A Gem and a Jewel: shotguns and rifles

GTN welcomes Michael E. Haskew as he points the spotlight on a shotgun by John Wilkes and rifle from Holland & Holland, each with great form, function and provenance

In recent months, busy auction houses have brought forward a rare shotgun and rifle that combine the finest craftsmanship along with interesting stories.

Representative of the finest in London gunmaking, two pieces have attracted significant attention and, along with them, an opportunity to consider their historical context. 

In August, Gavin Gardiner conducted an auction at the Gleneagles Hotel in Pulborough, and when lot 068 took centre stage, this fine John Wilkes 12-bore, self-opening sidelock ejector gun with stunning Ken Hunt engraving proved itself once again as an excellent example of the finest work of these two masters. Serial number 15286, this beauty sold for £18,750, striking somewhat above the midrange of an estimated £15,000-£20,000.

Completed in 1992, this shotgun includes 27-inch chopperlump barrels with 2.75″ chambers, about one-half and full choke borings, and the maker’s name is signed in gold on the rib.

Exquisite foliate scrollwork adorns the frame, top lever and locks, while the left lock is embellished with a highly detailed image of pheasants in flight. The right lock is equally styled with a covey of grouse, and the action base is graced with the countenance of a fine duck. The signature of the master engraver, KC Hunt 90, is prominent.

This gem of a gun has been used only a few times according to the vendor, and it retains the full glory of its original hardening colour. Gold-lined cocking indicators and a rolled edge trigger guard complement the Holland & Holland style self-opening action.

The fully figured stock is 15 and a half inches long and weighs six pounds and nine ounces, nitro proof, complete with its maker’s brassbound leather case and accessories along with canvas outer cover.

The original invoice is included with the shotgun, indicating that it was ordered in April 1987 and delivered five years later, the backlog of renowned engraver Hunt accounting for the lengthy delay in completion. However, there is no doubt that it was worth the wait. Selling initially at £12,102.50, this shotgun is remarkable in its craftsmanship, for which its maker achieved acclaim.

Specialist in charge Gavin Gardiner once commented, “Wilkes were the last of the family-owned jobbing London gunmakers and could trace their origins back to 1820. The brothers, Tom and John, were fifth-generation gunmakers, and were among the great characters in the London trade. The gun bears all the typical Wilkes hallmarks of quality, style and finish….”

John Wilkes established the firm that bore the family name in Birmingham, and moved the enterprise to London in 1894, plying the trade at James Street until moving to 31 Gerrard Street, Soho, in 1913, where it remained until 1925.

Following a short stay at 21 Broad, the company moved to 79 Beak Street, where it remained in operation for 78 years. Initially a maker of pistols only, the company expanded its operation to include rifles and shotguns after moving into Soho, where it operated for more than a century.

Author Stephen Grist praised the company, writing, “Wilkes guns of the period, producing some really top quality sidelocks, but also, more unusually, a number of truly best boxlocks, of a quality and style that have never been bettered by anyone, a fact well known in the Trade.”

While operating in Beak Street, the Wilkes brothers concentrated on quality shotguns and rifles with intricate, ornate engraving, turning out a modest 100 guns per year. By 2000, they decided to enter semi-retirement and spent the next three years clearing the building they had occupied for three-quarters of a century.

The brothers passed away within 13 months of one another, Tom aged 83 in March 2009, and John, 85, in April 2010. Craig Whitsey, who partnered with the brothers for 30 years, continues in the business in Arundel, West Sussex.

For nearly 90 years, Britain ruled India, and during the great Raj the subcontinent was revered as the “jewel in the crown.” Symbolic of that era, a splendid Holland & Holland .275 Magnum double rifle has become available at auction.

Its barrels include finely matted sight-rib, open sights marked 50 and 200 with white metal inlaid sight line and folding leaf sight marked 350. This “royal” hand-detachable hunter is complete with additional 25” chopperlump 7X75R Van Hofe Super Express barrels. The rib is engraved “.275 Magnum” and the tubes are emblazoned “Holland & Holland. 98. New Bond Street. London.”

This exquisite rifle further includes treble-grip action with hidden third bite, side-bolsters, automatic safety with gold inlaid “Safe” detail, arcaded fencing, hand-detachable lockplates, elongated top-strap, gold inlaid cocking indicators, royal scroll engraving, and the underside emblazoned with “Royal Ejector.”

The rifle weighs eight pounds and 13 ounces, and is complete with leather motor case that accommodates a single set of barrels. It has been expected to sell for £15,000-£20,000.

The rifle, serial number 31490, was completed on 21 November 1932, to fill an order for “Narsinghar,” an unmistakable reference to the princely state of Narsinghgarh, which came into being in the 17th century and was later a notable territory of the British Raj and later a municipality within the Rajgarh District of Malwa, Madhya Pradesh.

At the time of the order, the ruler of the state was His Highness Shri Huzur Raja Sir Vikram Singhji K.C.I.E. Entitled to an 11-gun salute during state functions, the Raja was born on 21 September 1909 and acceded to the title in 1924, receiving full ruling power in 1929.

During the final decades of the British Raj, the ownership of finely crafted English guns remained a visible symbol of prestige and social elevation. Many rajas ordered guns during the period, and these are of exceptional beauty and function.

Raja Sir Vikram Singhji is generally remembered as a kind hearted and highly respected ruler, who was esteemed among the other princes and rulers of India.

His reign is historically significant with his signing of the Instrument of Accession to the Dominion of India on 15 August 1947 and the incorporation of Narsinghgarh into the new state of Madhya Bharat the following year. The state subsequently became the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh on 1 November 1956. He died at the age of 48 on 17 July 1957.

This fine Holland & Holland rifle, therefore, is linked to the formation of the modern nation of India, while also serving as homage to the splendour and magnificence of the late era of British rule and influence in the subcontinent. Its provenance indeed rivals the feel of the rifle in the hands of its owner – an immense pleasure to experience. 

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