Prove Me Wrong

Gavin Gardiner’s catalogue landed on my desk this week, sporting a Boss 12-bore over & under on the front cover. The gun was made in 1995 and was never collected by the owner; remaining in store since completion and arriving at Gavin’s in unused condition. The £55,000-£70,000 estimate represents a huge drop on the price of a new model, as well as instant gratification. The 28” barrels are perhaps shorter than the current fashion but not fatally so.

This was just one of a number of ‘as new’ English over & under guns Gavin offered in his 12 December sale. Two others were by Charles Lancaster and made on Boss systems in 2010. With estimates of £25,000-£35,000 they are a fraction of build cost but one has to acknowledge that Charles Lancaster has not really been a manufacturer of volume for decades. This seems to matter to buyers these days.

The current public profile of a company directly affects the saleability and desirability of the product. A number of English gunmakers have offered new guns in small numbers over the last two or three decades but most people know that they are not really geared up to be serious manufacturers. Rather, they rely on trade suppliers to provide them with small numbers of one-off orders. I have built guns in this manner in the past, and very good they have been too. I was able to select the exact person I wanted to take on each step of the gun making process and as a result, ensured first class results throughout. These were for private orders.

The second hand market is very much fixated on brand value as well as quality and condition. For the buyer of a sporting gun intended for liberal usage, these may very well represent extraordinary value for money, however, one must be aware that any savings now will be mirrored in the event of a sale a few years from now. Buyers are conservative and unusual guns like this, lovely and practical as they are, will be hard to sell. In contrast, companies like Rigby and Boss are thriving on the back of serious investment, ambitious backing of recognisable models and attention to quality.

With strong marketing presences and a credible, replicable production line for their guns and rifles, the public is responding. It is impressive that, since its repatriation to London, Rigby has sold close to a thousand new rifles. Used Rigby guns and rifles have become much more desirable to collectors since the company profile rose to its current prominence.

As the spectre of a no-deal Brexit looms, the government is consumed, once again, by internecine squabbles and appears rudderless. The auction houses, collectors, shippers and related trades can but look on with a sense of befuddlement. One representative of a major auctioneer told me he could not envisage a continuation of business in the wake of Brexit.

The Firearms Machine

The European free trade concept has always been rather muddied when it comes to firearms but it is difficult to see barriers being lowered when the UK leaves the EU. For British auctioneers, any impediments to bringing guns in, sending them abroad or additional costs being applied in the form of tariffs, will be bad news. Europe is not the only problematic area at present. Getting firearms into the US is increasingly frustrating. One cannot help but feel the machine is beginning to grind to a halt.

European and American auction houses are in the wings, ready and able to pick up the extra business if the British begin to get edged out of the market. A wider issue is the declining domestic market for English guns of traditional configuration. This week I had a call from a client who had bought a 20-bore and a pair of 12-bores from me a few years ago. He has decided to sell them in view of the whole family having made the switch to over & under guns of foreign make. People just seem to find the bother of old English guns no longer worth the investment of time in having them fitted and adjusted, the reliability issues that arise in century-old ejectors and the maintenance they require, or the need for kid-gloves treatment after shooting.

We live in a throw-away world and nobody wants to look after mechanical items now. Cars are left outside in all weathers and cope with no more than a monthly power-wash, mobile phones are binned every 20 months and replaced, and shooters want to use guns they don’t need to coddle. I remember musing on this issue, which was already apparent a couple of years ago, with the late Simon Clode at Westley Richards. He had done very well over the years selling vintage guns and rifles, many of which he repatriated from India, where they had been in the collections of the maharajahs.

He had seen sales and interest drop significantly and considered the practicality of many of the guns made in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century to have passed. Too many are just worn out now, he said. Keeping them going was just too much trouble.

Lessons To Learn

Simon made me laugh with a story he told of one such double rifle that he put into auction because he could not get it to shoot acceptable groups. He happened to meet the auctioneer at a social function a few weeks before the sale, and the auctioneer asked, “There’s nothing wrong with that rifle, is there? It looks very nice.”

Simon, in his usual brusque manner, told him ‘Of course there is something f***ing wrong with it, otherwise I wouldn’t have given it to you!” There is a lesson in that. Simon has been succeeded at Westley Richards by his operations director, Anthony Alborough-Tregear, whose current policy is very much a continuation of Simon’s. Less activity on the second-hand market and ever more focus on new, top-grade manufacture.

Like Rigby, Westley Richards are doing very well in the new build market, with order books filling into 2022. It is, perhaps, encouraging that the classics of the future are being made today in significant quantities and to a standard that our forebears would have appreciated. I see no change in the future to the continuation of this trend.

Unless the guns are of the very best quality, in the very highest original condition, we shall see a decline in their saleability in the years to come. The best of the best will, I think, become tradable commodities based on their rarity and quality, but worn boxlocks and sidelocks that have had a hard life will increasingly become seen as liabilities and we shall see prices stagnate or decline further. I’d love to be wrong. ‘

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