Holland & Holland: the royal gunmaker
"Since its humble beginnings, the name of Holland & Holland has been recognized as the benchmark of excellence throughout the world"
It was recently my good fortune to be invited to join a shooting party on the famous Killean Estate in Argyll, a 5,000 acre working farm near Kintyre in the Highlands of Scotland. I was here for the traditional ‘Glorious Twelfth’, a term usually used to refer to the 12th August, heralding the start of the shooting season for red grouse, and to a lesser extent the ptarmigan. This is one of the busiest days in the shooting season, with large amounts of game being shot.
I was not there by chance, for it was on this very grouse moor in 1987 that my late father presented me with his most treasured acquisition – a positively exquisite 12-bore Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ Over-and-Under sidelock shotgun that was later bequeathed to me in his will.
Curiously, my interest in this gun was not its classic styling, handling qualities, balance or single sighting plane, but rather more the remarkable history behind its maker – the celebrated London gunsmith Holland & Holland
Holland & Holland guns are renowned throughout the world as the perfect combination of artistry and craftsmanship. To understand why, you need to simply pick one up, balance it carefully in your hands, and allow your eyes to take in every detail of its graceful lines. It displays a purity of design and functional simplicity that is found more frequently in nature than in the creations of man.
Swing and mount the gun to your shoulder and, immediately, your visual sensation is matched by such perfect handling that you know the gun is ideally suited to its purpose. Such an achievement does not come into being by evolution alone, even though Holland & Holland guns and rifles trace their lineage back to the year 1835. Its other parent is curiosity, the desire of the craftsman and gunmaker to see whether an improvement can be made on accepted methods.
Since its humble beginnings, the name of Holland & Holland has been recognized as the benchmark of excellence throughout the world. The company was founded by the indefatigable Harris Holland in London in 1835 and by the turn of the 19th century, had become one of the best known and highly regarded London gun and rifle makers.
Although accounts of Harris Holland’s background are somewhat sketchy, it is believed that his father was an organ builder, while in his earlier years Harris had a tobacco wholesale business in London and Oxford. He was obviously successful, as he was often seen at various pigeon shoots in the countryside around Woodstock, the Great Tew Estate, and at important London clubs, as well as leasing a grouse moor in Yorkshire. Having no children of his own, he took on his nephew Henry Holland as an apprentice in 1861.
In 1867 Henry became a partner in the business and in 1876, the name of the company changed to Holland & Holland. Although Henry was a full partner, Harris kept strict control and was the only one who could sign a cheque until his death in 1896.
The company built a gun factory at Kensal Green in London in 1898 which has since been in continuous use, and which today combines all the wonders of modern component-making technology, with the same care and craftsmanship in the gun-making and finishing operations that Harris and Henry Holland inspired in all their craftsmen from the very beginning.
The slim and splendid five-storey red brick Holland & Holland factory, may be found in the Harrow Road not far from London’s Paddington Station. It now stands proudly in isolation but continues to serve its purpose for the manufacture of the very finest craft-made guns. The late 1800s were still in the days of gas lighting hence the need for tall windows and high ceilings to make maximum use of natural light with the engravers always favouring the North light.
More than one hundred years later there seems to have been little change other than new windows and a fresh coat of paint. It is not until you venture inside that the differences becomes more evident. Built in the days of overhead shafting and belt-driven machinery, this state-of-the-art Victorian ‘technology’ has now been replaced by the new. Today you will see CAD stations (for computer aided design) used to define the functional detail of every gun down to the most exacting tolerance, and CAM stations (for computer aided manufacture) to generate the thousands of programmes required to drive the latest high-tech machine tools.
Yet this digital technology still relies heavily on all the traditional gunmaking skills to achieve the very ‘Best’. Barrels are still hand-struck to a flawless and perfect form, actions and their components are filed and fitted with great precision and stocks are hand-shaped and immaculately chequered to the most elegant effect. Depending on the model, from 650 to in excess of 1000 hours will be invested in the making of every single gun. No part of a Holland & Holland ‘Best’ will interchange with one of another gun as each and every part is painstakingly fitted to ensure perfection. Combine these abilities with the quality of steel available today, and it will come as no surprise that they believe they are building the best guns ever.
At first, the guns bore the inscription ‘H.Holland’, without an address, and it is probable that these were built in the trade to his design. It is not known when Harris Holland actually started his own manufacturing, but it is estimated to be in the 1850s. This start makes him very unusual among the London gunmakers, as others such as James Purdey, Boss & Co and Joseph Lang & Sons had all apprenticed with Joseph Manton, while others such as Beesley, Grant and Atkin apprenticed with Purdey or Boss.
In 1883, Holland & Holland entered the trials organized by the magazine The Field and won all of the rifle categories. This set a new standard of excellence for the competition among many English gunmakers. In 1885, patents were granted to Holland & Holland for their extraordinary ‘Paradox’ gun, a shotgun with rifling in the front two inches of the barrel. The majority of the shooting trials for this now legendary firearm took place on the Blenheim Palace Estate.
In 1908, they patented the detachable lock feature with small lever, for sidelock shotguns. The last major development in the evolution of the sidelock side-by-side gun occurred in 1922, when the Holland & Holland assisted-opening mechanism was patented. This gun, the self-opening ‘Royal’ side-by-side, has been hugely influential in gun-making throughout the world.
In the period after World War II under the leadership of new owner and Managing Director, Malcolm Lyell, the company made sorties to India, where guns from the famous collections of the princes and maharajahs were bought back, developing an important market for second-hand pieces. In 1989, all remaining shares in Holland & Holland were bought by the French cosmetics group Chanel.
Since then, the factory building in Kensal Green, in use since 1898, has been extensively renovated and equipped with modern technology. Guns such as the ‘Royal’ Over-and-Under or side-by-side double-barrelled shotguns were improved and reintroduced, and they are available from 4-bore to cal.410 inch. A hand-built gun from Holland & Holland can cost around £89,000 for a shotgun and close to £100,000 for some rifles, with prices literally doubling with traditional scroll engraving, and there is a waiting period of 2-3 years between ordering and delivery.
In the 1990s, Holland & Holland embarked on a major programme of expansion. The company now has Gun Rooms in London, New York and Dallas. The company’s flagship London store at 33 Bruton Street has been completely renovated and expanded.
This hidden gem in the heart of Mayfair has been a shooter’s paradise for many decades. Visitors to the Gun Room can browse a full collection of new and preowned shotguns and rifles, as well as a selection of the best shooting accessories. The London Gun Room has everything the discerning shooter desires with a wide range of services including gun storage, repairs and renovation. A comprehensive stock of shotgun cartridges and rifle ammunition is also available to purchase.
Holland & Holland also has its very own Shooting Grounds, which offer unrivalled facilities for the sporting gun. Set in 60 acres of rolling woodland and open countryside, just 17 miles from London near Northwood, Middlesex, the Shooting Grounds combine rural tranquillity with superb access to main transport routes such as the M40, M25, Heathrow and the London Underground system.
Whether you just want a few practice shots before the season starts, solve a problem with your shooting style or simply learn from scratch, the experienced instructors at the Shooting Grounds will be able to assist you, whatever your needs or shooting capabilities.
This quintessentially British company’s heritage of superb craftsmanship has formed the basis of its transformation into a global luxury goods brand that focuses on authenticity, heritage and style. No doubt influenced by the House of Chanel, Holland & Holland now offers an exclusive line of clothing and accessories that encompass a fabulous range of traditional, but technically advanced outdoor sporting clothing for not only the shooting public but also for the discerning ladies and gentlemen to combine both quality and style. The clothing is beautifully made using only the best of British fabrics.
Holland & Holland is nevertheless still regarded as a luxury sporting gunmaker, enjoying a reputation in the world similar to other British-made luxury brands such as Bentley or Rolls-Royce. Together with James Purdey & Sons, regarded as their primary competitor, they are the only gunmakers to hold a Royal Warrant. Their clientele, since the 19th century, have included famous explorers, such as Frederick Courteney Selous, Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, and Royalty such as Prince Charles and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh.
Since 1835, Holland & Holland’s skilled staff have been at the heart of the company. Today, they employ 100 people and in the words of current Managing Director, Daryl Greatrex, “These people are central to the business, without the dedication and enthusiasm of our craftsmen and staff our time honoured tradition of gunmaking would wither and die. It is thanks to them that we are and will remain ‘The Royal Gunmaker”.
At Holland & Holland the requirements of the skilled shooter are always the principal design guide for any development, however innovative or diverse and if he was alive today, Harris Holland would have surely endorsed the company’s expansion, for they are quite simply the yardstick by which other gunsmiths must be judged.