, who became recognisable names in their own right – notably Thomas Boss, who was an outworker for Purdey between 1817 and 1830, and could well have been involved in the making of this gun.
A series of historical clues
In terms of its early history, much about the gun remains a mystery. With no surviving original record, we don’t know who No. 86 was built for. The first surviving reference in the Purdey records comes from the Second-Hand Stock Book in 1893, when a total of 19 guns were entered (not all by Purdey), including No. 86.
In the book, it was simply described as a “Flint Gun…purchased some years ago”. Sadly for us history lovers, the source is not recorded, so all we can say is that the gun has been at Audley House for at least the last 130 years.
In many of the early records there was also a small confusion as to the numbering, leading to it being recorded as ‘86 or 98’ until 1900, when the lower number was settled on. Dig into the archives and you’ll find that these things are always fascinating but rarely straightforward.
The finer details of No. 86
As a gun, No. 86 is everything you’d hope for from the pinnacle of early 19th-century gunmaking. It is a double flintlock, with all of the refinements that had been developed by James Purdey’s first employer, Manton, including a rainproof pan to keep the black powder dry, and mechanisms to make the detonation as fast as possible.
It also incorporated the latest safety refinement at the time – a grip-safety, patented in 1818, which operates in a very similar manner to the intercepting safety we still fit today. This feature means that, although the original record for No. 86 does not survive, it has always been dated to the year the patent was confirmed.
In terms of engraving, the lock features a finely executed design, where coiled sea serpents snake around a vase with ‘Purdey’ in a rectangular banner. The rib is gold-inlaid with ‘Purdey’ in gothic script, and the breeches also have gold-lined rectangles stamped with the Purdey name. Opulence was clearly the name of the game back in the 1800s.
One final point of interest is the shape of the escutcheon, fitted behind the top tang. The unusual configuration was particularly difficult to fit – and family legend has it that they were only fitted by James Purdey himself.
A snapshot in time
This gun is also the focal point of a photograph that has come to be known as ‘Long Room, 1928’, taken to mark Athol Purdey’s 70th birthday. Yes, even family photo albums hold clues.
In it, Athol is sitting on the club fender in front of the Long Room’s fireplace, looking down at No. 86. He is flanked by his two sons, Jim and Tom, with photographs of his father and grandfather on the mantelpiece behind him.
Today, No. 86 remains one of our most treasured possessions, and is our most eloquent demonstration of Purdey’s long history of best-quality gunmaking. Get down to Audley House to see it for yourself – and, if you happen to know who No. 86 was built for, please do get in touch.
Next month, Purdey Pieces will hone in on one of the oldest pieces of equipment still in regular use by any gun manufacturer today…