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the Fifth
Gold Medal Concours d’Elegance of Fine Guns

Proudly Presented by the NRA
and in association with Butterfields
2003 Charity Sponsor B. Searcy & Co

Rock Springs Ranch & Lodge, May 2/3, 2003


The Honored Marque

J. P. CLABROUGH, GUNMAKER

Larry Shelton, Collector

One of the most unusual and least known of all English gunmakers, J.P. Clabrough built high-quality guns in Birmingham specifically for the American West Coast. California Side by Side Society member Larry Shelton has become the authority on Clabrough, and literally “wrote the book” on this maker (J.P. Clabrough & Bros., Gunmakers), designated The Honored Marque of the 5th Gold Medal Concours.

On display from Mr. Shelton’s extensive collection will be the different types of Clabrough double-barreled shotguns, from percussion through modern breechloaders, including l8 of his finest and most interesting pieces: two muzzleloaders, a snap-action thumb-hole gun, three sidelever hammer guns, seven toplever hammer guns, a Damascus hammerless boxlock and a Damascus hammerless sidelock, three steel-barrel sidelock hammerless guns and a steel-barrel boxlock. Many are cased, some are matched pairs. Rounding out the display will be a selection of Clabrough photographs, cartridges, powder cans, etc.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, while doing research for a book on early California gunmakers, I found myself accumulating a good deal of information on an interesting Birmingham (England) maker who was relatively unknown here at the time. For many of my fellow collectors, I need not explain further how I fell into the ‘trap’ of collecting Clabrough guns . . .

“John Plumb Clabrough came from England to California in the 1850s, undoubtedly with previous gunmaking experience. He learned the American gun trade by working for various gun shops in San Francisco, and in l867 he opened his own small shop. Business increased, and he invited his brothers, Joseph and George, to join him in what became Clabrough & Bros. Then, in 187l, John returned to England and began to produce his own line of guns for export to his (now larger) store in San Francisco. Eventually he added sales offices in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago, and then in other countries. In the late l880s, Clabrough reached its peak production of l0, 000 to l2, 000 guns a year, produced in factories on Birmingham’s Whittall Street and the now-legendary St. Mary’s Row.

“As with the American gun manufacturers, fine guns were not the mainstay of the J.P. Clabrough company. In fact, lower-grade, less expensive guns that suited the Western American market were their bread and butter. Nonetheless, it was said that the cheapest Clabrough gun was the best available for the money, while Clabrough “bests” were as good as the top London guns.

“From a collecting point of view, Clabrough produced an interesting variety of firearms-from percussion and hammer guns through sidelock and boxlock hammerless guns. One characteristic I like is their buttplates characteristically decorated with the head of a dog holding a California valley quail in its mouth. And sometimes the gamebirds engraved on the locks or action body are also California quail, more indications of John Clabrough’s Western American roots.

“When the l890 US Tariff was enacted, English exports to America began to decline. In l893 Clabrough sold his company to an employee named Douglas Johnstone and retired to San Francisco. Johnstone added another line of guns, under the name Clabrough & Johnstone, and he carried on the business until World War I. Like many English gunmaking firms, C&J was forced to amalgamate with other firms. In l9l4, they joined forces with Hollis, Bentley & Playfair, which were all under the management of John O. Redgrave, a lifelong Clabrough employee who became the proprietor in l9l8. In l937, battered by import taxes, then the Great War and finally the Depression, Clabrough & Johnstone closed its doors. All that remains today is the unique legacy of a gunmaker that had roots both in England and the American West Coast.”

–Larry Shelton

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