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.
Welcome to Purdey Pieces, where each month we home in on a historical highlight from the Purdey archives. This time, it’s all about a silent gun with royal pedigree.
The Purdey archive is replete with fascinating artefacts, but perhaps one of the most remarkable is the royal shotgun that makes absolutely no noise, enabling the user to realistically practice shooting without firing a single shot.
This ingenious Purdey Electric Spotter Gun was created in 1929 at the request of King George V to enable him to enjoy his favourite pastime while in poor health.
A combination of a serious injury sustained by falling from his horse during a troop review in 1915 and chronic bronchitis, exacerbated by a love of smoking, meant that the King was unwell throughout the last 20 years of his life. His health went into severe decline in late 1929 after he contracted the blood infection septicaemia.
As a result of that and ongoing lung problems, the King moved temporarily to Craigwell House near the coastal resort of Bognor Regis, where it was believed the sea air might provide a cure.
Since he was often confined to bed and unable to shoot, Purdey built a wooden replica of the King's hammer guns that matched their measurements exactly but was much lighter.
Electric fire power
Purdey Pieces, King George V's Electric Gun from James Purdey & Sons on Vimeo.
This wooden gun contained a device recently patented by Purdey and developed by its esteemed gunmaker Ernest Lawrence – an electric “cartridge” that could be inserted into a gun barrel and which, instead of firing shot, projected a beam of light onto the aiming point.
Comprising a battery tube with a bulb and lens at one end and an electrical contact at the other, it threw out a magnified light when a circuit was formed as a result of the trigger being pulled.
The original invention was advertised as the Purdey Electric Spotter Gun and promised ‘amusement and instruction’.
“Quite harmless in the hands of a small boy, but it will teach how to take up a gun and will train his eye,” ran the description of the device. “Has two barrels actuated by normal triggers and projecting, in broad daylight, a spot of light on the object aimed at, showing whether the aim is accurate.”
Priced at just £5 (equivalent to about £256 today), “with extra batteries and bulbs”, the Electric Spotter Gun proved popular in its original form – but the beautifully crafted wooden version made for King George (and now part of the Purdey archive) led to further inspiration along the same lines.
A gun for in-door useDuring the 1930s, another example was built from wood and developed into a ‘try gun’ that existing and prospective customers could use in the celebrated Long Room at Purdey’s Audley House headquarters.
The gun enabled both gunmaker and client to get a more precise idea of the optimum weight and measurement to which the finished article should be built in order to ensure it enhanced the accuracy of each individual.
The try gun was also taken on “selling trips” so that customers could take advantage of it when being measured-up in their own homes – and it was on one such occasion that the original was stolen, and it was only recently recovered. Around 20 years ago, however, a replacement was built and today remains at Audley House, where it can be compared with King George V’s original.
Next month Purdey Pieces will look at one of our earliest surviving records, and one of the few pieces to still exist from our original shop: the First Order Book, from 1823...