If you did, you would only be starting to envision an event resembling the CLA Game Fair.
Great Britain’s Country Land & Business Association (CLA) Game Fair is held annually in late July on the grounds of a different English country estate. This year’s venue was the 6500 acres surrounding Ragley Hall, the 1680 vintage Palladium style family home of the Marquess and Marchioness of Hertford. Ragley Hall lies a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare and epicenter of the Shakespeare festival universe.
For over 50 years, the Game Fair has been the largest outdoor sporting event of its kind in the world. Its size and scope are almost beyond description. This year there were 144,000 visitors over three days. Attendees could explore 6.5 miles of tents housing 900 vendors. It took $4.5 million dollars and 1000 contractors to stage and pumped nearly $20 million into the British economy.
The Game Fair grounds were divided into several villages focused on an aspect of country life. There was Gunmakers Row and the Clay Line for shooting enthusiasts. A fly fishing village surrounded a lake. There were villages specializing in gundogs, horses, gourmet food, arts & crafts, fashion, gardening, and x-games style outdoor activities for young people. Nearly a mile of artists and clothiers catered to that most universally beloved form of hunting – shopping. Exhibits featuring falcons, ferrets and miscellaneous flora and fauna were sprinkled throughout as well.
One could have easily spent the entire three day weekend in a single village and never run out of things to do. On the other hand, you would have gone quite mad trying to see everything. Keep in mind, if you spent the entire 30 hours of the Game Fair trying to visit all 900 vendors you would have only two minutes to spend with each. Bypassing vendors would not have been easy as everything was high quality. There was no flea market junk to skip over.
That was just the vendors. There were also gun dogs and horses to watch, guns to shoot, authors and experts to chat with, gourmet food and drink to sample, Land Rovers to drive, and fly rods to cast. You might even have needed a few minutes to just relax with a refreshing glass of Pimms and try to take it all in.
There certainly was a lot to see, but there was also a tremendously inspiring spirit to experience as well.
You began to sense it on arrival each day as you passed the enormous caravan (RV) park where you were greeted by countless plumes of fresh bacon smoke. You saw it in the wide range of people, young and old, men and women alike cheerfully sharing the experience. You appreciated how much people cared about the event evidenced by the immaculately clean and orderly grounds; something you might not have expected with 150,000 people and thousands of dogs in tow. As one organizer proudly pointed out to me, this is a mega event where there are so many people; so many guns; so much valuable merchandise; and yet so little visible security presence.
The celebratory atmosphere was not the product of everything being perfect for outdoor sports lovers in England. Shooting, hunting with dogs and gun ownership have all been under serious legislative assault. Still, for these three days, British people who love all kinds of different outdoor activities got together to celebrate their rural lifestyle, share it with fellow outdoor sports lovers and introduce it to tens of thousands of new people of all generations. It was a fantastic thing to see and experience.
As a Shotgun Life reader, I naturally headed straight for Gunmakers Row and the Clay Line. Gunmakers Row is a mecca for shooters. Here you found nearly 200 gun and shooting related vendors, most in their own large individual tents. It even had its own watering hole, the Gunmakers Pub.
While you would find everything from exquisite big double bore rifles for African elephant to light stalking rifles for the diminutive roe deer, shotguns dominated the Game Fair. The most famous English and European gunmakers were there: Purdey, Holland & Holland, Atkin, Grant & Lang, E.J. Churchill, Beretta, William Evans, Krieghoff, Dickson, Watson Brothers, William & Son, Perazzi, Fausti, Famars and many others.
Purdey unveiled its all new over-under shotgun with both the barrels and action finished in a striking Damascus pattern. Holland & Holland enticed visitors with a luxury African Safari tent complete with taxidermy and plush chairs. A Famars engraver was on hand to demonstrate his skills. E.J. Churchill’s space ship looking metallic stand included a complimentary espresso bar. Watson Brothers displayed some of guitar legend Eric Clapton’s custom made shotguns.
The Game Fair is a critical sales weekend for UK used guns dealers. Dealers such as Sportarm, Francis Lovel, Graham MacKinlay, Avalon and many others offered thousands of fine guns for all tastes and budgets. Here you could have found anything from excellent quality – and surprisingly affordable old English boxlocks with exquisite engraving and beautiful walnut; to serious competition sporting clays guns; to the rarest and finest sidelocks from famous makers costing six figures. There were hammer side-by-side shotgun specialists such as the Cotswood Gun Room, which offered a range from plain, solid, low-cost shooters to a very rare Woodward masterpiece costing tens of thousands. English gun auction houses Holts, Bonhams and Gavin Gardener were also on hand to show off some of their best consignments.
A Tip for Visitors
You are almost certain to see a gun you’d like to bring home. Keep in mind you can’t simply buy a gun and bring it back on the plane. You will need to work with a licensed U.S. dealer who handles imports. Bringing a gun to the U.S. can require both significant time and money. If you think you might want to buy a shotgun at the Game Fair, it’s wise beforehand to talk to a dealer such as New Jersey’s Griffin & Howe, which has experience importing guns. Griffin & Howe President, Guy Bignell is a Game Fair regular and can give you some guidance and help. They also have basic information on importing guns on their website, www.griffinhowe.com.
A Connecticut Yankee
Ragley Hall is a few miles down the road from Warwick Castle where Mark Twain met the central character of his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s story is about the trials of a Connecticut gunsmith and inventor who traveled back in time to Arthur’s England.
So perhaps fittingly, this is where Tony Galazan and his Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing crew made their first ever visit to the Game Fair to introduce fine American made shotguns to English and European sportsmen. Connecticut Shotgun displayed a number of their side-by-side RBLs and A-10 sidelock over-unders (or under-overs as they call them in England).
Breaking into the British market is a bold move. While American bolt action rifles are well regarded in the UK, American shotgun makers face an uphill challenge. That was brought home to me when a prominent English shoot organizer told me he was quite surprised and impressed by the fine quality of Galazan A-10s. He explained that American guns just aren’t found in England. A bit puzzled, I pointed to the nearby Browning tent. He acknowledged Browning shotguns are among the most popular in the UK and added over/unders are increasingly popular even on traditional English driven shoots. However, he said with his own puzzled look, “Brownings are Belgian guns, not American.” ….Ouch!
The door is cracked open for American over/unders, but American side by sides face real obstacles. You will always find large numbers of English and European side by sides at American shoots such as the Vintage Cup and the Southern, but I didn’t see a single new or used American made side by side at the Game Fair, aside from RBLs brought over by CSMC.
Tony Galazan told me he was very pleased with the response he received at the Game Fair. “They like guns that work and look good,” he said. He added that he sees the U.K. and Europe as potentially expanding markets.
Galazan was clearly very serious about making a good first impression and brought out the heavy sales artillery. In addition to sales and marketing manager Lou Frutuoso, he called upon his “secret weapons,” his young teen daughters, Grace and Ruth. As visitors stopped by the Connecticut Shotgun tent, the young duo confidently introduced them to the new A-10’s, explained the guns’ special features, and even answered some questions. In spite of their youth, it was impressive to see how well they represented the family business.
My conversations with a few British shooters and dealers indicated Galazan has good reason to be encouraged by his reception. Most were particularly impressed by the look of the A-10. Clearly, the A-10’s highly figured American walnut, rarely found on shotguns in the UK, catches the English eye as something new and attractive.
I spoke with one of the UK's largest dealers who sells a wide range of guns at one of Gunmakers Row’s biggest tents. He told me he is very impressed the quality of the A-10s and their value for money. He thinks they could sell well in the UK and has already pitched Galazan on carrying some A-10’s in his shop.
Buying Into the “Muddy” Lifestyle
In addition to guns, Gunmakers Row vendors offered literally acres of outdoor clothing and shooting accessories, often at steeply discounted prices. Just as Americans identify with country life by wearing camo, British men and women of all ages love their waxed cotton jackets, tweeds, fleeces, tall Wellington rubber boots and all things associated with the “Muddy” lifestyle. (There was even dating service for rural singles at the Game Fair called “Muddy Matches”) Basic, practical rain gear has become a fashion statement in both country and city alike.
The quantity of clothes and goods on sale made for a buyers’ market. Even the big-name gunmakers got into the act. Purdey’s annual tent sale is famous, with hundreds of clothing items and shooting accessories discounted by some 70%. I spotted a fine wool shooting coat marked down from $1,275 to $375. Americans could receive an even bigger discount, as Purdey’s staff offered help with the paperwork required to receive an additional 17.5% off the tag price via a refund of Britain’s value added tax (VAT).
Another bargain opportunity was finding vendors who supply goods to the trade. A good example was Traditional English Guncases. TEG’s Ian Tomlin is a master craftsman who supplies the finest English leather gun cases and shooting bags to the most famous big name gunmakers. Buy one of his cases with a famous name on it, it might cost you thousands. Buy it directly from him at the Game Fair and the same case could be yours for a fraction of the price – and you could even have your own name put on it.
There was a huge selection for men and women alike. Most vendors tried to lure you in with discounts, though a few employed catalog models whose siren songs lured you ashore with the promise of looking great in just the right pair of boots.
If you did enough shopping, you may have saved enough to cover the cost of the trip. At least you can tell yourself that!
In addition to clothing and accessories, there were game shooting vendors such as Bettws Hall and Guns on Pegs where you could learn about booking into an English driven game shoot.
I particularly enjoyed chatting with respected gun historian and author Donald Dallas who was on hand to sign his books and talk about guns. I also had a nice chat in the Shooting Times magazine tent with columnist John Humphrey who was kind enough to pour a complimentary glass of 21-year old Balvenie Scotch whisky to enjoy while we talked English shooting.
One of the most striking things about the Game Fair was the wide mix of people. Everywhere you looked, people of all ages; men, women, boys and girls alike were enjoying the wide range of activities. There were at least as many women as men, and young people seemed to outnumber senior citizens. The shooting area was no different.
On Gunmakers Row, I saw dads helping their sons pick out their first gun, but also moms and daughters enjoying the same rite of passage. On the Clays Line, it was common to see whole families and groups of kids – boys and girls alike – shooting. It’s clear the organizers were successful in reaching their primary goal of introducing shooting sports to a broad new audience.
Some 300,000 clay targets were thrown over three days. The shooting took place on the Clays Line, a long continuous line of clay target stations on Ragley Hall’s large pastoral lawn. Shooters faced a nice variety of game and sporting type target stations: High Tower, Decoy Pigeon, Rabbit Flurry, Auto Sporter, Super Trap, Springing Teal, Super Sporting, and Decoy Duck. Clay shooters could bring and store their own guns onsite, and guns were available to use at each stand for shooters who didn’t bring their own.
There was a grandstand where 1,000 world class and experienced shooters competed. Another 3,000 shooters of all ages and skill levels gave it a go on the Clay Line. There was a popular Bouncing Bunnies stand throwing rabbit targets. The Bath Muzzle and Breech Loading Association put on shooting exhibitions for black powder enthusiasts.
The most impressive thing was the organizers’ clearly successful efforts to introduce shooting to a new and wider audience. The enormous variety of attractions at the Game Fair drew thousands of outdoor enthusiasts and shooting novices who might never otherwise attend a shooting event. The organizers seized upon that golden opportunity.
“Encouraging new and young people by sharing the equipment and fun is what this is all about,” CLA shoot organizer Simon Russell-Marsh explained. “People can try guns and see all the new products.”
Famed exhibition shooter and instructor, John Bidwell was in charge of setting up the Clay Line for both competition shooters and novices alike. While Bidwell pointed out that the Game Fair’s competition shooting is one of the biggest and most prominent events of its type, reaching new shooters was clearly his top priority.
“The Game Fair attracts all types of people, ladies and young people alike,” he said. “It’s a great door opener to a wide range of sports.”
Indeed it was. Game Fair instructors provided 150 shooting lessons a day. Almost 1,000 people visited the Try-A-Gun stand where a new shooter could be introduced to shooting or a prospective new buyer could try out a shotgun. A half dozen friendly instructors stood ready to assist new shooters. Youngsters were provided a gun to use, a hat, eye protection, and assistance as needed in learning to properly handle a shotgun. I counted 35 shotguns available to try including several Browning, Blaser, and Rizzini over/unders, as well as AYA and Webley & Scott side by sides.
If you wanted your kids to really start at the top, there was even a pair of Purdey side by sides available to try. Taking your first ever shots with a $100,000 Purdey shotgun on the lawn of Ragley Hall, now that’s a pretty memorable start for anyone, kid or adult alike.
Worth the Trip?
Any trip overseas is a serious commitment of time and money for most Americans. The great thing about the Game Fair is that it has so much to offer. There is something for every interest and every budget. I spoke with a number of Americans who made their first visit to the Game Fair. All of them expressed surprise at the size and quality of the event.
One first time visitor was Jim Rice of Virginia, a longtime sportsman and collector of fine guns. Jim has organized many Vintager side-by-side shooting events and English-style driven game shoots. He characterized the Game Fair as “overwhelming.”
“There’s something for every sporting interest. It’s a sportsman’s paradise … Gunmakers Row is like a carnival midway for me,” he said.
As a dog owner, Rice was particularly impressed by the number of people who came to the Game Fair with their dogs. He also noted how well-behaved the dogs were and how tidy the grounds were kept with thousands of dogs on site. (A handy travel tip: don’t try to take a nap on the hay bales!)
He was also impressed by how well organized the event was. “The hospitality and food were great. Parking and logistics were well run. Everyone should do it once. If you never have gone, you should.” Rice added.
Tony Galazan, owner of Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing, was a first-time visitor and vendor. He has been to countless shooting related events. He too was surprised by the size and quality of the Game Fair.
“It’s all encompassing…and if you are interested in shooting, it’s all good. Most people in the U.S. don’t know how big it is,” he said. “I’m planning to come back again.”
Steve Barnett, owner of Barnett’s Fine Guns, is a prominent dealer of fine guns from Mississippi. Steve and wife, Joanne were attending their first Game Fair. For Barnett, it was one of the rare shooting events he has attended without the responsibility of manning several tables of guns for sale.
“Wow. It’s an awesome, mindboggling event,” observed Barnett. “I’m wondering why we can’t have something like it back home.”
The Game Fair packs everything into just three days, so it’s worth considering staying in England longer and adding other activities to your trip. During my trip, I also visited the London shops of gunmakers Purdey, Holland & Holland, William & Son, Beretta and William Evans. All are beautiful shops worth visiting. They are a short walk from each other in the heart of London’s fashionable Mayfair shopping district and close to major tourist attractions. I also attended a gun auction preview at Bonhams auction house, located across the street from the famous Harrods department store in central London.
I filled out the week by shooting sporting clays with friends at just a few of the many exceptional shooting clubs in and near London including the Bisley, West London, E.J. Churchill and West Kent shooting grounds. These are beautiful places to shoot with immaculately landscaped grounds. Some, like Bisley and West London, have historic clubhouses swathed in weathered leather furniture, fireplaces and mahogany trim that will remind Americans the finest old golf clubs back home.
Americans taking advantage of London’s fine shooting venues will find a variety of targets rarely seen in the United States, such as towers reaching some 40-70 yards high to simulate driven pheasants, or grouse butts dug into a hill and surrounded by heather with incoming flurries simulating a Scottish driven grouse shoot. At Bisley Shooting Grounds just outside of London, there are 150 different shotgun target presentations you can try.
Of course, there are also endless non-shooting tourism opportunities in England and some big events such as the British Open Golf Championship and Tatton Park Flower Show are usually scheduled within a week of the Game Fair. So there are a lot of options to add to a Game Fair trip.
In 2011, the Game Fair will return to one of its most impressive locations, Blenheim Palace, home to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. It is located near the famed university town of Oxford.
You can start making plans for your own visit by checking out the Game Fair website at http://www.gamefair.co.uk.