‘A Potted History’
From an early 20th Century catalogue: Powell guns made thirty to forty years ago are still in use and likely to be for some time to come, whilst those now being manufactured on the most sound methods will still be going thirty to forty years hence. This greatly understates the longevity of these guns. Thanks to superior materials and workmanship—plus careful maintenance through the generations—Powell guns from the 1840s are still serving their owners today.
For more than two centuries, the first William Powell (d.1849) and his descendants have built bespoke sporting arms for clients around the world. The Powell family was, and continues to be, entwined with the gunmaking history of England. At the dawn of the 19th Century, the principal suppliers of guns and gun parts to the United Kingdom were all in and around the city of Birmingham. Their production of military arms was twice that of London gunmakers and exceeded the total of France’s 10 government arsenals. It was in this environment in 1802 that William Powell and Joseph Simmons established a gunmaking partnership that seems to have lasted until about 1812. Thereafter, the independent Powell first located his business on Birmingham’s High Street and then moved to Bartholomew Row and finally, early in the 1830s, to High Street and Carrs Lane.
Formal, independent, standardised testing of gun barrels, to ensure their safety, began in London in 1637. Despite Birmingham’s stature as the centre of gunmaking in Britain, not until 1813 did Parliament establish a similar facility there also. Construction began in the same year, but testing did not become mandatory until 1868. At the peak of Birmingham production, in 1862, more than a million barrels were tested in a single year. William Powell was one of the gunmakers who lobbied for this proof house, and since then an unbroken string of his descendants have been among its Guardians, or directors. Great-great-grandson Peter Powell is the latest, having served the Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House in various capacities for almost 40 years.
The founding William Powell was joined by his son, also William, around 1844. While few company ledgers from that period survive, a significant number of their guns do, and they clearly exhibit the quality that would later see Powell known as the “Purdey of Birmingham.” The senior William Powell died in 1848 at the age of 67. Existing records suggest that about 1,000 guns had been made under his direction. It’s a shame he didn’t live just a few years longer, for significant advances in technology were about to change both sporting and military arms.
As England neared the end of what became known as the Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce organized the Great Exhibition of 1851, in a spectacular glass structure known as the Crystal Palace, purpose-built in London’s Hyde Park. Intended to spur Britain’s economy, the Great Exhibition was a celebration of technology and design from around the globe. Gunmakers from America, the Continent and across the United Kingdom took part. No surprise, then, that exhibitor number 249 was William Powell & Son. Among the items that Powell displayed was an ornate working miniature flintlock gun (cased with its accessories) that the family believes was made in the 1830s by the first William. It was last fired when Bernard Powell, William’s great-grandson and Peter’s father, accidentally blew out a stained glass window while showing it off at a well-known public boarding school. Now retired, the miniature remains safe in family hands.
When Joe Simmons and William Powell formed their partnership, in 1802, England had been at war for decades and much of Birmingham’s gunmaking energy was being devoted to military arms. Powell family lore tells of a penny notebook kept by William that describes a contract with the Crown for best-quality muskets at 10s 6d each. Then, in the 1850s, came both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Powell became involved in the latter with a sale of 300 18-bore carbines to a Capt. Watson of the 12th Regiment of the Bengal Irregular Cavalry.
With strong sales and a seemingly bright future, on 25 April 1860 Powell bought land from the Birmingham and Oxford Junction Railway Co. and put up a five-story building at what would become 13 Carrs Lane. For the next 148 years, this was a destination for generations of sportsmen and fine-gun fanciers. A retail showroom opened there in the late 1950s, after William Powell acquired Westley Richards’ fishing department.
Firearms technology was advancing rapidly now. Metallic cartridges and breechloaders were becoming common, and telescopic sights, better rifled barrels and precisely shaped conical bullets made long-range shooting more and more accurate. Even more significant—for Powell, at least—was the introduction of Casimir Lefaucheux’s novel breechloading break-action pinfire gun at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The legendary Birmingham gunmaker William Greener derided it as “that French crutch gun,” but when shooting men saw how quickly it could be reloaded, demand skyrocketed. Modern driven-game shooting, which began late in the Victorian Era, would not be possible without these sophisticated and fast-handling double guns.
In the move to Carrs Lane, the company’s ledgers up to 1858 were lost. Thus exactly when Powell made its first breechloading gun isn’t known—but surviving records from mid-1859 show such sales. This was the beginning of a 30-year competition among gunmakers in the UK, on the Continent and in the US to create the best (or at least the best-selling) break-action gun. In May 1864, William Powell was awarded UK Patent No. 1163 for his snap-action, lift-up lever design. For the next 25 years, guns based on “Powell’s No.1 patent” accounted for a substantial portion of company sales. Powell sold two “lifter” guns in 1864, 70 in 1865 and more than 100 the year after. Eventually, approximately 2000 were built. The high survival rate of these guns is a testament to the elegant simplicity and robustness of the lifter locking design. Some aficionados still wonder why it was ever replaced by the toplever.
Other Powell patents followed, but none enjoyed the lifter’s success. Powell’s strength was in fit and finish, not innovative design. In January 1867, Powell sold its first centerfire-cartridge gun (as opposed to pinfires and needlefires) and entered what is now called the Golden Age of Gunmaking.
By the late 19th Century, the demand for sporting guns and rifles in the UK seemed insatiable. In the 1860s the Prince of Wales was grooming Sandringham into the kingdom’s first shooting estate; almost single-handedly, he made driven game a fashionable pastime. Along with England’s growing affluence and the ability to travel quickly by train, this propelled gun sales to new heights. Powell’s business flourished. Guns were being sent to clients, both retail and wholesale, in North America, Australia, Africa, India and the Middle East. In 1875, the appearance of the Anson & Deeley boxlock action sounded the death knell of the hammer gun. Two years afterward, Powell adapted the lifter latch to an A&D gun. A decade later, ejectors appeared on Powell guns and shortly thereafter came the first sidelock built on the lifter patent.
The modern game gun had reached its highest evolutionary stage. The most significant difference between a late 19th and an early 21st Century Powell gun is simply that production has moved across the Channel from Carrs lane.
But Golden Ages always end, and the decline began with the American market. The US Tariff Act of 1890 imposed a 35% to 45% value-added tax on imported firearms and related parts. In 1893 came a financial depression. India assessed heavy duties on firearms and then restricted .303- and .45-caliber rifles, both military and sporting. South Africa, which had been an important market for Powell, suffered through the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. In England, gun-control measures were being debated. The Gun License Act had been passed in 1870 to raise revenue. Next came the Pistols Act of 1903, which included the first restrictions on firearm sales. Powell sold very few handguns, so this was of little consequence to the firm, but it was a harbinger of future restrictions that would steadily shrink the domestic market.
HRH King Edward VII—“Bertie,” the sportsman of Sandringham fame and a Patron of Britain’s National Rifle Association for 47 years—died in 1910. Four years later, on the streets of Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip fired the fateful shots that killed Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie and launched the Great War. The Golden Age of Gunmaking was truly finished.
In 1902, as William Powell & Son completed its first century of business, the building was now numbered 35 Carrs Lane and the second William Powell died and was replaced by his son, William Leith Powell. The ledgers indicate that by then more than 11,000 serial numbers had been assigned in those 100 years. While some in the gun trade relied heavily on the patronage of the aristocracy, Powell had built a solid client base of industrialists and the landed gentry of the Midlands, with an occasional Maharaja or head of state.
Powell’s first “No.1 Patent breechloading best” gun sold for £25 in 1864. By 1911, the price for a best sidelock ejector, on the same patent but with Whitworth steel barrels, had risen only to £45.
A circa 1912 Powell catalog offered a full selection of sidelock and boxlock guns and rifles—side-by-side, single-shot and bolt-action. The exclusive sales agreement between John Rigby & Co. and Mauser ended in 1912, and in November of that year Powell sold 15 Mauser rifles and 15,000 .275 cartridges to a client in Muscat (Oman).
The Great War changed everything. After 1914 it became increasingly difficult to get materials to make guns. In 1916, William Leith Powell died. In its issue of June 1, Arms & Explosives (the magazine of Britain’s gun trade) reported that “The business of William Powell & Son will still be continued under the direction of the deceased’s two brothers, Mr. Arthur Powell, who has control of the cartridge department, and Mr. G. Victor Powell, who has acted as the late senior partner’s understudy for upward of twenty-five years, besides being the expert fitter of the firm.”
The war savaged Britain’s gunmakers and their suppliers and clients alike, forcing some of the best-known companies to close or merge. Close to 900,000 British soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines died in the war and a million and a half came home injured. Many returning gun workers joined the emerging automobile industry instead. The war ended in 1918, and then the Spanish Flu pandemic killed another quarter-million people in the UK. Despite these challenges, William Powell & Son remained strong.
An early 1920s catalog offered a full range of firearms, ammunition and accessories and indicated that G. Little & Co. was Powell’s London agent. Prices in England had doubled during the war and that was mirrored in Powell’s best guns: What had cost £45 in 1912 had risen to 100 guineas. Inflation in the 1970s saw prices double again, and by 2008 the price of a Birmingham-made Powell best sidelock ejector had soared to about £50,000 before tax.
In 1923, the fourth generation—Bernard Victor Powell, son of G. Victor Powell—joined the firm. But just as business began to rebound solidly, with sizable orders from India and military officers scattered across the Empire, came the Great Depression of 1929. Down but hardly out, Powell worked hard to re-engage the American market and entered into a relationship with Stoeger Arms, the big New York distributor and retailer. Shipments To New York began in 1938, but had to end less than a year later when Britain went to war against the Axis powers. At that time, Powell’s No. 1 Best cost £94/10s (£105 for a self-opener) or about $700 US—where a Ford Tudor Sedan cost $681.
Just as had happened a generation earlier, most if not all Birmingham gunmakers switched over to military production during WWII. Powell made gauges for airplanes, armoured cars and other military vehicles.
Carrs Lane escaped the Nazi bombing. In the hope that at least one of them might survive the war, George V. Powell, head of the firm, “distributed” his five sons among the army, the Royal Air Force and Navy, the Home Guard and the fire brigade. As it happened, all five came home again.
After the war came an attempt to restart the relationship with Stoeger, which failed. Personal taxes increased dramatically as the Empire disintegrated with the loss of India. Demand for fine guns declined along with the popularity of shooting, while country gentlemen simply kept their well-made guns instead of ordering new ones. In the mid-1950s, part of the first floor of Carrs Lane was converted to a retail showroom for guns, ammunition and gear. In 1955, Bernard Victor Powell’s son David (the fifth generation) joined the firm. The retail business expanded with the purchase of Westley Richards’ fishing business in 1960; and then, in 1965, Powell started a mail-order shooting business that was probably the first of its kind in the UK.
Britain’s gun trade continued to decline through the 1960s and ‘70s as one famous maker after another closed its doors. Foreign competition was growing, but the industry had failed to invest in new machinery and methods. By the end of the decade, most of Birmingham’s famous Gun Quarter had been demolished to make room for the new Inner Ring Road. This became known as “the concrete collar,” as it cut off the city centre to pedestrians and speared straight through the Gun Quarter.
In 1973, Bernard Powell retired after 50 years. His son David replaced him as Managing Director while his other son, Peter, who had just completed a five-year apprenticeship, became Works Director. Survival of the business continued to demand change, creativity and flexibility. In 1977 the Carrs Lane building received a major renovation to suit a renewed emphasis on mail-order sales. In the workshops, guns were being built at a rate of only about 20 per year, so the firm actively sought repair work and refurbished second-hand guns.
On the Continent, two traditional gunmaking centers—Eibar, in Spain, and Gardone, in Italy, both established in the 16th Century—were producing quality guns at prices British makers couldn’t match. In 1984 Powell began selling its “Heritage” line, high-quality guns made in Italy by Abbiatico & Salvineli. With prices starting at £7,200, they cost about 20 percent less than a comparable gun made by Powell in Birmingham, and the time to fulfill an order was cut about in half.
Eventually, the old began to conflict once again with the new. Catalogue sales had grown dramatically, but the venerable five-story Carrs Lane building had neither a lift nor a proper loading dock. (Every delivery had to pass through the front door and the showroom en route to the upper floors—by hand truck.) And it wasn’t only the building that was getting on in years; the Powells, David and Peter, had spent their adult lives in the family business. Like the generations before them, they had also served the Birmingham Proof House, the Gun Trade Association, the Long Sufferers Association and the Gun & Allied Trades Benevolent Society. This time around, no younger member of the family was keen to take on the business.
If there was to be an orderly transition of the Powell gunmaking tradition, the Powells had to find a buyer, a new owner who would be willing to continue and grow the gunmaking part of the business. In 2008 the firm was sold to Mark and Christine Osborne of J.M. Osborne & Co., the leading sporting-land management company in the UK. Mark Osborne had been a partner in Churchill Gunmakers, near London, and saw a golden opportunity to step up his involvement in the gun trade.
The Osbornes moved Powell’s operations from Carrs Lane to a modern facility in nearby Banbury. David Powell served one more year to help with the transition of the mail-order business, which now distributes 400,000 catalogues worldwide. Peter Powell stayed on until late 2014 to develop new lines of guns and manage the gunroom.
Bob Dylan (who happens to be an avid shooter) told us that “the times, they are a-changin’.” Nowhere is this more true than in the fine-gun trade in general and at Powell in particular. Drawing on 45 years of gunmaking experience, Peter has overseen the development of a new generation of Powell guns, the Continental Series of side-by-side guns made by Arrieta in Spain and over/unders by Batista Rizzini & Co. in Italy.
Carrs Lane and the Powell lifter are now a memory. However, a Powell is still fitting customers and designing guns. Perhaps this is the new Golden Age.