How to buy a shotgun that you can pass down as a family heirloom

Choose wisely and a sporting gun will give years of pleasure that can go far beyond your own lifetime, says Howard Dixon of Christie's.

My best advice, to anyone looking to purchase something that will last the generations, would be to buy a premium gun and to look after it well. Built to last, there is still value and use in the best guns made in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period as, in essence, the designs haven’t changed very much in 140 years.

The only aspect that has changed is that people are increasingly choosing over-and-under in favour of side-by-side shotguns. Yes, the debate about barrel configuration goes on and the quip that you hit twice as much with an over-and-under, ‘but you get half as many invites’ still holds on some shoots, but I argue that there are exceptions. If you turn up at any shoot with a bespoke over-and-under Purdey, Woodward, Boss or Holland & Holland, the chances are you’ll get away with it.

There’s a long tradition of gun-making in London and buying a bespoke gun from any of the so-called ‘God squad’ of Purdey (which bought Woodward in 1949), Holland & Holland and Boss will be the finest heirloom to pass on. A gun is essentially the sum of its parts — pieces of metal and wood that go together in a set order. However, when you match a premium brand with bespoke craftsmanship, that’s what really sets the gun apart.

A pair of Purdey shotguns

A pair of Purdey shotguns

With beautifully carved wood and metalwork, scenes engraved by a master craftsman and the entire gun created by hand, these are truly works of art. But although a bespoke gun won’t be within everyone’s price range, in the past 10 or so years an alternative has emerged that is a hybrid between off-the-shelf and something that’s entirely bespoke. These guns, which are delivered ‘in the white’ (mechanically complete, but requiring decorative work) and then finished by the gunmakers, would make perfectly good heirlooms.

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Investment-wise, they’ll always be second tier but the bonus is that they boast both the longevity and the right brand name.

Up to £5,000 at auction

If you come across any of the top names at auction in this price range, a word of warning: approach with caution. Nevertheless, there are some very good vintage and classic guns by the likes of Stephen Grant, Joseph Lang or John Dickson & Sons and, if you look after it, it’ll be perfectly good to hand down.

£5,000 to £20,000

For about £10,000, you’ll get a really good, classic, single, premium-brand gun. Heading towards £20,000, and you’re beginning to look at good pairs of classic, premium guns. When looking at pairs, it’s worth noting that it’s not uncommon to find one gun showing more signs of use than the other due to the fact that the original owner may have favoured one over the other.

£20,000 to £50,000

Within this bracket, you’ll find nice, recently built premium guns as well as the very best pairs of classic premium guns. Alternatively, perhaps, look to the top gunmakers of northern Italy, such as Luciano Bosis or Ivo Fabbri, who are at the top of their game. The numbers of their bespoke guns in circulation are limited creating an aura about them that will last through the generations.

Beyond £50,000

At £50,000 and above, this is very special territory inhabited by the very best pairs of guns with bespoke, signed engraving by master craftsmen, such as the Hunt family, Kelly, Coggan, Carlsbad, Brown and Grifnee.

The Scottish alternative

During the zenith of the gun trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Scottish gun trade was inspired to produce some of the best-quality shotguns and rifles of its time, writes Graham Mackinlay. Edinburgh was once home to the likes of John Dickson & Son, MacNaughton, Daniel Fraser and Joseph Harkom, who were comparable with the London trade and arguably produced even slightly more elaborate pieces. Sadly, out of these firms, the only surviving one is John Dickson & Son.

For someone looking specifically for a Scottish gun to buy as an heirloom, I would suggest a 16g or a 20g round action by John Dickson & Son, the most elegant of guns and extremely rare.

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Howard Dixon is the head of Antique Arms, Armour and Sporting Guns at Christie’s