GTN caught up with Simon Clode, MD of one of Britain’s oldest gunmakers, to talk Teague chokes, new products and the future of Westley Richards
Westley Richards celebrated its bicentennial in 2012 – that’s over 200 years of some of the finest English gunmaking, in constant production, since 1812. The gravitas of that history needs hardly be explained to anyone with a knowledge of the firearms industry. But it seems Westley Richards is not content to rest on its laurels, or its 200 years of heritage – the company continues to expand and develop itself, with new premises, a thriving apprenticeship programme, and the recent acquisition of Teague.
“We moved to our new factory here in Birmingham in 2008,” says Simon Clode, managing director of Westley Richards. “Our premises are bigger, we’ve got the engineering business next door, which makes all our componentry – and while we still make only a few guns, we continue to educate apprentices.”
Despite the company’s ties to the past, Simon says it’s young energy at the heart of the business driving it forwards: “The average age of our team is very young, and they’re very enthusiastic. It’s the opposite of how you think it might go – our customers come in and see a lot of young people, and they think it’s great. They like to see the young blood, and the enthusiasm and the attention they give their work.
“Skilled gunmakers are in very short supply in this country – overall, it’s probably noticed by every shooter that getting guns repaired is very difficult – and it’s because no one’s been introducing younger blood into the business over the years. So there is a need for their training; there’s a need to keep people’s guns working.
“Apprentices tend to do two years’ general training, gaining skills and understanding, maturing and learning to use lathes safely, refining their machining skills – then after that, in discussion they say ‘I’d like to do this or that.’ They might shine in woodwork and go on to do stocking – or they might shine in barrel work or bolt rifle work or whatever it might be. We make quite a wide portfolio of guns, so whatever they’re best at, they’ll focus in on.”
Apart from nurturing the next generation of gunsmiths, Westley Richards is also looking forwards in terms of the company’s manufacturing goals. “We would like to be able to deliver the guns a bit quicker. So we are going to increase a bit – but there’s not going to be any huge jump in capacity. We’re looking for more ways to try and improve the delivery time, get it down slowly, and accordingly increase the numbers a little bit.”
There could also be a new gun on the horizon: “You need an English gun to compete against the quality of the Perazzis and the Berettas – it’s a different type of gun. We’d be looking, in the short term, to introduce a new over-and-under. Designing that, and building that, on the basis that it would be fit for the purpose of the modern shooter; less fragile, able to take the 400-bird days that are out there. That would be the only product we’re missing – we haven’t done it in the past because we make a lot of double rifles. Most of the other gunmakers don’t make rifles, they make an over-and-under and a side-by-side. But we make side-by-side rifles and bolt rifles in equal quantities. But with hunting in Africa under more pressure recently, we may look to introduce an over-and-under to fill any decline in that double rifle market.
“Game shooting has changed. It’s gone from lower birds to these more technical high shots that people enjoy. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s a different argument, but the demand on the gun has become different. I think game shooting is as popular now as it’s ever been – and big game hunting is still exceedingly popular. Africa’s going through a period of uncertainty – some countries have hunting, some don’t – but the response that’s coming is that the countries who stopped hunting just opened the door for the poachers. We never quite know where that’s going – but when I started here 30 years ago, people were saying Africa was finished, and it’s never finished.”
Another way in which the company is pushing forwards is its recent acquisition of Teague – manufacturer of high-quality chokes. “It was a good acquisition,” says Simon. “It’s always been a nice company, and I’ve known Nigel [Teague, founder of Teague Precision Chokes] for a long time. When I heard about him wanting to retire and wanting to slowly get out of it and leave the business secure for the future, we took it on board. And it’s been good for us, and good for Teague.
“We’ve had it for about a year now. We’re actually just moving it into new premises, bigger premises, so we can put new machines in. The capacity was very restricted because they were in tiny premises before. So we’ve leased new premises in Malmesbury, and we’ve bought new CNC machinery and are installing it as we speak.
“We will grow it as it’s needed. The key thing for Teague has always been the speed with which we can serve customers. No one wants to have their prize gun, which they shoot competitively, out of their hands for very long. So it’s always been our objective to get the guns back within two weeks. The work’s done in a week, it goes to proof the week after and it’s returned. To maintain that turnaround and to maintain the supply of aftermarket chokes, we needed more capacity on the machining. And it was in a cramped workshop – so the space will allow another CNC lathe, and double the capacity for barrel threading, all of which allows us to cope with increased demand, which we’ve gained through a branding, a new website, advertising.
“We’re combining our engineering skills, marketing and route to market with his excellent product – it’s a good combination. It’s quite nice for us in a way. Our product is so slow and their product is a little bit quicker! Making a gun takes two years, so to have a product you’re making and selling regularly is good for the group. We have used Teague chokes in our guns for years anyway, as have many other best English gunmakers. They’re widely accepted and approved by the aftermarket. If you’ve got an old Purdey with no chokes and you want to put chokes in it, it’s not frowned on now when they come to the second-hand market. Teague chokes have been proved to be good quality – they don’t degrade the value of a shotgun, they almost enhance the value of the older ones, as they make them more usable. You can’t say that for chokes that operate outside the proof system.”
Simon also has plans to take Teague to the US through Westley Richards’ shop there. “In America we’ll make it available via consolidated shipment to the UK. We’re not going to do it so they’re not proofed. People will send in their gun, we’ll combine 25 guns on a shipment in a custom case, put them in the factory, turn them round and send them back – so the shipping cost is not prohibitive.
“I don’t know what the demand is going to be like – hopefully similar to the demand in England. We’ve built the capacity with the new factory, and we’ll offer the service and prices that aren’t significantly more than an Englishman would pay including VAT. So I think it should be quite attractive to customers and dealers.
“I think the Teague product is a premium product. There are a lot of chokes in America, and it’s the people who appreciate the quality and the value the Teague product brings to their gun and their shooting who will buy it. I don’t know how that will be received, but it’s got an excellent reputation as a product, and there will be target markets – for example, game shooters with side-by-side guns that haven’t been threaded, and want to retain the gun’s value. But we’ll be more expensive than many of the products in America.
“We’ll be looking to set up a dealer network similar to what we’ve done here. We’re not going to rush at it and think we can do everything at once. It’s a small company still. We’ll stock all the aftermarket chokes, eventually, over there. But we still have a learning curve ahead of us in terms of finding out what the Americans actually want. For example, where we shoot a lot of Perazzis, in America they shoot Krieghoffs much more. There’s a different mix of guns that are popular. We do have a team ready in the office in America to field the questions and gain intelligence.”