I can remember – just – when many London department stores had gun departments. Harrods, the Army and Navy Stores, and Gamages, all sold guns once upon a time (Selfridges even had there own girls only gun club in the 1920s and 30s). Harrods and the Army and Navy stores, moreover, made guns or had them made for them. I have several old copies of old Army and Navy store catalogues. The amount of kit offered was extraordinary – everything from thunderboxes, to service pistols, to Winchesters, to Garden guns. They even had their own shooting ground. They offered big game rifles and shotguns in various qualities and continued to sell some stuff until the 1970s.
I recall in the same era handling one of the last guns left at Harrods, a centre-fire Mauser '98 stalking rifle which might have been made for them by Churchills. They were not especially expensive either, but out of my reach both financially and because of the lack of a stalking FAC. Nevertheless, I bought a beautiful small Bryant cartridge bag from them for a fiver (a lot of money 40 years ago) which someone sadly nicked recently.
Gamages had a well stocked gun department staffed by a guy who looked and sounded like a retired German Foreign Legion NCO. I handled my first Luger there under his severely encouraging supervision. I remember him, wonderfully, having an argument with my mother on why I should be allowed to have an air-rifle and practice target in my bedroom. Sadly he lost – mind you I have never met anyone who won an argument with my mother. I sneaked back with my grandma and got both.
She lived in a small house in Kensington Place. It had once been the forge to Kensington Palace and would be worth a fortune today. She filled it with Chinese antiques but nevertheless allowed me to set up various practice ranges. Air-rifles up stairs, downstairs, I had an archery target in the drawing room which was used for knife and even axe throwing practice. It was not stout enough to withstand my Ekins 'Finest in the Kingdom' crossbow's bolts, though.
We used to frequently visit a tiny shop in Kensington High Street – our nearest gun shop – which was opposite what is now the Hilton. It sold all sorts of shooting and fishing gear, most of which was hidden out of sight. I persuaded grandma Alexa, unsuccessfully to apply to Kensington police for a semi-automatic pistol and moderator for 'vermin control.' They declined it (though I got an FAC in my own right at 15 having joined the 11th Country of London Home Guard Btn. Rifle club at Vauxhaul).
She was, however, instrumental in getting me un-arrested in Holland Park for discharging my .32 starting pistol on the playing fields. I remember her in the Park Office noting imperiously: “Don't be silly, it is a harmless toy! Give it to me! She took the gun her grey gloved hand and almost immediately had a rather dramatic ND. As the smoke cleared, and we all recovered from the shock, she said “see perfectly harmless.” She got a way with it and dragged me out. Then, I noted she was clenching her other fist where there was a very nasty wound apparent through the palm of her left-hand glove – blood trickled through a powder burnt hole (don't think blank firers are not potentially dangerous). The brave old thing had shot herself and hadn't made a peep! Just what you would expect of a women who was one of the first ever commissioned in WW1.
She also took me along to the Kensington Rifle and Pistol club, now run by my friend Mike Wells, and professed them all to be “gangsters” (a prejudice later overcome – I would become a member for 20 odd years). My fondest memories though are her parked on the pavement outside Thomas Bland and Son when it moved to New Row from Willam IV Street. She would sit in her red mini, lift her veil, and read the Daily Express, while the avuncular Casely brothers indulgently instructed me in all things gun related. No time left to tell you when Cogswell and Harrison were in Piccadilly or Rigby's in Pall Mall...one day