Guns of the Concours
The Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns features shotguns and rifles -new and old, from around the world-that are panel-judged in a variety of classes and categories. For the 15-year-old apprentice, the view from his workbench at Purdey's Irongate Wharf factory was like something from a Charles Dickens novel. Through metal window frames and grimy glass, he saw only the red brick wall of the adjoining building. In later years, when the operation moved to North Wharf Road, he could see railroad tracks and, occasionally, smoke rising over the London skyline when the IRA set off a bomb.
Today Dale Tate's shop sits in the midst of a sporting clays course on a hunting preserve in the Central California foothills. It's been a long and interesting journey. For 61/2 years Tate made ejectors for Purdey's Beesley-action sporting guns. Thereafter came a stint with Peter Dyson, restoring vintage firearms, and then work with E.J. Churchill and John Rigby & Co. among others. By the early 1990s Tate had been "in the trade" for more than 20 years and was a member of the Guild of Master Craftsmen for Gun Making. But his future was uncertain. The UK's depressed economy and increasing restrictions on gun ownership convinced him that a move to the US was in order, and so résumés were sent across "the pond." Response was immediate. In early 1993 Tate decided to try working for a month at River Road Sporting Clays, in Gonzales, California, doing stock fittings and alterations and giving shooting instruction. Convinced that he'd made the correct decision, he returned to England and began the process of legal emigration to the US. In 1995 Tate and his family returned to the States and to River Road. Tate stayed at River Road until it closed in July 2000, and then he relocated to Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve, about 100 miles north, in Ione. There he set up in the same building with top-ranked engraver Charles Lee, also ex-Purdey's. As well, that year at a gun show in Los Angeles he met Barbara Nyholm, who then was working with Armes de Chasse, an importer of Spanish guns. At about the same time, the West Coast dealership for Spanish maker AyA (Aguirre y Aranzabal) opened up, and Tate and Nyholm successfully bid for the franchise. Under the banner of Anglo American Sporting Agency, Tate began creating bespoke guns on Spanish and Italian barreled actions. Until recently, SIACE, of Gardone, Italy, provided the mechanicals for Tate's signature hammerguns. He disassembles them completely and then files and regulates them to the highest standard. Depending on the customer's wishes, specialists in America get various parts of each gun-for color case hardening, stocking and engraving. Finally, everything comes back to Tate for final assembly and finishing. Each Tate gun represents an average of 300 hours of handwork. The objective is to recreate the high-grade W.W. Greener hammerguns of the 1880s at a price comparable to mid-grade shotguns from Italy. The full range of Tate's skills emerged at the 8th Gold Medal Concours, in September '04, when Tate gun No. 006 won the Shooting Sportsman Award for "a contemporary custom-fitted game gun of less than $18,000 value that best typifies the ideal for upland game." The customer had commissioned a 28-gauge boxlock in the Westley Richards style of the early 1900s. Tate built it on an AyA No. 4 Deluxe scalloped action with 291/4" chopper-lump barrels (bored Skeet & Improved Cylinder) and a game rib. Doug Turnbull did the case colors, Bill Harvey did the stockwork, and Charles Lee's engraving included a pheasant and a woodcock. The finished "package," with Southgate selective ejectors and a rolled trigger guard, weighed 5 pounds 4 ounces and had that ineffable rightness of line and feel that separates great guns from good ones. Tate still divides his time between gunmaking, fitting and instruction. He hopes eventually to make only "best" guns (and is now upgrading to barreled actions from Italian maker F.lli Poli). That he has such a choice stirs his emotions. Sit down with him in the Camanche Hills clubhouse and, over a pint, you may hear him say, "The best thing that's happened to me is that I wasn't born in the US-I wouldn't appreciate it. This is the land of freedom." Roger Sanger is founder and past president of the California Side by Side Society and co-founder of the Gold Medal Concours. Steve Helsley is the Concours photographer.
- By: Steve Helsley
- and Roger Sanger