Judging feel is all in the hands.
Balance and feel, to a shotgunner, are essentially the same thing. Both involve actually pick- ing up a gun, and neither can be conveyed by a deluge of numbers, no matter how detailed.
My epiphany in shotguns occurred in the early 1990s with a visit to Holland & Holland in Bruton Street and the opportunity to handle a Thomas Boss game gun. At that precise instant I learned what a shotgun could be, and it gave me a basis of comparison I value to this day. Since that moment, every shotgun I have picked up has been mentally compared to that Boss. Almost all have failed the test, but a few have come very, very close. It’s been an education.
George Caswell, of Champlin Firearms, is without doubt our largest dealer in vintage British shotguns and double rifles, and has been for a quarter-century. During that time, George tells me, he has sold more than 15,000 double rifles. His shop in Enid, Oklahoma (which is not a gunshop, per se, but a large vault disguised as a building), is the closest thing I’ve seen to a museum of the finest, as well as some of the most arcane, in English guns.
Last year, as I was beginning work on a new book about vintage British guns, George invited me to come down, spend some time, and photograph any of his treasures that caught my eye. I arrived in February, in an ice storm, accompanied by artist Susan Norris, who illustrated the book and needed to see a real gunmaker’s shop in action and handle a variety of English guns.
The gunmaker on the premises is Jean-Jacques “J.J.” Perodeau, a master craftsman trained in Belgium who can do anything a fine gun might require, from bending a stock to fitting a new set of barrels. J.J. was nibbling a cigarette and filing on some obscure gun part when we walked in. George was in his office on the other side of the building, on the phone as usual, hammering down another deal initiated at the Safari Club convention.
The Champlin Arms display at SCI is one of the largest, but also one of the most customer-friendly (and customer-shrewd as well). Every gun George brings to the show is laid out on tables in a big rectangle, with George holding forth in the middle. Anyone walking by, seeing a gun he fancies, can catch George’s eye, and then pick it up and shoulder it.
Because there is so much room around the display, hefting, shouldering, and swinging a gun is easy (and safe for the gun, as well). In many other gun displays, customers are actively (and sometimes rudely) discouraged from touching anything. If you want to heft a gun, you have to ask, and then self-consciously handle it while a white-gloved functionary hovers nearby like a mother hen. Any idea of how the gun actually feels is strained at best.
Not so with Champlin Arms. George Caswell is a devoted bird hunter (especially quail on his property in Texas) and knows the importance of feel in a shotgun. Also, he learned long ago that the best way to sell a gun is to let the gun sell itself. This magic commun-ion can happen only if the customer picks up the gun, opens and closes it a couple of times, brings it to his shoulder—and falls deeply in love.
As we walked in, George looked up from the phone, waved hello, and motioned us through the steel door into the inner sanctum, the main vault with its wall-to-wall gun racks and fine firearms in rows from floor to ceiling. Looking around, I spotted the distinctive lines of a Woodward game gun and lifted it down.
“Shouldn’t we wait for George?” Susan asked me.
“Are we allowed to touch them?”
“Sure, that’s what we’re here for. Feel this.”
Gingerly, careful not to touch the metal, Sue took the shotgun as if it was a basket of cracked eggs. The Woodward had wonderful balance—a typical London gun from between the wars. Sue lifted it to her shoulder as though sighting down a fragile glass rod.
“Pretend you’re shooting,” I told her. “Move your hands out along the barrels. Don’t hang on to the forend; it’s just there to contain some parts and hold the gun together.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” Sue was looking at the doorway, undoubtedly expecting George to come bursting in at any moment, shouting at us not to touch the guns.
“Worry not,” said I. “Everything’s fine.”
Susan is an experienced wing shooter, although not really familiar with side-by-sides. She confidently gripped the gun and brought it smoothly to her shoulder.
“Wow,” she said. “That is nice. What’s that gun?”
“A Woodward,” said I. “Very famous name.”
“That feels really good,” she said. “It fits me pretty well, too.” Susan was scanning the racks, looking for an over-and-under among the game guns and double rifles, when George walked in.
“Here,” he said, “try this one,” and handed me a Woodward over-and-under, also from between the wars. As I was studying the legendary gun (and trying to ignore the $50,000 price tag), George took down a 20-gauge Purdey over-and-under and handed it to Sue.
“See how you like this one.”
With the more familiar O/U in her hands (and knowing she wouldn’t turn into a frog if she touched the guns), Susan took a small step, and the gun flew to her shoulder, almost on its own. The look on her face was worth the price of admission. Love at first grasp. And it could be hers for only $89,900. Her expression when she saw the price tag was good, too.
For the next three days, we photographed guns. We took them off the shelves, admired them, handled them, compared them. During that time, Susan probably handled more fine English guns than many gun dealers in this country do in a lifetime. More important, she experienced the feel of many different guns, all finely made and many of them very expensive.
Having little experience with side-by-sides, it isn’t surprising that she felt a little awkward with them at first. But within a couple of hours she was able to differentiate, in terms of feel, between a 30-inch-barrelled Hussey Imperial Ejector and an E.M. Reilly boxlock non-ejector, which was obviously made near the end of Reilly’s existence and which was a trade gun at best. Then there was a H&H 28-bore Paradox (really!) and a Purdey 12-gauge made up to look like the worst incar-nation of a Winchester 21, with a beavertail forend like a plank, single trigger and pistol grip, and a rather embarrassed-looking quail inlaid in gold on the floorplate.
There was a W&C Scott 16-bore with Damascus barrels that had me drooling. I thought it might turn her head, but in the end her heart belonged to that Purdey 20-gauge O/U. As we walked out of Champlin the last day, Sue said to me, “Well, I think I’m starting to understand what this is all about.”
One thing’s for certain, Susan will never again be satisfied with a ho-hum shotgun, and it all had to do with feel, with spending time around a collec-tion of fine guns, and getting to know them. n
As our shooting editor left Champlin Arms, George Caswell came to the door and shouted, “Your credit’s always good here, Wieland.” He devoutly wishes he had not heard this. As for Susan, she’s saving for that Purdey. Wieland’s latest book, with illustrations by Susan Norris, is Vintage British Shotguns, available later this year. To view some of Susan’s work, visit www.susan-norris.com.
The essence of elegance: a James Purdey 20-gauge over-and-under, built shortly after Purdey began making O/Us on the Woodward pattern.