Diggory Hadoke remembers the life and times of one of the gun trade’s legendary, larger-than-life figures, Cyril Adams
My first encounter with Cyril Adams came at Holts. It must have been around 2000 or 2001. I was bidding on an unusual Purdey hammer gun. It wasn’t especially good, showing both wear and repair and the back-action locks had nothing much on them but ‘Purdey’.
Its distinguishing mark was that the name on one lock had been engraved upside down! I was bidding because my income was modest and the estimate was reasonable.
Unsurprisingly, I was out-bid, though I did succeed in buying something; I remember not what. When the time came to pay the bill, we queued up at the office and I recognised Cyril because I had read his book ‘Lock, Stock & Barrel’.
It was him paying for the Purdey. I mentioned I thought I had bid enough to buy it and he replied something like “We don’t always get what we want” and we had a short, cordial chat.
Why do I remember that brief, banal encounter; one of hundreds of first meetings with a lot of people at auctions and events? Why does that meeting with Cyril Adams sit firmly in my memory?
In short, because Cyril was a legend and I was somewhat in awe of him. As an enthusiast for hammer guns above all other objects, Cyril was a kindred spirit. He was decades my senior, enormously accomplished in life, business and competitive shooting and commanded respect.
I met Cyril subsequently on numerous occasions, I bought guns from him, shot ZZ with him and visited his Houston home a few times. We also met annually at Joseph’s in Richmond, Texas, for a social event.
He was always gracious, measured with his words and patient. He generally spoke quietly but when he did, his words were considered and one listened. Despite his achievements, he remained humble and self-deprecating among friends.
Cyril made time for people he liked but none at all for those he didn’t care for and in some circumstances could be blunt and cutting. Fortunately, I appear to have ranked in the former camp, as he was always very kind and respectful. Men with more fragile egos would have seen me as a young pretender and kept me at arms length but Cyril never did.
Cyril wrote ‘Lock, Stock & Barrel’ in 1996, with his friend Robert Brayden. It was his love letter to the hammer gun in particular and British best guns in general.
In a few short chapters, he educated American gun enthusiasts on the subject of vintage British guns, how to appreciate them and why they were actually better than anything else. The fact that Cyril won competitions shooting with British live-pigeon guns helped others take him seriously.
Within weeks of publication, Americans started hitting British auctions in search of the kind of guns Cyril advocated. It led to a boom in prices, with demand out-stripping supply and a bonanza for specialists in vintage British guns.
Several people made a lot of money from the craze over the following decade, auctioneers prominent amongst them. Gavin Gardiner told American writer Vic Venters a few years ago that he credits Cyril entirely with the resurgence of value in British hammer guns, citing ‘Lock, Stock & Barrel’ as the catalyst. It is hard to argue.
Though he undoubtedly made his mark on it, Cyril was not always in the gun trade. He was born in 1938 in Austin, Texas. His father was an engineer and Cyril followed him into the profession, specialising in low-temperature physics, then moving into the design and building of plants for the aerospace, oil and gas and defence sectors.
Success and financial security came to him early in his career but the life of a self-confessed workaholic was one he re-evaluated after watching his father die mid-conversation, of a cerebral haemorrhage, at the age of 53.
Cyril decided to scale-back his engineering business and gradually began to get more involved in the purchase, restoration and sales of vintage British guns. He was able to do so because he was a successful competitor on the live-pigeon shooting circuit, a sport he had discovered in the 1960s.
Gunmakers have long known that success in shooting sports creates a clientele for the competitor with a business bent. Harris Holland started his business that way and competitive shooting success helped cement the reputations and boost sales figures for Boswell, Greener, Lancaster and Churchill, among others.
Cyril attended shooting schools in England in the 1970s and learned to shoot systematically, finding it a revelation that the discipline could be taught as a science. Along with his appreciation of British shooting technique, Cyril had developed a love for the guns, particularly the competition guns built for live pigeon trap shooters during the heyday of the sport.
Competing in a sport where tens of thousands of pounds can rest on one hit or miss, gave Cyril a keen eye for detail and his quest for the perfect gun induced him to try a great many and to gain a great understanding of the requirements and attributes he found beneficial. He became a student of the game and a student of the gun.
Cyril eventually teamed up with, ex-Rigby man, Ron Solari and together they decided to try and buy a London gun-making company. After trying to buy Boss, then Purdey, without success, they finally managed to get Atkin, Grant & Lang, from the Harris & Sheldon Group, in 1984.
Cyril’s principal interest was in Stephen Grant and the majority of guns built during his ownership carried that name. When Ron Solari moved to Australia, in the late 1990s, Cyril sold Atkin Grant & Lang but continued to buy and restore British guns, selling them from his home in Houston.
Cyril’s other contributions to his sport include designing the first helice ring in America and co-designing the first sporting clays layout there. He continued to compete successfully into old-age, taking second place at the World Helice Championship in 1998, in Porto, and winning in Rome last year.
Cyril favoured 34” barrelled guns for his competition shooting. He had two Stephen Grant hammer guns built for him and also used a 34” barrelled Grant side-lock with Jones under-lever mechanism for many of his competitions.
Latterly, he preferred to take on live quarry with a 33” single-barrelled gun, considering it more sporting. He told Vic Venters; “You do it right the first time or they win, which seems sporting to me”.
Cyril fought severe illness for much of his life. This was a challenge to a man who had always been physical “You should have seen me when I was younger,” he once told me: “I was a bull.”
He was struck down with cancer in 1989 and survived three heart attacks and paralysis, from complications from chemotherapy, yet despite constant pain and impaired functionality, nevertheless, continued to compete and do business —and write.
His last publication is an homage to his great love; live pigeon trap shooting and is the definitive work on the subject, written by a man who has lived it as no man will ever live it again. He recalled “I have blown a considerable fortune from the muzzle of a gun; but I was there and I was paying attention”.
Cyril had a dark sense of humour; latterly, he’d tell people he was “circling the drain”, when they asked how he was. His great friend, Chris Potter spoke to Cyril a few hours before he died, telling him, “You have to hang on until tomorrow, so I can sing you Happy Birthday”.
Cyril Adams died in Houston a few hours short of his 82nd birthday. He changed the direction of our trade, enriched those of us who knew him and must be acknowledged as the Godfather of Vintage Guns.
If you had told him that, he’d have shrugged it off, contending that his life wasn’t that interesting and he didn’t have all that much to say that you couldn’t learn elsewhere. I beg to differ.
My thanks to Vic Venters, Gavin Gardiner, and Chris Potter for their contributions.