During the Cold War, Russia stood as a symbol for austere frugality where luxury and excessive spending was something enjoyed by the Western world. The worm has turned, however, and the weak dollar has sent the Americans scuttling back to their home market, while the best houses, cars, wines and football clubs are being snapped up Russian tycoons. Of course it is not just the Russians who have been doing well. Britain has enjoyed a decade of economic growth, culminating in London?s re-positioning as the financial capital of the world. What effect has this influx of cash had on the gun market?
Roger Williams, consultant to D. J. Litt?s gun retailers, has noted an influx in Russian buyers, though they tend to have specific needs. ?It is not a huge market for Litt?s, but the Russians are certainly interested in the big names such as Purdey, Holland & Holland and Boss. They read the right books and if it?s in the book, they buy it. A gorgeous pair by Symes & Wright won?t be in the book, so they don?t buy them. Walked-up shooting is very popular in Russia, so they are going for shorter barrels. Fine English short-barrelled sidelock ejectors will fetch a very good price,? said Roger.
But this is at the top end of the price list. In relation to English guns, the market for second-hand guns under £2,000 is very slow, according to Roger. ?Prices seem to have stagnated. Furthermore, the market for non-ejectors seems to have fallen heavily over the past 10 years. It is possible to buy a lot of gun at a percentage of its true value. For example, last year I bought a long-barrelled Tolley for wildfowling. I didn?t want an ejector because you only lose the empties in the mud ? it?s much easier with a non-ejector to stuff them in your pocket. It cost me a few hundred pounds and it is a beautiful gun. It is worth a multiple of what I paid. It is impossible to predict the future, but my advice would be to buy fine English non-ejectors. Eventually we?ll value them in relation to their relative cost to an ejector. They cost 15 to 20 per cent less to make and they will in time be worth closer to 15 to 20 per cent less, not the 50 to 60 per cent less they are today.?
Nick Holt, owner of Holt?s auctioneers for firearms and sporting antiques, has been watching guns go under the hammer since 1985, but he has never seen the market so strong. ?The past three years have been extremely buoyant,? he said. ?The prices stayed low for many years, so it was always likely to stabilise in due course. Many people were worried that there would be a backlash on shooting following the Hunting Act, but there has been quite the opposite. The politicians have been ignored and there are more people than ever getting into shooting.?
The gun industry is benefiting from international influences, especially the emergence of the Eastern European market, says Nick. ?While the Americans have stayed quiet with the dollar being so weak, the Russians and ex-Eastern Bloc countries ? traditionally hunting people ? have injected fresh investment. We have seen some amazing sales here, such as a pair of Boss?s, originally bought for £90,000, selling for £125,000. There was a time when you might be lucky to get half back what you paid for a pair of top-end English guns. The depreciation on guns is much less. It was never quite as bad as cars, in that the value nosedives as soon as it leaves the forecourt, but not far off. Now the gun market is more comparable to the housing industry.?
It is not just the foreign market that is booming either. ?The British market is strong too,? Nick continued. ?There are a lot of people who are working very hard and earning good salaries. For them, time is more important than money. In their leisure time they want to do what they want and increasingly that is shooting with friends in the countryside.? But it is not entirely a bed of roses. ?The middle market of between £1,000 to £3,000 is quiet. And second-hand guns below £1,000 are struggling.?
Andrew Harvison, of Holloway & Naughton Gunmakers in Leicestershire, agrees that the market in new guns is enjoying a period of growth. ?There are lots of new people getting into shooting who are investing in guns, while those who already shoot are buying second guns,? he said. ?Proof of this stability in the retail trade can be seen by the fact that well-established names such as Purdey and Boss are bringing out new models that appeal to a modern market. This year we will also showcase our new sporting over-and-under shotgun at the Tackle & Gun Show, which can be used in the game field and clay ground.?
The second-hand market is less predictable, says Andrew. At the top end, the Best guns will continue to fetch the good prices. ?But there are very few of them around that have the right name and the right quality,? he said. ?At the moment, the fashion is for guns made by the three or four big names. Other makes, every bit as good, will not make the same price. The careful buyer can find guns of the finest quality in the world at low prices. A good ejector will hold its value, but we are having to give away the lower end of non-ejectors to shooters in Cyprus, North Africa and Italy, who find them very desirable. While there are more people getting into shooting in this country, I think there are fewer roughshooters who would have bought the good quality, lesser-name side-by-sides. If they are going to pay £1,000 nowadays, they will buy an over-and-under from Browning or Beretta.?
Gunsmith Jason Abbot agrees that the market is enjoying a surge in value at the moment, which he puts down to success in the City and, to a lesser extent, the influx of Russian money. The ex-British side-by-side champion is also quick to advise customers against the lottery of the auction house. ?Auction houses, with their glossy magazines, have been very successful. On paper it looks like the buyer or seller is getting value for money,? said Jason. ?But do not forget there is 20 per cent commission and VAT on top, and there is no guarantee what you are getting is top quality. How many buyers can tell whether the gun has thin barrels or not? Also, it is unlikely to fit properly and there are no after-sale services. Most old guns will at least need their ribs refixing, which is £600 on top anyway. I would always recommend buying a good quality gun with a made-to-measure stock from a dealer backed up by a workshop for after-sales work.”
Mark Osborne, from E. J. Churchill, is also sceptical of the boom in gun prices through auction sales. ?New shooters want to have an original Purdey, say, so they pay £9,000 for an old one at auction. The reason a Purdey sells for that amount is because it is worn out. This is a serious problem, because you then have a tired old gun, often 100 or even 120 years old, being asked to fire maybe 300 cartridges of 34g shot, which it was never designed to fire, twice or three times a week. If the barrels are old and thin, the action is likely to be tired, too.?
The headline-grabbing sales may imply that the gun market is making money like never before, but perhaps they are putting a gloss on the story. The hog is not cooked all the way through. ?Yes, Best second-hand guns are fetching exceptional prices,? said Mark. ?For example, top-quality second-hand pairs of Boss?s were making £40,000 to £45,000 five years ago; while today some are reaching £60,000. This still represents good value compared with a new one, which could be upwards of £100,000, as they will be of the same quality. The problem is that there are so few of these fine originals around and there is great competition to find them. My advice would be to find a gun or pair out of the top five fashionable names, or maybe from one of the provincial makers, because they are every bit as good and offer extremely good value.?
Some of us would never dream of paying £10,000 for a gun, so for the regular Shot who wants a reliable all-round new gun that will last a lifetime, is the market set fair? Roger Williams explained that the nature of the gun industry has change beyond recognition over the past 100 years. ?At the beginning of the last century, manufacturing was all about bespoke guns for individual buyers. Nowadays, the bigger gun makers, such as Browning, Beretta or Perazzi, seldom get feedback from the individual users, but mostly from the retailers such as ourselves. The current off-the-peg gun, costing £5,000 or more, can be assembled with a whole range of sizes for stock, barrel length, weight and so on, to the extent that the buyer is getting a bespoke gun in all but name.?
As with so many other industries, however, the power of the bigger retailers is having a damaging effect on the little players, admits Roger. Litt?s, for example, supplies 60 per cent of all Perazzi shotguns and 80 per cent of all custom Brownings sold worldwide. ?In the old days it used to be that lots of different gun manufacturers sold guns in many different gunshops across the land,? said Roger.
?Nowadays, 20 per cent of the manufacturers ? especially Browning, Beretta and Perazzi ? are selling 80 per cent of the shotguns sold in the UK. Added to that, 80 per cent of the guns sold in this country are being bought from 20 per cent of the retailers, Litt?s included. As a result, the smaller players are being squeezed out of the market. It is a worry for the local gunsmith, who provides a vital service for his shooting community, that he can?t make sufficient profits from selling guns. Litt?s is a family company with old-fashioned beliefs, but market forces dictate that if we want to be successful, we will be crushing out people in the industry who we would like to keep going.?
Dick Hardy has run W. R. Hardy in Forfar, Angus, for more than 30 years. Overall turnover in the shop has never been as high as it has been in the past three years, though high turnover does not guarantee a high profit margin, especially in the clothing and fishing tackle sector where cheaper imports have slashed the price. ?As far as guns are concerned, we tend to concentrate on the over-and-under market, as we cannot get the choice of Best British guns for that buyer. The Scottish market has never been quite as showy as down south. Up here a gun is just a gun, as long as it works, and so there is not the same desire to get something fancy to keep up with the Joneses.?
The bigger outlets have made life more difficult for Dick in the past decade, as he cannot compete with their budget for Internet sales or advertising. ?The big retailers can offer pencil-sharp prices, selling guns at near wholesale value, while I have to add a little more. My one gripe would be that the manufacturers prioritise these retailers over the little buyers, so there are times when a buyer would have to wait months for me to order him a new gun, when one of the big retailers would have it in stock. At times, I feel the gunshops are just getting the crumbs from the table.?
In this world of balance sheets and bottom lines, Dick believes there is still a place for the old-fashioned gunshop, over and above selling guns, tackle and accessories. ?We still have a role to play for the shooting man and local gamekeeper, indeed I feel a moral responsibility to provide him with affordable cartridges, which remains the lifeblood of our business. I remember, as a child, being taken by my father to a gunshop in Sheffield to buy my first .410. Who doesn?t remember being given their first gun? The shopkeeper offered the gun for £28, but he refused to give me five free cartridges when my father asked. So we went to another shop, where the keeper sold the gun for £25 and gave me 10 cartridges. He wanted me to get into the sport as a youngster, because he knew that one day, when I had cash, I would come back. There is more to running a gunshop than pounds, shillings and pence.?