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Some thoughts on Gunmaking from the Game Fair.

With the heavy rains at the game fair came the opportunity to step away from our empty stand and catch up with some of my contemporaries, those responsible for running some of the other English gunmaking companies. During the mostly ‘rained off’ day I had interesting and varied conversations with Daryl Greatrex from Holland & Holland, Sir Edward Dashwood of Churchill’s, William Asprey of William & Son, James Cox of William Evans, the newly appointed James Horne of Purdey & Son and newcomer on the block Peter Boxall of Boxall & Edminson.

Harewood House. CLA Game Fair

Of course with these discussions everyone is quite guarded about exactly what they are up to and how their business is going, but what never fails to come through, is the underlying confidence in the sport and thus their trade. It was apparent that the people who ‘know who they are and what their companies represent’ were upbeat and saying business was good and that they had confidence in the sport, those who were not quite so clear were much less confident, these were ‘The Luxury Gun purveyors’.

William Asprey comes from a long line of superb retailers and has recently combined his 2 William & Son. Mount Street shops into one new, purpose built home, right next door and overlooking, Holland & Holland on Bruton Street. His doors are open and welcoming to anyone who is rattled by the prices in Holland’s or who wants to sample the service the Asprey family are so famous for. William is a very keen shot and from his new gunroom you will find everything for a days shooting from fine guns to colourful gaiters. Everything is of great quality, chosen with good taste (by his wife!) and with a reason of practicality for the sport. William and Son offer a bespoke hand made sidelock shotgun which is built by their team of ex Holland and Holland workers for £57,000, this is some £30,000 less than next door or the short walk to South Audley Street.

The Churchill battle bus

Sir Edwards’ Churchill shooting grounds go from strength to strength under the direction of the enthusiastic and tireless Rob Fenwick. We talked over tea at the top of his battle bus which has a view over the whole of gunmakers row at CLA. Besides being upset at the ‘terrible grouse season’ that is shortly upon us and which is ‘practically a wipe out’ Sir Edward is upbeat and selling lots of guns to lots of newcomers to the sport. Churchill’s threw in the towel with making new guns a few years ago and concentrated their efforts on the shooting grounds where they introduce 100’s of new people to the sport as well as teach exisiting shots how to be better at their sport and thus enjoy it more, an invaluable resource for us all.

James Cox who took the helm of William Evans a few years ago told me of the plans to open a William Evans shop in Calgary based on the growth of the business over here which is encouraging news. They have been hiring new staff in London and with his newly diversified range of co branded guns and rifles is seeing a large pick up in trade from the St James’ premises. William Evans continue to offer ‘bespoke’ English made guns and rifles and these represent the top of their ‘something for everyone’ range. I think that William Evans has always been the ‘go to’ gunshop if you wanted, guns, repairs, a reasonably priced shooting coat or whatever.

Peter Boxall was doing well at the show, here he introduced his new 16g over and under which now compliments his 12g and 20g. He has plans for a 28g and says that will be it as far as introducing new models for the time being. I admire what Peter has done getting this company going and offering such a well priced (£25,000) English made gun. I have absolutely no experience with the gun so you will have to read reviews to find out about it but I believe it has been very well received and written up. Peter was the man taking orders when I was at the show! At least that is what he told me!

The H&H Range Rover

The Holland & Holland Range Rover dominated the stand at Holland’s so you now have the choice of buying a £175,000 .577 rifle or a £180,000 car from the same tent. I certainly don’t envy Daryl’s task of getting the orders rolling in for either of them! Gone are the days when Holland’s were a gunmaker selling a wide variety of new, used and antique guns, catering to every sportsman needs. These are the days of catering exclusively to the super rich field sportsman and I don’t know how many these there are, especially considering the closure of the Russian market. Daryl was off on holiday the next day, I bet it is very well deserved!

James Purdey & Son did not attend the game fair this weekend with a stand, in hindsight not a bad move. They have a new factory and this weekend are refurbishing their South Audley Street premises, a job which is taking only 3 days, so cannot be extensive. The shop will open again next week with the Long Room now the gunroom a move advised years ago but ignored. James suggested that the prices of his guns need to go up and I guess that is to keep pace with Holland’s recent 7.5% rise or perhaps to pay for the new factory and shop refurbishment. I can’t remember the exact details of supply and demand but I always thought it was very dangerous to increase prices when you couldn’t sell at the existing prices. I know that doesn’t work in our engineering business, we just have to be more efficient and productive as the car companies demand a 2.5% price decrease annually! It is early days of James’s tenure at Purdey so we can hope that with his business experience he can get the flag flying proudly outside the South Audley shop once again, something I suggested might not be done whilst wearing a ‘Guns on Pegs’ tie, his other business interest.

So what did I learn from my conversations? I think that those with clear focus on what they are, which is gunmakers, were positive, confident and thinking of the future whilst those with Luxury group masters were struggling to come to terms with filling their order books. Whilst not blowing the trumpet on my own rifles the fact that you could now get 3 hand detachable lock 577’s for the price of one Holland or Purdey 577 shows that something strange has happened since the years when all our guns were priced extremely closely in the years before the war.

 

9 Comments

  • Neill Clark on August 2, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Simon

    A spot on piece of writing. If I was able to commission a handmade rifle it would be one of yours, there's no doubt in mind who makes the best. A shotgun, or actually a pair, well I confess to divided loyalties as David McKay Browns round action OU's appeal. But since this dilemma will only arise if my lottery ticket comes in, let's say I'd not want to contribute to the profit margin of a foreign luxery goods company when I could support a true gun making business.

    The new English companies, offering a bespoke option costing a bit less than the cost of a decent car have great prospects and I am certain WR do as well. I'd hate to see H & H or Purdey fall by the wayside, but do they see themselves a gunmakers or luxery goods purveyors? As for Asprey, I thought they were jewellers.

    Best wishes to you and your team.

  • Ken on August 2, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Simon,

    Thank you for posting the pictures from the Game Fair along with your discussions with other makers. As usual, the pictures are great and this blog provides information we don't get anywhere else!

    Ken

  • Jonathon on August 2, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    Purdey/Richemont and Holland/Chanel have accountants telling them they need more margins, hence the price increases usually on a yearly basis now. They can't maintain traditional ways of building guns anymore because they are controlled by investment groups. There time has passed as evidence by any recent gun show in the last 5 years....smaller makers that value traditional ways produce guns, especially Holland pattern guns better than Holland themselves. In addition collectors have created false demand for these guns causing increases in prices in particular with the engravers. Most collectors don't even shoot and if so can't hit the side of a barn.

    William Asprey's bid was rejected for Holland many years ago. He is sticking it to them with a better product right on their door step, albeit overpriced.

    Great Post Simon! Hopefully you will maintain your prices within reason so the common man can save and aspire to your product one day.

  • tim wilkes on August 3, 2015 at 5:14 am

    Interesting post, thank you Simon.

    It is also my understanding that the Asprey offering is currently made to a higher standard than H&H's equivalent.

    There is a disconnect, isn't there? Walk into most London gunmakers and it's more like a department store than a centre of engineering and craftsmanship excellence. I suppose this reflects the clientele.

    When I started shooting as a lad most guns wore pretty much any old thing, often hand-me-down plus fours to go with their father's gun. Black Dunlop wellies were the norm; the regular guns had Hunter Royals with studded soles. Compare that with the fashion parade you get now - on some shoots, fortunately not all!

    But more particularly, those old guns knew about the shooting year, appreciated what work went into providing their sport, knew about the countryside and habitat and it's relation to shooting. I am not convinced that knowledge still exists with many modern shots.

    I am struggling to recall an instance of a gun on any of the shoots I have attended in the last forty years proudly showing off their brand new, built for them, British shotgun. A considerable number buying quality names second-hand, but not new. Perhaps it's the circles I shoot in! But if that is indicative for other, shall we say traditional, shots, then it points to the commissioners of new bespoke guns being a different type. Nothing wrong with new folk getting into shooting, but I guess they are coming to it later in life and short-circuiting the 'air-gun; beating; walking with empty .410; sharing a peg; gun' tradition.

    Ah well, times change!

    • Neill on August 3, 2015 at 5:55 am

      Tim raises some interesting points. Like him, in best part of 40 years shooting, I have never met anyone with a new bespoke British gun. On our shoot we have a couple who shoot old English guns, but most, including myself, shoot European made OU's (albeit mine was "Anglicised" by Paul Roberts).

      When I started commercial shoots were few and far between, I first became aware of them in the "boom" in the late 1980's and I suspect this coincides with the resurgence in the gunmaking trade in this country as more money was coming into the sport - though others on here know far more than me on that one! Nowadays the commercial shoot is pretty common, and the small private syndicate like the one I am a member of seems to on the wane.

      H & H and Purdey are effectively household names, and they make fine quality products, but the price no doubt reflects the overheads inherent in being part of a larger group and having flagship premises in Central London. Holland's shooting ground is very good, I have had a few lessons there and had my gun fit measurements done there as well. I've also been lucky enough to try one of their .500 NE doubles, and it was a fine rifle. London gunmakers used to have a certain kudos compared to those in Birmingham, and I suspect among some that is still the case, but the Westley product (and order book) is a testament to the fact that the highest quality and best value are being provided, long may it last.

  • Vance Daigle on August 3, 2015 at 7:54 am

    Good day Guy & Gals

    You know Simon it is a good feeling when one that want's a guns get's to talk to an owner, a person that has a skin in the game with every decision. I feel I am a humble guy that walks around a show and is blessed with being able to purchase a gun at times. It is interesting to see how the treatment and the talks go at some of my visits. Some of those that belong to a large conglomerate could care less about a guy that just doesn't fit there mold....Interesting isn't it? Never a book by it's cover!!!

    Perhaps that is why I have ordered a gun or two from you Sir? Not only do you make the very best gun out there, but you did not size me up, you just did a great job explaining your wares ( Hint-Business Model) and gave me the time I needed, to spend the kind of money that could buy " Less than half" a Rover at your booth. But best of all Simon, is the firm handshake while looking in the eye and being told thank you for the order.... this is a very large part of running a successful business in my humble opinion!!! Thank you Sir!!!

    A group of sheep lead by a Lion will be successful,
    A group of Lion's lead by a sheep will never be successful.

    In Christ
    Vance,

  • Nigel Barker on August 3, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    Although they might claim otherwise, large companies inevitably expect similar results from their various divisions. You are correct in your assessment that Daryl has his work cut out for him. It's tough to compete with the mark-up on the typical bottle of cologne.

    Also, I did like Vance's comment on this post. I'm sure you'll treat him well when he visits Birmingham. Although he is from Texas, so you should really send him on to that other version of God's own country over the pond - Yorkshire.

  • Woody Cotterill on August 4, 2015 at 6:00 am

    Dear Simon

    A most interesting article and observations in the elicited discussion. My few pence worth.... Is it not remarkable how today that a bespoke gunmaking industry still persists in maintaining standards of craftmanship that reached their peak in Edwardwian times? This is especially in this age of a pervasive crassness in facile luxuries in all the loss of tangibility, especially of the outdoors. It is most sad to read of the direction taken by Purdeys and H&H.

    One might imagine, with some licence, what the comments of the likes of the late Leslie Taylor might have been on all this. Some acerbic words no doubt, especially as to what's gone wrong "down to the south....let alone what's gone so very badly adrift in all our colonies abroad...?! But I like to think he would have approved of the unobtrusive useage of CNC and other space age technologies in the bespoke gun trade of today.

    Obviously, for so many, the nature of perception and values have undergone big shifts. An entertaining benchmark and insight into how much the world has changed through the past century can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeE133Wu96c This being Alexander Armstrong's Real Ripping Yarns (2014), which is a great entree into the real Ripping Yarns Series, which sadly too few even know exist. Anyone who has done time at a boarding school is sure to relate to their pithy sense of the outrageous. British humour de luxe! This especially includes those of us who survived yet learnt so much in doing time in ye olde colonial variety of establishment....

    I mention this because a shooting club flourished at the secondary school (Falcon College) I attended through late 1970s onward. One took one's .22 rifle to school, unfortunately it was kept under lock and key by the master in charge of the range, when it was not deployed to target legitimately. But the falconry club had much more free reign, because these lads had to shoot hawk food regularly, which opened up remarkable opportunities once they were afield with rifle in hand...I will desist from elaborating on some notorious escapades. Back then, we lads keen on all things in rifles and shooting hungered for the little information on the classic British guns, and read all we could find... A solid imprinting I guess.... I had read Pondoro Taylor's books cover to cover again and again (and the other classics by Selous and Lyell etc). Stories for one's memoirs :-) But if this paragraph be taken to digress from the state of the bespoke gun trade, my point is that what passes for education nowadays is the major symptom and also cause of how the outdoors and field sports are judged and practiced.

    So, this all goes to show that all you and your team have built up, maintain and expand at your Birmingham premises is utterly unique and outstanding. This includes your investment in mentorship of emerging craftsmen. Long may it not only persist but more so flourish!

    all best wishes

    Woody

    PS You did not mention J Rigby, latterly back in its rightful home in London after going so astray across the pond. But I recall its outlook was mentioned in a previous post on this blog.

    • Simon Clode on August 4, 2015 at 8:29 am

      Thanks for this reply. I didn't to the Rigby stand or talk with Mark Newton, I have heard a lot of noise about the new Rigby but personally have not seen anything they have produced yet, so not much to comment on!

      Simon

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