Guns with style and history caught Michael E Haskew’s eye at auction.
For the people in the central Russian town of Tula in the mid-18th century, the threat of marauding nomadic incursions, bandits terrorising and pillaging across the region, was very real. In Moscow, Tsar Peter The Great understood the gravity of the situation. The population needed arms for its own defence but the production facilities in the capital city could not deliver weapons in sufficient numbers.
Peter, therefore, established the Tula Arsenal in 1712; the facility was destined to become a centre of Russian arms production for the next 300 years. The Tsar invested the Tula works with the finest state-of-the-art equipment, including water-powered boring machines, forging tools and drilling gear.
In short order, the Tula Arsenal was recognised as setting the standard for producing the highest quality arms in all of Russia. Along the way, its craftsmen sometimes created pieces that dazzled observers, showcasing the skills of those who laboured there.
One such Tula tour de force is an exquisite pair of 16-bore flintlock silver and gilt-mounted holster pistols completed in 1742, a full 17 years after the death of Peter The Great. These pistols stirred excitement during the June 2021 auction conducted by Holts at its home in Church Farm Barns, Wolferton, Norfolk, shattering the pre-auction sale estimate of £5,000 to £7,000. When the hammer finally fell, the handsome pair fetched £27,000.
These heavily embellished pistols were fashioned with maidenhair damascus, slightly swamped 10in barrels. Incidentally, the production of damascus steel requires an expert’s hand. Composed of various metals, heated, hammered and folded into numerous layers to produce an alloy that generates interesting patterns, damascus steel lends itself well to artful endeavours such as this.
Attention to detail is apparent throughout these fine pieces, including applied short silver sighting ribs with floral terminals surrounded by heavily applied gilt scrollwork. The foresights are crafted from applied raised and carved silver grotesque masks, and additional gilt scrollwork is generously added throughout. Silver covered top tangs are engraved with borders, an arrow and quiver motif, and scrollwork. Radiused locks are detailed with carved raised borderlines, and the point tails of each are engraved with the head of a fearsome mythical beast. Both locks are signed in Cyrillic and dated.
The pistols are complete with white rainproof pans. Swan-neck cocks are engraved, and exhibit carved and raised borderlines, while the frizzens are moulded with feathered terminals to their stops and springs. The full stocks are of carved burr walnut with teardrops behind the locks and sideplates. One of these plates is cracked through at the wrist but has been repaired.
The top tangs are adorned with raised carved floral borders with carved plain borders at the edges of the fore-ends and ramrod channels. Above each thimble and at the ramrod throats, graceful details are visible, while silver long-spurred buttcaps are relief moulded and engraved with centralised grotesque masks.
Trigger guard tangs, bows and finials are of moulded silver, as are the ramrod throats and thimbles with rolled ends. Vacant silver rococo escutcheons are prominent to each wrist, and carved and pierced silver trophy sideplates along with silver faced wooden ramrods (probably original) complete the stunning package.
The pistols were completed by the Tula Arsenal in the midst of its golden age. By 1720, Tula was a principal supplier of flintlock pistols and light infantry and dragoon rifles for the Russian Army, producing 22,000 of these in that year alone. By the mid-18th century, the facility was manufacturing edged weapons, swords, sabres, knives and bayonets. Later, its Diamond Line technique was a featured metal embellishment on weaponry intended to display the advanced skillsets of its artisans.
Renowned gunmakers Ivan Pauline, who developed one of the world’s first repeating arms manufacturing concerns, Ivan Pushkin and Ivan Lialin, who invented the double-barrelled breechloading flintlock, worked at Tula in the late 1700s. During the 19th century, the arsenal manufactured the Berdan rifle, originally an American model, and the famed designers Sergei Mosin and Emile Nagant were resident craftsmen.
Tula developed and produced weapons during the Soviet era as well, including the Maxim machine gun and Tokarev rifle. Its engineers also developed various types of precision milling machines.
During World War II, invading German armoured formations forced the temporary evacuation of Tula, reducing its arms output during the ‘Great Patriotic War’. However, production of the Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle and semiautomatic SVT-40 rifle were undertaken.
Tula remained an important centre of arms production during the Cold War, producing, among other weapons, the famed AK-47 assault rifle. It remains active today as a component of NPO High Precision Weapons, JSC, manufacturing a variety of military and civilian arms – from guided missiles to shotguns.
Another head turner, a 12-bore, single-trigger, detachable-lock, ejector shotgun by Westley Richards of Birmingham and London, was sold during Bonham’s May Sporting Guns, Rifles and Vintage Firearms auction at Knightsbridge, London. Selling for £4,845, the gun features toplever rib and fore-end numbered with ‘4’ in gold, treble-grip scrollback action body, familiar Westley Richards patent fully-detachable locks with hinged floorplate, selective single-trigger and well-figured stock with horn buttplate and horn tipped fore-end.
A small chip is noticeable at the lower right horn of the stock. Foliate scroll engraving is prominent with the maker’s name engraved within a scrolling banner. The toplever and trigger guard are engraved with vignettes of gamebirds in outdoor settings. The barrels are engraved ‘Westley Richards, 23 Conduit St. London, Gun Makers by Appointment to his Majesty George V Rex et Imp’.
The gun has been confirmed by the maker as completed in 1923 as the last of a set of four single-trigger, detachable-lock, ejector guns specially constructed for His Highness, The Maharaja of Patiala. Ruler of Patiala from 1900 to 1938, the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh was well known for his extravagance, as well as for numerous construction and building initiatives and notable social reforms. Although he died at the age of 46, he packed a tremendous amount of living into his years.
The Maharaja was the first resident of India to own an airplane, which he purchased in 1910. He was an exceptional athlete, serving as captain of an Indian cricket team that toured England in 1911, playing in 27 first-class matches. He also played as a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club. He was a great patron of sports and his cricket and polo teams, the Patiala XI and the Patiala Tigers, were consistently among the best teams in India.
The Maharaja was also known for owning one of the world’s largest collections of medals during his lifetime, and he travelled with an extensive entourage and motorcade of 20 Rolls-Royce automobiles. Amid his fantastic wealth, the Maharaja also owned the famous Patiala Necklace, containing more than 2,900 diamonds, among them the ‘De Beers’, the seventh largest diamond in the world and the world’s largest cushion-cut yellow diamond.
The necklace disappeared from the Patiala Royal Treasury in 1948, but the De Beers Diamond resurfaced alone in the early 1980s, when bidding exceeded $3.16 million during a Sotheby’s auction. It is said that the Maharaja was married 10 times and entertained a number of consorts, fathering 88 children.
William Westley Richards founded the gunmaking concern that bears his name in Birmingham in 1812. He was an innovator, securing patents for a waterproof primer for percussion guns and the first flip-up sight, which was adopted by the British Army. In 1815, Richards opened a store on New Bond Street in London. William Bishop, known as the Bishop of Bond Street, actually owned the store and promoted its retail sales.
In 1865, Westley Richards, son of the founder, inherited the business. He went on to develop the falling block rifle three years later. By 1871, John Deeley had advanced the commercial enterprise with concentrations in South Africa and India. Through Deeley’s efforts, the company grew steadily.
He invented the Anson & Deeley Boxlock action, and a similar method of barrel fall is still in use with sporting guns today. In 1894, the company relocated to Bournbrook, an industrial district in south-west Birmingham. During this period, Leslie B Taylor assumed control of Westley Richards & Co and refined the boxlock action.
During both World Wars, the company produced arms for the military, a definitive shift from its pre-war civilian base. Demand for military weapons slowed precipitously after 1945. Businessman Walter Clode purchased the troubled concern in 1957 and set about reviving its fortunes.
Clode focused on the United States, with a renewed sales push, and also restored vintage weapons that had once been sold in India, selling them around the world. Simon Clode, his son, joined the company in the mid-1980s and spearheaded the restoration of its reputation for high-quality firearms. In 1994, Westley Richards again relocated to new headquarters in Birmingham, and during this period the company diversified into the clothing and accessories markets.
Through more than 200 years of operations, the company has held royal warrants dating back to 1840. Issuers include Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V. Prominent owners of Westley Richards guns included famed novelist Ernest Hemingway, actor Stewart Granger and big game hunter James H Sutherland. One of Hemingway’s double rifles, a .577 Nitro Express, sold at auction for $295,000 in 2011.