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For a gun lover, there are few greater pleasures than strolling up Berkeley Square and turning into Bruton Street, admiring the Bentleys in the show room and then making your way to Number 33, the home of Holland & Holland.
On a cold, rainy, December morning, there is a cheery Christmas window and a Dickensian glow inside. A gentleman opens the door with a smile, takes your umbrella, and welcomes you to a life-affirming experience unlike any other.
I’ve done it many times before–the first being in 1971, broke, starving and shivering with malaria–but it never fails to cheer me up. It is worth going to London just for this, even in a year of torrential rains and flooding that blocked motorways, delayed trains and sent the pheasants into deep, deep cover.
The H&H showroom has changed in many ways over the years, although one should say at the outset that they are unfailingly courteous and make you feel welcome, unlike some other London gunmakers who seem to have adopted rudeness as company policy.
One major change from the last time I visited–was it really 1995?–is that they no longer display used guns taken in trade, so you can not inspect serried ranks of Bosses, Woodwards and Atkins. The only guns and rifles you now see on display at Bruton Street are Holland’s own products. Obviously, that means a large stock of ready-made new guns, and indeed there are: over/unders, side-by-sides, double rifles, and bolt-actions.
Two things stand out. One is the number of 16-bore guns on display, in everything from side-by-side Royals to over/under Sporting Guns. The 16 seems to have caught the attention of the British shooter, and just handling one is delightful.
The second is a newly built .577 NE Royal, engraved by Phil Coggan, and offered for sale at a mere £165,000 – about $265,000 as of the morning I write this. The .577 has been the fad caliber among double-rifle lovers for the past two or three years, after boredom set in with the .500 Nitro Express. In 2010, Puglisi’s had a veteran Holland & Holland from between the wars offered for sale for, if I recall, $180,000. So the new Royal seems almost a bargain.
One thing you can count on if you buy one of Holland’s off-the-rack rifles, is that it will shoot to perfection. H&H is the last London gunmaker to have its own shooting ground with a testing range and a resident gunmaker to regulate barrels, sight in, and fire the 250 to 500 rounds that are put through every gun to ensure that every tiny function is perfect. Holland & Holland originated the practice with its first shooting grounds at Willesden in the 1870s, and has never deviated from it.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this testing and fine-tuning, especially in the case of a heavy recoiling double rifle. But it is also true with bolt-actions. Very few bolt rifles come from the maker today functioning perfectly, and by that I mean feeding, extraction and ejection, as well as trigger pull and the usual requirements for sights and scope mounts.
The simple fact of carrying out this final procedure religiously is what sets H&H apart. As Steve Denny, director of the Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds, told me many years ago, where most fine gunmakers fall down is in the last five percent–and it is that five percent that covers fit, finish and flawless functioning. It is expensive, time consuming, and requires decades of skill, but when you write a check to H&H for $265,000, you don’t have to worry about then having to take the rifle to a gunsmith to have it tuned.
As of today, given the issues in the double-rifle business over the past decade, Holland & Holland stands alone as one double-rifle maker you can count on absolutely.
Visiting Bruton Street on a wintry day and being treated like a gentleman, always and without fail, is just one more benefit.—Terry Wieland