Understated beauty and sophistication appealed to me even then, when I was ten or eleven years old. Salesmen wore ties and jackets and took seriously the art of the gun and all its accoutrements. My mind wandered in a dazzled way as I perused the Griffin & Howe brochures advertising safaris all over the world. But more than those qualities, pervading Abercrombie’s supple leathers and muted woods and fine guns, the most lavish collection of sporting arms on the planet, was a sense of pride; a sense that beauty and excellence mattered. Those marvelous memories and ambiance were re-lived at The Ptarmigan Shop.
The invitation to visit The Ptarmigan came about serendipitously, as so many of life’s delightful events do. Steve Lamboy, for decades a well-recognized fixture in the gun trade, invited me to visit the gun shop to gain a measure of its quality, become aware of its services and get educated first hand about the new line of Zoli round body game guns it was importing.
A few months before, in January, Steve and I had visited at the 2010 Safari Club Convention. He shared with me his and Zoli’s involvement with this high-end gun shop. I was enthused for him and for all its future customers that appreciate high quality firearms. Prior to the SCI Convention, that previous October, I met Steve at the Zoli factory in Gardone Val Trompia, Italy, where I was on assignment to write an article about Zoli for Safari Magazine.
Zoli’s history illustrates a company at the cutting edge of technology and product development from the inception of military and sporting firearms. Records show Zoli ancestors building locks back in 1490 and complete firearms not long after that. Zoli Antonio s.r.l., the modern company, was founded immediately after World War II by Antonio Zoli. At the end of the 1950s Zoli introduced an Anson-type over/under shotgun (model Delfino) and a Holland & Holland sidelock over/under shotgun with Merkel-type locking systems.
Towards the end of the past century, under Paolo Zoli’s new management, now president of the family firm, the company embraced one of the most challenging over/under projects, called the “Revolution 4.” This model led to the creation of the Corona (rifle/shotgun combination), the Focus (over and under rifle), the Columbus (smooth-bore field O/U shotgun), the Kronos (sporting over/under shotgun) and the highly successful Z series of target shotguns.
During my visit to Zoli, Paolo Zoli spent hours patiently explaining every facet of production of their world class shotguns. I learned that Zoli’s competition Z Gun was winning major competitions in Europe and the United States. Paolo credited this success, in large measure, to the advanced technology and design that produce the highest grade target barrels.
In a friendly but challenging way, I asked Paolo, “What’s the secret to building a championship-winning shotgun?” Paolo replied earnestly, “There is no secret.” He paused. “There are a hundred secrets, and each must be executed perfectly.”
A few months ago, by email, Steve introduced me to Lars Jacobs, Ptarmigan’s owner, and to Tom Lenz, the general manager. I scheduled a weekend visit to the shop in late June. I flew to New York’s JFK airport, traveled to New Jersey to get my daughter, Elise, rented a car and left for Manchester on Saturday at about noon.
The drive was exhilarating; the soft air so warm and fragrant I wanted to bottle it and save it for a harsh Colorado winter day. One hundred miles of rolling verdant hills of pine, oak and shrubbery, when contrasted with frenetic Manhattan, was marvelously therapeutic for Elise.
The last few miles on Route 7A tingled the spine when we drove along and then across the renowned Battenkill River, legendary among fly fishermen. The Battenkill was the inspiration for the name given to several lines of outdoor accessories and luggage produced by the Orvis Company, the nation’s oldest mail order firm, founded in 1856 in Manchester by Charles Orvis.
Elise and I arrived at The Ptarmigan Shop late afternoon. It is located on Main Street, directly across from the Equinox Hotel. Lars warmly greeted us as we entered the intimate store. He impressed me immediately as being a bundle of energy and made me think I’d get an electric shock if I touched him.
The elegant quality of the goods was obvious and pervasive. Varnish on the custom cane rods by Jim Becker of Pawlet, Vermont, glistened in the sun. Lars removed a two-piece, two-tip 6 ½ foot 3-weight jewel from the glass display case in the entry area and handed it to me. It flexed as responsively as a conductor’s baton. Thoughts of eloping for a few minutes to the nearby Battenkill danced in my mind.
As a Flagship C. C. Filson dealer, The Ptarmigan offered Filson’s finest and latest in sporting and wing shooting clothing and luggage. Filson’s new wing shooting jacket, boasting high-tech waterproof and windproof fabric, beckoned from its oak display cabinet. Examples of Filson’s traditional twill luggage and its new line of Passage luggage constructed of leather and ballistic nylon peeked out from under tables and clothing racks.
Flashes of voluptuous color next caught my eye. On a small polished wooden display table I noted an array of Fabio Rossi ties made in Como, Italy. The ties featured designs of woodcock, pointers, roe deer, boar and pheasant, among others, and are sewn on a background of shimmering red, gold and green fabrics of silk or silk and wool blends. These alluring accessories reflect Mr. Rossi’s love of bird and big game hunting.
Leather cases by J. W. Hulme added a nose-tickling fragrance to the air. A few feet away, a stunning shooting coat woven in a classic English checkered pattern was displayed on a mannequin torso. My fingers were drawn to the luxurious Italian wool-cashmere fabric as iron filings are drawn to a magnet. A few feet away, the extensive gun library promised many well-spent evenings.
Elise surveyed the shop, calculating credit-card limits, while I visited with Lars and Tom. I was there to learn about the Zoli round-action game guns, and Lars lost no time launching into an encyclopedic dissertation on their origins and theory. The world-class Z series target gun is the foundation for the round-action game gun. The comb is slimmed down to reduce weight, to make the gun more dynamic and to allow the face, and, thus, the eye, to get closer to the line of sight more quickly. Some metal is removed from the otherwise massive action to reduce weight. Aesthetically, the gun acquires a hint of classical elegance generally alien to clay-crushing target guns.
The gun has a drop out trigger group, long barrel lengths up to 30 inches; which are more common in game guns, silver soldered barrels and a marvelously quick crisp trigger. Stocks are fancy Turkish walnut with fine cut checkering and a hand rubbed oil finish. The butt plates are finely checkered. The trigger mechanism and chokes are titanium nitrite treated, making them nearly impervious to rust and corrosion. The game gun will come with five choke tubes and a special hard case with all tools and spare parts kit.
I had shot a prototype of the round body gun when hunting with Paolo at the renowned Arzaga Drugulo club, Italy’s oldest hunting club, overlooking Lake Garda in Gardone. I found the barrels to be slightly weight-forward, causing the gun to balance just in front of the hinge pin. The gun felt lively and seemed lighter than its approximate six-and-a-half pounds.
The gun I used, as with the guns to be offered by The Ptarmigan, had a single selective trigger, but the gun can be ordered with double triggers. The round body gun will feature an elegantly styled Prince of Wales pistol grip or a straight classic English grip. It will be available in 12 and 20 gauges. An array of engraving options will determine the several price points, but I am led to believe the basic model will be priced below $6,000.00. On its website Zoli claims it is a “Purveyor of fine guns.” The statement is correct.
Closing time approached like a charging rhino and, still having much to accomplish, we agreed to meet the next morning at the shop. Lars had made arrangements for me and Elise to stay at the Reluctant Panther Inn, about a mile away. The Inn is truly elegant and impressed me as deservedly recognized as one of America’s premier small luxury hotels and also for being named one of America’s ten Most Romantic Inns. The grounds offer lush gardens and alluring ponds and the rooms, in the words of its gracious manager, Katie Rubick, “are a little more personal, a little more Vermont.”
Elise and I awoke at a not unreasonable hour and went to the sumptuous restaurant. We had breakfasts of maple pecan Belgian waffles with locally produced maple syrup, omelets with locally produced sausage and pecan and blueberry muffins. I aver that if I could, I would have stayed in the dining room until removed by court order.
The origin of the curious name, explained to me by Katie and which can be found on its website, is one of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Divisions, which utilized the panther as a symbol of defiance and independence.
Elise and I returned to The Ptarmigan. Sunlight poured through the translucent ivory drapes. The first service Lars graciously performed was a full custom gun fitting for Elise, which included instruction for a proper gun mount. Using a laser beam affixed to the barrel, Elise aimed at an unfortunate quail mounted on the far wall above a section of the gun racks. Within ten minutes, her shouldering of the gun was precise and smooth, hitting the quail consistently. With enthusiasm, Lars informed that proper gun fit is the core mechanical factor for accurate shooting, whether at clay targets or live ones.
Tom caught me marveling the shooting coat displayed on the mannequin and explained the special offering. He removed from a table a collection of gorgeous bolts of Italian fabrics of wool and wool and cashmere blends that were available to the customer. Tom told me how this custom coat project was realized.
Tom boasts a lengthy and successful provenance in the gun trade. Before being hired as general manager of The Ptarmigan, Tom worked in the Orvis gun department in Manchester and then worked for the preeminent clothier, Hickey Freeman. Hickey Freeman has a long history of making garments for the sportsman and woman of the finest detail and quality. The fruit of Tom’s relationships, the custom shooting coat is the product of a partnership between Hickey Freeman and The Ptarmigan.
With evident pride, Tom explained the eighteen quality points or details of the coat. Each is done by hand. For example, the button holes are reinforced by hand threading. The button stems are elongated and reinforced, thereby causing less stress on the stem thread and on the thread and fabric around the button hole.
A process called ‘felling’ places material under the collar to enable the collar to lie flat and to reinforce the collar. This tedious procedure, also done by hand, gives the garment’s collar greater flex. My description of this level of detail may cause some readers to yawn but I found the information to be fascinating. The coat, to me, is metaphoric for The Ptarmigan’s high quality offerings. As with the Zoli guns, the more you know about the jacket, the more you appreciate its subtle qualities and value.
Each product in the shop bespeaks elegance, beauty and the sporting aesthetic. Do they matter? A quote I read in Arnold Gingrich’s magnificent volume, The Well-Tempered Angler, comes to mind. The late great jazz pianist and composer, Fats Waller, was asked by a woman, ‘Why jazz?” Fats replied, “Lady, if you have to ask, you will never understand.”
There is much to be said for the pursuit of beauty, but beauty will not be pursued unless it is respected and valued. These attitudes pervade The Ptarmigan. For example, Tom showed me a Belgium Browning two-barrel set shotgun in 20 and 28 bore. He opened and closed the action and then said with a respectful smile, “The way they lock up is a symphony in itself” One cannot say those words without having respect for the firearm and its craftsmanship.
From time to time The Ptarmigan offers special events such as wine and cheese tastings and food and wine pairings with food prepared by local chefs. For the grand opening, the chef at The Reluctant Panther presented his magnificent grilled quail and taught how to make it. The Ptarmigan offers private shooting lessons, fly fishing and hunting outfitting and gun fitting.
Enter The Ptarmigan and you will experience a sense of leisure, the unhurried opportunity to savor that which resides between the gun, the clothing and the dream. Perhaps those qualities, after all, are The Ptarmigan’s greatest treasures.