Walking along the streets of south west London, just north of Buckingham Palace, a person will take a step into glamour and glance at the official store fronts of such luxury brands as “Louis Vuitton”, “Gucci”, and “Rolex” to name a few. It is among these prestigious titles on 33 Bruton Street that a very unassuming single floor store front has taken up residence for the past 31 years. On the banner is simply “Holland & Holland, Established London 1835”.
To understand the history and prestige of Holland & Holland, an American must take a step back and first examine the culture and tradition associated with the company before passing judgment. Try convincing an ordinary duck hunter to purchase a 90,000 dollar traditional side by side 12 gauge shotgun and see if he doesn’t ask if you’re part of a comedy routine. No bells or whistles, no competition accessories such as a set trigger, titanium receiver or Benelli recoil system. Just a simple side by side with fancy carvings on the stock and elaborate scenes of the hunt inlaid in the metal.
You see, Holland & Holland is not the same as our historic “Winchester” or “Colt” companies so ingrained in our national history. Holland & Holland is something much more to a British shooter; it’s a lifestyle, an unbroken tradition, a bond of man and weapon that simply doesn’t exist in the United States. Extravagant? Posh? Insane level of upper class? Indeed it is. But if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a Holland & Holland.
How can a simple gun company achieve such heights? Founded in 1835 by Harris Holland (later partnered with nephew Henry Holland in), the company started out from modest roots making simple percussion shotguns for bird and target shooting. It goes without saying that the shooting sports in Britain were more of an upper class pastime, unlike in America where it is very much ingrained in the national culture. Holland & Holland continued to grow until it received a breakthrough with a series of tests by the British outdoors magazine “The Field” in which some of their rifles scored first in the firearms trials. This launched the company into it’s heyday of the extravagant safari hunts of the early 20th century. Ever since, Holland & Holland has been the mark of quality and perfection within the British firearms business and sporting field. Today the company still maintains its “Royal Warrant”, meaning that is was commissioned by the Crown to provide products to the monarchy of Great Britain, a very enriching crest to keep.
What exactly makes a Holland & Holland firearm? To call a Holland & Holland firearm custom is an extreme understatement. When we talk about custom work in the United States, it might entail some trigger work, refinishing of the stock or receiver, maybe an aftermarket bolt or barrel. When a customer decides he wants a Holland & Holland shotgun or rifle, he visits the gun room and decides the type of caliber, action and receiver. Then his body measurements are taken in relation to the gun, height, weight, arm length, cheek diameter, etc. An appointment at one of Holland & Holland’s shooting centers is in order and here even more measurements are taken as the customer is observed while shooting. With the customers’ requests also added, the design is finalized and is sent to the work room. From here a gun can take months to years to complete. Everything on it is handmade and meticulously assembled. Parts are worked on until their symmetry with connecting parts is flawless. There are no outsourcing, sub-contracting, or third party manufacturers. Everything is made in house and in Britain. What does this cost? In upwards of £60,000 for a single shotgun or rifle NiB.
Did I mention doubles yet? To speed up the rate of fire while bird hunting, the British do something called doubles. A hunter will have two guns built exactly the same and have an assistant hold on to the other during the hunt. After the two shells have been expended with one, he will hand it off to the assistant who will hand a loaded gun to the shooter and commence loading the recently fired gun. This concept is very alien to American shooters who will argue why not just use a pump or semi-automatic shotgun and have an even faster, more efficient method of fire. This is where the divide between British and American shooting is clearly shown; Holland & Holland is a part of an upper class life style, much more than just a gun company. These “Pairs” of shotguns usually run £100,000 to £120,000 for a pair.
Holland & Holland isn’t the only company of this type though, and to be fair this post should include some of the other companies out there. All are considered to produce a gun of “London Best” quality, so named because throughout history such fine shotguns have come from Holland. Companies such as Boss, Purdey, John Rigby, and John Wilkes are a few other British companies to make such “bespoke” guns. Spanish Grulla, German J.P Sauer, and Italian Perazzi are a few international companies that also make such fine shotguns. But where are the American “Best” shotguns? There have been a few; Parker, Ithaca, and L.C Smith. Most of these are out of business but when they are operational, they represented some very well made shotguns in the United States.
Included in this Holland & Holland life style is also an entire luxury fashion line. In fact there is more to do with hats, coats, ties, suits, and vests than with shooting or guns in the 33 Bruton Street store. These items are not as custom made as the firearms but they are extremely high quality and made of the finest materials. In addition to fashion, the store is also stocked with various interesting trinkets and jewels made from precious metals and a selection of books on the company, safari, and shooting.
When I toured London in August of 2013, one of my priorities was to visit the flagship storefront (the company prefers it called the Gunroom) at 33 Bruton Street. After following the maze of streets leading away from Buckingham Palace and into the Mayfair district, passing through all the high end luxury shops, opposite a pub that opened in 1744. I finally found Holland & Holland with its glass storefront window and unassuming sign board in green with white lettering. Walking into the gunroom I was faced with a clerk at the register and explained I was an American gun enthusiast who wanted to explore the shop. I didn’t want to mislead them thinking I had the funds to actually purchase anything in the place!
Just before the Gunroom, is the records section. Here the company has a book of records for every year of operation that records every gun Holland & Holland has made. Customers can inquire about their own guns and receive a certificate of researched authentication. It was here that I encountered one of the Gunroom’s representatives, James Hart who patiently showed me around and explained all my questions about Holland & Holland.
Stepping into the actual Gunroom is quite an experience. For one, it is a raised platform and at the rear of the store, as if to implicate that the true treasure lies beyond all the other products. The guns themselves are locked behind glass cabinets with bright spot lights all around, focusing the glare on every intricate part of the firearms. And intricate they are! I admired the handcut detail in the metal and the elaborate hunting scenes carved upon the stocks. Professing my mere mortal being, I tenderly asked if I could personally examine one of the side by side 20 gauge (20 bore in English terms). Mr. Hart gingerly pulled out a gun from a pair and matter of factly told me the pair was worth £120,000 together (they are only sold together). Handling it was superb, the action opening and closing like a charm. The individual detail on every single part was simply astounding for the quality, I handed the gun back to Mr. Hart and he ever so carefully placed it back in its velvet cradle.
My quest complete, I proceeded to exit the store but felt the urgent need to not leave without something of material value from the most extravagant gun maker in the Western World. So I looked through the books on sale and settled upon a coffee table history of the company and several of the current catalogs. I also picked up a Holland & Holland gun cleaning cloth for a measly £8. Had to walk away with something directly related to their shotguns!
So why the fuss over a posh gun company that me or anyone in my social group will probably ever be even able to purchase from? In an age of aluminum AR15s, caseless ammunition, and polymer pistols, it is very easy to lose sight of what we have previously placed our utmost admiration upon. A time when the very best firearms were truly works of art, in function, purpose, and aesthetic value. When the stuff of safari legend and romantic ventures on the savannah weren’t fairy tale and actually took place. Well, this timeless epic isn’t about to die yet. Not so long as there is still Holland & Holland.