Michael Louca, Gunmaker
Gunmaker Michael Louca is the proprietor of Watson Bros, the last independently-owned gun and rifle manufacturer in London, originally established in 1885. Operating from a small workshop in Shoreditch, each year Michael and his close-knit team of employees craft around a dozen of the most superlative shotguns that money can buy. With a client list that includes the Sultan of Turkey and the Shah of Persia, Michael is incontestably at the top of his game.
Yet walking in off the street, you find yourself in a modest artisan’s workshop with three workbenches along one wall and all manner of well-worn hand tools on display. It is only upon second glance when you see the gun barrels and wooden stocks lined up, and the animal trophies peering down at you from the walls, that you realise the particular nature of this endeavour. Amongst the detritus of the workbenches my eye was drawn first to tiny metal plates with exquisite engravings upon them of birds in flight surrounded by scrollwork. The technique was breathtaking, and yet these were designed and custom-made for a single shotgun by Michael’s own engraver who works here on the premises. I was told as many as four engravers can work upon the decoration of a single gun. It was the first indicator of the extraordinary degree of application and skill that goes into the manufacture of these amazing pieces.
We are accustomed to the notion that machines are mass-produced, and so there is something quite startling in sophisticated hand-made mechanical devices such as these. Honed to scrupulous perfection and with an action that slides like silk, Michael’s guns seem alive. I never handled a gun before, but when Michael passed me a long shotgun that he took from a secure cupboard in the corner of his private office, I encountered a feeling comparable to the delight in a perfectly balanced kitchen knife in the hand, only amplified a hundred times – sleek, heavy and quick with life, as if it could spring from my fingers. It was a serious weapon, sleek and worthy of respect.
The authority and grace of these devices is derived from centuries of London gunmaking, and the manufacture entails long months of patient work by engineers who undergo a five year apprenticeship to learn the trade. “I grew up on a farm and I grew up shooting,” explained Bradley Hodgson who I spoke with first as he pored over the coffin-shaped metal chamber of a gun gripped in the vice at his workbench. Bradley who originates from the Lake District, has been here three and a half years, and now breezily calls himself a lock, single-trigger and ejector man. “Ninety per cent of the gun is handmade at the bench,” he confirmed proudly, “we make the pins that hold them together, we don’t even buy nuts and bolts. It’s just a beautiful end product, completely bespoke, and getting everything to work right – when you master it – that’s very rewarding.”
Next to Bradley worked James Brown, a nineteen-year-old apprentice who had been there just fourteen months. Both he and Bradley were concerned with painstaking intricate work, upon which Michael cast a discreet eye from the adjoining bench. “I’ve always liked guns,” James explained to me with bright-eyed enthusiasm,“I went into the army cadets at school and then I started clay pigeon shooting, so my dad suggested gunmaking. And I’m not going to change my job after this, it’s my life!” It was an extraordinary declaration, making me wonder how many other occupations could inspire such devotion today.
In the privacy of his upstairs office, away from the mess of the workshop, surrounded by a trophy bison, black bear and polar bear skins, and toting one of his prized shotguns, Michael opened his heart to me. “With our guns, no-one has to have one – it’s a want, a desire.” he said, articulating the intense emotional quality of these charismatic objects that incarnate power in your hands. “They do far more than their purpose, in the same way you might want to drive a Ferrari rather than a Mini.” he confided. “If you want to shoot a pheasant, how do you want to do it?” he asked, catching my eye with an implied challenge and posing a question that transcends the hypothetical for his customers, “It’s about what gives you pleasure.”
“I was always in the trade. I’d done an apprenticeship and I’d started working in the trade when I developed a new gun,” continued Michael, revealing the secret of his success – creating an over-and-under shotgun (with the barrels one above the other) that is as light as a side-by-side (with the barrels on either side). The trick of this innovation lay in Michael’s cunning design of a simpler ejector system, a patent that today is unique to Watson Bros and confirms Michael’s position as top gunmaker in London. Unlike many of his colleagues in the trade, Michael is a shooter. With three hundred gameshoots happening every week during the season Michael likes to be out weekly wielding his shotgun, and he told me it helps him to understand his customers better. All Michael’s guns are made to order, measured to fit their owners’ reach and handsize and in a style that reflects the customer’s taste.
To my untutored eye, I could make no distinction between guns made recently by Michael, those from the nineteen thirties and those the eighteen forties. All these designs appeared to be the near culmination of the perfection of form and function, and notions of modernity did not register in this arena. It did not appear either that Michael’s guns were old-fashioned – this was, equally, a meaningless notion in the context. But what was remarkable and inspiring to me was that guns can still be manufactured today with the accomplishment and skill that matches the masters of centuries past. The making of guns by hand is a vital living tradition at Watson Bros in Shoreditch.
Pieces of Turkish walnut waiting for customers to select them for the stocks of shotguns.