The Fine Firearms Find of the Century
“Call this a tangled web with a happy ending, a story that unfolds like the plot of a Russian novel toward a conclusion in which one of the most venerable Belgian gunmakers and the most venerable American gunmaker undergo a renaissance and in the process bring back to life one of the more visionary guns of the twentieth century - invented by a Belgian maker whose relative obscurity belies his genius.”— Michael McIntosh
By Guy Bignell, President and CEO, Griffin & Howe
By September 1999, Griffin & Howe had still been waiting for a newly finished SuperBritte to arrive in the USA. A barreled action in-the-white had in fact been found and finished exclusively for us. Finally, upon its arrival, we immediately tested this rare and exquisite shotgun.
It was the first SuperBritte we’d had in our hands and to put it simply, we all enjoyed the hell out of it.
As for handling quality, it’s as dynamic as any over/under we ever shot. An over/under not built on the traditional frame is unique. It is also inherently lightweight and thus highly dynamic, but much more controllable. Handling qualities are truly appealing. For sheer pointability you will find this to be a delightful shotgun.
For shooting that puts a premium on the ability to make haste and still maintain control – in a woodcock covert for instance – it would be deadly. At just over six-and-a-half pounds its light without being jumpy, responsive without jitters”.
Mr. McIntosh had this to say about the SuperBritte: “The side-opener initially feels fumblesome to one accustomed to simply thumbing a top-lever and letting the barrels drop. But after a few shots, you fall into the habit of rotating the gun anti-clockwise as you push the lever, and then it feels as natural as any. Because the action doesn’t have the wide gape of a drop-down over/under, the gun is as quick to eject (the ejector mechanism is in the left-hand side of the forend) and reload as any side-by-side.”
Our ability to break 23 of 25 targets, out of the box, with the choke constriction at full and extra full, indicates that this is truly a most versatile sporting shotgun to own.
Little did we know at the time, but that lovely afternoon would foretell of a spectacular turn of events.
It would eventually take two years, but with the aid of European Major Domo, Luc Vander Borght, we uncovered the origin of the whereabouts of the remaining barreled actions in-the- white of the over/under SuperBrittes.
Not only that, the same discovery yielded the remaining original finished guns, which during WWII, had been put in Cosmolene, wrapped in waxed paper and crated in original wooden crates for hiding in the cellars of the Dessart’s family’s house in Liège, Belgium.
As we took inventory of this remarkable collection, we began to realize that we had come upon the fine firearms find of the century: the legendary Jules Bury Collection.
There were 17 completed SuperBritte shotguns and 10 SuperBritte barreled actions in the white. We were elated of course, but then uncovered 17 Holland & Holland style side-lock ejector side- by-side completed shotguns. Proofed in Liège in the early 50’s, it turned out they were part of a group that also included 155 Holland & Holland style side-lock ejector side-by-side barreled actions in-the-white, complete with thousands (five pallets) of spare parts all stored in impeccable condition since the beginning of WWII.
All of these stunning shotguns were originally built during “Liège’s Golden Age” of gunmaking, between WWI and WWII.
Amid our elation, the irony did not escape us that these beautiful examples had been stored in the basement of a man who did not care a whit about these guns, despite the profound role his family played in the history of shotguns.
In a way, one could understand Mr. Dessart’s position.
More recent history has been brutally hard on the Belgian trade. The country has been twice overrun in the 20th century, it’s gunmaking resources converted perforce to military arms, and its once-flourishing trade in sporting guns all but subsumed by competition from England, Italy, and Spain.
Until these ravages of the 20th century, the Belgian city of Liège was one of the most important gun-making centers of Europe. Even the most chauvinistic London makers are willing to admit that a best gun built during, “Liège’s Golden Age”, represents quality beyond reproach.
The royal families of Europe certainly patronized the British trade, but more often their gunmakers of choice were Belgian, most notably Lebeau Courally. Of the makers who built reputations for the highest quality, only Lebeau Courally has so far ultimately survived, although few young people have chosen to enter the gun trade.
This certainly was not the case in 1896. Such fertile ground naturally attracted craftsmen, including two brothers named Britte. Théophile and Lambert set up in business together in Liège on the 2nd February 1896 as Britte Fréres, Gunmakers to the Trade.
Théophile Britte was about 22 when he created the company. He was the undisputed kingpin of this small workshop. The proof in our possession is a picture, dated April 1897, of a group, where we find the two Britte brothers in the center with 10 employees. Among those, Jean Lhoest, Théophile Britte’s brother-in-law, who was hired as an employee by Britte Fréres on February, 2nd 1896. The workshop was exclusively creating and manufacturing gun parts and hunting guns.
Many shotgun actions were built: side-by-side boxlock Anson systems, sidelock Holland & Holland systems and the classic over/unders. Unlike their colleagues, who relied almost entirely upon the hand-craftsmanship of outworkers, the Brittes installed the most highly sophisticated machinery then available and at the height of the company’s fortunes, employed as many as 300 workers, each with his own specialty. The tubes for the barrels were purchased from various suppliers in the area, some of whom were enjoying worldwide recognition.
Germany and France were large customers. In order to facilitate deliveries in France, they created a factory, Court-Fauriel in St Etienne, between the “Manufacture d’Armes de St Etienne” and Verney-Carron, close to the St Etienne train station. Britte specialized exclusively making high-quality gun parts and luxury guns of outstanding quality. That their customers included Lebeau Courally, Francotte, Dumoulin, Westley Richards, Dixon and other “Best London & Birmingham” makers of high repute, speaks well for the quality they were able to achieve.
By 1923, Etablissements Britte, as the company was by now known, still marketed barreled actions. That year (coincidently the same year Seymour Griffin founded Griffin & Howe), “Jules Bury” and “Masquelier” (Fine firearms manufacture and dealer in Liège) formed a partnership with Théophile Britte, (Master Gunsmith & founder of the “Etablissements Britte”).
Together the three gunsmiths created a company, “Etablissements Britte Atelier de Mecanique de Precision, Armes en Blanc” which basically means, “Manufacturer of Firearms in the White.” The company was incorporated on the 17th September. Jules Bury and Masquelier needed parts and gunsmiths to manufacture hunting firearms and as we know Théophile Britte was a genius in machining and tooling.
Théophile Britte himself had a keen appreciation for unconventional engineering. Britte earned a patent in 1931 for a side-opening over and under design, and announced it to the world the following year as the “SuperBritte.”
The “Super” part of the name derives from the French word superpose (over-and-under), but the word fits Britte’s gun in more ways than one. It is an over/under, but instead of a conventional drop-down, the SuperBritte opens to the side.
He wasn’t the first to think of this ingenious design. W.W. Greener patented a side-opening over/under in 1873 – but his Wedge-Fast was a side-by-side action turned ninety degrees. John Dickson later did essentially the same thing with his famous round action – rotated it a quarter-turn to make a side-hinge over/under. Dickson’s built fewer than 10 examples altogether.
The key difference between these guns and the SuperBritte is that while Greener and Dickson adapted existing side-by-side actions, Théophile Britte designed his from scratch – and in doing so, perfected the side-opening action. The completed guns engraved with stocks mounted were entirely built in the Britte workshops and delivered, ready to shoot, after proofing in Liège and testing at the shooting grounds.
Because it does not require a frame in the conventional sense, this side-opener is inherently the shallowest over/under action possible. Because the action bar is on the side, there’s no need for the deep, U-shaped frame that a drop-down action requires. Therefore, the height of the action is exactly the same as the height of the barrels – and you just can’t make an over/under any slimmer in profile than that
Britte’s action is also about as narrow as an over/under can be. The cocking system works directly from the side-lever; push it down with your thumb to open the action, and you cock the locks at the same time. The degree of mechanical leverage is such that you don’t notice any unusual resistance or stiffness. The fastener is a double-bite bolt on the left and a rib extension on the right. The lump, moreover, extends completely through the action bar, lending additional support resulting in incredible action strength.
Most of the Britte Company guns produced were marked Masquelier or Jules Bury; so if you should run across a reference to a “Britte gun built by Masquelier or Jules Bury,” be aware that it’s actually the other way around.
Abercrombie & Fitch imported quite a few SuperBrittes to America when Griffin & Howe was their gun department. “Quite a few,” however, can be misleading, because total production only amounted to about 250 guns.
As it turned out, the SuperBritte came along at a bad time. In 1936, the effects of the depression were starting to be felt in Europe and as the inexorable progress toward war gained momentum. Seeing what was coming, Etablissements Britte ceased gun parts and sporting firearms production in June 1936 turning to other areas of manufacturing.
The unit in St. Etienne was closed and they gave up gunsmithing. This desire to diversify was also motivated with the availability on the market of low priced sporting shotguns.
All completed firearms, barreled actions and parts were immersed in cosmolene, wrapped in wax paper, packed in wooden cases and stored in the Dessart’s family cellar. Louis Dessart’s children were to inherit all the firearms and remaining spare parts from Louis Dessart’s sister.
Britte remains in business to this day. After the war, Théophile Britte’s grandson, Louis Dessart, at 26, took over the management of Britte. He was not a gunsmith and decided not to restart the manufacture of gun parts and sporting firearms but to concentrate on high-tech mechanical manufacturing. Dessart has owned the company since 1949. Their business evolved to high tolerance manufacturing, supplying companies such as Philips, FZ, Ford, Belgo, Fabrique Nationale and Caterpillar.
By 1995, Britte has evolved even further into aéronautiques, aero-space, défense and other high-tech industrial manufacturing.
It is interesting to note that in Ned Schwing’s book, “The Browning Superposed: John M. Browning’s Legacy,” it is reported that in early 1930 Val Browning, Walter Warren and Ben Galliger won the Team International Pigeon Shooting Championship held that year in Spain. A picture of the winning team shows Val Browning, Walter Warren and Ben Galliger with the trophy and their shotguns, the caption reads, “Val and Walter shot Superposed guns. Galliger is holding an unidentified over and under.
The unidentified over and under was of course a SuperBritte. This account of, “Griffin & Howe’s Fine Firearms Find of the Century” does not end here. Remember “Etablissements Britte Atelier de Mecanique de Precision, Armes en Blanc?” Alongside the manufacturing of the SuperBritte, Britte had been manufacturing barreled actions in-the-white, particularly the Holland & Holland style, side-lock ejector action and supplying them, not only to the finest European gun makers, but to Best London & Birmingham makers.
The Jules Bury Collection acquired by Griffin & Howe can arguably be described as
“The Fine Firearms Find of the Century”
Within the purchase agreement “Griffin & Howe, Inc.” acquired the name “Jules Bury Armurier, Fabrique D’Armes, Maison Fondée en 1840.” The name is synonymous with the manufacturing of the finest shotguns and double rifles since 1840
After close inspection of one of the 105 barreled actions in the white and a finished gun in our Jules Barry Collection, the head of one of the top three Best London gunmakers said “This is one of the finest actions I’ve seen and I would doubt that even we could replicate this type of quality today”.
In order to initiate an investment grade marque, Griffin & Howe introduced the original completed examples of the H&H style, side-by-side, sidelock ejector at $15,000US. From this price platform the guns built today by Europe’s finest gunmaker, the Belgium firm of Verrees & Cie, are offered at slightly more but enjoy a higher grade of wood and finish, thereby creating a truly investment grade marque. Matched-pair in inventory is offered cased with accessories at $42,000US. Future examples to be built are offered by quotation based upon grade of wood, type of engraving and finish.
Original completed examples of the over/under side-opening SuperBrittes were offered at $25,000. They now trade at approximately $30,000US. The six 12-bore barreled actions in-the- white are offered by quotation based upon grade of wood, type of engraving and finish.
Griffin & Howe has had completed, by arguably Europe’s finest Belgian maker, the first four matched pairs and six single examples from the original pre-WWII Holland & Holland style actions.
These sporting shotguns represent the finest in Belgian materials and workmanship with hidden third fasteners, bushed firing pins, articulated front triggers, gold washed internal parts and all feature the renowned Siemens Martin steel barrels.
Once the original completed guns and the barreled actions in-the-white are sold the opportunity to acquire one of these fine examples of European craftsmanship from a bygone era, custom made and finished to your own specifications, will be lost forever.
For more information about this unique collection contact Griffin and Howe, Inc. at:
33 Claremont Road, Bernardsville, NJ 07924 – Tel: 908-766-2287
340 West Putnam Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06830 – Tel: 203-618-0270