There are two hundred and six years of gun making behind the famous name of WILLIAM POWELL, whose name engraved on a shotgun is accepted as a sign of quality throughout the world.
In 1802 William Powell and Joseph Simmons went into business together in High Street Birmingham. William Powell as the business head and Joseph Simmons the gunsmith, and the name of WILLIAM POWELL gun makers was born. The partnership was a brief one. By 1812 Joseph Simmons was dead. His vault in St Philip’s churchyard bears the inscription: ‘Master gunsmith in the Borough of Birmingham’.
The 1800’s were boom years for the Birmingham gunsmiths, the heyday too of the flintlock muzzle loader. For his own amusement William Powell 1 built a perfect working miniature of a flintlock, measuring 81/2 inches, in its own beautifully appointed case. Offers from collectors from many parts of the world have been made for this miniature, but it remains with the firm – a reminder of family skills.
William Powell 1 died in 1848 at the age of 67, and his son, William Powell 11 took over. After acquiring additional premises in Bartholomew Street, Birmingham, it was very evident that the name of William Powell was here to stay and that a new larger factory would eventually have to be found. Land was purchased in Carrs Lane, Birmingham city centre, and a five storey building was erected. They took occupation in 1860, and the company still operate from this magnificent building.
Without doubt William Powell’s took part in the manufacture of firearms for the Napoleonic Wars, for in the year following the firm’s establishment war again broke out between France and Britain, not being concluded until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. In the aftermath of the wars in Europe, the gun trade suffered a slight recession but business picked up with the enormous demand for guns as a result of the American Civil War.
Powell’s were not, however, only concerned with military weapons. William Powell 11 became a very famous inventor and gun lock maker, the first of his inventions forming part of his contribution to British gun making. In 1864 the William Powell patent Snap Action appeared, at first on hammer pin fire guns, then on hammer guns and finally on both Anson & Deeley and Side lock hammerless guns. The William Powell Snap Action enjoyed a long period of popularity and many guns employing this system are still in use today. In 1866 an ingenious half cocking mechanism was patented and three years later, in common with other progressive makers, William Powell invented a system to indicate when the gun was loaded. This may seem a little odd today but most shooting men had only just got used to pin fire guns where the pin protruding from the breech could tell you whether or not there was a cartridge in the chamber and whether or not it had been fired. No further patents were taken out after 1876 but by this time there were enough proven ideas to ensure that guns of the highest quality could be built for the conservative sportsman. By the end of the century it became very apparent that the guns bearing the name of WILLIAM POWELL, which left their Carrs Lane factory, possessed an important quality which must have satisfied and pleased the owners but which gave the makers pause for thought – would William Powell guns ever wear out? It was very evident that they would last at least a life time. Today this is still the case and the Company regularly receive their guns from all over the world for service and overhaul, many of which were made as long ago as 1864.
William Powell 11 died in 1902, at the age of 79. His son William Powell 111 became head of the Company and was assisted by his two brothers Ernest and George Powell. The business continued to expand. By now William Powell shotguns were one of the world’s most highly acclaimed. Both Ernest and George Powell had sons, named Conrad and Bernard, who continued in the line of Powells governing the famous name.
The present directors are David and Peter Powell. David joined the Company in 1955 and one of his first aims was to open the William Powell Retail Showroom which opened on the ground floor of their magnificent building in Carrs Lane. It now has separate shooting, fishing tackle and a country clothing department which attracts visitors from all over the world. In more recent years David introduced a mail order catalogue featuring a vast range of shooting accessories, gifts and country clothing. The catalogue now has a worldwide circulation of approximately 300,000. Peter entered the business in 1968, did a full shotgun apprenticeship in the William Powell workshops where he gained valuable knowledge and experience in all aspects of gun making, and he is now an expert and an authority on the subject of gun and gun making.
William Powell currently produce two models of shotguns of the highest possible quality – The Model No 3 Box lock Ejector and their Premier No 1 Side lock Ejector, a pair of which costs from £65,000.00. This may seem a high price to pay until one learns of the high costs of top quality materials used in their manufacture, all of which are individually handmade. It takes approximately seven hundred hours per gun by a team of twelve craftsmen with talents so rare that they choose to work on a product which commands respect the world over. Among these craftsmen are action filers whose job is to convert the raw steel components into an item of beauty. Another key man is the stocker who spends many hours hand carving the stock from a block of French walnut costing up to £800. They could, of course, pay far less but William Powell shotguns deserve the very best wood which is specially selected for its density, texture and figuring to ensure that the stock will retain its shape in all conditions for the gun’s long lifetime. Another specialist craft is that of the engraver, who engraves by hand the action and plates according to the customer’s specifications, often in gold or silver. All this exacting work takes a great deal of time and orders have to be placed well in advance. Delivery can be up to eighteen months, depending on the specifications.
For any firms to have survived for two hundred years is remarkable enough but the fact that the Company is still owned and governed by the same family is even more remarkable.
1802 – 2002 William Powell Bi-centenary
In March 2008 Mark and Christine Osborne of J.M. Osborne took over the business – “we intend to take the business forward, which will include a move to new, much larger premises and to expand the mail order and internet site. Our aim is to enhance William Powell’s position as the pre-eminent shooting supplier in the Midlands” – www.birminghampost.net 19.03.2008