Yorkshire craftsman Chris Caine is about to give the Royal Marines both barrels. Michael Hickling reports.
Chris Caine’s 23 year-old son is a Royal Marine awaiting his first posting to Afghanistan.
Chris has been so impressed with the people he has met since his son set his heart on winning a green beret that he has made a statement of his own.
He has brought his skills to bear to create a supreme example of the gunsmith’s art and is donating it to raise money for a marines charity.
It’s a shotgun which will carry a hand-engraved version of perhaps the most famous single photograph of our fighting men, the rear view of the Royal Marine with a Union flag sticking out of his rucksack yomping over the Falklands.
Chris is one of Yorkshire’s last remaining gun makers whose son used to work alongside him at their workshop in Pocklington for a couple of years.
“Then he decided he wanted something more challenging,” says Chris. “It was a very brave decision and as a result we have met some amazing people on the way.”
The custom grade shotgun is the first of five Chris is making and it will be auctioned in October at a charity dinner in London organised by the C Group.
This organisation targets the business community to raise funds and give practical help to Royal Marines, especially those with long-term injuries from operations.
It mobilises the business and wider communities to support wounded Royal Marines and Marines in need, whilst they are serving and in transition to civilian life and thereafter.
In all its networking and fund-raising events have raised over £650,000 which is being used to provide, specialist equipment to aid the mobility of some of the worst injured men.
It also provides rehabilitation equipment, specialist training to help them get established in civilian life and adventure therapy opportunities to rebuild confidence, fitness and to ease the stress of long hours of remedial training in the gym.
He hopes that people will dig deep into their pockets for a shotgun whose market value is estimated at a minimum of £10,000.
“I’m not a wealthy person but we can afford put in our skills and lose the time in making something like this,” he said.
“It was my idea to have that Falklands image on the gun, it is so iconic.”
The four other shotguns in the series will be will be commissions and will take 18 months to make.
Chris is a man deeply immersed in England’s tradition of gun making. The evidence of it is all round him every day.
In 1998 he bought one of the most famous names in the business, W Richards Ltd.
The purchase came with some smaller names which had been acquired over the years by Richards, including Patrick, the makers of duelling pistols. Not a lot of call for those these days.
But with the old names came a rich heritage of archives, photographs and memorabilia. Chris’s shop is almost like a small armouries museum. One shotgun he has on show was made by W Richards in 1896, serial number 9019.
Chris can turn to one of the huge company ledgers several inches thick that he inherited from the company sale and discover from the immaculate copperplate entries the name of the customer and what they paid. Turning the pages of these tomes has been a labour of love for Chris.
“Shooting is my passion, I’ve shot all my life,” he says.
He started out when he was about 12 and his first gun was made by the Midland Gun Company in Birmingham. “It was single barrel, a knockabout gun.”
He recalls as a boy getting off the bus from his home in Riccall near Selby at Piccadilly in York and walking round the corner to the gun makers’s premises at the bottom of Coppergate. York had two in those days.
He trained as an engineer but always seems to have had one eye on making a living out of his hobby.
“I got to know some guys in the Birmingham gun trade – Birmingham armed the world at one time and one took me under his wing.
“Price Street in Birmingham used to be the centre of the gun quarter but today it’s not what it was.”
Chris ran a general engineering business and did some gun work, including making firing pins.
He said: “I stopped general engineering when I bought Richards in 1998. I set out to build the best guns.”
The first gun he made took 700 hours to complete and cost a total of £9,000.
It was the sum of the efforts of Chris and specialist outworkers like hardeners, stockers and engravers (Derek Pegnall of Harrogate has engraved the yompers on the new shotgun).
“Each gun usually takes five pairs of hands to make,” he says. “I do all the finishing and building.
“The price depends on what you want to spend on the engraving and the timber you want to use for the stock.”
He brings out for inspection a rough-hewn piece of Turkish walnut and a rather blander equivalent from France to illustrate the choices.
He worked at home until he opened a shop in the centre of Pocklington which sells the whole shooting package.
The sport now appeals to a broader section of society than that recorded in the giant ledgers. Browsing through the stiff old pages you discover that Lord Lovat of Beaufort Castle, Inverness paid W Roberts Ltd £2 15s for 500 cartridges on April 17, 1891. Prince Adolphus Teck spent £11 10s in 1893. There are several entries for purchase by Sir Geoffrey Phipps-Hornby, Admiral of the Fleet, which are concluded with a note in the same immaculate hand which says “died of influenza aged 70 on March 3 1895”.
Shooting is more inclusive now and has been described as the new golf. “People drop into it at the level they can afford,” says Chris. “Some police forces have been inundated with application for shotgun licences.
“You can spend from £100 to £3,000 for a day’s shooting.”
In the past 20 years there’s been a big swing towards over and under shotguns (as opposed those with barrels aligned side-by-side).
But there are fewer and fewer makers of them. England had 1,000 gun makers in 1900, today there are 15. In one of Chris’s cabinets is a lovely piece of polished old kit called a Try Gun. At one time a customer would take it out to a shooting ground and there it would be adjusted to meet his physique.
Indeed the whole process was not unlike a fitting for a bespoke suit. These days Chris says he can just look at customers and measure them up perfectly by eye.
If you are making the best guns in the world, does the fact that they will last more or last forever limit your prospects? Apparently not.
In the old days they shot with black powder cartridges which were very corrosive – a cleaner-burning faster powder is used today – so there is always a demand for repairs and refurbishing.
Chris says that trade starts to perk up with the Glorious Twelfth imminent although there are no grouse in his area.
“I’m part of a syndicate, but I don’t make enough to shoot grouse,” he says.
Glorious hope for the moors
Grouse shooting season is now well under way with some experts predicting it will provide the region’s rural economy a much needed boost.
Record numbers of the birds have reported across some of the region’s moors.
Matthew Watson, a surveyor at Savills in York, which looks after rural estates, said: “The prospects are good for the coming season. Many moors are reporting strong grouse numbers, some are comparable to last year, some even better. There are inevitably variances to this, however several moors broke their all-time records for numbers last year.”