James Purdey & Sons Limited
James Purdey & Sons Limited
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Compagnie Financière Rich-emont SA
Sales: £5.75 million ($10 million) (2006 est.)
NAIC: 332994 Small Arms Manufacturing
James Purdey & Sons Limited is considered one of the top makers, if not the top maker, of fine sporting guns and rifles in the world. Its reputation for excellence was set soon after James Purdey established the business in London in 1816, and it quickly became the gunmaker of choice for gentry and royalty. From 1868 on, the company has been granted Royal Warrants of Appointment from members of the British monarchy, a prestigious honor allowing a manufacturer to advertise royal patronage.
Purdey guns are bespoke, meaning they are crafted to fit the shooter. The firm makes only about 75 guns per year, most of them shotguns used in hunting or target shooting, though some buyers are collectors and therefore never shoot them. It can take as many as 750 man-hours to handcraft a Purdey gun (and from 18 to 24 months of actual time on the calendar), which serves to justify the hefty prices, from $89,000 to well over $100,000 for a single gun, depending on whether a customer wants any elaborate engraving on the metalwork or other features that can add tens of thousands of dollars to the price. At the company’s factory, about 35 workers, all of them men, ply their trade largely using hand tools, each craftsman handling one section of the gun—the barrel, the action, or the stock. Purdey also draws on a pool of highly skilled, independent engravers.
In its entire history of nearly 200 years, James Purdey & Sons has made only a little more than 30,000 guns, each one individually numbered. The company was owned by the Purdey family until 1946, when the Seely family acquired it. In 1994 it was acquired by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, a global luxury goods company based in Switzerland that owns many other famed brands, including Cartier jewelry, Piaget watches, Montblanc writing instruments, and Alfred Dunhill leather goods, menswear, and accessories.
The James Purdey who founded the company was born in the Whitechapel district of London in 1784. His parents had eight children, but as was typical of the day only he and his sister Martha survived early childhood. Purdey was exposed to gunmaking from an early age as his father was a blacksmith, and blacksmiths in those days were often involved in gunmaking. Furthermore, his sister, ten years his senior, married Thomas Keck Hutchinson, a gunmaker, in 1793. Five years later, Purdey began an apprenticeship under his brother-in-law, which he completed in 1805. He next spent three years working for the top London gunmaker of the time, Joseph Manton. During his stint honing his craft as a journeyman under Manton and developing relationships with the master gunmaker’s customers, Purdey worked alongside Thomas Boss, who was an apprentice at Manton’s firm. Boss went on to found his own company in 1816, and, like the company that Purdey formed that same year, Boss & Co. endured into the 21st century as a renowned maker of high-end guns.
Purdey left Manton’s firm in 1808 to join the enterprise of another important gunmaker of the time, Alexander John Forsyth. Forsyth is credited with the invention of the percussion lock, a key component of the percussion system of ignition that began replacing the flintlock system in the 1820s. In the percussion system, still in use in the early 21st century, a hammer hits a detonating compound, which explodes and ignites the main charge in the gun. At Forsyth’s firm, Purdey began work as a lock filer and stocker (the latter task involved carving gun stocks from wood and fitting them to the guns’ metal parts), but he was soon promoted to company foreman. At the end of 1812, Purdey was admitted to the Freedom of the Gunmakers’ Company, an essential step for a journeyman hoping to set up his own business and take on an apprentice.
In the spring of 1816, at the beginning of the turbulent post–Napoleonic Wars period, Purdey opened his own shop in London at 4 Princes Street, off Leicester Square. (It should be noted that the company itself has always claimed 1814 as its founding year, but Donald Dallas, author of the firm’s definitive history, has concluded that James Purdey “most probably” set up his business in the spring of 1816.) Having already established a reputation as an excellent craftsman during his employment with Manton and Forsyth, and determined to make guns of only the highest quality, Purdey was soon flourishing in his new endeavor. Initially focusing on flintlock guns, Purdey produced about 12 guns per year during his firm’s first years with production rising steadily to around 165 by 1825. In the early 1820s he began transitioning to percussion guns as the new technology became established among gun owners. In addition to making new guns—including sporting guns (or shotguns), rifles, and dueling and other types of pistols—Purdey also fitted percussion locks to old flintlock guns, offered his customers repair and maintenance services, and sold shooting accessories, such as gun cases, powder flasks, shot belts, and cartridges.
Having outgrown his small shop, Purdey in late 1826 moved into the former premises of Manton’s company on Oxford Street. Manton had run into financial difficulties and was forced into bankruptcy earlier in the year. In his new, larger quarters, which were also located in a more commercially viable area, Purdey was able to expand his trade, with production averaging around 265 guns per year in the late 1820s. Trade with India began in 1826, and Purdey also began manufacturing and selling guns of a lower quality, which merchants purchased for resale. The core of the company’s business, however, was with the more well-to-do: British nobility, clergymen, and royalty. Queen Victoria purchased a pair of Purdey pistols in 1838, one year after her accession to the throne.
In the world of gunmaking the name Purdey is synonymous with the highest standards of quality, the company striving not just to maintain, but to constantly improve upon, its own high standards of engineering precision in gunmaking. Purdey numbers among its clients some of the world’’s most demanding and discerning people, and has held Royal Warrants of Appointment to all British monarchs since the reign of Queen Victoria.
Production at Purdey’s firm dropped to around 150 guns per year in the later 1930s and then further to around 120 per year in the 1940s. This falloff, however, did not necessarily reflect any problem with the business, because the higher figures for the immediately prior period stemmed from the high demand that arose with the advent of the new percussion system. In a more distressing development, Purdey’s company fell into financial difficulties by 1847 and was nearly forced out of business. Cash flow problems were the apparent cause of this crisis and likely stemmed from the reluctance or slowness of customers to pay what they owed the company, although the turbulent political and social climate that led up to the revolutionary year of 1848 in Europe may have contributed as well. Purdey was saved through the intervention of Lord Henry Bentinck, who in some discreet manner restored the company’s finances and kept its order book full. By the 1850s, however, Purdey had built up substantial debts either through profligate spending or an inability to manage his business properly anymore because of advancing age. These circumstances led Purdey to transfer control of the business to his son, also called James Purdey.
James Purdey the Younger was born in 1828 at the building on Oxford Street that served as both the company headquarters and the family home. He served an apprenticeship under his father from 1843 to 1850. The elder James was 73 years of age when he turned the business over to his son at the beginning of 1858; he died five years later. James the Younger assumed control of the company at age 29. In 1860 he was admitted to the Freedom of the Gunmakers’ Company. In his early years of leadership he worked assiduously to reduce the debt his father had accumulated and put the company on a firmer financial footing.
Purdey took charge at a time of another key transition in gun design, the change from muzzle-loading weapons, which were loaded at the open end at the front of the barrel, to breech-loading guns, which were loaded at the rear of the barrel (the breech). Purdey has been credited, however, with the development of the well-known Express rifle, a muzzle-loader that originated in the early 1850s. Its name had derived from its likeness to an express train; its shot was fast, powerful, and straight. By 1870, however, breech-loaders had largely supplanted muzzle-loaders at the Purdey company. In 1868, meanwhile, the firm was granted a Royal Warrant of Appointment from the Prince of Wales. This was followed ten years later by the granting of a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria. Each reigning British monarch thereafter did likewise.
During his period of helmsmanship, Purdey was at the forefront of advances in gun design, taking out several important patents in the process. None, however, was more important than his 1863 patent for the Purdey bolt, which in conjunction with the top lever patented in 1865 by gunmaker William Middleditch Scott created a bolt action mechanism for opening and closing breech-loading guns that remained the standard right into the 21st century. This invention enabled a sportsman to easily open his gun using his thumb on the top lever without having to change his grip on the gun’s stock. It also enabled the gun to be easily snapped shut. After entering into a licensing arrangement with Scott’s firm, Purdey was able to license what was often called either the Purdey lever or Purdey action to a large number of rival gunmakers, thereby garnering substantial revenue for his firm.
In the late 1870s the Purdey company departed from its normal standards of gunmaking by offering for sale different grades of guns, from best grade A to the cheapest grade E, with prices ranging from £58 down to £20. Only the grade A guns were entirely built by the company and conformed to the usual high standards. Other grades were either entirely or partially produced by other gunmakers. This practice pushed the company’s sales up to around 350 guns a year by the mid-1880s, and the extra sales translated into healthy profits. Sales of the lower grades began tailing off in the 1890s, however, and the firm eventually concluded that the practice of using multiple grades was tarnishing its well-earned reputation for excellence. Following World War I, the company returned to making only top-grade guns and rifles.
- James Purdey sets up shop as a gunmaker at 4 Princes Street, off Leicester Square, in London.
- Purdey moves his business to larger quarters on Oxford Street.
- Purdey turns over control of the business to his son, also named James Purdey.
- James Purdey the Younger patents the Purdey bolt.
- Company name is changed to James Purdey and Sons.
- Queen Victoria grants the firm a Royal Warrant of Appointment.
- Headquarters are moved to Audley House, 57–58 South Audley Street.
- Athol Purdey succeeds his father, James the Younger, as head of the company.
- Firm is converted into a limited liability company, James Purdey & Sons Limited.
- c. 1929:
- Athol Purdey retires; his sons, Jim and Tom, are given the company helm.
- The Seely family acquires a controlling interest in the company.
- Purdey & Sons acquires James Woodward & Sons and the rights to its over-and-under gun.
- Purdey & Sons is acquired by Vendôme, majority owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA; Richemont later gains full control of Vendôme and Purdey.
In the meantime, the hammerless gun, in which the mechanism for firing was contained entirely within the gun’s stock, began its ascendancy in the early 1870s. James Purdey made another shrewd maneuver in this area, purchasing the rights to a spring-cocked hammerless action invented in 1880 by Frederick Beesley, who had left Purdey’s company two years earlier. As was the case with the Purdey lever, Purdey was able to license Beesley’s hammerless action to other gunmakers, and thereby generate further revenue, because of the superiority of its design. Sales of hammerless guns gradually surpassed that of hammer guns over the course of the 1880s, particularly in the later years of the decade with the advent of the hammerless ejector gun, which included a mechanism that automatically threw each empty cartridge case out of the gun when the breech was opened. Since the addition of the ejector mechanism, no major changes were subsequently made to the basic design of the Purdey shooting gun, although a continual process of refinement occurred.
James Purdey cemented his company’s position at the top of the London gunmakers with the construction of Audley House at the corner of South Audley Street and Mount Street in the prestigious area of Mayfair. In 1882 the company moved its headquarters to the grand new, five-story building at 57–58 South Audley Street, where it remained based into the early 21st century. The building included some workshop space below ground, but Purdey did not want the main factory and its attendant noise at the location because of the lavish showroom that was installed on the first floor. Therefore the Purdey factory was located nearby at 37 North Row, where it remained until 1900 when it was moved to 2 Irongate Wharf, off Praed Street.
James Purdey’s plan of succession was to pass the business on to his two eldest sons, James III, born in 1854, and Athol Stuart, born in 1858. By 1877 the two brothers, then aged 24 and 19, respectively, had established themselves at the firm, and as a first step in the succession process, James the Younger changed the name of the company to James Purdey and Sons, though he did not confer any partnership rights. The rationale for the change was to familiarize customers with the existence of the sons within the firm. James III, however, never a well man, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1890 at age 36. In 1900 James the Younger retired, and control of the company passed to Athol Purdey. He was assisted by his brother Cecil Purdey, who was born in 1865 and had been brought into the firm in the late 1880s. James the Younger died in 1909 just short of his 81st birthday, leaving an estate valued at more than £200,000—a more than considerable sum at the time. He left the gunmaking business to Athol and Cecil, with shares of two-thirds and one-third, respectively.
When World War I broke out in 1914, James Purdey and Sons had around 108 employees. One-third of the workforce eventually joined the armed forces during the war. Orders for the company’s high-end guns fell off substantially with Europe embroiled in war, so much so that profits fell from around £8,000 in 1912 to just £725 in 1915 when the firm was in danger of bankruptcy. To save the company, Athol Purdey turned the attention of what remained of his highly skilled workforce to military contracting. Among the gun-related parts the company produced during the war were muzzle protectors designed to prevent mud from getting into the barrel of rifles in trench warfare conditions, telescopic sights for snipers’ rifles, and the Norman sight, a self-adjusting sight for aircraft machine guns that had been invented by a Cambridge University professor. Though Purdey and Sons had produced a few sporting guns in the early years of the war, by 1917 the company had turned its full attention to war production, and in 1918 not one gun left the factory.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, Purdey and Sons recovered somewhat, producing about 200 sporting guns per year, well below the prewar average of around 300 guns. With the European markets far from returning to normal, the company began making inroads into the American market, which enjoyed a postwar boom in the 1920s and had hitherto been largely untapped. Athol Purdey embarked on a sales trip to the United States in 1922, during which he took several orders, and many more followed in the ensuing years.
Despite this burgeoning new market, a distinct drop in gun production, from around 230 in 1923 to around 165 in 1925, left the company in need of an injection of capital. Thus, in October 1925 the firm was converted into a limited liability company, James Purdey & Sons Limited, and preferred shares in the company were sold to the Oliver family for £24,400. The connection here was Bee Oliver, who had become the second wife of James Alexander (Jim) Purdey, son of Athol, in 1923. Athol was named chairman, while Cecil, Jim, and Jim’s brother, Thomas Donald Stuart (Tom) Purdey, served as directors. With these developments, the Purdey family for the first time in the history of the company was not fully in charge.
Thanks to the infusion of capital and the booming U.S. market, Purdey & Sons prospered over the next several years with gun production surging back up to 300 guns by 1928 and net profits totaling almost £10,000 in 1927. The company used some of its funds to buy 36 acres of property to establish a shooting ground at Eastcote, South Harrow, near London. In addition to being used as a testing ground, customers could use the grounds for shooting practice and receive instruction from experts. Around 1929, Athol Purdey retired, leaving his two sons, Jim and Tom, in charge of the firm, the fourth generation of Purdeys at the helm.
The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s hit Purdey & Sons hard. Sales to American customers dried up almost completely, while overall gun production fell to only around 100 per year during the early 1930s. The firm suffered a net loss of £500 in 1931, making it necessary to impose austerity measures, including laying off 26 gunmakers, or one-quarter of the workforce. A good portion of these workers were rehired in the late 1930s when business began picking up again and annual gun output had returned to the 200 level. In the meantime, in another economizing move, Purdey & Sons sold its Eastcote shooting grounds in 1936. In its stead, the company entered into an agreement to rent the West London Shooting Grounds at Northolt for testing and instruction, an arrangement that continued into the early 21st century. In 1935 the Oliver family decided to sell their stake in the company, and their shares were purchased by Sir Wyndham Portal of Laver-stock (later Lord Portal) and Major Godfrey Miller-Mundy of Redrice, Hampshire.
In April 1939, on the eve of another world war, Athol Purdey died at age 81. During World War II, as was the case with the previous world war, Purdey & Sons produced very few of its trademark sporting guns and instead concentrated on filling war contracts. Among the items produced were rifle gauges, molds for aircraft electrical equipment, rifle chamber caps, and pop-rivet tools used in the construction of aircraft fuselages. In April 1941 Audley House was damaged in a German bombing raid. Two years later, Cecil Purdey died at age 78, thus ending the involvement in the firm of the third Purdey generation.
Late in 1943 Lord Portal and Major Miller-Mundy sold their preferred shares to Ivan Cobbold, a longtime customer and friend of the company. In June of the following year, however, Cobbold was killed by a German V1 bomb. His shares were eventually sold, in March 1946, to Sir Hugh Seely (later Lord Sherwood), who had served as under-secretary of state for air during the war, and who was the majority owner of Purdey & Sons.
The prospects for selling luxury goods such as high-end sporting rifles seemed bleak in the austere environment of postwar Europe. Labor costs had increased markedly during the war, pushing up the price that Purdey & Sons would need to charge for its guns to make a profit. At the same time, the new Labour government enacted a highly progressive income tax that diminished the disposable income of Purdey customers; dozens of customers in the United Kingdom abruptly canceled their gun orders. Jim and Tom Purdey went so far as to suggest that the company concentrate its efforts on tool and mold manufacturing, which seemed to have better prospects, and drop gunmaking altogether. Lord Sherwood, however, felt that guns were Purdey’s business and that was where the company should stake its future. His view won out, although Purdey & Sons continued to operate a toolmaking business as a sort of backup option until 1961.
For Purdey & Sons to prosper in the postwar era, it needed to place a greater emphasis on attracting customers in the United States, which was experiencing a postwar boom. In that market, however, there was a greater demand for over-and-under guns, that is, guns with two barrels, one atop the other, in contrast to the side-by-side gun, in which the barrels are opposed horizontally. Purdey & Sons had occasionally made over-and-under guns, but its twin-barrel guns were more typically the side-by-side variety. In 1949 the company made a key acquisition, purchasing James Woodward & Sons, a London gunmaker with roots dating back to the mid-1840s that was on the brink of insolvency. Woodward had earned a reputation for making very elegant and finely finished guns, and most importantly held the rights to a highly successful over-and-under gun. Though the purchase price of a little more than £444 included the rights to the James Woodward & Sons name, Purdey elected to begin making the Woodward over-and-under gun under the Purdey brand. The first such gun was delivered in 1950.
When Tom Purdey retired in 1955, a period began in which no member of the Purdey family was involved in the day-to-day management of the company. Purdey died two years later. Lord Sherwood became chairman of Purdey & Sons upon Tom Purdey’s retirement, a position he held until his death in 1970. His brother, Sir Victor Seely, briefly took over the chairmanship before passing it on to Richard Beaumont in July 1971. Beaumont, a nephew of Lord Sherwood, had joined Purdey & Sons in 1947 and was made a director in 1953.
The next serious challenge for Purdey was the sustained inflationary economy of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The company was forced to substantially increase the wages it paid its gunmakers, which in turn meant that the prices of new guns had to be raised. Between 1968 and 1976, for example, the cost of a side- by-side gun jumped from £1,100 to £4,500. Compounding the situation was that most orders for new guns were on a fixed-price basis, but it took as long as four years to deliver a gun. Thus, a gun ordered at a fixed price of £1,500 in 1969 might actually cost £2,500 to build over the next few years because of the high rate of inflation. To escape this recipe for bankruptcy, Purdey began introducing surcharges on delivery and eventually included in order contracts an open-ended escalation clause. These measures, coupled with an easing in inflation, returned the company to more secure footing by the late 1970s.
Toward the end of the 1970s, the company introduced a line of Purdey clothing and accessories. During the 1980s, the company was producing between 60 and 70 guns per year, with prices starting at £23,000. The acquisition of James Woodward & Sons had proved critical as approximately 65 percent of Purdey’s customers in the 1980s were Americans. The firm’s overall export figure for new guns was approximately 85 percent.
Wishing to retire, Beaumont engineered the sale of Purdey & Sons to Vendôme, a luxury goods consortium controlled by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, a Swiss holding company for the Rupert family’s international interests. Among the luxury brands owned by Vendôme/Richemont were Cartier jewelry, Baume & Mercier and Piaget watches, and Montblanc pens. The deal was concluded in October 1994 for an undisclosed sum. Three years later, Richemont acquired full control of Vendôme, making Purdey a wholly owned subsidiary of Richemont. Shortly after the takeover of Purdey, Richard Purdey, six generations down the direct line of descent from the company founder and grandson of Jim Purdey, took charge of the company as chairman.
In the years following the Richemont takeover, James Purdey & Sons was reinvigorated in various ways. While the traditional techniques used to make guns at Purdey remained largely intact, the new owners did install some computer numerical controlled machinery to ease some of the gunmakers’ burden, to further improve the technical precision of the guns, and to improve productivity. According to a December 29, 2004, article in the Financial Times, cost-saving measures and an increasing emphasis on generating revenues from nongun products, particularly clothing and accessories, enabled Purdey to move from a £265,000 loss (on revenues of £4.5 million) in 2001 to nearly breaking even in 2004 (not counting one extraordinary expense, a £296,000 infusion into the firm’s pension fund). In 1997, in the meantime, Purdey reintroduced to the market the Woodward name, offering both over-and-under and side-by-side models under that brand.
The biggest change, however, was the adoption of a more assertive marketing orientation. The firm adopted a new logo that featured the single word Purdey, and in 1999 it opened its first shop outside Audley House, on New York’s Upper East Side at 844 Madison Avenue, where it began selling guns, clothes, and accessories. In the spring of 2006 the company hired the public relations firm Brian MacLaurin Associates to increase general awareness of the brand, such as by promoting Purdey’s efforts in conservation. Later that year, Purdey launched online shopping for its clothing, accessories, and gift lines. At the same time, Purdey brand products were being increasingly distributed through prestigious specialty stores in Europe and the United States. In 2000, meanwhile, 184 years after its founding, James Purdey & Sons produced its 30,000th gun, a unique gun it called the Millennium Gun.
David E. Salamie
Holland & Holland Limited; Boss & Co.
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