Stuart Farr looks at the laws around gun customisation and reveals why for legal reasons the practice isn’t as widespread as it should be.

Custom rifles utilise certain design standards but facilitate the addition of optional elements 

Recognising, of course, the lockdown introduced to address Covid-19 has had an adverse impact on many areas of our lives and livelihoods, as we begin to re-emerge from the isolation of our homes, it led me to wonder where the positives might lie from the experience.

Personally, for me it has provided valuable time to engage in things which the normal pressures of life had caused me to place on the bottom of the pile. Minor stuff really but nonetheless an avenue for further reflection about our current condition and where we might go from here.

One of my “bottom of the pile” tasks was to replace a beloved knife which, after 20 years of solid service had really seen better days and needed to be retired with good grace and gratitude.

It was initially an inheritance from my late grandfather and being Swiss Army in origin had been a faithful EDC (“Every Day Carry” as I believe our American brethren call them) for many years. Having set about the task of finding a replacement I began to research what was available. It turned out to be a rather frustrating experience. 

Laws around gun customisation: on edge

I started by making the (apparently) fatal mistake of listing all the key essential tools I specifically required; UK legal blade, saw, scissors, bottle opener, Phillips and flat head screwdrivers and tweezers… and no others thank you very much.

In the modern age of ring pulls, no-one needs a can opener anymore. Plus after it has spent a few months at the bottom of my game bag the last thing I’m going to do is put an unhygienic toothpick in my mouth! 

In the end, in order to achieve the seven tools I required, I ended up acquiring a knife which had no less than 15 different tools/functions. All at a seemingly upgraded cost too. It was, in effect, a total “off the shelf” compromise.

Ultimately, the knife is great and I am content with it. I have little doubt I will get many years of good service from the tools I need—even though the remainder (including that darn tooth pick and can opener!) will largely remain redundant.

That said the coincidental arrival of my new hunting catapult might, I suspect, find a use for the awl/reamer at some point… I shan’t hold my breath.

However, overall the experience just didn’t provide that personalised feeling I was hoping (or looking) for. Shame really and I can’t help but think it was a lost opportunity for a truly elated customer experience.

The episode led me to ponder…why do so many purchases end up being a compromise in some way or another? I don’t mean that specifically in the context of the gun trade. It applies to virtually everything.

For instance, why does my favourite camouflage waterproof jacket provide me with such excellent service in wet weather and yet the garment lacks even one single pocket?! Because when you buy a Gore-Tex based garment for just 15 quid there’s a compromise to be made.

Why do I have to resort to buying products made for and by right-handers when I am a leftie? Because if there’s stuff I need I sometimes have to become ambidextrous and compromise. Why do hot dogs come in packs of eight and yet the rolls are a half dozen? And so on…

Laws around gun customisation: hold the gherkin

I suppose the market for products is divided into three main elements—off-the-shelf, customised and bespoke. 

Off-the-shelf is basically what it says on the package or tin. It is the consequence of standardised mass production, a general item with a function and everyone who buys one gets the same (more or less). Quality is good or even excellent but there is no individuality to the product so far as the customer is concerned. 

At the other end of the scale, however, bespoke reflects a product made for the customer from start to finish. Design, materials, specification and manufacture are all focussed on the individual needs of that one person. Naturally, this attention to detail makes it far more expensive and so beyond the reach and means of many. 

Custom, however, is the compromise between the two extremes. It utilises certain standards in design and build but facilitates the addition of optional elements which, in combination, can render the end product more unique at a cost which is lower than pure bespoke but higher than off-the-shelf.

I like “custom” and for those who, like me, prefer to buy once and buy well (rather than buy cheap and pay twice) I would love to see much more custom stuff being made available in our gun shops. In legal terms, this comes with its own trade-offs.

Going more toward “custom-made” inevitably requires greater input in terms of experience and product knowledge. As such the manufacturer or retailer is drawn more into a discussion with the customer regarding the “purpose” for which the custom product is required.

This means that, from a consumer law perspective, the concept of fitness for purpose under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 becomes all the more prominent and with greater scope for misunderstanding, mis-interpretation and debate.

Ultimately, if a custom product is justifiably rejected by the customer because it doesn’t meet the purpose for which it was bought, the retailer may be stuck with it and re-sale could be more difficult (unless it can be easily altered back to an off the shelf product). Similarly, bespoke items face the same issue and are even harder to recycle at a cost which matches the effort put in.

Laws around gun customisation: no caveats

Custom and bespoke items also come with longer lead times for manufacture and delivery leading to customers becoming impatient if expectations have not been effectively managed. Customising and bespoke often entails buying product which is unseen.

The final outcome has to be imagined in some way by the customer. This can be overcome by internet based programmes which allow you to “build your own” online and see a pictorial depiction of the final version before completing the purchase.

The reality is the image is synthetic and the true aesthetic of the product doesn’t emerge until it is literally out of the box. Again, from a consumer law perspective, this gives rise to the increased risk of mis-description or even innocent or negligent misrepresentation if the image doesn’t match up to the real thing.

Perhaps the only significant concession which the law provides for custom or bespoke products is contained in the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013.

In the case of distance or “off premises” contracts with a consumer for bespoke or customised goods, such contracts do not attract the usual 14 day cooling off period. In other words, a consumer who has contracted to purchase custom goods online cannot change his/her mind and back out of the deal.

This is helpful but doesn’t really go far enough. If there is an increasing appetite for custom stuff (which I believe there is) it would help if additional protections were built in to protect traders in recognition of the additional effort made by them to supply that demand.

Until that happens, there is no substitute for good old fashioned proper know-how and expertise which can be used to guide the customer in their personalised choices to great effect—and there is a bountiful supply of that in the gun trade already for sure.


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