There has been a shifting demographic at country fairs across the UK, such as Burghley Country Fair. When the weather is good, Lincolnshire can seem like God’s own country. Then they go and ruin it by opening the gates.
“I’ve been round this show twice and I can’t find any stands selling guns,” said a disgruntled Yorkshireman. “We’ve driven down here from Malton and it’s bloody miles only to find that we’ve come to a church fête!”
I commiserated but told him that in my position as a humble trader there was little I could do. He repeated his complaint using different words. I commiserated again and, not wanting to be seen as unhelpful, asked him if he had thought of writing a letter of complaint to BT. He gaped at me for a moment before his son pitched: “Well what bloody good would that do?”
I admitted that it might seem a little ‘left-field’ but said that when anything really upset me I usually got it out of my system by penning a strong letter to BT’s complaints department – the one that they helpfully moved away from their headquarters in the City of London and relocated as far north as physically possible without actually crossing any borders. I added that I had no idea why it worked but if life was getting me down, the weather had been bad, my bowels weren’t behaving as they should, or broadband continued to be absent from my life (that’s a laugh!) I just wrote a lengthy letter to BT’s complaints department and it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
Setting aside the life-improving qualities of corresponding with BT’s complaints department, the guys had a point. In particular, fewer and fewer shows have gun stands. In general, there is less of the country and more of the town at nearly every show I go to. A few are holding on to the traditions of the past but most have taken the five-pence piece of of modern, urban life and find themselves presenting more and more metropolitan entertainments.
I think the giveaway is the change of names many events have undergone in recent years. Frampton Country Fair in Gloucestershire was known as a goose-shooting event until it broadened its appeal and doubled its footfall. No one blames organisers for making an event more attractive to families. Footfall increases their income and provides capital to try out new ideas and keep the shows fresh. Most people involved in country sports want youngsters to turn up to events to encourage
them to take up the sport. But there was a golden period when the balance between country sports and more urban, family-friendly activities was perfect. Now the balance seems to have swung too far in favour of what many, myself included, term ‘townie’ interests.
Shows like the Fenland at Stow-cum-Quy hang on, like grim death, to their original country sport heritage, attracting specialist wildfowling stands and gun dealers, but it has to be noted that this latter group has diminished slowly over the years. Still, the show’s connection with the rural tradition is more than confirmed by the schedule of events that take place in the main ring.
The problem for many, like my Yorkshire friends, is that turning up to an event bearing the name ‘Country Show’ or ‘Country Fair’ is no longer a guarantee that you will be able to inspect, try or buy shotguns or rifles. In fact, even at many medium-sized shows, it is a rare thing to find a firearms dealer.
“It’s a purely business decision,” says John Farrugia of The Cheshire Gun Room. “We only exhibit at shows where we know that the footfall will support enough business to make it worth our while. Our stand can have up to 1,000 firearms on it and it needs between 16 and 20 staff to run it safely and securely. Then we have CCTV and dedicated security staff and staff handling the licensing and paperwork on top of that. It’s a substantial investment in time and resources, and only shows like The British Shooting Show, The Game Fair and The Northern Shooting Show justify it.”
There are some honourable exceptions. Obviously, the British Shooting Show would have problems if none of the firearm dealers showed up, but from its inception, the event created the biggest market for firearms and shotguns in the UK and therefore it must be worth a dealer’s time and effort to be there. Some punters at this year’s show told me that they were disappointed with the number of stands at which you could actually buy and walk away with the gun. However, I for one don’t see how this can be true. There were more of the big makers with their corporate stands, which were there for primarily marketing purposes, but there were, at every turn, stands only too willing to sell you their wares.
The eponymous Bill Elderkin of William Elderkin Guns told me: “We sold nearly 80 per cent of the guns we took along. Unless the buyer was looking for something particularly specialised, there was plenty of choice on offer. Someone told me that the British Shooting Show looks likely to expand into the adjacent hall at the NEC. This can only give visitors an even better choice.”
So if you want to find gun dealers, the bigger shows seem a better bet. You are more likely to find the range and quality you need as a shooter if you attend the likes of The British Shooting Show, The Game Fair, Scone and The Northern Shooting Show. This leaves newcomers and the adventurous to try out the small to medium events that take place across the country in such profusion.
Still, the gun trade has never been backwards in coming forwards, and new markets are always being explored. In 2012 when the CLA Game Fair got cancelled, some entrepreneurial types decided to hold a number of events at shooting grounds to help out the struggling traders. West Wycombe Shooting School held a particularly good event at which guns could not only be inspected but used on the nearby ranges. The London Shooting Club also tried out the same formula at West London Shooting Ground a couple of years ago. I suspect it would have been similarly successful had it not been for the appalling weather.
Rob Farquhar of R&B Sporting in Ross- on-Wye held a similar event in May this year at South Worcestershire Shooting Ground: “I suppose it’s all about targeting your sales effort. You know that anyone turning up to a shooting ground is more than likely a shooter and will therefore be more likely than the average show- goer to buy their ammunition or even a new gun at such an event. With shooting grounds, the infrastructure is already in place and it makes the whole prospect of attending a little less disruptive. We had a good attendance for our first event at South Worcestershire Shooting Ground and feedback from the likes of Beretta and Caesar Guerini was good.”
Of course, placing an event at a shooting ground is still no guarantee of success. Despite the Herculean efforts of the organisers, Bisley Live, held at the National Shooting Ground some years ago, will live in the memories of traders who attended – not so much for the amount of business which was conducted under the merciless glare of the Surrey summer sun, but the breathtaking beauty of the models who were brought along by an Italian manufacturer.
There we have it. Sex or money. The eternal dichotomy summed up so eruditely by one Facebook user in Wales: ‘What should I do? Watch the new series of Love Island? Or drape my wet b******* over an electric fence?’
Ah! The joy of options.