Only a handful of Birmingham gunmakers survived the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the period of austerity that followed. But one was established, survived, and ultimately succeeded during this difficult period for the trade. Albert Arthur Brown was the son of John Joseph Brown, a gunmaker who had at one time worked for Webley & Scott, B.S.A., and W. W. Greener and who ended his working career as resident caretaker with Greener.
The W.W.Greener factory, called The Prize Gun Works, Birmingham faced St. Mary’s Row with Loveday Street to the side. In the doorway of the picture in top left stands John Brown, Caretaker of Greeners for the last 20 years of his life. That this building should be demolished for city re-development seems such a crime now. It should just have been relocated instead! John was A.A.Brown’s father and was one of five sons all employed in the gun trade. Sidney recalls, as a small boy, visiting his grandfather on a Sunday and being taken through the factory to help with “the rounds”. “Mind that step” he would be told, “you’ll set off a blank if you tread on it!”.
A. A. Brown was an action filer who carved the leaf fences for the Birmingham trade. Although English gunmakers are a conservative lot by nature, not given to decorating their products with the bas-relief so familiar on Teutonic weapons, better-quality sidelocks are occasionally found with ivy, fern and oak leaves chased to the fences. It is difficult, demanding work requiring a hammer and chisel instead of the normal hand-held graver, but Albert Arthur Brown was considered one of the few men capable of executing it.
In 1930, after working for F. E. & H. Rogers in Loveday Street and just a few months after the collapse of the U. S. Stock Exchange precipitated the world's worst economic crisis, Albert Arthur established his own business at 27 Whittal Street in what was then the heart of the gun quarter.
During the lean years of the 1930’s it was not uncommon for gunsmiths to turn their hand to bicycle making. So it was with Albert Brown Snr. He hand made the tandem to the left and is pictured with his younger son, Sidney. Albert Jnr. and his brother could average 30 mph on this bike.
A very wealthy few managed to breeze through the Depression in magnificent style, ordering best guns as usual. Since A. A. Brown made a specialty of building high-quality guns that were ultimately signed by more prestigious firms, he appears to have survived by virtue of the trickle-down effect. On the eve of the Second World War Albert Arthur was joined by his eldest son, Albert Henry, born in 1913. A few months later a second son, Sidney Charles, born in 1916, also came on board.
During the Second World War, when sport shooting was largely suspended, the family firm worked on weapons components for the War Department and made machine tools for that era's ultimate weapon, the Spitfire. Due to Hermann Goering's redevelopment of Whittal Street, A. A. Brown moved around the corner to 4, Sand Street in the early '40s. During WWII the Browns were forced to vacate their Sand Street premises due to repeated bombing of the city centre. They moved to a suburb called “Shirley” where they continued with tool making for the war effort until the end of the hostilities in 1945, when they returned to an intact Sand Street.
In the photograph to the left you’ll find Albert Arthur Brown with his elder sister, Polly, in the Shirley premises, c.1943. Wives and sisters, as many as possible, were required to work on lathes to help with the work supporting the war department contract. Albert's niece, Gladys, became the fastest “Spitfire” riveting tool maker of them all!
During the austere period immediately after the war, when the steel tubes used to make shotgun barrels were unavailable, the Browns once again developed a strategy for survival. It is worth mentioning that Britain's industries were on a wartime footing for many years after Germany's surrender, and steel tubing that had been an important element of the armament's procurement took a long time to be rerouted into what were considered nonessential, leisure-oriented crafts like the building of sporting guns.
In 1945, Curry & Keen purchased the name, workshop, tools, and components of the established E. Anson & Co. on Steelhouse Lane. Among the materials purchased were parts for an air pistol, the Anson Star, now considered a rare collector's item, which Joe Curry asked the Browns to assemble. It was temporary work but appears to have provided the inspiration for an air pistol of the company's own design.
The "Abas Major" was of concentric design like the Anson Star, which inspired it. This means the compression cylinder envelops the barrels, providing a compact design. In his classic tome Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World, W. H. B. Smith calls the Abas Major "a better air pistol than most of the designs currently being made in Germany today. . . ." Visitors to The museum of the Birmingham Proof House can see an example, on loan to the museum, of the Abas Major fully engraved in bold foliate scroll in the manner of a Holland & Holland "Royal." It is the highest-quality British air pistol most visitors will ever see and was a 21st birthday gift from Sidney to Robin in 1967.
In 1948 tubes once more became available and the company ran down air-pistol production to again build shotguns. The firm's record books for the 1950s and '60s are replete with guns made by A. A. Brown & Sons for other makers.
In the photograph to the left you’ll find Sidney Brown displaying a .410 box lock ejector made for the USA in about 1949. Photograph taken at the Sand Street premises at the top of the outside stairs. The angled wall in the right hand background is a result of a bomb raid. Most of the buildings in Sand Street were destroyed during WWII, the far distant building is in Weaman Street, down the road from W & S.
A recent visitor was shown entries for Holland & Holland, John Harper, and even Alex Martin "ribless" guns. Robin Brown explained that the Browns had made "many of the ribless guns for Alex Martin" and many of the XXVs sold by E. J. Churchill. Alex Martin advertised that its ribless guns were "lighter, stronger and better balanced than guns of ordinary construction." Other advantages claimed were: 1) A quarter pound of useless metal is removed. 2) Removing this weight from the barrels makes the gun lighter forward, giving the left arm less work, more control, and an easier swing. 3) The usual hollow space between the barrels in which corrosion can take place undetected is eliminated.
Guns in which the barrels were constructed with spacers at the breech, muzzle, and mid-barrel have a long tradition with Scotland's gunmakers—both Daniel Fraser and James MacNaughton made them. It is therefore a little ironic that by the early 1950s Alexander Martin, like most of the provincial British gun trade was having its guns made in Birmingham. Robin Brown explained how the Churchill firm would order guns of identical specifications from different makers Baker, Wrights or Brown that were engraved and finished except that the stock, though inletted and attached, remained in a rough and unfinished state. When a pair of guns was needed, Robert Churchill would select two likely candidates from the rack and have a stacker set about carving the wood to fit the customer.
The photo to the right shows employees Harry Homer (jointer) and Harold Scandrett (machinist) outside the three storey premises at 4, Sand Street, Birmingham.
Robin's father, Sidney, said it was "pure hell" for the woodworker, but it meant finished guns could be ready in four or five weeks. On 9 January 1931, the Prince of Wales ordered a pair of Churchill "Premier" XXVs, and the guns were miraculously delivered five days later. Robin and Sidney Brown's explanation of how Churchill guns were made would account for the short delivery time.
Throughout the postwar period the Browns continued to build guns for the trade. Perhaps because they were industrious at a time when much of Britain wanted to rest after the exhausting task of defeating Hitler's Germany or perhaps because they had a mature highly skilled workforce dedicated to building the finest guns available they flourished where others had failed. When Joseph Asbury, which machined many of the actions for the trade went under, A. A. Brown acquired its machinery, giving Brown the capacity to machine its own actions from the raw forging. They also acquired the business and name of A. E. Bayliss & Co., a Birmingham Trade manufacturer who was pleased to pass his business over on his retirement. However, it was not all work, leisure was important too and the Browns were keen cricketers, so, naturally, they started a firm's team which played club league cricket during the '50s and '60s. Most of the employees were in the team and several outsiders including their accountant played too.
Brown’s had their own cricket team during the fifties and sixties. the field they used was just outside the city boundary and they played there, in a league, most Sundays during the summer season.
Albert Arthur Brown retired in 1957, but new blood arrived four years later when Sidney's son, Robin, joined the family firm as an apprentice stocker.
Robin Brown, aged 16, stocking a fore end in the early days of his apprenticeship to A.A.Brown and Sons. The photograph to the left, taken in 1961 by Albert Brown using his twin lens reflex camera, is in the upstairs workshop of the premises rented by Browns from Westley Richards. Two years later W-R started work on a purpose built unit to house Browns within the central courtyard of their factory. This new two storey building would be the home of A.A.Brown until 1974. Robin served a five year apprenticeship in stocking under the Master stock maker Albert Thompson followed by another in action making taught by Albert, Sidney and Harry Homer, an employee whose speciality was jointing, the fitting of barrels to action.
From 1962 until 1967 Robin worked one day per week under the guidance of “Mr Thompson” who taught him the craft of stock making, starting on fore ends and by the end stocking best sidelocks. AJT was stamped on his work and many of his tools and following his sad demise in 1972, Robin was delighted to discover that Albert had left him his stocking tools in his will, Many of these tools are still in use today including a set of very fine chisels. During his years of full time employment he worked for W.W.Greener as a screwer and finisher, in those days stocking was broken down into “sections”, whereas when he turned freelance he worked almost exclusively for Browns as a stocker from the fifties until about 1971. the quality of his work was second to none and many fine guns, still in use today, sport stocks fitted by A.J.Thompson.
In the early 1960s, much of the gun quarter was redeveloped to make way for Birmingham's inner-ring road. It was a time of turmoil for the trade: Shooting was unfashionable, and apprentices were hard to find. Many well-known names R. B. Rodda & Co., Bentley & Playfair, and Clabrough & Johnstone disappeared rather than face the challenges of finding new premises, markets, and a work force. A. A. Brown's Sand Street premises became a multilevel parking structure, but the company found a new home within the Westley Richards firm out at Bournebrook. Westley Richards continued to build most of its own Anson and Deeley designed guns, particularly the hand-detachable lock model known to American collectors as the "droplock." However, for approximately fourteen years A. A. Brown built the Westley Richards best sidelock ejector gun together with a number of Connaught boxlocks using Brown's own thick walled replaceable hinge pin action which allowed for sleek rounded styling.
The photograph to the right shows the old Westley Richards factory in Bournbrook, Birmingham. The ground floor windows closest to the camera, plus the three above, once housed A.A.Brown and Sons before their own dedicated two storey home was built. You can see the Brown’s old doorway, now bricked up. This site is now home to the Selly Oak bypass section of the A38. (Photo courtesy of Bob Turner).
The three pictures to the left show the Alvechurch premises in 1974 before moving in, the mid nineties and at the current time. The observant among you will notice three Subaru Legacy's across these pictures, from '92, 2001 and 2009. there have been others too. The picture below shows the A.A.Brown & Sons sign, put up in 1974 and still in place today.
The decision to leave an urban gunmaking center for a village mentioned in the Doomsday book (circa 1085-86) was a courageous one back in 1974. However, the Browns held an advantage: Most of the work on their guns was done in-house. Only the tubes were bought in and only the engraving was farmed out and only some of that, because they had a house engraver named Les Jones. Today, other independent gunmakers such as Alan Crew, Peter Chapman, and Peter Nelson have followed Brown's example, realizing that in the age of phone and fax, proximity is no longer essential to good gunmaking. The decision to build only best guns to clients' specifications has also proven prescient. With most of the "off-the-shelf "guns today coming from Italy or Japan, the remains of the Birmingham trade are polarized between repairs on the one hand and building best bespoke guns on the other, with the latter doing better than the former.
Brown's best gun is the model Supreme de Luxe, which uses a self-opening system similar to the Holland & Holland and a method of hand-detachable sidelocks like the Holland & Holland "Royal." If the mechanics of the Supreme Deluxe are similar to a Holland & Holland, the aesthetic is entirely A.A.Brown. The semi-rounded body of the Supreme Deluxe developed out of a customer's request for a gun that was "already worn." Slightly domed lock plates and a double bar to the action add to the effect of a rounded gun. It is this roundness that gives A.A.Brown guns their organic feel and distinctive appearance. Apart from the engraving and the rough barrel tubes, virtually all of the work, including lockmaking, is done in-house by Sidney and his son Robin. They are aided by Harold Scandrett, a veteran gunmaker with more than forty years of experience with the firm. (Harold has sadly died since the publication of this history). The Supreme Deluxe is built entirely to customer specifications, using chopper lump barrels, actions hand-filed from a solid forging, and exhibition-grade walnut of either French or Turkish origin. Best-gun features include disc set strikers and gold plating of the lockwork and the self-opening mechanism. This is not done for cosmetic reasons, but rather for corrosion control and ease of maintenance.
The picture to the right shows the late Harold Scandrett , the longest serving A.A.Brown employee, working on the lead lapper at the Alvechurch premisies. He sadly died in a collision driving home from work in 1998.
Engraving in the past was executed in-house by Les Jones. Les was trained by the famous engraver Henry (Harry) Morris and later was a resident engraver for many years at W. W. Greener & Co. In 1957 Les left Greeners and went into the engineering trade working for Ward and Co., makers of machine tools and famous in their day for capstan lathes and the like. In 1962 Albert Brown persuaded Les to come back into engraving and he then worked full time for Browns until their move to Alvechurch in '74. He then semi retired and opted to work part time, still for Browns, in his home based workshop. He engraved until two weeks before his death in about 1980. He engraved solidly for Browns for about 18 years and engraved many guns for other makers during this time, notably Westley Richards, Holland & Holland, Wm.Powell & Son and Churchill. Browns also utilised the services part time of Master gun engraver Walter Howe. Walter was chief engraver at Webley & Scott and was awarded a Queens Award for services to gun engraving at the time of his retirement. He carried on engraving from home for many years both for Browns and for other gunmakers. Today, engraving on Brown guns is the work of modern master Keith Thomas, but clients can elect to go with any one of a stable of British engravers.
Customers have a choice of case-hardened or polished finish, with any combination of bouquet and scroll or game-scene engraving. Brown will build the Supreme Deluxe in any standard gauge in three weights: as a standard game gun, as a lightweight game gun, or as a slightly heavier pigeon gun. On average, Brown builds six to ten guns per year. In the past, the firm has also built several commemorative pieces a 28-bore for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, a pair of 20-bores for the same event and a magnificent pair of 20-bores commemorating Matthew Boulton, an important figure in the Industrial Revolution and Birmingham's most famous silversmith. Prices start at about £20,000 * for the standard game gun, and delivery time is about two years. Significantly about 80 percent of Brown's guns are purchased within Britain, traditionally a market where intrinsic quality at a fair price has been more important than a prestigious name. Most of the remaining 20 percent are sold to buyers in the United States.
To the left you'll find Robin and Sidney posing with the 28 bore Jubilee gun in the early days at the Alvechurch premises.
All of the guns made in Alvechurch are recognizable by the ABAS trademark found on the action flats; first used as the name for an air pistol, it is an acronym for A. Brown and Sons. The ABAS markings are also a reliable, but not foolproof, way to tell whether your gun, ostensibly by another maker, was actually made by A. A. Brown. The method isn't foolproof because in the past some retailers insisted that Brown omit the ABAS mark in order to create the impression that they, the retailers, built the gun.
A.A.Brown and Sons has come a long way since the days it made airguns, and the quality of its workmanship has continued to rise throughout the '70s, '80s, and into the '90s. Because so few are made, the emphasis is on making every gun the best yet. As long as there are customers who have the taste and resources to invest £24,000 * in a Supreme Deluxe, A.A.Brown will not only survive but prosper.
(This has been an extract, except the annotations in italics, from the book "Birmingham Gunmakers" by Doug Tate.)
*To see current pricing, please visit the New Guns section, then likely head swiftly to our Used Sales page.
Subsequent updates by Robin Brown
Since Douglas Tate wrote the above, Harold Scandrett and Albert H. Brown have both sadly passed away. Sidney still plies his trade on a part time basis and the firm has acquired the assistance of several gunsmiths.
Robin was elected to be Vice Chairman of the Guardians of the Birmingham Proof House.
During early 2004 Sidney decided to cease any part time working, however his services remain available as a consultant.
The picture to the right shows Sidney still at work in 2003.
During 2005 Sidney sadly lost his wife, Mem, following a long illness. He also suffered a mini stroke which affected his memory and although he has improved during the year he struggles to recall recent events. His long term memory is better and whenever I mention the names and guns belonging to various customers he recalls them with enthusiasm.
Sidney's health continues as before and he still lives in his family home with regular visits from Carers to attend to his daily needs. His daughter, Pat and Robin both visit regularly and he seems to be reasonably content. He will be 90 this year and a celebration within the family is planned.
Sadly, Sidney died on June 15th 2006 after a short illness and a spell in hospital. He is greatly missed by all his family and leaves a marvelous legacy of work behind.
Robin continues to trade, still building a small quantity of traditionally made hand built side by side sporting guns and servicing many guns each year. Customising is very prominent in the list of activities carried on at Browns these days and extra help has been sought and found from both Birmingham trade sources and also from some London trained gunsmiths based in the home counties and London.
To the left, Robin on a Derbyshire shoot with nine A.A.Brown guns used that day.
Robin's son Matthew has built a state of the art gun photography studio inside the premises at A.A.Brown and Sons. He operates as Matthew Brown Photography and you can find a full collection of his gun work at the Library Of Sporting Gun Images.
Matthew has also started to take on some gunsmithing jobs as he plans to learn from his father and take the Brown name on to a fifth generation in the gun trade.
The picture below and to the left shows Robin at the bench in September 2015. The picture below right shows Matthew Brown checkering a gun-stock at the bench in 2016.