A True Born Gunmaker
Above: An incomplete .600 NE action still to be blacked.
Our middle son Keith's pedigree as a UK gunmaker is now well proven, and after years of plying his skills for Britain’s most prestigious gunmakers, he is now building bespoke guns and rifles that bear his own name, Keith Dennison Thomas. Despite the British gun making fraternity being relatively small, there is a well-known and talented engraver in the trade whose name is also Keith Thomas. To avoid customer confusion, our Keith opted to trade under his full names, hence the Dennison.
Keith spent most of his childhood, and more specifically, his informative years in hunting safari camps and lodges across Southern Africa. He also started hunting at a young age, and aside from hunting with a rifle, he was also a keen wing-shooter. When on vacation from boarding school, he loved spending campfire time listening to our clients discussing the merits of some of the world’s greatest guns and rifles. Names like Purdey’s, Holland & Holland, Westley Richards, and Rigby’s often came to the fore. On Keith’s website biography, he writes, ‘Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to apprentice at Rigby’s, advance my skills at Purdey’s, and serve as foreman at Westley Richards.’
Above: Keith with a .416 Rigby he built for an American client. It was one of two custom built guns, the other was a .300 Winchester Magnum.
As a young boy, it wasn’t long before Keith discovered his sole ambition was to make quality guns and rifles. At age 14 he spent his school holidays working for a local gunmaker, and while there made a copy turned stock for my 7x57mm Mauser Obendorf. Years later, when visiting us in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, during his apprenticeship to John Rigby & Son in London, he was looking at the Mauser and said he couldn’t believe his workmanship had been so shoddy! As a working rifle for plains game hunting and general game management, it served me well for three decades, and I was quite happy with the stock.
Building bolt-action and heavy calibre double rifles are Keith’s specialities, although he does refurbishment projects on bolt-actions, double rifles and shotguns. He also serves as a freelance action-maker to many of the UK’s best quality gunmakers, and he believes passionately in hand-crafted bespoke guns, saying, ‘To me, when you pick up a mass-produced gun, it’s just a tool, but pick up a bespoke gun, hand-made, with pride and passion, and it feels alive and completely individualistic’. Keith does very little stock work, aside from final finishing, although he personally selects the A-Grade Turkish walnut blanks for his customers, and then passes them on to a stock-making colleague. He outsources the engraving to a business colleague who specialises in engraving to an exceptionally high standard.
Above: The .416 Rigby at top, and the .300 Winchester Magnum being readied for shipment to the US.
Not many people are aware that it takes up to two years to build a bespoke custom rifle or double gun, and sometimes longer. Prices can be exceedingly high, but a custom gun is invariably also bought as an investment, because a good quality gun never depreciates.
Keith was born in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and in 1994, at age 18, after his schooling at Queen’s College in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, and while we were still living in Zimbabwe, he was offered an apprenticeship at Rigby’s by the then owner Paul Roberts. Shortly thereafter, he moved to the UK and began his trade under Paul Willis and Dave Perkins, both gunmakers (actioners) of international repute. When Rigby’s was sold in 1998, Keith was offered a job at Purdey’s where for the next nine-years he specialised in building bolt rifles, regulating double rifles, as well as learning double-gun action-making under Phil Butcher, one of the most experienced and highly regarded Purdey craftsmen. Keith was then recruited to Westley Richards by the owner, the late Simon Clode. While there he soon rose to become foreman at the Birmingham firm’s new factory, and together with the late Chris Soyza was instrumental in reintroducing the firm’s formal apprenticeship program, as well as developing Westley’s new sidelock double rifle.
Above: Keith with a .600 Hewa, the gun was for an Australian customer, and although they weren't a pair, Keith also built him a .500 Hewa.
Above: A somewhat dated photo from when he was still with Westley Richards. Testing a .470 NE in their underground range. The gun was still being built.
Above: Regulating double rifle barrels to shoot to the same point of aim is integral to Keith's job. He's developed an enviable reputation amongst double rifle aficionados in this intricate craft.
Above: The magazine floorplate for the .30-06 Springfield Keith has built for himself as a stalking rifle.
Above: Another work in progress from when he was still with Westley Richards.
Above: Another work in progress - an incomplete action.
Above: Keith busy doing what he loves doing best - building bespoke guns.
Brenda and I are justifiably proud of Keith’s achievements and it now looks as if once his son Max has completed his schooling, he too, may well enter the trade alongside his dad. Keith’s website can be visited at: www.kdtandson.co.uk