David McKay Brown guns
Vic Harker meets David McKay Brown, the latest in a line of innovative Scottish gunmakers.
When we praise the many virtues of the Best English gun, we tend to forget how many Scots travelled south of the border to design and build it. Most notable perhaps were the Purdey family, whose ancestor John Purdey left East Scotland in 1690 to come to London. While he never made a gun himself, he was the progenitor of the most famous London gunmaking dynasty of all. As for Boss & Co, another great name, without the enormous contribution of John Robertson, born in Edinburgh in 1839, I doubt they would enjoy the fame and prestige that they do today.
And moving on to today, for the last 40 years or so there has been one independent Scottish gunmaker who on his own has recreated a uniquely Scottish gun and continues to thrive. The David McKay Brown story is of a man who at an early age witnessed the coming to the end of something unique and valuable. In 1957 he was an apprentice gunsmith, firstly with Alex Martin of Glasgow, and then the famous gunmaking company of John Dickson & Son in Edinburgh. In post-War Scotland, there was little market for new shotguns and he spent a great deal of his time repairing and restoring every kind of gun. In doing so he gained a broad knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the British shotgun in all its various forms, and became convinced of the very special virtues of the Scottish round action which, until recently, his employers had been making.
Aged 26, David took the bold step of leaving Dicksons in 1967 to establish his own business in Hamilton (later moving to Bothwell, just outside Glasgow), as he was determined to make his own guns. Retaining his fascination with the round action, which grew into a passion to recreate the gun, the first David McKay Brown round action was completed in early 1974 from his own drawings. This considerable achievement was well received, generating orders from both the UK and elsewhere. Since that time, production of the round action has continued to grow. He now enjoys an established international reputation for a shotgun that represents a uniquely Scottish school of gunmaking which may well have been lost.
The great appeal which the round action side-by-side shotgun holds for him is very much that which today attracts customers from all over the world to his workshops. In essence, the round action is the result of Scottish gunmakers in the late 19th century being isolated from the influence of London. Free from the constraints of more conventional thinking, they were able to give full reign to their own innate inventiveness. The outcome represented their collective ideas as to the most efficient form the hammerless ejector shotgun should possess. The round action is an example of elegant appearance, following very Scottish characteristics of independent thought and practicality in its mechanical design.
Today, the building of the round action is a blend of modern innovation and traditional gunmaking. A computer aided design system is employed in an ongoing R&D programme to constantly improve and develop key areas of the gun. David’s view is that the design is not preserved in aspic and he will use his own creativity and any other means at his disposal to add improvements. The skilled hands of the artisan gunmaker can however be seen in every aspect of production, including those of Robin Moir, the actioner who performs the all-important task of first jointing the barrels of the gun to the action. He works with Douglas Proctor, the lock maker, and barrel maker Jim MacDonald, to create a gun that exemplifies all the qualities of fit and finish that only the finest handywork can produce.
To engrave the gun, he sends about 80 per cent of his production to a select group of engravers in Italy. For other guns he employs English engravers, including the talented David Tallet. Every kind of lavish engraving design can be provided, but personally I would choose the Scottish scroll design dating from 1895 which is especially suited to the round action body. The stock is the most personal component of a shotgun and after a fitting session with the man himself, the customer’s measurements are given to the stocker. Working in splendid isolation, as stockers like to do, Brian Sinclair crafts the stock from a choice blank of Turkish walnut.
The finishing of the gun exclusively employs traditional processes. In the carefully controlled heat treatment used to harden the action body, bone charcoal is used to induce an oxidised process we know as colour case hardening. No two of these organically produced patterns are the same, which provides both protection and a beautiful enhancement. The depth and lustre of the barrel blacking is achieved with the process of cold blueing. This takes 10 days to complete and not only ensures a superb finish and appearance, but also decades of use before re-blacking is required.
Although the David McKay Brown round action is used and appreciated by sportsmen in many places, its maker assures me this gun as a side-by-side comes into its own on the grouse moor. In any bore size, with its flat shooting, fast handling and self-opening action, it is the ultimate grouse gun when the coveys are coming thick and fast. This, I should add, is not a matter of theory, but David’s own experience. He likes using his guns as much as he does building them. His shooting interests encompass grouse and high pheasant and extend to big game hunting in Africa. This was demonstrated in a superb 28 bore, which I had the pleasure of handling, and then in contrast, a round action double rifle. A magnificent example of gunmaking.
While traditional values are hugely important, the company is a very modern maker and remains constantly aware of changing trends. An example of this was the introduction in 1992 of the David McKay Brown round action over-under, sharing many of the design features and qualities of the side-by-side. This includes the locks employing the same bow springs that, with the over-under’s wider gape, facilitates easy single-handed opening. As with the side-by-side, the over-under’s lockwork is also mounted on a trigger plate and creates the same single stable unit. He emphasises this form of lock is especially suited to an over-under gun as the firing pins are much closer to the optimum right-angle with the breech face, creating a very positive strike for both top and bottom firing pins. This, he points out, is much more difficult to achieve with a sidelock action with its lockwork and trigger mechanisms separated by the wood of the stock. Strength has been maximised in the over-under’s action body with substantial walls, supporting joint pins and replaceable locking buttresses. The combination of strength, mechanical efficiency and elegance of this over-under design complements its side-by-side stablemate and represents the perfect option for those who prefer the superposed gun, particularly for high pheasant shooting.
This was the gun I was most anxious to shoot and the example I used at David’s nearby shooting ground possessed sensational handling characteristics. With long 31" barrels, the gun weighed 7lb 10oz, but felt nothing like that, with weight distribution skilfully brought back between the hands. With the gun in your shoulder it is so pointable – the round action with its slender curving fences offers not the slightest distraction to the aiming eye as all you view is the rib. It is an aspect that took me by surprise, but its uniqueness has obvious practical advantages. In terms of sheer efficiency as a long-range game gun, I can think of few others that come close. Handling that is fast and controllable, plus superb trigger pulls and low recoil, leaves the operator running short of superlatives.
All gun fitting for customers is conducted at nearby Reynard Park. This is the perfect location, for it has every facility to ensure that your new gun will shoot where you point it. This can be confirmed when you take delivery of it by shooting some well-presented clay targets in natural surroundings.
As for a companion it would be hard to do better than a David McKay Brown gun in any of its forms. When so much in modern artisan gunmaking consists of smoke and mirrors, the integrity of the David McKay Brown operation, which continues to be based on the original ambition of its founder to recreate a gun of genuine worth and uniqueness, is something to celebrate.