Mr Winks, an artist with guns

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Duff Hart-Davis

One day in 1974 David Winks - then a salesman in the gunmakers Holland & Holland's - received a telephone call from his boss, Malcolm Lyell, who was in Bombay. "Get to Hyderabad as soon as you can," Lyell told him. "We're trying to buy the Nizam's armoury."

When the British team gained access to the palace in Hyderabad, fantastic scenes ensued. "There were more than 2,000 weapons in 11 huge packing cases," Winks recalls. "About 20 guards were getting them out. There were modern shotguns, antique pistols, breech-loading rifles - everything. The temperature was well into the hundreds.

"As each gun came out, a colleague passed it to me, and I had to value it instantly. Suddenly I had this thing in my hands. I couldn't believe it. I called out, '35,000'. Lyell said, 'WHAT?' I repeated the figure. He still didn't believe it, but he wrote it down." The "thing" was a flintlock muzzle-loader made by Mortimer in 1799, once heavily inlaid with silver and gold, but now with only the silver remaining. It so happened that, a year earlier, Hollands had bought a pair of matching pistols of the same design. Here was the weapon that completed the set.

In the course of 18 months' restoration work, Winks and a colleague, Ken Prater, meticulously repaired the lock and fitted 82 pieces of decorative gold into its surface. At the end of their labours, the set of guns was sold for five times its purchase price.

David Winks has just retired after a career that established him as one of the country's leading experts on sporting weapons. A slender, not to say scrawny fellow, he never gave a damn for appearances, never shed his Cockney accent, and never hesitated to speak his mind, whether he was dealing with Arab princes or American tycoons.

Born into an army family in Croydon, he grew up surrounded by guns, but left school at 14, "barely able to read or write, and not interested in anything much". He landed a job as floor-sweeper, tea-maker and messenger for W W Greener, the gunmakers who then had premises in Pall Mall.

Three years there under the manager, Ernest Kempster, who treated him "like a son", left him fascinated by weapons, and after National Service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he went to work as a barrelmaker at Greener's in Birmingham. Back in London six months later, he walked into Holland's factory at 906 Harrow Road and announced that he was competent in all aspects of his trade (a gross exaggeration).

"All right,' said the manager, Wally James. "How much money do you want? What about half a crown (121/2p) an hour?"

Brisk negotiation raised the rate to three shillings - and Winks was on his way. Within five years he had become foreman of the barrelmaking department, and began to specialise in that most arcane of gun-making arts, the construction of double-barrelled rifles. When, in the early Seventies, he moved to the firm's smart West End gunroom in Bruton Street as a junior salesman, friends said it was a waste of his exceptional skills - but he was determined to get on.

Meeting rich and demanding clients, having to talk properly, dealing with correspondence - all this was new and difficult at first. But he managed by the simple expedient of standing firm on the rock of his own practical experience. Knowing everything there was to know about how guns were built, he learnt the knack of imparting his own confidence to customers.

On his first trip abroad, he was sent to an auction in Los Angeles and found that 10 top-quality English guns were on sale. Seeing at once that the reserve prices were barely 10 per cent of the weapons' real value, he bought the lot.

Later, as manager of the gunroom, and finally as a director of the firm, he travelled the world, and he built up such a rapport with leading clients that he would buy guns on their behalf without consulting them. Hence the following transatlantic telephone exchange with the American collector Bill Feldstein:

"You bought a lovely rifle, Bill."

"Did I? What is it?"

"A .500 Lancaster sidelock - a real beauty."

"Oh, great! How much did I pay?"

"Twenty-eight thousand dollars."

"Great! Where do I send the money?"

To be a real gunmaker, Winks says, "you've got to have it in your head, your hands and your heart". He had it in all three - my favourite memory is of him firing Holland's mighty .700 rifle. Though blown backwards by the recoil, he came up grinning with delight - a tremendous survivor, whose skill and enthusiasm carried him to the summit of his profession.