Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns

Skip to content

Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns



Shooting Sportsman Story

Reprinted with permission from the March/April 2004 issue of Shooting Sportsman Magazine.

In 1808 John Manton, one of history's greatest gunmakers, completed a high-grade 16-bore flintlock fowler, serial number 4673. At that time it was the best that money could buy, and a forerunner of today's highly evolved game guns. For reasons unknown, neither its original owner nor any of those subsequent have chosen to use it. Like too many other fine guns it has languished, first in gun cases and then gun safes-rarely admired, seldom seen and never used. A sad fate indeed.

In 1999 Shooting Sportsman's Silvio Calabi visited Roger Sanger, founder and head of the California Side-by-Side Society-an organization given to collecting and enjoying side-by-side guns and rifles-for the group's annual dove-season opener. By chance, the two also took in the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the annual juried show of fine automobiles. There, surrounded by the works of masters such as Duesenberg, Bugatti, Ferrari and the like, they experienced a moment: Great art of many disciplines-violins by Stradivarius, timepieces by Breguet, jewelry by Tiffany, cars by Packard-are still in use or publicly displayed. Why not fine guns? Why not a forum where guns such as the 1808 Manton fowler could be seen, admired, studied?

Carl Kilhoffer (left), holder of the winning ticket, accepts his new cased Searcy .470 double rifle from Silvio Calabi at The Vintage Cup banquet. Raffle proceeds went to the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.

Roger and Silvio are not given to idle dreaming, so a plan was hatched. There would be two Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns in 2001. The first would be held early in the year at Rock Springs Ranch, an Orvis-endorsed wingshooting and big-game preserve, in Paicines, California. The second would be in the fall on the East coast. The model would be that of the automotive concours. (Note for those who don't have a French dictionary:Concours may loosely be translated as, "mine's better than yours.") Fine guns, both new and old, from around the world would be displayed both for public viewing and evaluation by a panel of distinguished judges. The Gold Medal Concours (GMC) would be neither gun show nor museum display. The guns on exhibit would be from private collectors, shooters, even maker, but not be for sale. Roger and Silvio's stated goal was "to create a low-key, enjoyable, intimate event where devotees of the fine arts of gunmaking can gather to see and to learn in an attractive setting." The GMC would draw notable guns that might otherwise never be seen in public.

Searcy .470 double rifle

The hardest parts, initially, turned out to be drawing up the (many) categories by which fine guns can be classified, and then the (long) list of criteria by which they would be graded and judged. With advice and input from others in the gun trade, the plan came together. Finally, with the support of Shooting Sportsman, Roger and Silvio began the search for sponsors. The first to commit might seem an unlikely partner-the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). The political battle for gun rights is seldom associated with smallbore Parkers or Purdey Blackpowder Express rifles. Yet recent attempts in California to ban dove hunting and the possession of .50-caliber firearms are clear examples that, in the final analysis, the gun-control lobby makes no distinction between black-plastic and Circassian-stocked firearms. Given the growing interest in collecting, restoring and shooting high-grade vintage arms, the NRA took this opportunity to lend its support to another element of the shooting-sports community.

Then the search for judges began. This proved to be the easiest part of constructing the GMC. Once the concept was floated to the fine-gun world, a veritable "who's who" of firearms authorities volunteered their services. Today, after six GMCs now completed, the list of those who have participated as judges includes writers (David Baker, Douglas Tate, Michael McIntosh, Vic Venters, John Milius), gunmakers (the late Don Allen, Richard Gallyon, James Tucker, Geoff Miller), gunmaking executives (Jan Roosenburg and John Ormiston, both Holland & Holland; Ray Roy, ex-Sturm Ruger; Geoff Miller, Rigby), auction specialists (Roger Lake, Bonhams & Butterfields), sellers of fine guns (Chris Batha, Lewis Drake, David Moore, Jack Dudley), as well as Ray Poudrier, of the Vintagers, and Charles Shrewsbury, who is both a sitting member of the House of Lords and Chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council. The GMC was built in part on the foundational work of The Order of Edwardian Gunners, aka the Vintagers (www.vintagers.org). Founded by Ray Poudrier in 1994, The Vintagers' mission is to "provide an opportunity for the use, appreciation and collection of side-by-side shotguns and rifles." Each fall they conduct the World Side-by-Side Championships and Exhibition (aka The Vintage Cup), chronicled and sponsored in part by Shooting Sportsman. In a spirit that is all too uncommon in the shooting-sports world, Ray Poudrier not only volunteered to assist with the inaugural GMC, but also invited Roger and Silvio to hold GMC II at the World Side-by-Side Championships and Exhibition, at Orvis Sandanona, in Millbrook, New York during the fall of 2001.

Concours judges at work: (from left) Roger Lake, Ray Poudrier and Richard Gallyon

Rock Springs Ranch is a three-hour drive south of San Francisco. With first-class accommodations and plenty of exhibitor space, it proved to be the ideal location for the inaugural Gold Medal Concours d'Elegance of Fine Guns in January 2001. As Roger and Silvio had predicted, all manner of fine guns were entered in the competition-most of which had never before been on public display. The task for the judges (the panel is usually six to eight individuals, who have different specialties and interests) was to select not only the Best in Show, but also make Gold, Silver or Bronze awards for outstanding entries in many categories. Reaching consensus on the "best" when surrounded by some of the finest firearms extant might seem a daunting task, but one entry at the first Concours stood out so that it was immediately, and unanimously, selected: Purdey No. 9568, a side-by-side .450-3 1/4" Blackpowder Express hammer rifle with back-action island locks, in its case and with its original ivory accessories. Made in approximately 1883, it was engraved by A. Barre, whose other known works are in the British Royal Family's collection at Sandringham Castle. The other top honor is The Boothroyd Award, the "people's choice," named for the late fine-gun authority and writer Geoffrey Boothroyd and determined by popular ballot. At GMC I it went to a unique J.P. Sauer 12-bore bar-action sidelock side-by-side, No. 38694, circa 1888.

A Roosevelt Cup competitor launches a blackpowder load down-range.

The style of full-cover engraving in combination with the pattern of its twist barrels gave the impression that the entire gun was made from Damascus steel. During the award ceremony the range of items exhibited became clear when one gun receiving an award drew spontaneous applause. It wasn't the Purdey or the Sauer; it was a Daisy Model 104-a double-barrel, double-trigger BB gun, made in 1940-1941. One could almost hear the thoughts of all the silver-haired folk in the audience as they reflected on how such increased firepower would have enhanced the back-yard hunting experiences of their youth. GMC II was at The Vintage Cup '01-held in the shadow of 9/11. Air travel to New York with firearms was virtually impossible from Europe, and attendance was understandably down. Still, the NRA's National Firearms Museum displayed guns once owned by American Presidents and the Shah of Iran. Also added was the third top prize, the NRA Cup-for "the gun or rifle of greatest historical significance to the development of sporting arms." The first Cup was won by the un-numbered prototype Parker hammerless shotgun, a 12-gauge made in about 1884. Best in Show went to Boss & Co. No. 6484, a 10-bore over/under, and the Boothroyd Award was snared by a Parker Special 12-gauge (No. 165750) that has come to be known as the Tsar Nicholas gun. It was at this event that the Parker and German Gun Collectors Associations established an ongoing relationship with the Concours. Since then, the American Custom Gunmakers Guild and the Lefever and L.C. Smith Collectors Associations also have joined the GMC.

It was back to Rock Springs Ranch in the spring of 2002 for GMC III. Krieghoff International and Ithaca Classic Doubles joined NRA-ILA as sponsors, while E. J. Churchill Gunmakers was the first to display as the Honored Marque. As usual the competition was fierce-albeit subdued. Best in Show was won by an ornately carved, exhibition-grade Johann Springer 16-bore side-by-side underlever hammer gun, un-numbered but made c.1870. The Boothroyd award went to a Parker A-1 Special with 28 & .410 barrels, No. 180178. And remember that John Manton 16-bore fowling piece mentioned earlier? It emerged from wherever it had been for the last 190-plus years to take the NRA Cup. The major evolution at GMC III was the addition of the Western Double Gun & Rifle Championships-obviously built on the model of The Vintage Cup, but with a major difference: The GMC's West Coast championships would be open to over/under as well as side-by-side guns. The shotgun program featured 75 targets, for .410 to 8-gauge guns, and the first overall winner was John Swineford, who shot a Miroku 12-gauge side-by-side. The rifle match was designed for open-sighted doubles, Drillings, cape guns and even a limited number of single-shot rifles. Three rifle classes were established: "Stomping"-class arms include the .577NE and above (smokeless) and 8-bore and larger (with a minimum of a 1250-grain bullet propelled by at least 220 grains of blackpowder). The Stopping-Rifle class is for such cartridges as the .470 and .500NE, which generate at least 5,000 foot-pounds of energy; while the Stalking class is for less-powerful cartridges. The competition uses both paper and steel targets, at distances determined by class, and an electronic timer. The shooter's score is the total of points earned minus his or her elapsed time in seconds. Thus as little as 1/100th of a second could decide a winner. (A veteran of many safaris said afterward, "That damn timer got me more nervous than any Cape buffalo ever did.") Fast, accurate operation of big-bore rifles is no easy task; one of the most impressive early performances produced two hits on a small steel plate at 75 yards with a .470NE in 3.22 seconds. Peter Leffe won the first Western Rifle Championship with a Westley Richards .500NE side-by-side.

In September 2002 Orvis Sandanona and The Vintage Cup were once again the site for what was now the fourth GMC. The number of guns entered increased significantly, and the top spots were swept by rifles. The NRA Cup went to a Marlin 1897 gold-washed .22 that had been owned by Buffalo Bill Cody. Two guns tied in the popular vote for The Boothroyd Award-a new, hand-made Ehinger rotary-underlever hammer side-by-side in .45-70 (No. 602) and a vintage Lancaster sidelock side-by side.450-3 1/4" (No. 13315) that once belonged to Denys Finch-Hatton, the Robert Redford character in Out of Africa. Best in Show was, of all things, Holland & Holland No. 21471-a spectacular .295 hammerless single-shot rook rifle, cased with all accessories. GMC V, in May 2003, took place again at Rock Springs Ranch. At this point ownership of the GMC passed from Sanger and Calabi to Down East Enterprise, publisher of this magazine as well as Fly Rod & Reel, Countrysport Press and other media. The Honored Marque was J. P. Clabrough-a Birmingham maker with a major retail operation in San Francisco during the late 19th Century. Butch Searcy, who builds big-bore side-by-side double rifles in California, donated a rifle as a fund-raiser for the NRA-ILA, and Dan Walter donated one of his custom aluminum cases for it. Searcy demonstrated how well his rifles perform by using one of them, in .470NE, to win the Roosevelt Cup, as the Western Rifle Champion. The Nickerson Cup (now sponsored by Atkin Grant & Lang), for the high overall shotgun score, went to Tim Ritter, who used a vintage Lefever to win it. The NRA Cup was taken by a Gibbs-Farquharson .461 No.1 (No. 1287) target rifle. The Boothroyd Award went to a stunning pair of short-barreled Lancaster .577 Snider howdah rifles, Nos. 4916/7, while Best in Show was an exhibition-grade Sauer side-by-side boxlock ejector with four sets of barrels-10, 12, 16 & 20 gauge. GMC VI was held at The Vintage Cup this past September. With 75 superb guns and rifles entered, it was the biggest Eastern competition yet. The NRA Foundation, with Roosevelt and Drake and the Seylor-Hawkins Foundation, hosted a standing-room-only breakfast for Concours exhibitors and special guests. The breakfasters were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as the National Firearms Museum displayed the three ultra-rare Parker Invincible shotguns. Best in Show was won by Lebeau-Courally No. 45458, a new .470NE side-by-side rifle (see SSM Jan/Feb, pp. 14-18). The NRA Cup went to a Spandau Sporter takedown bolt-action rifle in 8x57mm (serial No. 1), which had once been owned by Kaiser Wilhelm. The Boothroyd Award was a 20-bore sidelever over/under, No. 1190, with extraordinary gold inlay by Phil Coggan, that was created by Peter Nelson for Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee. Each of these top three winners will be displayed at the National Firearms Museum, in Fairfax, Virginia. During the Vintage Cup banquet the ticket was drawn for the donated Searcy rifle. The winner was present and was in the process of planning an African safari-but hadn't yet purchased a rifle!

The Gold Medal Concours has followed a course of continuous expansion and refinement, and it has outgrown its one-day beginnings at Rock Springs Ranch. For its seventh iteration, the GMC will be at Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve on April 1-4, 2004. Well served by hotels, motels and B&Bs and easy to reach from San Francisco, Sacramento or Reno, Camanche is 30 miles northeast of Stockton and has long been the site of major shotgun competitions (www.camanchehills.com). The GMC rifle matches, now sponsored by Dakota Arms, will be held at the nearby Sacramento Valley Shooting Center (www.sacvalley.org)-one of the largest public shooting facilities in the United States. The juried Concours is expected to draw close to 150 notable entries, and there will be a strong contingent of commercial booths and displays as well, by sponsors and other vendors to the fine-gun trade. Founders Calabi & Sanger still manage the Concours, and are taking it to another new level: "It's time the West Coast had its own double-gun event. Through Shooting Sportsman, we helped Ray [Poudrier] get started back East; then he helped the GMC by inviting us to The Vintage Cup every fall. Now we're following his lead in the spring, on the other side of the country, where's a pent-up demand." In 1919 a Cadillac advertisement read, in part, "That which is good or great makes itself known . . . . " For that very reason, the vision that was born among vintage motorcars has been transformed into one of America's premier fine-gun events. Based on preliminary inquiries from exhibitors, GMC VII is going to be biggest and best yet. Complete details and entry forms for the competitions and fun shoots can be found at www.goldmedalconcours.com. If you and your old L.C. Smith could stand some friendly competition, or if you just appreciate fine, historic and notable firearms-you're invited to share the Concours experience at Camanche Hills.

Steve Helsley, a retired California law-enforcement executive and NRA consultant, has been involved with the GMC almost since its inception and now serves as its official photographer and rifle-course designer.



Login