Aiming for excellence

By Peter Malmstrom | 25 Aug 2021 | Culture, Design

We visit London’s oldest gunmaker Boss & Co and discover a thriving tradition of English craftsmanship that is inspiring new generations

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My father once told me, “Son, there are three types of arrogance in this world: arrogance born of youth, arrogance born of stupidity and arrogance born of absolute excellence”. The excerpt to the left is an extract from a sales brochure by bespoke gunmakers Boss & Co from the 1920s and might, in this modern age, be considered a tad arrogant in its delivery.

But, if it is, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is arrogance born of excellence, and absolute mastery of their craft, which is as true today as it was in the late 1890s when John Robertson – Boss & Co’s legendary gunmaker, who took over the firm from founder Thomas Boss – led the way with innovations such as the single trigger mechanism in 1893. This was followed by the Boss Hammerless Ejector in 1897 and the creation of the elegant and lightweight Over and Under Shotgun in 1909.

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This period was perhaps the zenith of fine English sporting gun manufacture, extending from about 1890 through to the First World War, when the flower of England perished on the battlefields of Flanders and great British estates were bereft of sons to inherit. The great gunmakers at the time also lost an army of highly skilled craftsmen, such was the call of duty. The industry saw an interwar revival, before the onset of the Second World War changed English society for ever and, with it, many of the great gun makers of the late Victorian era were lost

Fortunately, a few of the greatest names survived to continue the tradition of fine English gun making for a discerning, international shooting elite who valued the exceptional craftsmanship put into these guns. As other great gunmakers were swallowed up by large international conglomerates, Boss & Co was acquired by individuals who were avid shooters and keen customers of Boss – and who were keen to maintain the quality and handmade excellence established by Boss and its small team of dedicated craftsmen.

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Today, owner Arthur DeMoulas has taken the company completely the other way to many other manufacturers, who look for ways to reduce costs and rationalise businesses through more mechanisation. Instead, DeMoulas’s vision has been to maintain the core craftsmanship that has driven the brand’s obsessional pursuit of excellence since its inception in 1812. This by no means equals stasis, however: As gunmaker Jason Craddock says, “Boss is guided by tradition, not bound by it”. The embodiment of this philosophy is in the development of the company’s crowning glory – the 1812 Edition Over and Under Ambidextrous Side-Lever shotgun.

DeMoulas was shooting with a pair of vintage Boss side-lever guns when he was struck by the ease of use compared with the traditional top-lever. He immediately set about developing this theme further with his small team of craftsmen. With the more common top-lever gun (pictured left, inset), when you break the gun to eject spent cartridges, you drop the gun from the shoulder and your right hand rotates clockwise around the grip, so your right thumb catches the lever on the top of the gun, pushes it to the right to break the gun, and the ejectors do their work.

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From a right-handed shooter’s perspective, the advantage of a side-lever action is that your hand is already in position when holding the gun in the aim. After your shot, you simply drop the gun from the shoulder and move your left thumb down, which pushes the lever down, breaks the gun and ejects the spent cartridges – a much more fluid action.

To make this mechanism (pioneered by Boss in earlier guns) work effectively in a side- lever gun is no mean feat, and would require a bespoke action devised by the combined skills of a team led by master gunmaker John Varney, who had worked with Boss for 42 years. Varney had discussed overcoming these technical challenges for the manufacture of the new gun but sadly passed away shortly after the finished 1812 Edition went into production. Fortunately, many of Varney’s skills had passed to Craddock, who had worked on the bench next to Varney for more than 20 years. Under the guidance of DeMoulas and inherited skills of Varney, the Boss team successfully produced the world’s first ambidextrous side- lever over and under shotgun.

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When you start talking about a team where multiple individuals, at the height of their profession, work alongside each other for more than 20 years, you can start to understand the culture Boss & Co maintains – and one which was evidenced in spadefuls when I visited the factory in Kew.

While the exterior resembles a non-descript Georgian terraced house rather than a factory, inside it is a labyrinth of rooms occupied by specialist individuals, such as an engraver surrounded by his hand tools, or small teams working side by side on honing the barrels or carving the stocks by hand – without a CNC machine in sight.

My mind went back to the sales literature of the 1920s: “There is no opportunity for the work of inferior men to be utilised in the economy of the workshop”. These words ring as true today as they did in 1921 – and in 1812.

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Virtually all gunmaking processes – down to the famous hallmark ‘Boss Rose and Scroll’ engraving – are handled in-house by this small team with a few exceptions such as some customer engraving requests, which go out to specific artists, commissioned as Leonardo or Michelangelo might have been in Renaissance times. The alchemy that is bluing (that wonderful colouring on the metal surfaces) is also done by outsourced specialists who, like ancient Druids, maintain the secret formulae of compounds and heat to create this magical effect on components that are so valuable, any mistake would be catastrophic.

The result of these labours is outstanding. When I am first handed the 1812 Edition, I naturally break the gun, as is force of habit for any shooter or military man. The ease with which the gun’s action broke was like silk. I was also struck by the surprisingly heavy weight, as for a long time English gunmakers have strived to make their guns as light as possible for ease of carrying in the field for long periods. The trade-off, however, is the recoil. Physics tells you that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so a light gun really kicks back at you. A heavier gun is more comfortable to use, particularly on high bird days when both guns in a pair would be used to reduce heat build-up and rate of fire.

As a right-handed shooter, the gun I was handling was set up with the side-lever on the left, but a matched right-side lever comes with the gun and can be switched over for the left- handed shooter. 

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The question here, of course, is why include a right-handed lever for a left-handed shooter (or vice versa) on a gun handmade to a specific customer? Each Boss & Co gun takes more than three years and over 1,500 hours to make and, having purchased such a masterpiece (costing upwards of £160,000 each and often sold in pairs), would you ever be likely to sell it?

Well, the thinking here is that an ambidextrous gun will not only maintain its stratospheric second-hand value if it ever came onto the market, but it can also be handed down in the family to a right or left-handed son or daughter. By making and supplying ambidextrous levers with the original gun, the left-handed lever could be installed at any time and would be identical in every respect to the right-handed lever.

It is clear from this philosophy that Boss & Co is not just thinking about today, but recognising their long and illustrious history as well as being firmly focused on the future generations to come. Boss runs a robust apprentice programme to develop new talent and, in fact, many of the accomplished craftsmen I met at the factory were much younger than I expected and had already been with the firm for years.

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As an avid shooter and as an Englishman, my visit to Boss & Co was a revelation that lifted my spirits after the dark days of the pandemic and, dare I say it, Brexit. To realise that not only does craftsmanship of this quality still exist in our green and pleasant land but that, through the efforts of this small dedicated British team and under the leadership of its knowledgeable and passionate American owner, Boss & Co is destined to maintain its standing for generations to come.

There are those among us that thought exceptional quality of this kind was the reserve of our great history, but I can tell you it is alive and well and thriving in Kew, in this small and unassuming factory.

Boss & Co has maintained almost legendary status for over 200 years and, upon meeting the team and handling what is, without doubt, one of the finest guns in the world, this experience has reaffirmed my belief that English craftsmanship will continue to lead the world with Boss & Co for the next 200 years and beyond.