Plenty can change in 190 years. All bar six of the 44 US Presidents have taken office in the years succeeding 1828. Britain meanwhile, has seen eight monarchs and 53 Prime Ministers in that time. It was back in 1828 that William and Charles Eley had the idea to start producing cartridges from their fathers silversmithing business; now establishing the brand as the longest-serving cartridge manufacturer in Europe.
Marketing Manager, David Thompson explains: “From the early days William and Charles started to create the cartridges of today.” They first took on the patent for the Jenour wire cartridges in the 1840s; but focusing on encased cartridges with papier-mache wrapping a wire case with a powder charge at the bottom was a leap of faith for the brothers.
“They had to be sure that muzzle-loading would die,” adds David, “and be sure that gunmakers would swap over to brand new forms of ignition. Gradually gunmakers followed suit, away from flintlock and muzzle-loading cartridges.”
In 1854 the Eley Brothers applied for their first patent for combustable paper cartridges starting the ball rolling for the company’s innovation. This was rewarded in 1898 when they claimed the Grand Prix Award for Cartridge Innovation at the Paris Exhibition.
“They took the show by storm,” says David, “They showed what British manufacturing could do; they showed how shooting innovations were going to progress in the future. Off the back of that success they launched the Grand Prix paper-case cartridge with a brass head and primer that you would recognise today, and still shoot if you had one!”
However that only marked the beginning, as the business grew further in the wake of the Great War. After the loss of of around 18,000 gamekeepers on the battlefields of France, interest in clay shooting was on the rise.
“After so many gamekeepers died there grew a popularity for clay shooting,” explains David. “Shooters needed something else to keep them occupied whilst they built game numbers and gamekeeping back up to pre-war levels. They worked hard to rebuild game shooting, so we produced the first trap cartridges that could be used in lighter shots, lighter loads, so that people could keep shooting and enjoying those beautiful old hand-driven traps that trappers used to be famed for.
“That innovation continued, so in 1933 when plastics were first discovered, we created the very first plastic cartridge in the world. This started the evolution of what we have today with higher speeds, higher pressures, improved cartridge ballistics. And from 1933 to 1966 we saw the growth of plastic cartridge come into being and enter wider circulation and ICI got involved with the company.”
Ground Control To Major Eley
However the affects of the Great War played a more integral part of Eley’s history. After game rearing took a hit in the 1920s, the partridge decimation had almost restored when an outbreak of Stronglyosis wiped out the remaining population in 1931. It was here that Major Henry Gerard Eley set up the Game Advistory Service to help deal with the problems facing estates.
“The research that he did was the ground work for the GWCT to take on all of their innovation in husbandry and animal welfare. The Game Advisory Service worked out partridge and pheasant development and how to manage the entire estates that they had built up from that legacy. Being part of that is a great thing for Eley Hawk,” says David proudly.
Remembering and celebrating their long-standing heritage is key for Eley Hawk. In 2017 they released Collectors Editions of the Grand Prix cartridges, based on the designs of 1930s and 40s. “We were stunned,” exclaims David, “within six weeks we had sold them all.
“We’ve done the same again this year, with Collectors Editions 190th Anniversary cartridges – but we have done more because we know there are people out there who want them. They are a ready-to-go cartridge, with nickel brass and paper casings, loaded with six shot (30 gram) for game shooting. A mix of old and new.”
With pheasant season just around the corner David is eager to see how the limited edition shots take off but adds that there is a lot of interest in the rest of the 190th anniversary range. “The cufflinks basically mimic the brass-head really well and we are also doing a lapel badge; because pins and badges are a huge part of the UK shooting fraternity. People like them on their shooting caps or shooting jackets, so we thought it was worth marking the occasion,” explains David.
“It’s a privilege to support those shooters with the products that they want – it’s all part of the innovation story that we have been working on over the past five years, on top of the 190 years that we have already been going.”
The extensive Eley ranges include the Zenith cartridge with copper-coated lead shot; the Titanium and Titanium Strike for the clay market are the only cartridges manufactured in the UK with nickel-coated lead shot; and the Pigeon Select as endorsed by Geoff Garrod. Furthermore the Pigeon HV and VIP are joined by the Impact Traditional and Grand Prix Traditional which target the old English side-by-side guns.
“We see more and more people going back to shooting sporting birds with older English guns and side-by-sides – many are finding that they prefer shooting with them. That whole ethos of sporting birds is now taking its roots again in the UK,” says David.
“Performance is right at the heart of everything we do – even now we have now seen everything has switched online. So you have seen this total evolution within the market but at the heart of it all is what we do best, which is creating cartridges.”
In addition to cartridges, Eley are famed for their popular shooters diary. First published in 1905, this year marks the 114th edition. David explains: “We have always produced this and sell between 3,000 to 4,500 every year to dedicated shooters who constantly come back and ask for it again and again. They are available in all good gun shops, shooting ranges as well as directly from us. That continuity over time has been part of the shooting fabric of the UK and it is brilliant to work on.
“We are donating £1 from every one sold towards the Countryside Alliance Campaign for Shooting, which is great because that money is then used for campaigning work for developing roots of communications for politicians, public bodies, police and so on; to campaign properly for the rights of all shooters across the UK to carry on enjoying the sports that they love.
“It’s a privilege to work on the products as much as it is to shoot them, and to work with the people who make them a reality day-in day-out in the factory,” adds David. If the 190th celebrations are anything to go by then Eley Hawk’s bicentennial in 2028 will be a spectacle to behold. But as current Managing Director Eduardo Hernando alludes: “There are few more things to come during this game season – however at this stage I’d rather keep the surprises for now.”