Mat Manning talks to traders at the sharp end of the airgun industry to see how business fared during lockdown and whether it’s set to bounce back.
It’s what shooters and the gun trade have been waiting for: a gradual return to something vaguely resembling normality. As I write, shops are set to reopen in just a few days’ time and several outdoor ranges are already operating. So, how has the airgun trade been hit and how do the people at the sharp end think it’s going to fare as lockdown restrictions ease?
Going back to the early weeks of Covid-19, many businesses actually seemed to do surprisingly well. Lots of shops experienced what one retailer referred to as the “prepper effect” as punters rushed out to stock up while they still could. In fact, the scramble for affordable airguns almost rivalled the one for toilet roll.
Eric Irish of Crackshot Airgun Centre in Newton Abbot explained: “People went mad in the week or two leading up to lockdown, and second-hand stuff went in a flash. It’s as if people were expecting to be stuck at home and knew that airgun shooting was something they could do in their garden.”
Mark Tutton from Rifleman Firearms in Somerset experienced similarly rash buying habits: “We just couldn’t sell spring-powered airguns quick enough. If we’d had more, we would have sold them,” he said.
For many retail businesses, the sudden rush for airguns and accessories was short-lived as gun shops were told to lock their doors when full lockdown restrictions were enforced in March. However, for those with a strong online presence and the ability to offer courier or even their own delivery services, business continued to boom.
Mike Hurney of the Shooting Party said: “Our online orders for May were up by 728 percent on 2019. Even from April, it just went crazy—people just wanted to shop. Many of them were on furlough, they had time on their hands and the sun was shining.
“There didn’t seem to be that much discretion in their buying either—the attitude seemed to be ‘I must have a parcel delivered tomorrow’.
“Unfortunately, wholesale is a big part of our business. Our gain on the retail side won’t replace all of the loss but it meant that things haven’t been as bad as we had expected at the outset.”
Mr Hurney believes that the change in buying habits during the months of lockdown will accelerate the shift towards online retail as more and more people were forced to embrace online shopping. “Even our older customers made the move because they had to, and I think many of them will stick with it,” he added.
Elsewhere, with his staff furloughed and the Crackshot shop and ranges closed with the exception of two mornings per week when he opened the doors to supply pest controllers with ammunition and air fills, Mr Irish decided to take to the road.
The decision to make his own deliveries out to a 30-mile radius, and sometimes much further, enabled him to legally sell airguns through a face-to-face exchange.
“It was extremely busy at times and we sold a lot of guns. It is actually very encouraging as I think a lot of new people have taken up airgun shooting,” he said.
All the retailers I spoke with said their biggest problem, aside from having to close their shops, was sourcing products to satisfy the hunger for online buying.
Manufacturing has been hit hard by lockdown, social distancing and numerous other Covid-related factors, as Tony Belas of airgun brands Daystate and Brocock explains.
“We had to close the factory and are running at about 60 percent staff now. On top of that, the supply chain has been affected by various different things happening in various parts of the world.
“Barrel manufacturers, air bottle manufacturers, stock makers and the rest have all been affected, so it’s impossible to say when things might get back to normal.”
One of the greatest frustrations at Daystate is the delay in the production of its eagerly anticipated Delta Wolf—probably the most talked-about airgun of the year.
“The Delta Wolf was hit by the perfect storm but it should be in the shops in America in July and the rest of the world in August. We have lots of orders and everyone is still talking about it—we just want to get it into people’s hands so they can shoot it,” Mr Belas added.
Home on the range
With regard to getting things back on track, the outdoor airgun range at Rifleman Firearms has been open for a week and the shop is just about to open its doors, as are the Crackshot and Shooting Party retail shops and many others up and down the country.
Rifleman boss Mark Tutton explained: “We have done buckets of due diligence to get the airgun range back open and have ticked all the boxes to be Covid secure.
“We’ve got screens, hand sanitiser, pre-paid bookings, staggered arrivals and all the rest—it’s just down to the public to decide whether they want to come. We also have an airgun obstacle course out in an open field—we’re calling it Practical Field Target and are setting it up as a competitive league.
“After the first week of having the range open, our older members are definitely noticeable by their absence but we’ve seen plenty of younger shooters and a lot of new members have also joined up.”
Mr Irish explained that similarly stringent measures had been taken at Crackshot, where the shop and indoor airgun range were also on the brink of reopening.
“We’ve been very busy getting everything ready. There are screens between the benches so everyone is protected and we have allowed 15 minutes between bookings so there is time to wipe everything down. In the shop, the floors are marked for social distancing and there is hand gel for people to use as they come and go.
“We have taken a lot of bookings for the ranges. I think that is because people are just really eager to get back out—especially those with children who are stuck at home.
“At the end of the day, I think we are all just desperate to get some normality back into our lives. We have lots of space in the shop so it hasn’t been too difficult to reorganise things for social distancing but I feel for the more traditional shops which tend to be much smaller.
“It is hard to say when things will get back to what they were before lockdown but I think the numbers will quickly bounce back up. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more people taking up airgun shooting because it’s something you can go out and do on your own.”
So, it would appear that, on the whole, the airgun industry didn’t suffer quite as badly as other parts of the gun trade which saw shooting and sales come to a grinding halt.
“To end on a positive, I’ll let Tony Belas have the final word: “We won’t get back to normal overnight but the airgun industry is going to rock—we’re seeing the start of it already.”
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- Mat Manning’s thoughts on the rise of airgun slugs
- GTN speaks to FX
- Best bullpup airguns – selected by Mat Manning