Africa has been a consistent provider of guns for the auction market – but this may not continue indefinitely, says Diggory Hadoke
December is already in our sights, and the shooting season seems to have only just got underway. Christmas creeps up on us so fast and, for me, it heralds the beginning of the end. The season always appears to last for such a short time. Thankfully, bird shooting in Africa extends mine for a couple of months.
What Christmas does for the auctioneers is force them close together in the timing of their winter sales. This year we have a bonanza to look forward to in the early part of December.
With Africa on my mind – for I plan to head out there in June with a party of hammer gun shooters in search of guinea fowl and pigeons on what has become an annual event – I find myself reflecting on the continent as a source for guns at auction, and as a destination for them too.
Africa’s colonial past left a legacy of British guns behind at the death of the empire. The old hunting grounds of what are now Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia have been rich mines of guns for repatriation through the auction houses. Holt’s Charles Montgomery is a regular finder of them. He ships crates back from South Africa on a regular basis, braving the hideous obstacle course of bureaucracy that is a feature of firearms legislation in that country today.
Many post-colonial governments restrict the ownership of sporting guns, and South Africa has been aggressive in recent years in disarming the rural population, for whom guns had always been a normal part of life. Many of them are finding their way into London auctions.
As one would expect, a great deal of what arrives is in dreadful condition. Africa is tough on all mechanical equipment, and guns were generally tools to be used hard. The climate, hard use and a lack of skilled gunsmiths was a recipe for rapid wear. Unfortunately, a great deal of what arrives for sale ends up in the sealed bids auction, perhaps charitably described as ‘a project’.
However, the occasional star does shine in the gloom, and the emergence of a double rifle with exciting provenance or one preserved with little use makes all the effort worthwhile. In recent years, the market for this kind of kit has been strong and the buyers typically have Africa in mind when bidding.
The last 20 years have been solid for the travelling big game hunter. The relative decline in armed struggle across much of sub-Saharan Africa since the late 1980s has given wealthy hunters the confidence to head to the old game-rich reserves and to the ever-increasing, and less expensive, private game ranches to re-kindle the embers of the spirit of the past, when the likes of Hemingway, Ruark and Taylor trod the dust in search of dangerous game and wrote about it with compelling passion.
The result of this thirst for the old days and old ways has boosted the prices auction houses have achieved for double rifles suited to the task. They have risen steadily and show no sign of dropping yet. However, Africa is getting harder. At least, it is getting harder for the average successful professional. The options for hunting destinations are shrinking and the costs escalating.
The pressure to remove sport hunting from the centralised planning of environmental management is a political one, but one the market should not ignore. Animal preservation pressure groups exert greater influence on governments than hunting organisations do.
The maths is simple: there are far more non-hunters who profess a liking for not killing animals than there are hunters who understand and advocate the benefits of hunting to the management of sensitive habitat and wildlife populations. Despite the evidence and despite a huge over-population of elephants, Botswana closed hunting this year. Zambia did so a year ago. Tanzania is insanely expensive; Kenya long ago closed the door to hunters.
Those countries still open are increasingly monopolised by the mega-wealthy Middle Easterns, Indians or Russians who can, and will, block-book entire territories for their exclusive use for an entire season, regardless of the millions required to do so. All this leaves the moderately wealthy hunter feeling squeezed out.
If the trend continues, we may see a fall in the demand for the ‘working double rifle’ because the people who buy one for their safari won’t be able to go any more. It remains to be seen if the collector market shores up the prices in their absence. The people who can, and will, pay the prices for 21-day full-bag safaris are able to buy whatever rifles they want. They tend to buy new ones and they also snap-up rifles with important provenance, especially those once belonging to famous authors from the glory days of African hunting.
A few examples that come to mind are James Sutherland’s Westley Richards .577 drop-lock with single trigger, which a Sheik bought at Bonhams some years ago, and the Lancaster .450 that was the personal rifle of Denys Finch-Hatton, one-time lover of Karen Blixen and made famous in Out of Africa by Robert Redford’s portrayal. Holt’s has sold this twice in the last 10 years. As things stand, the market is stable and the big rifles are selling steadily. But for how much longer?
In the meantime, we are seeing something of a resurgence of interest in using black-powder double rifles for boar shooting in Europe and for woodland stalking of deer, hogs and elk in the USA. Kynoch now once again supplies new ammunition for these old calibres, and they still represent very good value for money. A double rifle is about the most expensive sporting gun you can make. At the present time you can buy a mint hammer .450 BPE double or something similar for under £7,000. They work beautifully, look wonderful and have decades of hard use in them. They actually make a lot more sense than the horrible low-priced new doubles available from a number of continental and American manufacturers.
So, a couple of issues in the double rifle market: is Africa going to get too expensive for the buyer of a sub-£10,000 double Nitro Express and affect sales? And is the popularity of black powder express doubles going to continue to rise as more sportsmen awaken to their usability as well as acknowledging their beauty as collectable items? Time will tell, but in the meantime, keep an eye on those auction results for signs of movement. My tip: buy the best quality, best condition BPE rifles you can. They can only go up in value.