Remembering William & Son gunmakers

PUBLISHED: 12:00 07 January 2021

This William & Son 12-bore is made as a high pheasant gun with the aesthetic of a live pigeon gun. It originally carried a price tag of £109,000. Credit: Diggory Hadoke

This William & Son 12-bore is made as a high pheasant gun with the aesthetic of a live pigeon gun. It originally carried a price tag of £109,000. Credit: Diggory Hadoke

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With William & Son closing its doors for good this summer, Diggory Hadoke remembers this British gun brand’s remarkable rise to prominence

William & Son side-locks are mechanically Holland & Holland assisted openers, this one engraved by Peter Cusack with the house preference for bold foliate motifs. Credit: Diggory HadokeWilliam & Son side-locks are mechanically Holland & Holland assisted openers, this one engraved by Peter Cusack with the house preference for bold foliate motifs. Credit: Diggory Hadoke

William & Son sadly left the roll call of London gunmakers in July, having spent the last 20 years creating a place for themselves in the market alongside the long-established firms that everyone knows.

William Asprey is the seventh generation of his family to be involved in trading luxury goods. He first began building guns under the Asprey name before creating William & Son in 1999. As newcomers, the firm could not trade on historic brand value, but sought to compete by providing quality English-built guns at a better value price point than the competition. A William & Son gun was created as a deluxe Holland & Holland Royal, but it retailed for about £10,000 less than a standard Holland & Holland Royal. It also came in a leather case with branded accessories at no extra cost. Simon Clode once told a mutual customer that he considered a William & Son gun to be a better version of the Holland & Holland one that the firm currently makes. Make no mistake, if there was anyone in the gun trade who appreciated quality, it was Simon Clode.

While Holland & Holland, Purdey, Boss, Watson Bros, and Rigby all have their own workshops and factories, William & Son never did. Instead, they called upon the services of some of the best out-workers in the British gun trade to create their guns to order, a process overseen by Paul West, who was William & Son’s in-house gunmaker and one of the most laid-back and personable men in the business. Everyone loves Paul. His gunmaking credentials are impeccable, having worked at Holland & Holland for many years.

Build quality is as good as anything being made in London today. Credit: |Diggory HadokeBuild quality is as good as anything being made in London today. Credit: |Diggory Hadoke

For actioning, most firms today begin with close-to-form CNC machine-produced parts in kit form. This reduces the actioning time on a Holland & Holland Royal by 50%. Instead, William & Son opted for traditional action filing by Mark Sullivan, working from forgings. Mark left Holland & Holland in the late 1980s and has been working quietly for the wider trade ever since. Mark told me he left Holland & Holland when his wages were £250 per week. Asprey offered him, and some of his colleagues, £500 per week to build guns for them instead. Over a six-month period, they did so and formed a tight team of gunmakers who built guns the way Holland & Holland did back in 1985, before the machinery arrived. Barrels were built by Mick Kelly (an ex-Purdey man, now freelancing), and the finishing was done by another of Mark’s old Holland & Holland colleagues, Colin Orchard. Stock work was taken on by another of the best men in the country, Stephane Dupille, who had worked for both Holland & Holland and Watson Bros before setting up his own workshop just north of London, providing his services to the big London gunmakers on a freelance basis. The engraving style of large scrolls on a dark, hatched background varies from gun to gun, so each one is unique. It was developed and executed by Peter Cusack and quickly became a recognised house style for William & Son.

Asprey had to stop building guns in 1999, when the company was sold to Prince Jefri of Brunei for a reported £243.5 million, and William Asprey had to find another name under which to continue. William & Son was born that very year and began trading from 10 Mount Street in Mayfair, selling used guns as well as new-builds. In time, luxury goods were added to the gunroom, and 14 Mount Street added to the retail footprint. In 2009, William & Son was granted a Royal Warrant by the Queen. As the company expanded, William Asprey began taking on seasoned professionals.

Ian Andrews joined from Purdey to handle the gun sales. And Chris Hunter, also from Purdey, came in to lead the clothing department, quickly establishing William & Son to be at the forefront as a supplier of quality shooting suits and covert coats for both men and women. Until recently, the company did very well, moving from Mount Street to Bruton Street, into a beautifully created, 8,600 sq ft space, designed entirely to showcase the guns, watches, leather goods, jewellery and other expensive objects they sold to the super-rich.

A recently made William & Son 20-bore in its leather case with accessories. Credit: Diggory HadokeA recently made William & Son 20-bore in its leather case with accessories. Credit: Diggory Hadoke

In 2017, the company posted profits of £26 million. As recently as May this year, William Asprey told Walpole’s Luxury Digest: “I hope we will continue to expand our online sales. This, in turn, will take us to different age groups and parts of the market we have yet to reach, but we have to keep in contact and not ignore our existing and very supportive clientele.”

However, this recent economic downturn exposed the perils facing businesses with high overheads. With a reported monthly rent of £200,000 to find and nobody coming through the door, William & Son did not last long beyond the reopening of some businesses on 4 July this year.

The Daily Mail claimed there were losses of £21 million to account for and the administrators were called in to take control. Within days, the shop was empty. William & Son had overseas outlets and partnerships for its lines of leather goods and clothing, like Joseph’s in Richmond, Texas, which is also a retailer of Purdey and Holland & Holland clothing. They will, no doubt, suffer from the withdrawal of brand support and advertising. When a company like this ceases to trade, many associated people suffer – be they staff, partners, suppliers or creditors.

William & Son .410 on a perfectly scaled action, hand- filed by Mark Sullivan. Credit: Diggory HadokeWilliam & Son .410 on a perfectly scaled action, hand- filed by Mark Sullivan. Credit: Diggory Hadoke

In these uncertain times, we can but watch and hope that no more of our most loved firms from the sporting gun and country sports sector suffer the ultimate fate of any business, in which overheads exceed orders for an unsustainable period. During its existence, William & Son made and sold around 60 sporting guns and rifles, which remain as a legacy for future generations and, if judged on quality alone, should become treasured possessions.

When they appear on the market, even superb quality guns bearing names that the average punter does not know, they will suffer from the blight of what the market calls ‘brand value’. It means that buyers are often willing to pay a great deal more money for a lesser product in worse condition if it has a name that they think gives them bragging rights among their friends.

If you are a shooting man and gun aficionado who recognises and appreciates quality and is secure enough not to need the affirmation of the wider public for your choice of gun, you would do well to seek out some recent William & Son shotguns. There are few guns that have been built in Britain (and the world) in the past 20 years that can beat them on price and quality.

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