Huw Hopkins looks at the growth in personalised stocks and grips for competition shotguns, with German firm Nill-Griffe a key case study
‘The customer is always right’ isn’t just an overused maxim – in manufacture and retail, it governs the fortunes of many a new product launch. After all, getting the right product for your customer is the ultimate aim, or they aren’t coming back.
Nobody knows this better than Wilfried Nill. As general manager of Nill-Griffe and founder of sister company Ergosign, he has an approach to product development that is as detailed as one of his custom grips. The companies he presides over have personalised the grips of handguns for 44 years, and the stock and grip of shotguns for the past half-decade. In 2012, Wilfried visited London and witnessed four clay shooters using his products finish on Olympic podiums. It has been a long road to success, but as with everything else at Nill-Griffe, it was all by design.
Wilfried’s father, Karl Nill, was a pistol sport shooter, but his experience as a carpenter meant he had the resources to get one step ahead of his competitors. He developed a personalised grip to allow steadier shooting. Eventually his peers all wanted one too, and came to him to get one made. Thus Karl Nill Maßgriffe für Sportwaffen was born.
Several product iterations and thousands of grips later, the turn of the millennium saw Wilfried take over the company. Coincidentally the local shooting club re-opened a few months later, with a brand new clay shooting range. Wilfried’s interest in clay shooting had been sparked 15 years earlier when the ground first opened, but the club had closed for political reasons.
Yet it was the invigorated experience of shotgun target shooting that made him want to experiment with his own personalised grip. “I bought a Renato Gamba,” says Wilfried, “but asked them to send me the gun with the original, uncarved stock. I made myself the first shotgun stock with an ergonomic shape that included a palm rest.”
Wilfried shot thousands of Skeet targets and modified the grip three times before acknowledging the need for an ergonomically designed adjustable stock system: the Ergosign EvoComp. He says: “I thought the idea was really good for other shooters as well, but people have differently shaped hands and different bodies, so it would be impossible to make a combination of grips and stocks. I realised I shouldn’t just make standard stocks with a personal grip, but that I should make customisable stocks.
“Tall Russian shooters want longer stocks but the smaller Asian or Italian shooters want shorter stocks. With a modular system you can try different lengths. Shooters want to try out the stock on the shooting range and be able to change it there and then. It might be that you want to change the pitch or the cast after a couple of months, and with this you can move it to suit your needs.”
The slow and steady development of the business has given Wilfried confidence in his product. “We didn’t advertise much at first because we wanted everything to work well. We have been working on a recoil reducer for the past two years, and at the point the recoil reducer works well, and we have between five and ten prototypes in production, then we’ll launch it into the market. I don’t like to sell if it doesn’t work well, and I’ve told our dealers, if the shooter is not happy with the system, please don’t sell it.”
And how have dealers responded to this mantra? We asked one to find out. Dennis Stepney of UK Gun Repairs in Taunton is passionate about the stock for all the right reasons. He told me: “There’s nothing that matches the quality of Ergosign. Wilfried hasn’t spared a shilling in the making of it. When you slide the balancer in you can hear the quality as it runs down the tube with a reassuring sound. That’s the same with every component.”
Dennis became excited by the concept from the first moment he laid eyes on the EvoComp stock: “I was doing some photographic work with Peter Wilson about six months before he won gold, and I saw what it was doing to the recoil factor. I immediately called Alexander Schmidt, the main English speaker at Nill-Griffe, and we have struck up such a great rapport. The relationship the two companies have is stunning.
All that despite the fact Dennis wouldn’t ever get one himself: “I’m a traditional competition shooter, and I love a traditional walnut stock with beautiful chequering – but that’s just me. The long and short of it is, if you want to be a good competition shot you need one of these.”
Although Ergosign is relatively new to Britain’s most popular clay shooting discipline, English Sporting, UK Gun Repairs is seeing major benefits of stocking the German brand. Dennis said, “It’s selling very well. We get between three and five enquiries a day for the stocks, which results in around eight to ten stocks sold every two months. Not every customer goes through with the buy, and it is only available on a limited number of guns. The most popular gun is either the Beretta DT series or Perazzi. I carry a good number of those grips and stocks as well as Krieghoff, and a modicum of grips for the 680 Beretta, and less so of Kemen and Blaser.”
As for the personalised individual grips Nill-Griffe made popular, Dennis wishes he could offer that part of the business from his base in Somerset. Though dealers are involved as much as they can be, there are some elements of the Nill-Griffe portfolio that require the customer to make the trip to Germany. “I would love to size people up for the grips,” says Dennis, “but I understand that Nill-Griffe want to keep that in-house. But I can take an impression of a shooter’s hand, and if they don’t fit into the standard sizes, we can refer them to Germany where they do everything properly. They back the customer up, book the hotel and sort out their hire car. It’s not just a ‘come to Germany, give us your money’ arrangement – they are a proper company.”
Ergosign is starting to make in-roads into the Sporting disciplines, especially with top German shot Claus Koch now proudly using the EvoComp system with a personalised grip. It seems success breeds success. For a company that started in 2007, it took just five years to reach the pinnacle of Olympic success in Trap and Skeet, but Wilfried is in no rush: “The most important thing for me is not to produce a lot of stocks in a short time. We need to make them well, and with quality.”