Modern British manufacturing is hailed around the world for its design and build quality. But so too are those parts of British manufacturing whose roots lie far in the past, and bear little or no relationship to the modern age.
Holland & Holland is one such company. Their bespoke, handmade shotguns are highly prized and highly priced, retailing for £250,000 each. However, being in such demand does not shield them from the same pressures as everyone else in the sector, as Nick Peters discovered.
Many decades ago, before the advent of sophisticated security systems, a couple of dim burglars broke into the Holland & Holland factory in West London and stole a second-hand gun from the workshop.
They sawed off the barrels in order to raid a post office where the princely sum of £200 was awaiting them in the till. When they were arrested, the police took great delight in telling them that the gun they had cut in half was worth close to £60,000.
It is just a tiny insight into the rarefied world of craftsman-made objects that attract astonishing price premiums based on the quality of the workmanship, their rarity and sheer exclusivity.
A top-of-the-range, custom-built (as they all are) Holland & Holland Royal shotgun can cost £250,000 today. In a generation’s time, it could become even more valuable.
Such guns are as desirable and sought after as they were in the 1850s, when Harris Holland decided to translate his love of shooting and his keen sense of business into designing and making guns.
The clientele back then was the landed gentry, but over the decades that has changed. War, recessions, the shifting sands of society all obliged Holland & Holland (the second Holland was his nephew who joined the firm in 1867) to seek out buyers where they could find them.
At one point it was among the maharajahs of India. Today it is the maharajahs of the global financial elite, for whom ownership of a Holland & Holland gun is the ultimate expression of their status.
Given that Holland & Holland is at the top of a very small hierarchy of exclusive gunmakers (think Purdy or Boss) – and is the only one to make its guns wholly in the UK, you might be tempted to think all in the garden is rosy, but you would be wrong.
This extraordinary company that embodies the finest virtues of British craftsmanship and bespoke manufacturing is staring down the barrel at the same dark future that threatens all manufacturers – the skills gap.
From space to shotguns
Mick White may not be the most obvious person for the role of manufacturing director at Holland & Holland.
Mick has had a stellar career at BMW and Elon Musk’s Space-X, both very different in their manufacturing methodologies from the venerable gun factory in West London that he now calls home. He was used to working to a Takt time of 68 seconds. At Holland & Holland, Takt is measured in weeks. After all, they only produce 50-60 guns a year. And yet, for Mick, it makes perfect sense.
“The whole point of me making a decision to come here was – can I bring a different angle to manufacturing here and enhance what these guys do on the bench day-to-day?” he said. “Can I make it more efficient?”
It would be tempting to say Mick White has carved out a career on Easy Street. After all, the workforce is measured in a few dozens, the factory is in just one location and given the premium pricing the product attracts, all should be well, no? Well, no.
“Before, if I wanted to replace someone on the production line, I could ask the training school to get me a replacement within a day, and they would. Here, if I want to replace an ‘actioner’, it’s going to take ages to get somebody at the same skill level.”
That is because the entire success of this fabulous, heritage-rich company rests on a handful of key craftsmen who cannot be replaced over several years, never mind overnight.
“There are only certain people that do certain jobs,” he said, “which makes it very difficult to keep a production system going. And these guys are on total flexi-time as well. They can start and finish at any time they like as long as they produce their hours.
“We really have to broaden the skills base in the factory and think about succession planning for the future. If we don’t do anything now, then Holland & Holland manufacturing production will cease to be around in the next 25 years.”
Craft out of chaos
For an expert in lean manufacturing, it must be frustrating for Mick White to know that tradition prevents him from applying any of his hard-won expertise to anything but the periphery of gun production. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a critical role for it.
“I need to measure it to manage it,” he says. “I’ve got to look at the efficiencies, how I can take all the waste out of the processes, so I can make sure the guys that are doing the hand filing and crafting are not filing for hours and hours because we’re giving them big lumps of metal; rather, we’re machining it down to a finite specification, to take all that noise away from them.”
In days of yore, young gunmakers would indeed spend much of their time hacking those lumps of metal into something recognisable for the fine metal craftsmen to work on. Today, barrels are cut by machine and the actions (the machinery that actually loads and fires the cartridges) are CNC-milled. But there, the machines must stop.
“There is a place for everything and everything should have a place,” Mick says. “You see some of these benches and it will drive you crazy if you’ve come from automotive and aerospace. You see files and piles of stuff on a bench. But these guys know exactly what files to use and when to use it, and they know exactly where it is. I’m not going to say I want every file shadow-boarded because it’s not what’s going to happen.
“I want to mix my machine shop so when you walk into it in a year’s time, you’ll see a modern clean facility that will have all the correct tools in the right place, and it will be as efficient as you’d see in a BMW machine shop. If you then walk into the actioneers’ shop, you won’t. You’ll see guys with files on the bench and I want us to keep that tradition alive. That has to be. I’m trying to mix that up, really. I just want to keep the enthusiasm going. That’s the really big thing for me.”
Holland & Holland may have a long and proud history as the best in their field, but they are in this parlous position because they made the same near-fatal error as everyone else in the 1980s when they scrapped their apprenticeship scheme. Works manager Paul Faraway was one of the latter cohorts to undergo, in 1978, what was an incredibly demanding process.
“There were only five to seven apprentices taken on, every year,” Paul says. “And, for that first year, you’d just be making your own set of tools, gunmaker tools. Little tapping hammers. Little clamps. Turn-screws – or screwdrivers, as people call them. Handles for files, you know, all kinds of little jigs and gauges, and squares.
“All had to be made extremely well, extremely accurately and finished extremely well. We were building up the skills as we went; how to use lathes, milling machines, filing and polishing and getting things flat and square.”
That all came to a halt in 1986, since when the company has had to seek out new talent in associated industries employing fine craftspeople, such as watchmaking or jewellery. But it was never enough, and now the experienced hands have got retirement in their sights and no young people coming along behind to replace them.
That is why today, Holland & Holland has a brand-new apprentice school, with an NVQ course accredited by UK Training and managed by one of the best gunmakers in the business. It will take years for an apprentice to become a craftsman, and of course the company lives in fear and dread that after years of investing in them, another company will poach them.
In a day and age when working for the same employer for life seems quaint and archaic, that is absolutely the basis on which they recruit apprentices, and Mick White says it’s up to him to make sure the message sticks.
“It’s my job to ensure the next generation of gunmakers are enthused to stay and do this because it’s not just a job, it’s a vocation,” he said. “I need these guys to understand that if we’re going to invest two to six years’ in their apprenticeship then I want them to stay here. I need an enthusiastic workforce around me, that has the passion to say, if you cut me in half I’m Holland & Holland. We are the best at what we do. And, I want them to be emotional about that.”
The £250,000 question
It is tempting to use the old cliché “the Rolls-Royce” of guns about what Holland & Holland produces, but there is a fundamental reason why it doesn’t apply.
The Rolls-Royce motorcars of today have only three things in common with the original models built in Derby close to a century ago. They are best-in-class, they carry the wonderful RR logo on the bonnet, and the trim such as leatherwork and woodwork are done by craftsmen. Everything else is different.
Holland & Holland guns, however, are made today in the same way they were in the 19th century. Does this mean no allowances have been made for the vast strides technology has made since then? And most importantly, does it mean a robot can never be set to create one of these special guns?
To the first point, Paul Faraway says R&D at the company is intense, but works within the confines of traditional manufacturing practice. For instance, the last major design change to the Royal was in 1922 with the advent of the self-opening mechanism.
“We have made some design changes, introduced different materials and ways of manufacture,” he says. “Slight changes, sometimes big changes: different types of alloys, perhaps, for making different components. Different products for finishing the wood and the metal. Different ways of polishing the steel.
“It doesn’t detract from the hand-skills, at all, it adds quality to what we’ve already got. Indeed, the guns we make now are equal, or better in many ways, to guns that were made in the prime of Holland & Holland, going back decades.”
So, modern processes are in service to the tradition. While a gentleman farmer of 1918 would be astounded by a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost of 2018, he would feel perfectly at home with a Holland & Holland Royal built today, although the self-opening mechanism might raise an eyebrow.
As for modern manufacturing technology, Mick White makes it clear he would like to push the envelope of what is permissible within the strictures of the craftsman model, but he knows there is a limit. He cannot touch the hand-built element of the bespoke guns, but he can use modern methods for the guns used on their highly popular shooting range in Ruislip (Middlesex) and use the data collected from the way they behave to inform what happens in the workshops. It is an ultra-slow-motion version of a digital twin.
“Why shouldn’t we produce something that is highly machined? Use 3D printing. We can make it as automated as you possibly want. There’s no reason why we can’t CNC a stock. CNC an action, and CNC a barrel,” Mick says, knowing full well that while of course he can do that, such weapons could never be sold as a Holland & Holland Royal.
The market for these beautiful weapons is not slowing down. The company has gunrooms in Dallas and London. It offers rifles as well as shotguns, pre-owned and refurbished guns as well as bespoke. And it has a range of ancillary lifestyle products on top, including its shooting range, clothing, experiential events and even a specially commissioned Range Rover (which costs considerably less than the guns it is adapted to carry).
Holland & Holland should therefore have nothing to fear for the future, except the nagging threat from that shortage of skills, which uniquely, cannot be resolved by the application of modern manufacturing techniques.
If Mick White can see the company through this critical period, then he will have preserved something that truly deserves the soubriquet ‘Best of British’.
All photography courtesy of Chris Harmer