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 back to Purdey Pieces, where each month we explore a highlight from the Purdey archives. This week, we're sizing up the ingenious Measuring Gun, believed to have been used to measure all the crown heads of Europe for a bespoke gun.
By the early 1870s the name of James Purdey and Sons would have been familiar to almost every serious shot in Britain and Europe as that of a maker of the best guns on the market.
As a result, the Purdey family travelled far and wide in order to meet new clients and make the firm’s products available to an even greater number of shooting enthusiasts.
But while showing potential customers one or more examples of a finished gun would ably demonstrate the impeccable fit, finish, action and balance that have always been Purdey signatures, it wasn’t always possible – or especially convenient – to have to do so.
With this in mind, James Purdey the Younger (who took over the running of the firm from his father in 1858) set his famously innovative mind to work and quickly came up with the idea of the ‘measuring gun’, for which a patent application was made in 1872.
An ingenious tailoring tool
Far more than being simply a replica of a real gun, the measuring gun was a highly technical piece of engineering in its own right. Its purpose was not to show what a finished Purdey gun could look like, but to measure a client in a convenient space, such as a hotel room, preventing the need to to travel to London for the fitting. These measurements enabled the Purdey craftsmen in London to make a bespoke gun with full confidence that the end result would fit the client when it arrived in their hands.
To achieve this, the stock could be pitched up or down to variations of several degrees and could also be moved to left and right – and even extended to accommodate long-armed shots.
A ruler built into the heel of the stock enabled the fitter to take an exact measurement for optimum comfort, while an indicator mounted on top of the barrel rib made it possible to mark-off the preferred “cast” (the pitch to left or right from the central line of the gun). A “bend stick” was then used to measure the downward pitch of the stock from that same central line.
Close examination of the measuring gun reveals the many intricate details that had to be incorporated in order to make it such a useful and effective tool for Purdey. The barrels, for example, were made from Damascus steel (probably re-cycled from a defunct gun) in order to create a realistic feeling of weight and balance.
No action was present, but the measuring gun was fitted with a capstan screw on the bottom of the barrel joint to enable it to be broken down for transport purposes. Worm screws were used to enable the stock to be adjusted throughout its various planes and – in order to prevent the regular movement wearing away the wood at the head of the stock – a slice of horn was inserted between it and the barrel.
The Measuring Gun soon began its global travels. “During the first half of the 19th century, the majority of Purdey guns were sold to customers in Britain – but, in the second half, demand for Purdey guns began to grow around the world,” says Purdey’s archivist, Dr Nick Harlow.
“As a result, Purdey began to show at some of the world’s major exhibitions, starting with the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876 – to which the measuring gun was taken. Perhaps more remarkably however, it is also believed to have been used to measure all of the crown heads of Europe – and, indeed, it led to the development of the electric ‘spotter’ gun originally designed in 1929 for the use of King George V.”
If the measuring gun could talk, it would surely have some fascinating tales to tell.