What is the future of the UK Gun trade?

The UK gun trade in both Birmingham and London were once the centre of the global gun trade, however over the past 100 years there has been a steady decline. So what is the reason for this decline? Can it be reversed or at least stabilised? What we have today is a scattering of viable gunmaking companies who struggle to find the right people.  If something isn’t done very soon we’ll lose the skills for good.

“A company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people.”  Jim Collins

The reason for the decline?

To understand how something can be fixed, we must understand the route cause of how it broke in the first place. No one thing can be muted as the single reason for decline of the UK Gun trade, it is more a catalogue of events that have led to a sector that is considered niche. If we timeline some of these events it is easy to understand why we are where we are.

  • Less world conflict The 1850’s were the pinnacle of gun production in the UK. Demand from various conflicts globally fuelled the demand for small arms. The UK were at the cutting edge of manufacturing and set-up to produce in high volume with thousands of people and hundreds of businesses within the sector. The spread and scale of the British Empire was a conduit for the trade in small arms. As the number of conflicts reduced, the volume reduced and the attention turned from volume to quality and innovation.
  • The Great War (WWI) Leading up to the outbreak of WWI the innovation within the UK small arms trade was relentless. You can see this in paper form by the sheer number of patents being created up until 1914. Both Birmingham and London were at the forefront of this innovation. At the outbreak of WWI the factories gunmaking companies were commandeered by the UK Government to focus on war efforts and a lot of the young men within the workforce were either conscripted or volunteered for front line action. Post WWI the UK entered a prolonged depression as did the rest of the world. This saw further contraction of the industry until an economic boom in the late 20’s and into the 30’s which saw a mild renaissance.
  • The Second World War (WWII) The industry was stabilising prior to WWII but was again commandeered by the UK Government to focus on war efforts. Yet again this saw young people within the sector being conscripted or volunteering for action in the front line. My own Grandfather was one of these men who had just started an apprenticeship at BSA and ended up as a Chindit in Burma. Post WWII the UK entered into another depression. There was little trade to get back into post WWII.
  • Removal of the habitat In Birmingham specifically in the mid fifties the local council embarked on a city wide modernisation programme. In the 50’s, the council could and often did compulsory take ownership of huge swaithes of buildings with no financial compensation for the owner. The Birmingham Gun Quarter was cut in half and mostly demolished to make way for the A38, in effect a motorway through the heart of the city. This pulled the rug from underneath any trade that was left.
  • Cheap imports In the 60’s the UK gun trade saw a complete shift towards imported sporting guns that were and still are superb value for money. You or I cannot blame anyone for taking the opportunity of building an import and distribution business. A lot of folk say that the UK Gun trade failed to innovate manufacturing processes and it has manufactured its own demise. I would agree, however it was never and still isn’t an even playing field.
  • Lack of ability to innovate Our continental counterparts post both WWI and WWII saw the respective gun trades as yet another industry to be rebuilt, the UK gun trade and manufacturing as a whole never received such help. In Liege (Belgium), St Etienne (France) Suhl (Germany) and Ferlach (Austria) Gunsmithing schools were supported to train the people and future workforces, the UK has never had such luxury. Furthermore in the Thatcher years the country went through a complete shift away from manufacturing in general as we strived to become a clean service industry economy.

So after a series of body blows it is no wonder the UK Gun trade is in such poor state.

Can the industry be revitalised?

It is my belief it can be revitalised. That must start with giving those companies in the sector access to the right people to facilitate the growth. We need the sector to innovate to differentiate and offer value of a different kind. We also need the right type of people to work on imported guns whether that be warranty repairs or customisation. Another significant factor  comes down to accessing the right level of business support to facilitate growth, this is out there but needs thought and patience to access it.

How do we start training young people?

The UK needs a training facility to breed a generation of new gunsmiths that access brand agnostic training and learn a broad set of skills. This emulates the approach of the large gunsmithing schools on the continent; Suhl (Germany), Liege (Belgium), St Etienne (France) and Ferlach (Austria) who produce 250 gunsmiths per year collectively. Steve Horton from W Horton & Sons and a group of forward thinking businesses and individuals are working on the accreditation of a new Gunsmith Apprenticeship standard (due end of April). Once the standard is written and approved by the Governments department of education it will attract government funding and various grants that will allow a Birmingham Gunsmith Academy to be formed here in Birmingham’s historic gun quarter. The academy will use the funds to employ a variety of gunsmiths who have worked in the industry for more than 30 years for some of the biggest names in the industry. These trainers will pass on the skills they have learnt to apprentices in a structured and assessed manner. The training cost will be borne by the Government funding*, the Apprentices need to be paid and funded by companies and charities.

Why do we need a standard?

We have some great Gunmakers in the UK who employ and train very good gunsmiths but the tendency is to focus the training on very specific parts of the gunmaking process as that is what is required by the gunmaking firm. This creates very specialist gunsmiths, moreover very specialist in one way of performing part of a manufacturing process on a specific gun. This doesn’t lend itself to innovation.

This has been tried before, why is this different?

You may believe this has been tried before, but it hasn’t. A variation on this has been tried before, however it has always fell down due to lack of funding for both sides of the equation. Moreover the Academy will happily help any company with its training needs and will have no allegiance to any.  Whilst people are generally happy to fund or donate to assist to pay the wages of an apprentice, the funding was never in place for equipment and trainers wages. The training provided by the Academy is paid for by the UK Government. Other grants from local education partnership and National Lottery heritage fund are being applied for.

Who can get involved and/or access the training?

Any business involved in the Gun trade in the UK can access the training in multiple ways. The Academy will have a board of member organisations as part of its governence to ensure the training being delivered is that required by the Gun trade. If you are an employer in the Gun trade, the Academy will deliver the training for you. Equally if you have a specialism within the trade and wish to pass the skills on, you can apply to become a trainer. Please contact Steve Horton of W Horton & Sons via www.hortonguns.comif you are interested in becoming a trainer or accessing the training in anyway.

When is a school not a school?

For the Academy to access the training funding, the young person must be in an employed position. It is evident that whilst some organisations will choose to employ a young person and put them on a day release at the Academy (other routes of training will be available). That route is not viable for every organisation, so a Charitable Educational trust is being set-up to train a pool of Apprentices who are then free to be employed within the trade at a point in the future (They must be allowed to complete the Standard).

When can I apply to be an apprentice?

We are aiming to open the Academy during the summer of 2018 with training starting in September 2018, this allows school leavers in 2018 to be eligible and apply for a place. Numbers will be limited and are to be decided. The training will be free for 16-19 year olds, after 20 there will be a cost (TBD) for training like any further educational facility. If you are a young person who wants to be considered for a for a place please contact Steve Horton of W Horton & Sons via www.hortonguns.com We are focusing on getting the core nucleus to prove this can be delivered with a view of expanding overtime, however quality of training will be the focus and not quantity.

How has it been received by the UK Gun trade?

As you’d expect with something that has never been done before, it has a level of ‘it will never work’ (I don’t count keyboard naysayers on facebook). A number have already pledged support financially and will employ apprentices from day one, some are holding back to see it set-up and functioning before committing. Gaining support from some of the institutions such as BASC, CA and GTA has not been forthcoming which is disappointing given this is being created for the good of the trade and wider sport but I am sure they will support once they see it in operation.

You’re a keen shot and would like to help, how can I help?

Once the charitable trust is created to assist in funding the apprentices a donation however small would be welcomed. As a Charity it attracts all the tax benefits you would expect and any donation is tax deductible. The apprentices will need guns to practice on; so that old boxlock non ejector that has sat in your cabinet gathering dust for the past ten years and isn’t worth a lot, send it in. The old sidelock that is out of proof and dangerous to shoot, send it in. Any gun that is of no use to you (either functioning or not) will be of use to an apprentice. Any assistance is greatly received.

Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to learn more. Steve Horton shorton@hortonguns.co.uk


10 thoughts on “What is the future of the UK Gun trade?

  1. Rob Barton

    About time we started to manufacture again! And in the city that built an empire. Good news!
    I do have a few guns that I’m willing to donate. One is even English, 1860s!


    1. Steve Horton - W Horton & Sons est 1855

      Bring them along Rob. If we give you a value it is tax detectable donation. Give us a calland pop in 01213691855 45-46 Loveday St, Birmingham B4 6NR.


  2. I heartily applaud your initiative.
    I did tackle the chap on the Gunmakers Association stand at a game fair a couple of years ago, asking why there is such a poor training infrastructure in the U.K., and was told ‘they were working on it’.
    I know that in Italy, Brescia & region of huge gun making activity and innovation, you can get a university degree in barrel/ action/ stock making/ engraving, and apart from the skills learned and appreciated by those who don’t actually go into the trade, there is a flow of keen, skilled individuals to sustain the industry.
    A UK degree could also reasonably get a young man a job in Italy/Spain/elsewhere if they so wished.
    Our grudging apprenticeship system serves mainly to get someone to the point of leaving the firm to become independent in many cases.
    I do hope your plan succeeds but the GA should push for formalised university training disciplines ASAP.

    Good luck, Alex Valori


    1. Steve Horton - W Horton & Sons est 1855

      Dr Alex, we have to work within the tramlines provided within the UK. If a pragmatic view is that 50% will leave then that still means we have 50% we don’t have now. Ironically enough we have been contacted by an Italian maker to supply apprentices who can do it by hand. They struggle with stockers in Brescia.


    1. Steve Horton - W Horton & Sons est 1855

      Good Idea Kevin. We are trying to talk to David Thompson chief constable for West mids and chairs the police gun crime committee. We’ll keep trying but no response.


  3. Fabulous to hear that Birmingham manufacturing is alive and kicking. My father was a manufacturing jeweller in the jewellery quarter and was an apprentice at the jewellers school of art. My son loves all types of engineering and is looking for apprenticeships. He has always been extremely interested in guns and seems to know incredibly detailed information about makes, model’s etc. I was in the jewellery quarter myself but then trained as an electronics engineering and moved into business computer systems, we have our own small workshop at home so my son’s have access to tools whenever they want to have a go.
    I have passed on my details to your reception 🙂
    Gavin Davies


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