The designing, making, modifying and repair of guns.
|Historic area of significance
|National with centres in London and Birmingham
|Area currently practised
|National with centres in London and Birmingham
|Origin in the UK
The invention of Black Powder (gunpowder) is ascribed to having taken place in 9th Century China where simple early arms were used. Trade routes ensured that it reached Europe by the 13th Century. The first English recorded use of firearms is at the battle of Crecy in 1346. The primitive cannon was developed and there were hand held versions referred to as “hand gonnes”. The charge was set off by a burning cord known as a match brought to the “touch hole”. This was eventually fitted into a lock with a trigger mechanism and was called a “matchlock”.
Other forms of lock developed – the wheel-lock where the charge was ignited by a spinning wheel touching pyrites, the flintlock and snaphance where a piece of flint struck a steel to produce sparks. The next innovation in the first years of the 19th C. was the discovery of fulminates (attr. to Rev Forsythe) which were used in percussion caps to ignite the main charge through a small nipple, thus eliminating the priming charge and touch hole, and speeding ignition. At this point firearms were essentially loaded from the muzzle and the next step, very much summarised, was the development of various breech loading systems, combined with self contained cartridges from around the 1820’s. Improved quality of materials aided development.
In 16th Century England Henry VIII sought uniformity in arms for military use. Parallel development of fine arms for game shooting also emerged. Fowling pieces tended to be long to take advantage of full ignition of the charge, however, when it was realised that good velocity could be achieved in shorter barrels with improvements in powder, double barrelled guns appeared.
Firearms now also emerged as fine presentation pieces of cutting edge technology. Kings received gifts of them, the well to do had their portrait painted with their new gun and so on. The new “Art and Mistery” of gumaking required its own Guild in the City of London and its own apprentices. The “Worshipful Company of Gunmakers” was founded and was granted a Royal Charter in 1637. They are one of a few City Livery Companies who still carry out their original purpose.
London sought to achieve the best quality of hand made firearms of all types but notably fine sporting guns and rifles. The term “Best guns” emerged and the London makers sought clients amongst wealthy City and country folk. Whilst London was a centre of excellence of sporting arms, Royal Ordnance was seeking quantity. The East India Company also needed arms. A centre of production was founded in Birmingham and adjacent towns from the 1680’s where all the right elements could be found. Many firms were founded and mass production by machine started in the mid 19th C. providing guns for the trade to finish, as well as for customers. Gunmaking firms appeared nationally, including in Scotland, many producing fine guns.
The gunmaking trade required in its products great precision and accuracy as well as beauty, good balance and handling, and safety. The Proof Houses, both London and subsequently, Birmingham, established in 1813, ensuring the latter. Shooters wished to be seen with elegant but deadly arms. The mid to late19th C. also saw many patents registered as the art developed. In 1860 the National Rifle Association was founded and Queen Victoria presented a prize for their annual Imperial meeting which still takes place.
Hand made and finished guns will always be sought after. Some machine tools may be employed. Barrels may no longer be hammer forged but actions are hand filed, stocks hand shaped and checkered, hand finished and oiled with linseed. Individual guns are shot and regulated and frequently fitted to the owner. So British excellence and the London best gun is still sought after and the craft that produces it must be preserved.
Many both amateur and professional collectors and associations work to help conserve this heritage.
Design, metalwork, woodwork, material hardening, fitting, test firing [proof] regulation, barrel backing, smoking in, chequering etc.
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
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
Craftspeople currently known
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.
All-Party Manufacturing Group (2013) Making Good – A study of Culture and Competitiveness in UK Manufacture
British Association for Shooting and Conservation (2014) The Value of Shooting
Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2013) Review of Engineering Skills
Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2013) Mapping Heritage Craft
Engineering the Future (2014) An insight into Modern Manufacturing
UK Commission Employer Skills Survey (2013) Employer Skills Survey
Hobbs, R H, (2016) A Brief Introduction to English Game Shotguns – History and Development