The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Gunmaking

 

The designing, making, modifying and repair of guns.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category Guns
Historic area of significance  London and Birmingham
Area currently practised  Birmingham
Origin in the UK  15th century
Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Current no. of trainees  11-20 (widely dispersed across the country)
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  1300 (with approximately 660 firms)
Current total no. of craftspeople  1320

 

History

The first firearms were invented in China in the thirteenth century and spread along the Silk Road through central Asia to Europe. The handheld cannons evolved into the flintlock rifle, then the breech loader and finally into the automatic weapon.

The first recorded gun maker in Birmingham was in 1630 and Birmingham soon grew to become the centre of world’s gunmaking industry, specialising in the production of military firearms and sporting guns. The trade continued to grow throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but after World War I the demand fell and so did the need for skilled, specialised labour fell as the market became flooded with cheaper, machine-made guns, and gun manufacturing in the area began a slow decline.

Hnadguns in Europe were developed in the mid-fifteenth century, from the original form of a basic short barrel cannon lashed to a rudimentary wooden stock. The earliest type of guns were classed as ‘matchlocks’, in which the gunpowder is ignited with a primary charge such as a match. By 1660 these were replaced by ‘flintlocks’, in which a flint provides the ignition spark, and by 1700 the matchlock had all but disappeared (Hobbs, 2016).

Guns for game shooting first appeared in the seventeenth century. The first game shotguns were single barrelled, but as game shooting became more popular, the advantage of a quick second barrel became evident and the double barrelled game gun gained prevalence. In 1836 the cartridge, encasing the shot and wadding and with a firing cap holding the primary charge, was developed. Until this point, guns were muzzle-loaded, but the invention of the cartridge led to the development of breach-loading guns. As the types of explosive charge, better materials were needed for gun barrels and as such the barrels developed from steel, to Damascus steel, and interwoven steel, to the modern Whitworth drawn high tensile steel(Hobbs, 2016).

Historically, gunmaking was associated with London and the Midlands, especially the ‘gun quarter’ in Birmingham. There were also centres of gunmaking in Edinbrugh and Scotland. The oldest surviving gunmaking family, Gallyon & Sons, is based in Norwich and is now into its seventh generation of manufacturing, having started in 1784. Today, gunmaking has spread across the country to include Greater London and the South East and Shrewsbury.

 

Techniques

Design, metalwork, woodwork, material hardening, fitting, test firing [proof] regulation, barrel backing, smoking in, chequering etc.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

Leather work, engraving, jewellery making, case making, gun proofing

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Skills issues: Many of the skills within gunmaking are on the verge of moving from living to lost, and some skills have already disappeared (e.g. damascus steel barrels). The nature of the skills, being acquired over a long time (typically seven years) makes them semi non-transferable
  • Ageing workforce: An ageing workforce, typically over 50, with limited time to transfer skills, and older craftspeople retiring without passing on their skills
  • Recruitment issues: shortage of incoming practitioners and apprentices, in part due to further education providers not promoting gunmaking as a career
  • Recruitment issues: Young people not attracted to the sector
  • Recruitment issues: Further education providers are not promoting gunmaking as a career
  • Retention issues
  • Fear of competition: a lot of gunmakers are very protective of what they know and fear competition – need to realise that the industry is big enough to accommodate everyone and is stronger together than divided.
  • Funding issues/Training issues: There is a need for funding at source to provide for the artisan craftsperson to enable them to afford to train
  • Training issues: Shortage of specific training providers – i.e. gunmaking schools
  • Legislation changes: Changes in law with respect to the perception of guns and a political shift

 

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

 

Other information

Gunmaking contributes £90 million GVA per annum to the UK economy. The wider gun sector, including clothing, lifestyle, shooting etc., contributes £4.5 billion GVA per annum.

There is a huge demand for gunmaking skills – not just to make new firearms, but also to conserve the arms in museums and private collections.

 

References