In annual week-long celebration of apprenticeships 8 -14 Februry, Apprenticeships and Skills Minister Gillian Keegan said: “National Apprenticeship Week is a great opportunity to highlight the amazing opportunities that an apprenticeship brings to employers, individuals and the economy”. The feature below tells how one gunmaker and his apprentice are keeping alive a very fine craft and tradition:
Richard Rumbelow came to the traditional crafts of gunmaking by a very modern route: watching YouTube videos about gunsmithing. With help and support from the Gunmakers’ Company Charitable Trust, he found his way to an apprenticeship with Michael Louca at Watson Bros. Watson Bros. are located in Tower Bridge Road London, and proudly advertises itself as “the only London gunmaker still owned by a gunmaker” – in this case, Michael Louca himself. Determined to pass on the skills he started learning at an apprenticeship with James Purdey & Son, one of the best-known London gunmakers, Michael has trained six apprentices already. Richard is his seventh. In the fourth year of a five-year apprenticeship, Mr Rumbelow should soon be ready to take his place in the trade.
British gunmakers tend to rely more on manual work than their continental counterparts, who increasingly rely on machines to shape metal and wood. So, the apprenticeship is a long and varied one.
Apprentices gain skills in all aspects of the craft: from putting a fine oil finish on a gun stock to designing and crafting the intricate machinery of trigger and lock. Few other trades force the craftsman to balance so many conflicting goals. It is worth noting that each apprenticeship within gunmaking is a separate craft, few gunmakers go on to master other crafts, for example, a barrel maker learns the craft of making all forms of shotgun barrels, a stocker – woodwork and not necessarily the finishing. A best gun must be light to handle gracefully, strong to withstand the shocks of gunfire, and beautifully finished to please the eye.
That is why an apprenticeship is only the beginning of learning the trade of gunmaking. It gives the apprentice sufficient skills and knowledge to learn more, but there are always new problems to solve and skills to master. As Michael put it: “this is only really the starting point in the art of gunmaking. In Gunmaking and engineering, you are always learning, and solving issues, or thinking ad developing new ideas”.
While apprentices typically gain a broad background in all aspects of the trade, most inevitably find one or two areas that particularly fascinate them. For Richard, it is locks, the mechanisms that hold and release the hammer, triggers, and those that eject fired cartridges from the barrels. He is helping Michael to develop a new ejector system for side-by-side shotguns, showing that there is still room for innovation after over 150 years of ejector development.
Indeed, the balance of tradition and innovation provides much satisfaction to both Richard and Michael in their work. Richard explains: “I really like to make and create. There is a real sense of achievement and personal satisfaction from knowing that you have made something from the raw material or repaired something that is more than one hundred years old. When I am working on a gun which is perhaps 130 years old, I think my work is going to give it another 130 years of life”.
Gunmaking has recently been recognised as an endangered skill by the Heritage Crafts Association. It has created a “Red List” of crafts which it considers worth preserving and is undertaking a multi-year study on how best to nurture them. For its part, the Gunmakers’ Company Charitable Trust, the charity of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, provides up to five bursaries each year to help support apprentice gunmakers. By providing outside support, the bursaries cover the lost time and productivity which a master gunmaker devotes instead to teaching, rather than making guns.
Michael hopes that Richard will cap his apprenticeship in the traditional way – by presenting a piece of his work to a jury of his peers in the trade. The Certification Panel of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, made up of established masters of the art of gunmaking, each year judges the work of several young gunmakers. Those deemed worthy are presented with a certificate showing them to be worthy of continuing a career as an independent gunmaker.
Meanwhile, Richard, though only 22, is already teaching his skills to yet-younger generations. He has long been an active Army Cadet. The Cadets helped to spark his interest in guns and gunmaking in the first place. He is now teaching “Skills at Arms” to the Cadets. And so, another link in the chain that has maintained the fine craftsmanship of British gunmaking is forged.”
Gunmaker Michael Louca at the bench with apprentice Richard
For more about the Gunmakers’ Company Charitable Trust and the support available to employers of trainee gunmakers and apprentices, contact: email@example.com