The other notable over & under design to have survived into the modern era is that patented in 1913 by Charles Woodward, William Evershed and Charles Hill, and introduced as a new model by James Woodward & Sons.
Woodward was bought-out by Purdey in 1948 and the Woodward over & under effectively became the Purdey over & under.
Woodward’s patent (actually two patents: one for the action and another for the ejector work) has also been adopted by numerous other makers. Patent protection for both the Boss and the Woodward lapsed well before the Second World War.
There were numerous attempts to perfect over & under guns in the first quarter of the 20th century and Westley Richards was among several British firms to offer a design of their own patent.
That first Westley Richards over & under model was called the Ovundo and it was created by the same team that launched the hand-detachable lock; headed by Managing Director Leslie B. Taylor.
In concept, it was an over & under boxlock with hand-detachable locks, re-configured to suit barrels that are stacked one above the other. It was a logical move by the company, very much true to the direction in which Westley Richards gun design had travelled during the preceding thirty years.
The Ovundo had a higher-profile action than the Woodward and Boss designs, largely because it retained a lump under the barrel on which it hinged, unlike its rivals, with their split lumps either side of the lower barrel. This height differential is mitigated by the production of smaller bore guns, like 20-bore, which is probably that best suited to the Ovundo platform.
This First Period of Ovundo production essentially lasted from 1919 to 1938. Although the advent of Hitler’s War dealt the coup-de-grace to the Ovundo, production had already tailed-off during the 1930s. The vast majority of the (approximately two hundred) Ovundos made during this period left the bench in the 1920s.
The company did not produce another over & under gun until Simon Clode, as Managing Director, revived the Ovundo in 2008, in response to customer demand. Simon directed a team of his gunmakers to create thirteen new Ovundo guns in 20-bore and 16-bore, on scaled action sizes.
The new Ovundos were faithful copies of the original hand-detachable lock, single-trigger ejector in all but one or two very minor details. With all thirteen ‘Second Period’ Ovundos sold, the model was once again mothballed.
A look at today’s Westley Richards catalogue in search of an over & under will prove fruitless. However, that will not be the case for very long. The company, now under the direction of Anthony (‘Trigger’) Alborough-Tregear, has revisited the idea of a Westley Richards over & under for the future. However, it will not be an Ovundo.
The Ovundo was “a thing of beauty” according to Trigger but, though they look lovely and are mechanically both brilliant and intriguing, they are delicate, and complex to build. A hard-used gun is time consuming to re-joint once it has shot loose and in the modern context it has disadvantages that make it less than the ideal platform for a modern sporting gun.
The new Westley Richards over & under, which doesn’t need a model name, as it is the only over & under the firm intends to build, is a Woodward type, with some minor modifications to the geometry, and it will be built only in best quality.
Trigger explained his rationale; “Why try to re-invent the wheel? The Woodward patent action is proven, aesthetically pleasing, reliable and easy to scale up or down for different bore sizes as well as for magnum frames or live-pigeon type guns.”
Many of the new shotgun designs introduced during the last twenty years have not been without issues. To really understand what a new gun’s fundamental strengths and weaknesses are, you need five years of regular field testing. That can prove very expensive if customers are bringing back guns that are built on new, untested systems, demanding repairs or alterations to make them reliable.
A common complaint heard among hard-shooting high rollers is ‘British over & unders are pretty but they don’t work when you put them under pressure’. Perhaps we see a tacit admission of this in the trade, with London makers leaning increasingly towards ‘modern’ trigger-plate designs which are simpler and cheaper to make in a 21st century factory.
Rather than aim to compete with these ‘budget’ models, Westley Richards is aiming squarely at the very top of the market because they believe they have the workforce, clientele and capabilities to build as good an over & under gun as is being built in the country today. To put it bluntly, they have looked at the best guns currently coming out of London and thought ‘We can do as well, if not better’.
The recipe is simple to set-out but perhaps harder to deliver: Get the right design, simplify everything that can be simplified, then build it to the highest standards without compromise, not down to a price.
The aesthetics of the new Westley Richards gun are quite traditional, Trigger is not an admirer of so called ‘round body’ over & unders. However, some details make it distinctive. A fuller grip shape than most London guns, for example, which Trigger believes gives it a more harmonious look and feel, along with the fuller, rounder forend.
Returning to the theme of ‘British guns don’t work’, Trigger contends; “They do if they are built properly”. To that end, he is dedicating certain members of his gunmaking team to the production of the new model exclusively, following an old gun trade contention that specialists in each area doing one job repeatedly get very good at it. With a relatively complex gun, required to stand up to hard use, that is essential.
The first pair of 12-bores have been thoroughly tested in field conditions by the customer and they have performed without issue, even under sustained, hard use.
With a highly skilled workforce of traditionally trained gunmakers already in place, Westley Richards is ideally suited to set the standard for best over & under shotgun production for years to come. Given the attention to detail required to produce them, these will never be produced in large volumes.
There are currently twelve guns in production; all commissions from long-established customers. Three are 12-bores, two are 20-bores, one is a 28-bore. An additional three pairs of 20-bores complete the initial run.
While the mechanics will be familiar, the file-up is all Westley Richards and distinctively so, as these photographs show.
With a beautifully rounded, grippable forend, a perfectly angled pistol-grip stock and carefully scaled actions for every gauge, the 20-bore gun I examined feels perfect in the hand and beautifully set-up for grouse shooting.
With a solid rib, a traditional square bar and slightly bolstered radius, the gun looks elegant and perfectly proportioned, with a very highly figured walnut stock. Barrels are Teague choked but not proof tested for steel shot. On this matter Westley Richards stands squarely behind the product as a specialist tool, not a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
The compromises required to make the ideal game gun into a 3” chambered, steel shot firing, behemoth are counter-productive.
“Why, if you can afford to buy a gun costing well over a hundred thousand pounds and you spend upwards of £4,000 a day on your grouse or pheasant shooting, would you need, or want, to shoot inferior ammunition in a compromised gun?” Asks Trigger. “Bismuth is the closest projectile to lead we have, it performs nearly as well and requires no adjustment to the way a gun is built.”
The concept, therefore, is build the best gun and buy the best ammunition to shoot through it. If customers do not compromise of the quality of their guns, why would they compromise on the quality of their ammunition?
The sole rationale for steel shot is cost.
Another influence is the strong weighting in favour of small bores in the orders for Westley Richards shotguns. Most of those built are either 20-bore or 28-bore and steel shot is even less effective in those smaller loads than it is in a 12-bore. The proposed lead shot ban is also a local issue, affecting only British sportsmen, while a high proportion of Westley Richards orders are from the USA, or elsewhere outside of these shores.
The majority of the new guns will feature highest quality rose and scroll engraving in the traditional manner that best suits these classic actions, and a bead that is subtly distinctive in contour.
The single-trigger is a modern bob-weight type, for reliability. Ejectors are modified, with V-springs. A huge amount of time, money and energy has gone into ensuring that every facet of production is utterly precise.
While modern English over & unders do not universally share the reputation for grace under pressure that they should, given the lofty price tags they carry, the Westley Richards team are emphatic in their intent to deliver beautiful, yet robust and reliable, best quality over & under guns for modern sportsmen to use.
Take, for example, chambering. If chambers are cut even a fraction out of true, or over-size, ejection problems will result. Westley Richards have taken steps to guarantee absolute precision, using one tool for only three-to-four chamber cuts before discarding it. That way, chambers will be precise, exact in dimension and truly in-line with the bore. Forcing cones are graduated, leading into relatively tight bores and choke cones are, likewise, long and tapered, producing excellent patterns and managing stresses, as the ejecta moves from chamber to muzzle.
Modern practices have been adopted where beneficial. For example, hardening is now done according to the practices of the Formula 1 and aerospace industries, using precise temperature controlled ovens rather than more archaic methods. High chromium steel is used where corrosion resistance is most crucial, like striker disks, for example.
These guns are intended to deliver on style and quality, as well as exceeding reasonable expectations for performance and functional excellence. Westley Richards is a Birmingham firm taking on London’s finest in a sector of the market hitherto unexplored.
Armchair critics might sneer that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, as the cliché goes, though Westley Richards can point to the fact that the Woodward patent gun was largely designed by the least well-known of the thee named patentees; Charles Hill, a ‘Brummie’ from the Hill dynasty of gun-makers, whose roots in the Birmingham trade stretch from 1807 to the present day.
The gun is also operated by a top-lever, is cocked by the fall of the barrels and the forend is removed by means of an Anson pushrod. All these features found their way onto the best guns of every modern maker via the bench of a Westley Richards craftsman.
The fact is that every breech-loading shotgun made today borrows from the designs of the great innovators of the past.
These new Westley Richards over & under guns are pitched firmly at the premium end of the market and appeal to sporting customers who appreciate the best and can pay for it. They were inspired by customer demand. “Existing customers kept asking us to build them a side-lock over & under” says Trigger. “They know the standards we work to and the quality we produce and wanted to place orders, so we worked out the best plan to enable us to satisfy that demand”.
All twelve over & under guns currently in production have been sold. Westley Richards aims to build between four and six a year. Every one will be a bespoke build and prices will be discussed on an individual basis with interested customers.
Written and published in Shooting Sportsman's January/February 2024 issue.