Talking Heads: Crafting a reputation

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Brock & Norris has made a name for itself building custom rifles for use in the hunting field. Helena Douglas asks Mike Norris, the company’s CEO, how it all started and what the custom rifle market is like.

Brock & Norris, maker of custom rifles, operates out of an unpretentious unit on a trading estate in Whitchurch, Shropshire. Mike Norris, who set up the company seven years ago with his business partner Steve Brock, is equally unpretentious. A big man with a voice that sounds like he is chewing pebbles, he is plain-spoken. The company answer phone tells people to avoid ringing before 3pm as he is probably busy building their rifle. What is you see is what you get – a maxim that can also be applied to Brock & Norris guns.

Mike, who has just taken on another full-time employee, explains that the idea for Brock & Norris came about when he was working for a company “which owed me money that wasn’t forthcoming.” He was left with two choices: “Do something about it or go under.” Unsurprisingly he decided to do something about it and, with just £200 in his pocket, started to build custom rifles to fill a niche he had spotted in the market.

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“I saw a gap for the kind of rifles that I use, which are working field guns,” he explains. “Yes, we do build target rifles and tactical rifles, but accurate hunting rifles are our niche and how we’ve built our reputation. I’ve got a lot of experience in deer management, I’ve done a lot of rifle instruction, hunted in Africa and all over Europe, and I really do understand what hunters want and need from a gun.”

Where Brock & Norris excels is in providing customers with a complete package. “It’s not just the build of the rifles that is important,” says Mike. “It’s understanding the ammunition, the calibre, the ballistics, the set up, the scopes. We build the rifle, tune it, recommend the best optics to go on it, then build the best ammo to be used with it, provide all the ballistic info and can even teach the customer to shoot it.”

While Mike is clearly an expert in the field, he is also at pains to get over that it is vital to keep on learning. To this end the company readily embraces new technologies and techniques. “We did some extensive R&D with .308s with 18” barrels and went on to produce a gun that is 1,000-yards accurate and under 40” long. It’s basically our utility ‘go to’ rifle on a short, manageable package, and it hits like a freight train. They’ve been used in Africa, on driven boar hunts, for stalking, and so on. The best part is they duplicate the old .303 Enfield, which worked brilliantly. To really understand things, you need to understand history, and that things were designed in a particular way for a reason. We do things the way we do because it works.”

Mike’s USP is to build custom rifles – prices range from £2,300 to over £6,000 – that exactly meet the customer’s needs. “To do that I listen to what they say, talk to them and not at them, and ask questions rather than making statements,” he explains. “Firstly I ask them how much their budget is, which will influence the configuration, action, barrel and stock, and give them a range of options. Then I ascertain what they want to do with rifle, where and how. Will they be stalking or hunting, at high altitude or sub-zero conditions, will they be carrying it in the heat, are they using it for shooting vermin or plains game, and so on. We talk for a long time, then I write down a specification. Once the contract is agreed and signed, I ask for a 50 per cent down payment – not a deposit – and I can get started.”

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Owing to the nature of his work, which is clearly a craft, Mike is unable to give specific delivery dates, as he is reliant on other suppliers for stocks, barrels and actions (made to Brock & Norris designs) who often have big back orders. “We buy some barrels from the USA, and they are so busy that sometimes we wait 14 months for delivery,” he says. “However, if everything in the creation of a custom rifle goes right, we are looking at around four to seven months to build.”

In addition to its custom rifles, Brock & Norris also manufactures three set designs: the Predator, Ratel, and Nduna, a big game rifle. These are custom fitted and modified for the buyer. All of the others are completely unique. “We’ve made some odd guns,” laughs Mike. “The strangest was probably a fully moderated .30BR with a 16” barrel that the customer used for pest control. The whole thing broke down into parts, but it performed extremely well and exceeded the client’s brief.”

Meeting the client’s specification in terms of mechanics is one thing, but aesthetics are also important. “We rely on excellent fit and finish,” says Mike. “We don’t do fancy paint jobs but our guns are neat and have a certain style. The metalwork is crisp and beautifully finished. I’ve been accused of being a ball-busting perfectionist, which I took as a compliment, and I take this job personally and put something of myself into each gun I build.”

As for the future, Mike can’t imagine doing anything else and believes there will always be a market for custom rifles: “People are now more appreciative of quality, and we’ve seen more people who are willing to wait and spend the money on a good piece than spend it frivolously. Chris Price, who I worked for once, said that ‘Dear things are cheap, and cheap things are dear’ and I am indebted to him for that and the lessons I learned there. My dad had a tireless work ethic, which has also influenced me – I work seven days a week at the moment. But I love what I do, so that is fine by me.”

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