In this feature, looking at the current fortunes of international gunmakers, Shooting Times talked to a handful of the British agents who are selling these ‘great pretenders’ to the domestic market.
Spain’s largest gunmaker, Aguirre y Aranzabal (AYA), produces 750 guns a year in the town of Eibar for the international market. These include the popular boxlock No.4/53 model at £2,383; the sidelock No.2 at £3,910; the exquisite No.1 at £8,159; and the top-of-the-range No.1 Deluxe from £14,950 (all including VAT).
“I would be wrong to say the No.1 is the finest gun on the market, but it is very close to the best and it is exceptional value for money,” said Edward King of ASI, sole importers of the AYA in the UK.
“As far as sales are going at the moment, we are chasing supply rather than demand, which is a good situation to be in. AYA and the other Spanish makers realised the only way to compete in the British market was to use the very finest materials. The British shooter demands a gun that will outlive him, as opposed to a car or washing machine that he accepts will eventually break down. Integrity is very important in the British gun market and AYA has made that part of its philosophy.”
AYA’s No.1 Deluxe, competitively priced against its best English equivalents
Edward has noticed a return to 12-bores in his recent sales ledgers: “The 12-bore side-by-side is back with a vengeance – there was a brief flirtation with 20s and 28s, but people are now remembering the 12-bore is not a bad gun after all. We sell about 55% as 12-bore, against 45% of everything else.”
Aside from the other Spanish gunsmiths, AYA’s closest rivals are the second-hand top-end English and Italian guns. But, said Edward, “Unless you have a stroke of good fortune, you are unlikely to find a good second-hand gun that suits your needs and fits perfectly, which is hugely important. The custom-built No.1 is made for you and it will shoot all the modern ammunition, with a full warranty.”
Edward is optimistic the forewarned slow-down in the economy will have minimal effect on gun sales: “We have never found the state of the general economy reflects that of the gun industry – those who have plenty of money tend to have it whatever the financial climate.”
Paul Roberts has been sole dealer in the UK for the coveted Pedro Arrizabalaga line of self-opening side-by-sides for the past 30 years. Renowned as leading gunsmiths, the Arrizabalaga team of just eight craftsmen produces no more than 40 guns a year, with a pair of fully bespoke shotguns in the English style costing £19,000 plus VAT.
Over the years, Paul has built up a ‘Spanglish’ partnership that allows him to converse with the manufacturers in gun-language, so that they meet his demands for the English market, even down to the Imperial measurements.
“The benefit of an Arrizabalaga is that you are getting a unique gun that is a close facsimile of a Best English gun, but for a fifth of the price,” said Paul. “Of course, it is not exactly the same high quality as a handmade British gun, but it runs awfully close. The only downside is that there is a 15-month wait until the gun is ready for you.” Paul believes the expectation when buying a gun has changed down the years, which plays into the hands of the Spanish market: “When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was no question of shooting being under fire.”
“The Prime Minister was a regular shot back then. But now, people are less optimistic. Also, gun design is changing all the time, with smaller bores and over-unders becoming more popular. It is no longer a case of buying a gun that your grandson will use. So why pay £60,000 for a gun that might either be obsolete in a few years’ time or, heaven forbid, you are no longer allowed to shoot?”
“As a result, shots are looking to pay less for a gun that is almost as good. In that respect, a slow-down in the economy could be good news for the Spanish gun market, as there is not the same outlay for a top-quality new Spanish gun compared with a best English.”
Paul deals in Grulla Armas guns, which also hail from the Basque region of Spain, though he sells only the non-self-opening models to complement his self-opening Arrizabalagas: “Again, you are buying a good quality gun that has a very English look for £12,000 a pair. They tend to maintain a very steady market.”
Wholesalers GMK hold exclusive rights in the UK for the Arrieta Viscount and Crown models, which start at just over £2,000 and £3,000 respectively. Sales manager, Bob Bigwood, explained the Hampshire-based importers invested more during 2007 in advertising to boost sales of these exquisite guns made in the small town of Elgoibar.
The Arietta Crown is a shotgun squarely aimed at traditionalists
“Our strategy to list the details of local dealers on the advertisements has seemingly borne fruit,” said Bob. “Sales last year were very encouraging. We have noticed a slight shift in the market back towards side-by-side 12-bores, while the trend was more towards 20-bore over-unders a few years ago. These patterns are fairly common, as fashions often change. We are noticing a number of shots who maybe started the sport more recently with an over-under, but now they are hooked, they want to turn up to a shoot with a well-fitting side-by-side. Perhaps the market is starting to lean back to the more traditional style of gun.”
Bob remains optimistic a down-turn in the economy will not have a sweeping effect on the industry. “It would be foolish to say a squeeze on the economy will not have an impact on every walk of life, but when it comes to your main passion in life, we selfish shooters tend to find the money by sacrificing other things. Most of us aspire to have a nice new gun from time to time, and I don’t see that changing. Besides, if there is a squeeze, then we need our leisure time more than ever to help us relax.”
Gun dealer, Victor Chapman, who still operates in Essex, was once the exclusive importer of the Arrieta range of guns and was involved in the formation of its No.1 and No.2 side-by-sides for the English market: “There was a time when the Spanish gunsmiths were dismissed for producing soft metal and a poor finish, but that is no longer the case,” said Victor, who has been in the industry for 45 years.
“With the Arrieta, you are getting a gun that is almost on a par with a best English gun, but at a tenth of the price. I was always amazed how they can pull it off at that cost, but someone explained that an actioner in Spain will be paid maybe a third of what they get in England, not least because the cost of living is that much cheaper. Of course, there are not the same hours put in as for a Purdey, Holland & Holland or Boss.”
The higher-grade Arrietas are now imported exclusively by Edward Watson of The Shooting Company, based in Devon. Edward once ran the West London Shooting School and has tutored game guns throughout his career: “There was a trend a few years ago for over-unders and 20-bores, but I’ve noticed shooters are coming back to the side-by-sides, once they have mastered the over-under. Ideally, they want an English sidelock, but rather than re-mortgage the house, they go for the next best thing, which is a fitted Arrieta or AYA. You just can’t beat them for value.”
The direct competitor for these best Spanish guns tends to be the second-hand best English, according to Edward: “These old English guns are wonderful, but they are like a vintage car that can spend more time in the garage than on the road. Also, you only bring them out on high days and holidays. These new, made-to-measure Spanish guns will take all the modern shot, from high pheasant loads to steel shot for wildfowling.”
Edward admits there is not the same top finish as one might get for a Purdey or Churchill, but it is a matter of quibbling: “The Spanish strive to imitate the English style – indeed the Arrieta is very similar to the Churchill and they are good at it. There may not be quite the same love that goes in by a best English gunsmith, but they are still beautiful tools. I am a firm believer that if you are happy and proud of your gun, you will shoot better with it, and the Arrieta is a very reliable and handsome side-by-side.”
The ability of the Spaniards to recreate English guns almost to perfection prompted E.J.Churchill to use this to its advantage. General manager, Rob Fenwick, explained the company identified a gap in the market for elegant, affordable and reliable side-by-sides with a leading English name attached. As a result, Churchill took on a Spanish partner to build its new Continental 12-bore and 20-bore that range from £6,750 to £19,950 for a pair.
Spanish actions, English names: E.J. Churchill now offers a range of guns made in Spain at a fraction of an English gun’s price, including the Regal (top) and the Hercules
The guns are built in the Basque country, but finished by English craftsmen: “When trying to find a gunmaker to work with for our E.J.Churchill Continental range, Spain was the obvious country to look at,” said Rob. “It has been known for a long time Spanish guns are reliable, handle well, are attractive and offer excellent value for money. When this is coupled with a short build and delivery time, you have a product that many English gunmakers just can’t compete with.”
Phil Burt, who shoots on a wide range of days throughout the country, including grouse, partridge and high pheasants, has been testing the top-of-the-range Hercules model all season: “It is not the same as a top English gun, but it is certainly the next best thing,” he said. “It has worked very well for me and it handles just like an English gun. With the Churchill finish, it is very pretty indeed. “I have been mostly shooting the Caledonian XL 28g No6s, but it has coped well with bigger loads such as 32g No5s for high Devon pheasants. I am like many who own an old English gun more than 100 years old, but its barrels are worn out and it just can’t stand modern loads. I have found the Spanish gun to be exceptionally reliable.”
In conclusion, according to the salesmen at least, the Spanish gun market is enjoying a vibrant spell in the British arena. Twelve-bores are back in, while the predicted downturn in the economy holds little fear. Mañana cannot come quickly enough!