Words by Simon de Burton – a journalist and author based in Dartmoor, South Devon, specialising in heritage and luxury living. He writes for the Financial Times, Country & Townhouse, Daily Telegraph, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among many others.
To a seasoned shot, the act of breaking a gun – resting its barrels across a forearm and sliding-in a pair of snug-fitting, brass-topped cartridges – comes as naturally as putting pen to paper or raising a glass to the lips.
But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the type of centre-fire cartridges we are so familiar with today were invented (by Frenchman Clement Pottet), and it wasn’t until 1861 that they arrived in Britain.
A significant advancement on the pin-fire system of breech loading – which was inconvenient for many reasons, not least that the cartridge pin had to be precisely positioned and that the protruding pins made them difficult to store – the centre-fire cartridge was brought here by gun and rifle maker George Daw after he purchased the English patent rights.
Purdey began making pinfire guns in 1857 and continued to do so until 1898, when the last example was sold to the famously eccentric gun collector, Charles Gordon.
At the same time, Purdey converted many of its older guns to accept the modern centre-fire cartridges – the rights to which were quickly wrested from Daw by the ammunition manufacturer Eley Bros, which discovered that the over-riding French patent had not been maintained.
But the innovative Purdey was far less interested in converting guns than manufacturing them, so it was inevitable that it should set-out to produce its own centre-fire shotguns – and the company's very first ‘central fire’ gun carries the serial number '6992'.
Today, the 12-gauge 6992 is on display at Audley House. It’s one of the most significant objects in Purdey’s extensive historic archive and, although it was ultimately sold, gun room manager Dr Nicholas Harlow believes it was the original prototype.
“It only takes a brief look at 6992 to see that it is not nearly as profusely engraved as contemporary guns that were specifically built to be sold,” he explains. “This gun has all the appearances of a working prototype that was designed to be tested, but not to be retailed.”
The gun features Purdey’s elegant, patented thumb-lever for opening the snap-action barrels, as well as its ‘loaded indicators’, a clever safety device in the form of two small studs on top of the action that pop-up when the gun is loaded.
“When 6992 was made, we were coming out of the era of the pin fire system, where the pin readily showed whether or not the gun was loaded,” Dr Harlow continues. “The stud arrangement on 6992 didn’t prevail, because it soon became convention simply to open the gun to show that it was not loaded.”
No. 6992 is hugely significant to Purdey’s gun making history since it is, essentially, the first ‘modern’ shotgun of any calibre to have been produced by the firm. There is a good chance, however, that it might almost have been lost.
“Although it was clearly a prototype, our records show that it was, in fact, sold to a man called Frederick Searle Parker on 28 August 1867, in what is described in the order book as ‘best finished’ condition – despite the gun not being particularly highly decorated,” explains Dr Harlow.
“It was priced at £57 and 15 shillings, but a note in the order book explains that Searle-Parker always got a 10 per cent discount as he was a friend of James Purdey the Younger.
“Indeed, Parker and his brother subsequently acquired the estate of Westgate-on-Sea, just along the coast from Margate where the Purdeys also kept a home. But in March 1884 the Parkers were reported as having disappeared, leaving behind debts of £1m, which meant ownership of Westgate-on-Sea subsequently passed to Coutts bank.”
Parker certainly had the gun until 1882, but his outstanding debt was eventually paid off by James personally in 1887. Quite when 6992 returned to Audley House isn’t clear, but it had certainly been there for many years.
Visitors to Purdey HQ can now see it, proudly and permanently displayed in a glass cabinet alongside other important pieces, including the distinctive but short-lived ‘four barrelled’ shotgun.