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’ll hone in on a historical highlight from the Purdey archives. This instalment is a particular favourite, the miniature gun.
Purdey was first assigned a Royal Warrant in 1868 by Edward VII as Prince of Wales, and the company has since enjoyed the unbroken patronage of every British monarch from the reign of Queen Victoria until the present day. Among its most ardent royal followers was King George V, who received his first trio of Purdey hammer ejector shotguns in 1893 as a gift to mark his marriage to Princess Mary of Teck.
Two years before, however, George had come to appreciate the light weight of a particular Purdey ‘Spotter’ gun – a simply-finished training tool – which had been made for him to ‘keep his eye in’ while recovering from a life-threatening bout of typhoid fever. In fact, he found the Spotter so forgiving that he later asked for its weight to be matched by another trio of highly finished hammer ejector guns that he commissioned for regular use.
These were completed in around 1931 and were so well received by the King that they inspired Purdey’s gunsmiths to embark on a remarkable project: they would build a further set that would be fully operational – but would be scaled-down to one sixth of the size of the real thing.
Small but perfectly formed
Eight years earlier Purdey had created an even smaller pair of guns, just four inches in length, for Queen Mary’s celebrated and famously elaborate doll’s house – but they were very much models rather than working miniatures. At little more than six inches in length, the new ones were not quite so tiny in size, but the decision to make them fully operational presented a mammoth task that ended up taking almost four years to complete.
With barrels as thin as pencils, stocks made from mere slivers of wood and an action comprising components as microscopically small as those used in the deeper recesses of a watch movement, the project proved to be a challenge even to Purdey’s most experienced craftsmen. Four examples of the miniature hammer guns were embarked upon, but one broke halfway through construction.
Of the three that were successfully finished, two were presented to the King to mark his Silver Jubilee in 1935, complete with an exquisite silver gun case made by Royal jeweller Garrard. Eley Brothers, meanwhile, were commissioned to produce a small supply of tiny cartridges based on its brass-cased ‘Ejector’ grouse cartridges and each containing minuscule quantities of charge.
The shooting of tiny targets
“The King is said to have been delighted with his pair of tiny shotguns, and there is a story – which is almost certainly apocryphal – that he used to amuse himself by lighting a candle and aiming them at any moths that were attracted to the flame,” says Gun Room Manager Dr Nick Harlow. “The third gun was retained by us as a back-up and later gifted to Tom Purdey – grandson of James Purdey the Younger – to mark his 41st birthday in 1938. It remains on show at South Audley Street, resting on a yellow velvet cushion on a wooden base, just as it was presented to Tom 85 years ago.”
This miniature gun is displayed with its case, made by the wife of factory foreman Ernest Lawrence, which contains a full set of miniature cleaning accessories and a single unfired cartridge. King George’s miniature Purdeys, meanwhile, remain prized items among the Royal collections. The likelihood of any of the three guns being fired today, however, is slim.
“Although a complete box of cartridges survives alongside the miniature guns made for the King, we only have that single one in our possession,” says Harlow. “Others do exist, because the creation of the guns was regarded as such a remarkable achievement that some of Purdey’s most valued customers were given examples of the tiny cartridges as keepsakes. But those that survive are now highly coveted by shooting memorabilia collectors.”
As well as being exquisite examples of micro-engineering, the Purdey miniatures are also representative of the pause in a gun making era, as George V was the last of the company’s clients to commission hammer ejector guns – before the action was revived by Purdey 70 years later, in 2004.
Next month, Purdey Pieces will be focused on another gun made for King George V, this time full size, but with its own innovative detail…