Behind the scenes: Handcrafted gunmakers

Andy McLachlan visits a Walsall workshop maintaining the traditions of crafting guns by hand – and starts planning how soon he can buy his own

ISP represents all that is best about highly skilled engineers creating a product

My mate Andy Simpson wanted to travel to the birthplace of his three ISP rifles to meet the man who manufactures each of the guns from lumps of mild steel, aluminium billet and titanium. I travelled with Andy to Walsall, a traditional gun-making area of the Midlands, as I was also keen to meet the person who had crafted such superb items.

The man responsible for hand-crafting these airgun works of art is Shaun Hill of ISP – Ivor and Shaun Pneumatics. This company, which started manufacturing airguns in 1989 is not a mass-producer of guns. What you get with ISP are handmade airguns that work faultlessly for their owners. The guns produced by Shaun at the present time are the beautiful Spartan, with its fullbore rifle looks; and the competition Airstream model, which can be seen on various HFT and FT courses around the country most weekends.

On arrival, Andy and I were treated to a brew and a chat in Shaun’s front room as we discussed various issues regarding airguns and their manufacture. Unlike the larger manufacturers of airgun products who produce what are often excellent products for the mass market, Shaun caters for the requirements of individual shooters wishing to use a genuinely handmade item that is totally unique, due to the hand-fitting required when producing any individual gun.

Obviously, the design of the action and the superb regulator remain the same for each gun made, but all the gun’s component parts are cut from billets of aluminium or plates of steel prior to being individually manufactured by lathe or milling machine by the man himself. I would ask you to consider just how much a handmade English shotgun would cost to buy. I may not know precisely how much that might be at present, but I do know it is likely to be an awful lot of money!

An as-yet-unfinished valve block in the ISP workshop

Our conversation moved on to include recollections of Shaun and his dad Ivor’s friend, the late Mick Dawes. A legendary airgun shooter and innovator, Mick was well-known for his many skills and will rightly be remembered for his major contribution to airgun shooting over the years. Shaun produced a muzzle-loading air rifle that had been made by Mick, and pointed out that Mick was disappointed that he could only cover the stock in leather rather than crocodile skin!

Shaun and Ivor have also manufactured high-quality knives, examples of which I caressed and marvelled at as we continued our wide-ranging chat regarding all things airgun. ISP also produces and retro-fits its own very effective air regulators to the actions of many manufacturers’ guns.

As we moved into the ISP workshops, Shaun described how he goes about manufacturing each of the individual component parts using traditional engineering machinery. There are no CNC machines producing components here. Each and every component is produced by hand, and I marvelled at the many individual component parts of a trigger mechanism that have all been hand-cut, machined and polished to perfection.

The only part that ISP does not make itself is the gun barrel, with Shaun currently rating and using CZ for the high standards of accuracy available with this quality and crucial item. However, some customers request that a particular barrel they trust be incorporated into their new guns, which Shaun can accommodate.Noticing some titanium tubing, I asked Shaun why he preferred to use this expensive material for production of the air cylinder. “We use titanium cylinder tubing of 2.5mm wall thickness that has been tested up to 600 bar,” he told me. “Even at that pressure the cylinder did not fail. For us, shooter safety is paramount, and the 200 bar gun fill pressure is well within the safe working pressure for this particular component.”

Shaun has made his own rifles! At top is an uncut walnut blank; below is his FT rifle

I then noticed a small sheet of steel with the shapes of trigger blades scribed onto it. This is how that a component starts its life prior to the considerable length of time it takes to hand-engineer the finished item using time and hand files!

Honestly, it really was an eye-opener to see that ISP really does hand-produce all its own components. The uncompleted valve block assembly, again machined by hand from a single billet of aluminium, was a true work of the engineer’s art. Shaun described how he had taken days producing one such item, only to discover that the block of aluminium he’d used had a tiny hairline crack running through it – which meant that it was scrap metal and all his efforts had been wasted.

This was not a fault that Shaun had caused: it was the actual block of aluminium billet itself that was imperfect. Such is the harsh reality of hand-crafting individual gun components.My overall impression of the visit to ISP could not have been more favourable. It was like going back to a time when all guns were produced by individual craftsmen slaving over a workbench, surrounded by engineering equipment devised and used with genuine skill by masters of their trade. This is why handmade guns usually cost the equivalent of a small house.

Some of ISP’s handmade trigger components

I suppose that you are now wondering how much one of these engineering masterpieces will cost you to buy… Well, considering the time and effort that goes into manufacturing such a high-quality gun, I was surprised to discover that a complete action will cost the discerning airgun shooter a total of about £1,700. Both Warren Edwards and Tillys Gun Stocks produce completed stocks from about £400 for walnut. This means that you can acquire a hand-built gun made for your specific dimensions and individual requirements, complete with walnut stock, for less than the price of many European target rifles, which will then require modification to bring the power up to UK levels. To be honest, and considering the large number of hours it takes to produce each gun, I don’t know how ISP manages to keep the price so low!

It costs around £2,500 for the Spartan fullbore clone, but that includes a gorgeous high-grade walnut stock, manufactured in this gun’s case by ISP direct. Shaun showed me a walnut blank that was nearing its completion, with all the rear profile and pistol grip area fully formed and shaped. He then pointed to a tiny line at the right front that was a fault in the wood, which meant that the whole blank and all the considerable time spent working on it had gone to waste. He must be a very patient man indeed.

Following our visit, and with visions of handmade rifles floating around in my mind, I then began forming a plan for how I will acquire an ISP Airstream for myself. My friend Andy has used an Airstream for all his HFT shooting for some time, and has had absolutely no problems or issues with his. It is a very accurate gun that displays no movement of zero due to temperature changes – unlike some other well-known and expensive target rifles, I might add. It is also easy to maintain and adjust if required, with Shaun only a phone call away if required.

Truly, ISP represents all that is best about highly skilled engineers creating a product that will be both a treasure to own and to shoot. From the heart of traditional gun-making in the Midlands of England, we have a company that is continuing the fine traditions of our heritage. And long may it continue!

This article originally appeared in the issue 105 of Airgun Shooter magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe today at our secure online store:

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