In an industry that measures its history in royal warrants and the passing of centuries it would be understandable if a fledgling London gunmaker that produced only 50 guns in roughly eight years simply disappeared from the history books. And, if those eight years happened to be 1987 to 1995, a time before the widespread use of the internet, and a time when the London gun trade was struggling to redefine itself after a period of significant contraction, that fate would be almost assured.
However, despite those rather long odds, Symes & Wright had a disproportionately powerful influence on the London gun trade during its short life, and their finished guns have something of a cult following today, both among their original owners, as well as among those lucky enough to have secured one of these original works of art when it passed to a new caretaker.
While both Pete Symes and Alex Wright deserve credit for striking out on their own and playing David to Purdey’s Goliath, Wright’s history with the company was quite brief, and it is primarily Symes (and for about a year, Adam Davies) who is credited with having the vision, passion and the fortitude to see the project through to its successful conclusion.
Pete’s training began in 1975 when he followed his older brother into a barrel making apprenticeship at Purdey at the age of 16. With the apprenticeship completed in 1982, he signed on with Paul Roberts whose company, J. Roberts & Sons, had acquired the John Rigby name in 1982. He was at Roberts’ shop for just under two years before making the decision to travel to the States to craft barrels for Champlin Arms in Enid, OK, where he stayed for one year.
Once back in London, Symes worked as an independent barrel maker for a bit and then, in 1985, he reconnected with Wright who had been a gun finisher with him at Purdey. The two stayed busy doing repair work on fine guns while occasionally crafting a new gun for the local trade. In 1986 Adam Davies, a former stocker at Purdey, joined the duo with Wright exiting shortly thereafter in search of a more stable source of income. In 1987 Symes and Davies officially opened shop under the Symes & Wright banner, and then Davies himself exited only a year later, leaving Pete alone in 1988 at the doorstep of a minor revolution in the London gunmaking tradition.
If you wanted to distill Pete Symes’ entire gunmaking philosophy down into a few words, they would likely be — “unflinching, principled passion”. He was a fierce supporter of the individual craftsmen responsible for making London Best guns and he felt that the bigger, more established houses tended to take these highly skilled artisans for granted, or that they didn’t offer them a definable or lucrative enough career path.
He also believed that you could assemble a better gun if you were able to source the best craftsman for each of the individual gunmaking disciplines, rather than counting on one manufacturer to have all the best talent under one roof.
Lastly, he felt strongly that the gun and the client should have an inseparable bond, and that each gun should be individually crafted for a lifetime of service to its original owner, becoming a trusted companion in the field and improving with age and with use. The thought that a client might purchase an S&W gun as an investment or (God forbid) one day consider selling it, were both distasteful concepts for Pete Symes, and he was routinely quoted in the press on these topics.
Not surprisingly, these laudable philosophies occasionally conflicted with more than a few inconvenient realities like an individual client’s economic incentives, the everyday twists and turns of life, and the inexorable forces of the marketplace.
So, what set Symes & Wright apart from other long-established London gunmakers? There were a number of factors, but it started with the extremely high quality of their guns. Pete’s philosophy of sourcing the ‘best of the best’ craftsmen for each component resulted in truly exquisite finished pieces, and the critics were virtually unanimous in their praise of the functionality and beauty of S&W guns. In fact, in his 1997 work, The Gun Review Book, expert shotgun writer Michael McIntosh remarked that the metal joints looked more like hairline engravings under magnification, and gun expert David Trevallion said that the breech to barrel joints were so finely filed that they were essentially waterproof. Additionally, each gun came with a beautifully crafted oak and leather case with all tools included in the price, and the quality of these items were consistent with the excellence of the guns (e.g. cases by Paul Margan and tools by Mike Marsh).
Equally distinctive was their hands-on approach to clients. They not only encouraged, but essentially demanded, that the client be personally involved in the decision making process as the gun developed in the shop. When a client visited, they would be brought around to meet individual craftsman and would have the unique opportunity to discuss that specific phase of the gun with the person that would be doing the work. If an American client couldn’t make it back to London, Pete would make occasional trips to the U.S., and he eventually partnered with an early client and devoted S&W enthusiast, Michael Krause, to offer prospective American clients an agent on the ground in the U.S. There was really no one else making guns at this quality level that was also catering to their clients in this manner at the time.
Perhaps the most unique aspect, and one that likely troubled their larger competitors the most, was that Symes & Wright offered a shorter wait time, a fixed cost, and also a lower total cost for each commissioned gun. At the time the more established houses had 2-3 year waiting lists, very little incentive to lower prices, and they felt the need to protect themselves with price increase clauses for potential changes in materials and labor prices. This gave the smaller, more nimble operation of S&W a distinct edge in the marketplace, whereby their clients could not only get their guns sooner, but they could get them at a lower price and at a price certain…and the orders started flowing in.
There are some differences of opinion on just how many guns Symes & Wright actually produced during their brief time in the trade, and our research is continuing, but a production number around 50 is most often quoted. This is based on the fact that side by side production supposedly reached serial number 36, and over/under production reached serial number 14 (plus there were at least a few rifles made as well).
To say that this production is tiny does not do justice to the word tiny. Even in their leaner years, the larger houses would produce this many guns in a matter of months, and the most established names like Purdey, Holland & Holland and others have produced thousands and thousands of guns over their long histories. Yet Symes & Wright only produced 50 guns in eight years, and they were only making guns in earnest for about 5 of those years, with the highest production taking place in the 1989-1993 timeframe. Viewed through the lens that high quality and low production equate to rarity, it’s hard to imagine a London best gun that is either scarcer, or rarer, than a Symes & Wright.
As the decade of the 1990’s unfolded, so too did a looming economic crisis, and the S&W order book sadly and predictably began to dry up. Without the capital and the staying power to weather an extended downturn, the cracks began to show in 1993/1994, and the company officially dissolved in 1995 just a few months after Pete Symes himself resigned as a director.
Before this website was established, the only place that a Symes & Wright owner or enthusiast could find any information on the company was by sourcing 25-30 year old magazines articles and perhaps a few slim chapters in forgotten shotgun books. Or more recently, a web search might turn up some useful information if a Symes & Wright gun or pair was offered at auction.
The goal of this project is to keep the Symes & Wright name alive, to honor Pete Symes’ vision and dedication in establishing his company, to give S&W owners a place to learn more about the their guns, and most importantly, to chronicle and honor the craftsmen who’s talented hands ended up producing some of the best guns to ever come out of London, or anywhere else for that matter.
If you’re a craftsmen that originally worked on a Symes & Wright gun, or a member of the trade that provided a gun case, tools or some other service, or if you’re one of that small and lucky group of S&W gun owners, please send us an email so we can continue to expand the knowledge base of this passionate community.
-S & W Advocate (and owner of OU09)