Longthorne: Rose of Lancashire

We are huddled into a small, cold office at the corner of something that seems part-agricultural building, part-engineering firm. This is Longthorne Gunmakers, near Preston, in the heart of Lancashire. The reason for our visit is that they’re now making a clay gun as well as game models. Over mugs of tea and a sausage sandwich (proper Lancastrian hospitality) I ask proprietor James Stewart about his new clay gun.

He immediately starts grilling me, eyeing my efforts to hide behind the sausage sandwich with both suspicion and a steely gaze. “Well, what’s the difference between a game gun and a sporter?” I reply with something about semi-pistol grips, rather than Prince of Wales or straight-hand stocks, and discuss the merits of a wider, tapered rib or otherwise, as opposed to 4mm or 6mm diamond-cut thin steel strips adorning a set of 28″ or 30″ barrels. And I add in a few remarks about weight, that you might expect multichokes on a Sporter – far less usual on a pure game gun – and mention a choice of longer barrels, such as 32″. He nods and smiles. Phew.

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James Stewart is officially known as Longthorne-Stewart, but he seems to be the kind of man who considers the double-barrel bit of his name as a bit unnecessary. He has been in engineering for 30 years, and came into the gun trade when he and his wife Elaine moved to Australia for 10 years. I asked why they moved to Australia, and James tells me that they woke up one morning, turned the wrong way out of their house, and kept going for 14,000 miles. Behind those spectacles, and an unwillingness to suffer fools, is a dry, mischievous sense of humour. I quite like him.

James grew up on a Lancashire farm and had always been around guns and shooting but didn’t participate himself. When in Australia, his business made muzzle brakes and other rifle parts for the military, and he engineered a paintball gun from scratch. A decade later, when the Longthorne-Stewarts returned from Australia, he started clay pigeon shooting as a hobby.

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Before taking up clay shooting as a hobby, James made gun parts in Australia

“He lives and breathes engineering,” laughs Elaine, clearly the PR side of the partnership. “As soon as he started clay pigeon shooting, I knew he was thinking about making, designing and engineering a shotgun himself.”

He started making guns in 2009, an activity precipitated by the recession when business quietened off, and to a design he’d conceived in 2006. Investment in his own intellectual property was a smart way to ensure stability and continuity moving forward, and making parts for the aeronautical industry meant the top-end equipment he’d bought needed some throughput.

If James has a weakness (and that’s a big ‘if’), my guess is that it would be for over- engineering – but I got the distinct impression that Elaine tempers his technical ambitions beautifully. Technically minded people hate putting anything into production that isn’t ultra-perfect, and commercial people tend to want to get things going and deal with minor issues as they arise. The only production problems Longthorne Gunmakers have experienced are to do with the machinery specified to do the jobs, rather than any technical flaws – but a machine that didn’t do exactly what James needed put production back last year. Now, though, an uprated replacement is in place (the roof had to come off to get the beast on the factory floor) and production is in full flow. The business estimates it is able to make 100 guns this year, has enough work lined up to last it to Christmas 2013 and beyond – meaning if you want a Longthorne, there’s a waiting list of seven or eight months.

The metal parts are firstly machined from blocks of hard steel, and are then hand finished

The metal parts are firstly machined from blocks of hard steel, and are then hand finished

A (nearly) unique approach

Being totally impractical, I never had aspirations to be an engineer in my career, but I do recognise and admire creativity in all its forms. Longthorne certainly has this characteristic – and nowhere more can this be seen than in the barrels.

There are really only two commercially common ways of making shotgun barrels: the monobloc, or the chopper lump (also known as the demi-bloc).

The most common, and cheapest of these, is the monobloc, which is found on the Beretta 686 for example. The barrels of this gun, like other mass production models in Beretta’s range, are held together by a single block of steel that is machined out to hold the chambers and the breech ends. The barrels are then pressed into this monobloc, making for a solid, immovable construction. The tell-tale sign with a monobloc construction is that they have a little line just forward of the chamber area towards the muzzles, often disguised by a little engraving, though sometimes polished out.

The sstock is machine cut from a piece of Turkish walnut. Every cut to the piece of walnut is handled by the computer system – each client's personal preferences are created as an individual profile

The stock is machine cut from a piece of Turkish walnut. Every cut to the piece of walnut is handled by the computer system – each client’s personal preferences are created as an individual profile

The purist’s way of making barrels is arguably the chopper-lump system. Unlike the monobloc, where the barrels are effectively slid into the monobloc collar, each barrel and lump is forged from a single piece of steel, which gives strength and evenness, and the barrels are brazed together. It’s an expensive process, but the benefit is that it enables the maker to produce a narrower, lighter gun. This is found on Best English guns, such as Holland & Holland and Purdey, on handmade Browning B25s, as well as on the AYA side- by-side shotguns.

So, from an engineer’s perspective, why not make a set of barrels and action from one piece of steel? Historically, there have been minor adjustments needed on sets of barrels to adjust the point of impact – but with today’s engineering tolerances being such stuff that our forefathers’ dreams were made of, it is possible – and James has achieved a gun-making marvel by machining his barrels from a single, 27-kilo piece of steel.

James’s inspiration to make barrels from one piece of steel came after pulling apart a Perazzi MX8 to understand how it was made. His argument is that if you are going to use a hard steel to make barrels, and then you heat it to solder other part on, some of that hardness is lost through retempering. Of course, the machinery to work to the tolerances needed is considerably more expensive, but James wryly comments that he “puts the holes where they’re needed.”

The immutable first rule of gun-making is that there’s never anything new – and once James had conceived the idea for barrels from a single piece of steel, he discovered that Manchester production gunmaker Sir Joseph Whitworth patented the process on 12 June 1857. With the lower quality of materials available at the time, the patent never really became seriously commercially useful, though guns bearing Whitworth barrels from the 19th century make rare but welcome appearances at auction today.

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Every set of gun barrels begins as a solid 27-kilogram steel billet, shaped into a rough barrel shape. This is then polished, drilled and blacked to produce a beautifully lustrous set of functional steel tubes

The big advantage with the way the barrels are made is their light weight – a set of Longthorne 30″ barrels weighs as little as 1,240 grams with a typical barrel-wall thickness of 38-42 thou (though they can be made thinner if a client demands). Top quality barrels, from Italian makers of similar length, weigh as much as 1,490 grams, though plenty are lighter, and typically with narrow barrel walls, of 28-32 thou. That’s a potential difference of 250 grams – nearly nine ounces – which can make a chasm of difference in handling characteristics. Any length barrel can be made – up to 44″ in theory – so 32″ barrels are par for the course.

Lock-up is achieved by draws on the barrel flats mating into trapezoid wedges each side of the action. It’s a little different from models that sit on the hinge-pin when closed, and owes its inspiration partly to Boss, and partly to Woodward. The large surface area makes for a strong lock-up indeed.

Custom gun-making the engineer’s way

Notwithstanding the passion of the man behind it, at the heart of Longthorne’s operation is a fundamentally solid engineering business. The 3D computer-aided design software that controls the machinery, Unigraphics, is considerably more expensive (and advanced) than the SolidWorks package found in many engineering businesses, and the investment means particularly complex pieces can be machined with relative ease. The Unigraphics software is what is known as a parametric system – if one tiny variable is changed during the production process, every single part of the process affected by that change updates to account for that change. Expensive it may be, but it gives huge flexibility for changes to a gun throughout the production process.

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Stock options: From unshapen wood to rough-cut stock via CNC machine, this is nearly ready for hand-finishing

“We’ve approached gun-making from an engineering perspective – designing around a sensible price,” says James. “If you want to produce anything cheaply and efficiently, the irony is that you have to spend huge amounts of money initially to do it.”

The big advantage for clients wanting a Longthorne gun is that it is essentially a custom gun made from common parts. If you want a 4.5mm or a 10mm rib, you can have it. A stock with a semi-pistol grip or Prince of Wales? Either is yours. Shorter chambers that the standard 3″? Yes, we can do that too. James himself compares the process to Meccano – somewhat understating the quality of the guns he is producing. The metal parts are hand-finished, as befits a gun of this irrefutable quality.

The woodwork is also completely customisable, with a customer’s measurements put into the computer system and the rough stock cut by machine before being hand-finished. The beautiful scroll engraving on the models I saw is achieved via a number of processes, the final one of them being hand-finishing.

On the range

Dressed in Turkish walnut, the lines of Longthorne guns are indeed elegant – but I like guns that break targets first, and I go for looks second. Slim and light, the gun’s weight is firmly between the hands – and the first thing I noticed when I picked up the 30″ Sporter I shot on the test range was its lightness in handling when dealing with fast quartering targets. As you’d expect with a 30″ gun, it was pointable, but with amazingly lively characteristics, more typically found on a shorter-barrelled shotgun.

With slow overhead targets somewhere between a dropping crow and a driven, the pointability of the gun was again apparent, and I found adjustments in my swing easy to implement. I noticed an unusual precision on the targets I shot – and it wasn’t just the light weight. The test gun was not only lively to use, with inherent stability, it had low recoil – a fantastic combination, only achievable through a skillful approach to action, barrels and balance.

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I want one

You won’t yet find Longthorne guns in the shops. This is because the company tends to deal with customers direct, though James is considering working with dealers as production increases. Prices start at £12,776 – like so many quality products, the quality will be savoured long after the price is forgotten – and for a custom gun, it represents unusual value for money.

IMG_2648Contact Longthorne Guns on 01772 811215 or visit the website www.longthorneguns.com

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