BOZEMAN – English gunmaker Westley Richards made pistols and rifles that the British Army fired at Napoleon at Waterloo.
Since then, the firm, founded in 1812, has made fine hunting guns and rifles for Queen Victoria, the maharajahs of India and the famed safari hunters of Africa. So it’s no wonder that people around Bozeman weren’t quite sure what to make of it when the U.S. agent for the venerable gunmaker opened its only store in America in their town.
“By the time Lewis and Clark published their journals, Westley Richards had published four catalogs,” said Jim Kilday, a partner in Westley Richards Agency USA.
The Westley Richards store itself has walls adorned with trophies of gazelle, greater kudu and long-necked gerenuk. It sells Courteney boots and shoes made in Zimbabwe from the hides of cape buffalo, ostrich and hippopotamus.
And its four safes hold firearms worth more than $1 million.
Kilday, 62, and his son, Kevin, 33, the agency’s general manager, talked recently about why they have brought the romance of fine English firearms to the wilds of Montana.
It was a childhood dream come true, Jim Kilday said, when the opportunity arose a year ago to go into business with the Clode family, which has operated Westley Richards in England for nearly 50 years.
They considered making their headquarters in Ireland or Italy or a major American city, Kilday said. “We picked Bozeman because Bozeman is paradise – one of the great undiscovered places.”
Ninety percent of their business of buying and selling firearms is done over the Internet. And their clients, many of them sportsmen from places like Texas and California, already like to travel to Bozeman to fish and hunt.
The Bozeman agency imports firearms from England and trades hundreds of used guns, which can sell for as much as $85,000, for a 15 percent consignment fee. Most clients plan to actually shoot their guns, not just hold them as investments, Kevin Kilday said.
Jim Kilday worked 25 years as a real estate developer in Scottsdale, Ariz., and though he retired over a decade ago at age 50, it was good preparation for the gun business.
“My great-grandfather was a horse trader,” he said. “I inherited those skills. This is a haggle business.”
He has been collecting guns since age 11, growing up on a farm in Illinois. In high school, he wrote a term paper on the British gunmaking industry, and as an adult he became an avid upland bird and duck hunter.
Westley Richards is the oldest of the big three English makers of fine guns, James Purdey & Sons having been founded in 1814 and Holland & Holland in 1835.
Today the English company builds just 50 new firearms a year. Each “bespoke gun” is made to order for an individual customer, who may wait two years or more to receive his or her prize.
A new shotgun sells for $80,000, a new double rifle for $90,000. The engraving alone may cost $30,000 to $40,000 when inlaid with three colors of gold.
“In my opinion, they are works of art,” Kilday said.
Today the parts are cut by machine, but they are still finely fitted by hand, much as they were in 1812. A thousand hours of work may go into each double rifle.
Kilday’s own double rifle is designed to stop a charging cape buffalo. Cape buffalo are mean and dangerous, he said, because they can be shot through the heart and still keep going another 60 yards.
The advantage of the double rifle – with two independently operating barrels, gun locks and triggers – is that it guarantees two shots. If one malfunctions, you still have a backup shot, which could save your life from a charging cape buffalo or elephant.
The drop lock is a Westley Richards innovation and specialty. The actual gun mechanism can be dropped out or removed, oiled and cleaned, or replaced with spares, even in the field – another advantage when tracking dangerous game.
It’s the shock of the .50-caliber bullets, which pack more than 3 tons of force, that has the stopping power.
Pat Hemingway, who lived for more than 20 years in Africa, said in a phone interview that he used a Westley Richards .470 double rifle in the 1960s when he worked in Tanzania as a professional hunter. Now 76, he lives in Bozeman.
His dad, writer Ernest Hemingway, had hunted in Africa with a customized Springfield rifle, as had Teddy Roosevelt.
Pat Hemingway said the .470 double rifle was “very much the thing you had to have” as a professional guide.
“It’s very big, very impressive,” Hemingway said. “It’s supposed to inspire the clients with confidence. It’s the equivalent of pepper spray for grizzly bears.”
His was a no-frills, White Hunter model.
“It was a good gun,” he said. “It served me well for the time I had it.”
Kilday said there has never been a greater interest in African safaris, and both the gun business and the value of fine firearms as investments have soared.
“You could buy a rifle like this in the ‘50s for $600, and today they’re $100,000,” he said.
That’s a dramatic turnaround from the end of World War II, when Westley Richards went bankrupt, along with many other respected gunmakers. England was broke and Europe destitute. The gun industry collapsed, and even the ammunition maker Kynoch stopped manufacturing ammunition.
“Everybody thought that was the end of the gun business and safari business,” Kilday said.
Walter Clode resurrected the company, purchasing it in 1957 and using contacts in India to buy up hundreds of vintage Westley Richards firearms from the armories of maharajahs. Clode also diversified the company into manufacturing precision machine parts.
As the postwar world grew in prosperity, there was a resurgence in interest in such guns, fueled partly by the association with great writers and hunters like Hemingway, Robert Ruark and Harry Selby.
As a result, an English gun that could be had for $15,000 in the 1980s sells for $40,000 to $50,000 today.
Westley Richards opened its first U.S. agency in Springfield, Mo., in 1997. Then one year ago, federal agents arrested the company’s manager and seized more than 200 fine guns, Shooting Sportsman magazine reported.
The manager was charged with conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Westley Richards wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing and the guns were returned.
The scandal created an opportunity for Kilday, who traveled from Bozeman to the Safari Club International Convention in Reno, Nev., to meet with Simon Clode and propose a partnership. That led to the Thanksgiving opening of the Westley Richards Agency USA in Bozeman.
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