ASI is a quiet company. Its website doesn’t boast and its managing director, Edward King, is self-effacing despite his depth of knowledge of the UK gun trade honed over nearly three decades. Yet running behind this air of restraint is a success story built up over many years. ASI is sole importer of Spanish AYA shotguns, Italian Rizzini shotguns, Crosman air rifles and pistols, FX airguns, and various shooting accessories. Its main claim to fame, however, is establishing a market for Spanish side-by-side shotguns in the UK at a time when best English guns were seen as the only ones worth having.
Andrew and Peter King, farmers and Edward’s father and uncle respectively, founded ASI in 1958 after a holiday in Spain, where they visited a gun shop and noticed an extremely well made and good value side-by-side shotgun. After enquiring about its provenance, they were told it was made in the Basque region, the centre of Spanish gunmaking. With their interest piqued and an idea forming, they got in touch with the Spanish Chamber of Commerce and asked for a list of Spanish gun makers, expecting to receive about 20 names. Instead they received hundreds. Another trip to Spain followed to meet several of these gun makers with a view to setting up a business importing Spanish guns into the UK.
“After several meetings, my father and uncle chose Aguirre y Aranzabal (AYA) Shotguns, at the time the biggest manufacturer but also the one that was most prepared to do what was necessary to make inroads into the English market,” explains Edward. “As many people know, Britain was renowned among overseas gun makers as the market to sell guns to, but also one of the hardest to break into as the best sporting shotguns in the world were British.”
After selecting AYA, Andrew King moved to Spain to oversee product development – creating Spanish guns for the English market. “It was life-changing for them – so much so that they gave up farming to do it. But they had spotted that a top Spanish sidelock cost a tenth of what a London sidelock cost, so there was a huge difference in price for a relatively small difference in handling, looks and quality. That is the key to the success of the AYA brand. What my father and uncle did was make Spanish shotguns acceptable in this country, whereas previously they were viewed with suspicion.”
In practical terms, Andrew and Peter worked with AYA to refine its shotguns to meet the requirements of the English market. “To start the process they sent over a Holland & Holland sidelock and a Westley Richards boxlock and said ‘that’s what you’ve got to make,’” explains Edward. “They then worked closely with AYA on the detail, dimensions, proportions, balance and handling so the end result was, to all intents and purposes, almost indistinguishable from a London shotgun.”
The London and Birmingham gun market was not destroyed by the advent of Spanish guns. “The situation was close to ideal; if you had the money to buy a Holland & Holland, a Purdey or a Boss, the likelihood was that you would still do that. But those that aspired to have an English sidelock but couldn’t afford one could now own a beautiful Spanish sidelock with good quality wood, reliability and good handling characteristics at a price they could pay.”
Over the next two decades ASI continued to work to develop the AYA brand and to bring in new products, including Gamo air rifles, which it starting importing to the UK in the late 1960s. In the mid 1980s however, the shotgun market changed significantly when the fashion for over-and-unders started to take hold. “They are easier to learn to shoot with, and Italian shotgun manufacturers had invested in machinery and started to build guns in greater quantities and for far lower cost. The Italians really stole a march on the Spanish in terms of mass production,” says Edward wryly.
Today AYA is still a market leader in terms of building superb quality side-by-side shotguns, and while the price differentials have changed, it sells its No. 2 sidelock at about £5,500 while an English equivalent costs six or seven times as much. However, with the side-by-side market probably making up only 5 per cent of the total shotgun market today, AYA, Edward says, has its sights set on developing a range of over-and-under shotguns. “AYA will however, still be focusing on the mid- to upper market, so it won’t go down the route of producing very cheap shotguns as there are other countries now focusing on that market and doing it very well.”
ASI recognised the need to add a quality over-and-under shotgun manufacturer to its portfolio. To do so, it became distributor of Italian shotgun brand Rizzini four years ago. Edward comments that Rizzini fits in well with the ASI philosophy: “It has the same attitude we do about producing products tailored for the individual client and our market in the UK. It has the advantage of CNC machinery and can control its manufacturing processes, but is small and versatile enough to be able to customise guns for clients, meaning they can buy a bespoke quality shotgun at an off-the-peg price of £3,000-£4,000, which is pretty amazing.”
As well as moving into the over-and-under market, the goal for ASI, which today has 16 staff and is based in Snape in Suffolk, is to continue to develop its relationships with its existing suppliers and broaden its product range. “To this end we are keen to find a rifle manufacturer, as that’s a gap in our portfolio,” says Edward. “We’re looking for a manufacturer who will fit in with our style of doing things and produce well-built, reliable, mid- to upper range products and can offer a certain amount of customisation.”
Edward’s quiet enthusiasm for his job and the gun trade in general is infectious. “It is a particular privilege to work in the gun trade, and I am lucky in that I own ASI with my brother so don’t have shareholders expecting quick results. That gives us the ability to set strategy and goals in the medium to longer term and work towards what is good for ASI, good for our retailers and good for the market. I am also chairman of the Gun Trade Association, so I really am immersed in the industry, which is a wonderful place to work – the people involved are approachable, friendly, straightforward and great ambassadors for shooting. I am very fortunate – and if I can also get out with my dogs and a gun for day’s pheasant or pigeon shooting then I’m a very happy man.”