Air Arms celebrated its 30th anniversary with much fanfare in 2013 – but it appears that life actually begins at 33 for the Sussex-based manufacturer. In the latter half of 2016 it produced so many newsworthy developments – products, initiatives and milestones – that the year could certainly be said to mark a pivotal moment for the company. So where does it go from here?
“There will always be challenges,” says Claire West, the managing director. “but we remain very positive. We will continue to invest in new equipment and technology as always and we will continue to buy the best raw materials that we can.
“There is no doubt that we will have to apply a price increase for 2017 particularly, as we did not implement one in 2016, but we are in a strong position to keep it to minimal where we can. We will listen to market demands and evolve the business to suit. We will endeavour to provide a good quality product and a good, honest and reliable service.”
Highlights of a momentous year include a new game fair stand, a new HFT event, a showcase dubbed the Air Arms Experience designed to get newcomers into airgun shooting, and the limited-edition RSN70 rifle, commemorating Air Arms’s founder Bob Nicholls. But Claire isn’t going to spend time looking back and congratulating herself on all that. She takes the developments in her stride: “I think it’s safe to say that it has gone as I thought it would. Being so involved with the company for 33 years and having a good team behind me means that there are not many problems we cannot overcome, so no, no big surprises really.”
It’s hard to believe Claire has been with Air Arms for so long – her rise to prominence seemed a quick one to many outsiders, after Bob Nicholls and Bill Sanders died in 2011 and 2012 – but the truth is she deserves every promotion she’s ever had, having put as much hard work in as anyone in the industry. “I started with the company back in 1983. It was only meant to be on a temporary basis as a practical support to my business studies course. I still often refer to myself as the ‘tea girl’.
“My main role in the early days was to assist our then sales manager Bill Sanders and to prepare and practice all administration required. Over the years, my job role diversified and changed to include accounting and payroll. Before taking on my current role as MD I held the post of company secretary and administered all management reporting and financials.
“I had a vast knowledge of the business and how it worked, so taking on the MD role was naturally my next progression, particularly as I had spent the last couple of years shadowing my father before his passing. Air Arms is in my blood – it is all I know.”
That family connection is a key one for Claire. She herself has been married for 24 years, amassing three children and three Tibetan terriers in her own family. And she brings that familial approach to the airgun market as a whole, emphasising her keenness to invest in and grow it rather than simply making a margin off it. “We love our sport and the people within it. Without our sport, there is no industry and as such we have built some fantastic relationships over the years,” she says.
Appropriately, then, it’s the RSN70 – an air rifle named and designed after her father – that Claire seems most proud of. To her, it’s more than just another money-generating product. “The RSN70 generated a huge amount of interest. I believe that people were touched with the story behind the rifle and where we drew our inspiration from.
“We believe that a limited-edition rifle should be just that. As such, Air Arms do not produce them very often. The last one we produced was back in 2013.”
As for any future guns – limited edition or otherwise – Claire’s keeping a lid on the details, though she does say the company is constantly investing in R&D. The future or the industry as a whole, Claire says, is far from assured: “The future of airgun shooting is unknown and therefore a concern to us all. It is important not only for Air Arms but for our whole industry to look at different ways to encourage more mainstream people in to our shooting world.
“That’s why Air Arms launched the Air Arms Experience in September, at the Midland Game Fair. The object is for people to try out guns and talk to the experts in an informal environment. The visitor has the opportunity to try each discipline in HFT FT, Benchrest and 10-metre shooting to see what style suits them best. This in turn will hopefully then give the visitor the confidence to approach a club and take up their chosen sport whatever their age.” Air Arms has also backed Target Sprint, the ISSF’s new discipline that combines running and shooting, aimed specifically at younger competitors.
“Air Arms remains true to family values and principles and we are passionate at what we do,” Claire affirms. “Being in total control of our own design, manufacture and production enables us to have the flexibility we need and allows us to produce parts to our own exacting standard. And being an all-British brand is important to us, not least because there are very few of us left within our industry.”
Pressed to name one moment she’s most proud of during her five-year tenure, Claire names Air Arms team member Jack Harris winning the Field Target World Championships earlier this year. “In fact I am immensely proud of all our team shooters,” she says. “They constantly perform well and bring home the silverware.” But again, it’s family that trumps all else. “For me personally, my greatest achievement is ongoing – it is without doubt to ensure that my father’s legacy continues, five years on from his passing.
“Air Arms are committed to excellence. That commitment begins with our production technology and is applied to everything we do by the skill of our staff. We stand strong in our belief about what the shooter needs and what the shooter expects. We never lose sight of the fact that we too are consumers and we look only to offer a service that we would expect to receive ourselves.”