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Joseph Manton London: Up the Maslow’s Pyramid

This is the English version (not a direct translation) of my article which was published in Russian Hunting Magazine 1/2014

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All pics (c) Joseph Manton London

Joseph Manton is one of the most famous names in history of British gunmaking. Almost every gun book contains a reference to him as the ‘father of London gun trade’, the person who shaped the modern double-barreled shotgun and lit up a whole constellation of gunmakers including Boss, Greener, Lancaster, Lang and Purdey. The knowledgeable hunter who reads such books also knows the sad end of Joe Manton’s story – bankruptcy, debt jail, dying alone and broke.

How will the knowledgeable hunter react when he or she sees a brand new gun bearing the name “Joseph Manton London”?

Richard Casleton, Ian Spencer and Geoff Walker of “Joseph Manton London” do their best to have the hunter react in a way similar to Joe Manton’s original customers – to think ‘this is one of the finest, most unusual and innovative guns I’ve ever seen’.  They strive to bring Joe Manton’s name back to life by giving it a relevant meaning. They want it stand not for the near mythical man who once made best guns, but to refer to real, shootable, guns which are some of the best money can buy.

Most modern companies and gun enthusiasts are focused on the time when British gunmaking reached its peak – about 1900, give or take a couple of decades. But the founders of Joseph Manton London are enthusiastic collectors and shooters of flintlock firearms. Their attention is on the era where the very foundations of all consequent British gunmaking successes were lain. By beholding the contemporary guns one doesn’t only appreciates the unsurpassed excellence in the making, but also becomes aware of Joe Manton’s contribution to the craft which made him the icon of gunmaking. The choice of his name for a gun company is a challenge to the maker – with the associations that consumers have with Joe Manton’s name, nothing short of supernatural excellence will satisfy them.

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Of course it is impossible to recreate Joe Manton’s gunmaking just as it was two hundred years ago. Joe Manton was the first – and almost the only – of the British gunmakers who could make large quantities of best guns completely in-house. That is, he had the best masters hands in all specializations of building a gun – who would get to be famous gunmakers after his bankruptcy – working for him for a salary. Considering his sales volume (he boasted that there wasn’t a gentleman sportsman in England without a Manton) and the level of innovation in his guns, he probably couldn’t ensure quality in any other way than keep an eye on every worker at all times. But times have changed.

Today, it would be impossible to collect all Britain’s best hands on  staff of one gunmaker. A best gun is an piece of art, and it requires so much skill in the making, that the artisan who is capable of working at this level is no longer a ‘hand’ – they are true artists. As all artists, they have their ups and downs, and one year’s ‘the best’ can be outperformed by a different artisan next year. But more importantly, all artists value independence. As a result, when a stocker, action filer, engraver, etc. works through the ranks of any big three gunmakers, and becomes one of the best specialists in the country, they almost invariably leave to work as freelancers. This is most noticeable with engravers – many best makers often proudly claim that a particular gun they sell is engraved by a certain well-known freelance artist. But this is true in all specializations of gunmaking.

Consequently, if a gunmaker wants to use only the best talent in the trade, the gunmaker must turn to independent freelance artists. This is exactly how Joseph Manton London build their guns.

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It would be extremely difficult to outperform Joe Manton as an innovator – he had an unplowed field before him. In his time, a double-barreled shotgun was such a novel thing, that most prominent sportsmen thought of them as ‘mere toys’.  Joining the barrels together and lay the top rib so that both barrels shoot true to the point of aim; shaping the stock in a form which ensures quick and intuitively correct shouldering – these areas, which are taken for granted today, are where most  of Joe Manton’s innovations came in. Joseph Manton London has it much more difficult. But there are a few unexplored corners yet.

One is the consumer who needs the feel of a good double gun, but feels the need of having more than two shots available. The Dickson and Boss three-barrel shotguns, which tried to answer this need a century ago, didn’t enjoy any noticeable popularity – one of the reasons was that three barrels set side-by-side present an unnaturally wide action with uncomfortable feel. The ‘drilling’ configuration is more gainly, combining an over-under feel of the foreend with the side-by-side view of the sighting plane. But almost all ‘drilling’ systems were designed to work via a barrel selector, few offered three consequent shots without selector manipulation and none worked through a single trigger – which, if you think of it, is the only practical solution for a three-barreled shotgun.

Richard Casleton of Joseph Manton London resolved this issue in the Tribute model. This little gem of a gun features independent locks – two sidelocks for the upper barrels, and a triggerplate lock for the under barrel. The locks are operated through a single trigger which is Casleton’s patented invention.

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For those who have an issue with sidelocks, the company will soon offer a triggerplate version of the Tribute, which will have some interesting design features like sideplates which open to give a view on the inside of the action. The visible action parts will be not only polished, but – where possible – engraved.

It looks and is designed to feel as smooth and compact as most side-by-side – in fact, the company claims that the most conspicuous sign of this gun being a three-barrel is the sound of the third shot. In 20 bore, it weighs and feels like a good 12-bore game side-by-side game gun. In Britain, where a semi-automatic shotgun can’t have more than tree loads in it, this gun makes a lot of sense.

Joseph Manton London are capable of putting to life the customer’s wildest ideas. This is another area where they follow the standard set by Joe Manton (other gunmakers of the era, such as Durs Egg, were known to throw the customer’s specifications away saying ‘I’m the gunmaker, I know better’). As a matter of fact, the only limit for Joseph Manton London is the customer’s fantasy and safety. This is what most Russian gun enthusiasts believe to be the defining feature of a bespoke gunmaker.

Almost every Russian hunter has a gestalt of a ‘perfect’ gun which mass makers don’t produce and a dream to have this gun made by a top gunmaker some day. But the reality of best gunmaking is that truly extravagant orders are almost non-existent. The collective experience of generations of gunmakers and shooters evolved the double gun to the point of near-absolute perfection. It’s hard to imagine a gun which could better answer the needs of traditional British driven game shooting as a sidelock ejector side-by side. A Boss-Woodward type over and under is equally unbeatable for any sort of clay birds.

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Joseph Manton London cover these utmost needs of a British sprotsperson with the Legend and the Legacy models. The Legend is built on the tried-and-true Holland&Holland’s Royal pattern,  with Southgate type ejectors, and is as fine a sidelock as any. The Legacy is a Boss-type sidelock over-and-under. The company promises that this gun, due to an innovative approach, will look sleeker and more beautiful than any other over-and-under designs.

It goes without saying that all Joseph Manton London models are made to order, and that the customer can specify any number of triggers, stock type and dimensions, barrel length and chokes, engraving patterns, etc. Nowadays 32″ barrels are in vogue, even though from the practical point of view most shooters perform best with the barrels 28 or 30 inches in length. Ian Spencer of Joseph Manton London, however, thinks this fashion will fade. Just as the 25″ and 26″ barreled guns, once so popular, are now not really desirable, so will 32″ and 34″ barreled guns be some time in future. But there is the need in many shooters to have something unique and fitted to him in more ways than just the stock dimensions.

There are few guns on the market which are more original than the Signature model by Joseph Manton London. It’s built on a triggerplate ’round-body’ action, which is a bit of a rarity in itself, and the action is another patented invention of Richard Casleton, even though it doesn’t  readily meet the eye. What makes this gun unusual is the approach to design, which goes against most conventions. While some other makers go out of their way to give the engraver as much metal as possible, Joseph Manton London created a gun which features as few outside metal parts as possible. This gun is designed to remind you of the old muzzeloading doubles of Joe Manton’s time, with their uninterrupted flow of best finely figured walnut wood. Behold this gun and muse on the old saying that it is nature which creates the most beautiful things in this world.

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In Joe Manton’s time, owning a best gun from a best maker was a necessity, as only the best maker could ensure that the gun will shoot true and last for a lifetime. Now it all depends upon what floor on Maslow’s pyramid you are on. Admittedly, a best gun can do it all. It can satisfy even the most basic needs, like putting a meal of game on your table, as well or better than a ‘workhorse’ gun. Traditional British shooting, however, is often more demanding than subsistence hunting. At a pheasant or grouse drive, where one might shoot at a hundred birds a day, even the chokes and patterns are not as important as a gun that feels like a part of the shooter’s body, so that mounting and swinging the gun are as natural and effortless as pointing at an object with your index finger.

A best gun can also satisfy your social needs such as recognition. However, true hunters – be them traditional trappers from a Siberian village or regulars at a traditional British game shoot – aren’t easy to impress simply by a famous name on the barrels; you’d have to prove you can shoot it first. On the British shoot especially, where guns by every of the top three makers can be present in numbers, it would take something more original to generate genuine interest. It is nothing but an old Soviet myth that wealthy people are incompetent in everything except money. Most if not all of people who own British best guns are extremely knowledgeable and can judge originality of design and quality of execution regardless of what name is written on the rib.

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But the needs that a best gun is really meant to satisfy are on the very top of the pyramid – the needs of self-expression, self-actualization and such. When the needs which could be satisfied with money are not a worry, and the conventions of the social status are irrelevant, the only thing to strive for is the harmony. To have the things that surround you be a continuation of your personality. To have everything impeccable, so that there is nothing which catches your eye and tells you ‘it should have been done differently’. In most cases, it is only a best gun maker which can satisfy this need.

It’s not easy to say which maker. The fit between the customer and the gun – if we’re talking about best guns – depends upon the personality of the gunmaker as much as on the personality of the shooter. This is sort of like some people prefer Rubens while others enjoy Renoir. Choice of a best maker should be a slow and careful process. The more best makers out there, the higher are the chances that the client finds the harmony he or she seeks. This is alone a good reason to welcome the appearance of another new – or, in this case, old – name in Joseph Manton London.

Finally, there are two areas where Joseph Manton London does – and hopefully will – compare favorably to the original Joe Manton. One is the price policy. Joe Manton was the most expensive gunmaker of the time, consciously charging more than the competition. Joseph Manton London’s guns begin just under 50,000 pounds – which is 20 to 30 per cent less than a comparatively made and finished gun from the most popular best makers. The other is the end of the story. With the signs of the renaissance of the interest to shooting and hunting observable in Britain today, Joseph Manton London has all hopes for a bright future ahead, with more and more innovative, original and beautiful guns for us to admire. Let’s wish them that.

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