The face of shooting has changed dramatically over the past century, but perhaps no more markedly so than in the centre of London. Between the Wars, sporting shops were a far more common sight in the Capital, with proud gunsmiths boasting some of the most prestigious addresses in the Golden Mile. One at a time, however, the shops merged, folded or moved out. Today, just a handful remain. Recently, I went for a jaunt round the centre of London to visit the survivors and gain an insight into the current market forces affecting these famous names. Starting at Piccadilly Circus, I skirted round Pall Mall, passing the sporting clothing specialists Farlows towards St Jamess Palace, arriving at William Evans at 8.30am. Reclining opposite the ancient hatters Lock & Co and the wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd, its cool, friendly interior was a tonic against the impersonal bustle of the morning commute.
Gunroom manager Alastair Phillips is perhaps most at home in the inner sanctum of the shop, surrounded by musty leather-bound ledgers dating back to 1883. It is wonderful to see the reaction on peoples faces when you show them the original handwritten entry of when their great-grandfather first bought a gun, he explained, placing a mug of coffee on the great oak table which acts as workbench and presentation platform. Our strength is that clients know they will get so much more than a new gun or annual service. Perhaps it is also our weakness, in that we sacrifice potential profit by concentrating on customer satisfaction.
Why is it that William Evans has survived throughout the generations, while so many other famous gunshops were swallowed up or subsided? I think it lies in the original ethos of the business, he said. We have never tried to be like Purdey or Holland & Holland, and we have never gone for the very top end of the market. A customer can buy a London gun here at a country price. The boxlock ejectors were especially popular with officers in the British military. They could have lunch at Boodles, cocktails at the Carlton Club and order a gun at William Evans all in the same afternoon.
Alastair often dreams up new ideas that might modernise the business, but then is quick to rein back this exuberance. I have to remind myself that it is very difficult to improve the gunshop business. You cant drag it into the 21st century it would lose much of its appeal. Our customers enjoy the sleepy cosiness of the shop. They like the smell of Rangoon oil and having a quiet chat with an expert without any pressure to purchase. They dont feel like they are in a supermarket or a museum, but rather a friendly country gunshop in the centre of London.
At the other end of St Jamess Street is the shiny Beretta Gallery, the Italian manufacturers showpiece in this country. Gunroom manager Tim King was keen to stress that the Gallery aims to be a contrast to the traditional London gunshop. We have deliberately toned down the Englishness of it, not least because we are a family-owned Italian brand, he said, showing me round the rows of brightly lit guns in their polished cabinets. We may be the oldest gun manufacturer in the world, but we try to attract the many newcomers to the sport. They want to take a gun off the peg and there is no other shop in the country that has the same range of Berettas to choose from as the Gallery. Tim is confident about the Gallerys plans for the future. You have to be aggressive to survive in this industry, he said. We are ideally situated to attract the money-makers and international visitors in London. They know that they are getting the very highest quality from us, but they will have to pay that little bit extra too.
The next stop was that proud old aristocrat on South Audley Street, James Purdey & Sons, which remains on the must-see list for sporting visitors to the Capital. Like many others, I pressed my nose against the cabinets and enjoyed a quiet daydream before the price tag jolted me back to reality. In the Long Room, chairman Nigel Beaumont explained that it is very hard to force the issue with gun manufacturing, which has hardly changed since his predecessors at the shop were selling top-quality guns at the start of the last century.
You cant simply reinvent the wheel, he said. For our own sales, we have not seen a great change year-on-year. We sell between 40 and 50 guns each year we sold more in 2007 and fewer a few years ago. The international market provides a steady flow of new custom, especially the US, despite the slow-down in its economy and weakening of the dollar. The Russians seem to be the name on everyones lips at the moment, but I dont believe they are the great white hope people think they are, he reflects. With the rain lashing down, I sought refuge on the Piccadilly tube line en route to the world-famous department store Harrods on Knightsbridge.
The crowds of shoppers and tourists were crammed into the retail halls, but by the fifth floor, site of the new Beretta concession in the sports department, there was more room to swing a 12-bore. The shop-within-a-shop, run by Ray Ward Gunsmiths for the Beretta importers GMK, has been open for just two months and the stark commercialism of Harrods has been a shock to the system of manager Jonathan Ward, grandson of Ray. Harrods is open to the public from 10am until 8pm, seven days a week, so it has been pretty intensive, he said. Nestled next to the Barbour concession, the browser has a wide range of country clothes to pick from, even if they do not want to buy a gun. I can only imagine what it will be like when the Christmas rush is on. But the word seems to be spreading about us. Our great selling point is that we have access to an audience of wealthy shoppers who would not ordinarily visit a gunshop in London. I am confident that well gain many clients that Beretta would otherwise miss.
From Harrods it is only a brief walk down Sloane Street to Cadogan Place, home of Ray Ward Gunsmiths itself. Unlike the many established names that closed down in London, Rays son, John Ward, moved into the Capital in 1994 from Redhill in Surrey. People thought we were mad, he said from his office behind the well-lit shop filled with new and second-hand guns from a wide range of manufacturers. We are fortunate to have four of the biggest hotels in London on our doorstep, so it is a regular destination for many of the richest shooters in the world. We do well out of the corporate market, especially those businessmen who see shooting as the new golf. After all, if you cant play golf, you spend half your time on other sides of the fairway, so its no good for corporate networking!
John Ward is constantly on the lookout for new quality stock, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find. The hardest thing about selling is buying, he said. Sadly for the smaller gunshops it is about buying power. It is a dog-eat-dog world and profit is more important than turnover. The sun was back out as I set off across Mayfair, past Norton & Sons, sporting tailors on Savile Row, to Berkeley Square and then Bruton Street, home of Holland & Holland. The shop bills itself as a Mecca for the shooting tourist and a new layout does give the visitor the impression that they have entered a fieldsports shrine.
We have taken an active decision to return to where we first made our name, explained gunroom manager Andrew Ambrose in regard to the recent makeover. We were heading too much in the direction of lifestyle, rather than the traditional shooting brand. Youll notice that the gunroom itself is much more open and feels more a part of the shop than when it was closed off by a security door. Andrew was quick to play up the importance of the Holland & Holland experience, in which he takes clients on a day-long trip through the shop, shooting school and factory to allow potential purchasers a chance to make up their mind in a relaxed atmosphere. No other London name can offer such a comprehensive in-house package, which we see as a huge advantage, he said.
One of the watchwords in the shop is bespoke. Almost everything, from a Bryn Parry mug to the double rifles, is stamped with the Holland & Holland insignia and its clothes are made exclusively for the brand. We have to be more commercially minded nowadays, explained Andrew. The market is changing, so we need to change with it. From Bruton Street, it is a short stroll to Mount Street, where the sporting shopper can find William & Son. Owner William Asprey gave his Christian name to his new firm after he was refused permission by the jewellers to trade under his famous surname.
The gunmaking arm of Aspreys has since folded, but the traditions survive in William & Son. We are a new brand, but with all the heritage of an old one, explained gunsmith Paul West, who also runs the gunroom in the shop. Being a new name, we are swimming against the tide with the established reputations of Purdey, Holland & Holland and Boss & Co; but William Aspreys passion for the industry helps us to compete on our own merits. We cannot charge as much as the other three, but owners of a Williams will be getting every bit as good a gun.
The brand has already developed a following, especially in the US, and many former Asprey aficionados have continued their relationship. The British market hasnt been so quick to catch on. Ideally, we want people talking about us down the beating line as one of the big names, but that will take some time. Next door is Boss & Co, where manager Roy Lyu was settling the final details for the police audit that each of the gunshops must submit at this time of year. The well-appointed shop is every bit the domain of old-English refinement that one might expect, with the feeling of an Oxford College library, rather than abustling hive of commercialism. Boss makes a maximum of 20 new single-trigger over-and-under shotguns a year and, as long as the client is prepared to wait two years, he or she will get something very special at the end. The past few years have been very steady, said Roy.
It is simply a matter of ticking over, as we cannot make any more than 20 guns a year. Our new Robertson guns, however, which are made in Birmingham using Computer Numerically Controlled technology, costing £12,000 plus VAT, are also selling well. Each of these gunshops sells the usual shooting accessories, so there is competition for this day-to-day turnover on items which often have a better profit margin by percentage than hardware such as guns. However, for Watson Brothers, over in the City of London, the emphasis is wholly on selling guns. Run by skilled technician Michael Louca, the workshop produces 15 exquisite round-bodied over-and-unders from its London address. In many ways, we are the remaining old-fashioned London gunsmith, because every gun is made in the Capital, said Michael, as the machines whizzed and gurgled behind him. We are purists in our methods. Our customers are mainly English and very loyal. As such, we dont really have to look at what the opposition is doing, as long as we get it right ourselves. Meetings are by appointment only and the client will be invited into the workshop to see his or her gun being made. We have noticed a rise in the number of 4-bore side-by-sides for goose shooting in recent years, added Michael.
Last on the list was a visit to Vauxhall. If you are interested in rifles, then J. Roberts & Sons, owned and run by the founders son, Paul Roberts, is well worth a snoop. Aside from a large selection of rifles for deer, big game and wild boar, the inviting shop also sells the Italian Rizzini and the Spanish Arrizabalaga, as well as a range of second-hand shotguns. With connections to Rigby and W. J. Jeffery, Paul has gathered a number of experts who are on hand to talk about rifles with prospective buyers. We may be slightly off the beaten track as far as central London is concerned, Paul conceded, but that is not such a bad thing. We are located 400 yards on the right side of the congestion charge boundary and I have free parking for six cars outside the shop. None of the others can offer that. I would even go as far as to say we have the best location in London.
The shop does not go in for clothing, as it is an area in which Paul has no interest. We do have the various accessories and we repair guns on site. But we are a no-frills business that specialises in good guns, he said. I had reached the end of my gunshop marathon, feet and jaw sore from too much walk and talk. But miraculously, my wallet had remained firmly and thriftily closed.