In today’s market, it never ceases to amaze me how so many different guns often come from the same source. Take well-known airgun models such as the Umarex 850 AirMagnum, Armex Avenger and the Beretta Elite CO2 pistols. Most airgunners will be familiar with all of them – yet with no clue of the brand or moniker, you may not know that all these models arrive in your local gun shop courtesy of one supplier: Birmingham-based Armex.
Armex is a relatively new name on the airgun scene – yet it’s a company that, in its short history, has blossomed into one of the most important kingpins in the contemporary airgun trade, with responsibility for a number of flagship brands.
Remember the high-tech Walther LGV that German airgunning giant, Umarex, unveiled to much acclaim in the UK last year? Or perhaps the £180 Hammerli Black Force break-barrel that we featured in last month’s edition of Airgun Shooter? Both made a big splash when they arrived on the scene – and both came via Armex, which now has the exclusive UK distribution for products coming out of Umarex.
Nestled in the middle of Birmingham – just around the corner from the Gun Barrel Proof House, to boot – Armex is not only the UK’s main Umarex stockist, but also one of the biggest Umarex stockists in Europe. With credentials like that, I couldn’t turn down an exclusive invite to go behind the scenes at its HQ and show Airgun Shooter readers the success story behind this go-ahead company.
Getting stock in to gun shops is pretty crucial for airgunners, and Armex MD, Alan Phelps, is clearly aware of his responsibilities. “We’re going for 100 per cent availability at all times,” he told me, “so that even if shooters can’t immediately see what they want on the racks, their dealer can get them a sample straight away.” In fact, Alan admitted that Armex has a current stock level in excess of £1 million… and that’s growing all the time.
That stock also includes spares – which is one of the reasons why gun shops are so happy to stock the Armex-distributed products. “The dealers tell us that’s what their customers want to hear,” says Alan. “Whether those customers are regulars or coming in to the sport for the first time, it’s a fact that they find very reassuring.”
However, Armex isn’t just running a distribution centre – it’s an airgun workshop and repairs hub, too. “In this business, it’s all too easy to have a box-in, box-out philosophy,” admits Alan, “but that’s not the way I want my company to work.” Indeed, a typical Armex-supplied airgun doesn’t just go in one door and out of the other. While on site, I saw first-hand many of the imported air rifles getting stripped, checked, reassembled and tested before being given the Armex stamp of approval ready for shipping out to gun shops.
Note I said ‘testing’ – and that doesn’t just mean fi ring a few pellets over the chrono to check each rifle is full-powered and compliant with UK gun laws. It also means accuracy tested – and the Armex facility has a newly-refurbished, 50-metre range on site. “We use it extensively,” explains Alan, “but it’s not just for our internal use – we also provide the facility to the general public.”
Basically, by prior arrangement, anyone can go and test Armex-supplied products on this range before making a fi nal decision to purchase it from their local gun shop. “It’s all part of our service,” explains Alan. “We want to bring the business into the 21st century, and this is the kind of support we consider essential to back up our philosophy.”
It’s not any old garden-shed range, either. Scratch-built in the factory space that adjoins Armex’s offices, it boasts proper sound-proofing, lane separation and new knock-down targets. Sighting up a few guns for myself, it really did bring home to me the scale of Armex’s operation – they’ve really got everything.
Of course, any successful company also needs a backroom boiler, and Alan was keen to show me the offices and product showroom, where there was an impressive array of Walthers and Hammerlis, along with Armex’s own XTC variant of the CO2-powered AirMagnum hanging on the walls. I was also introduced to Terry Evans and operations manager Keith Newman, affectionately known as ‘the man who makes it all happen’.
As my day behind the scenes went on, I couldn’t help reflecting on how far and how quickly Armex has come in the few short years since its inception – especially considering the multitude of models that it’s responsible for delivering to the UK market. Yet what is now a super-slick airgun operation actually came about almost by accident. “I decided to buy an air rifle for some informal target shooting,” Alan explained. “I visited some shops and was surprised to note the similarity in prices in various outlets, so I looked into the supply of air rifles. Soon, I was selling air rifles at local fairs and shows… and as the business grew, so did the number of shows I attended.”
At this point, Alan had also taken stock of gear for Archery World – but although it was a big-selling line, he ran into a problem. “I started having supply issues for the crossbows I was selling, so I got in touch with an archery equipment supplier in Taiwan to see if I can order in my stock from source. They required me to place a massive order, though – a container-load, in fact.”
Being naturally business-minded, Alan took the gamble and committed to a shed-load of stock. Not only was it expensive, but it also led to another problem for Alan to overcome. “I had nowhere to store the container’s contents,” he recalls, “and you can fi t a lot of crossbows in a container.”
Virtually as the shipment landed in Birmingham, Alan was busy arranging facilities to store it all. “That,” he says, “was the birth of Armex.” Indeed, many who know Alan still think of Armex as mainly a crossbow company – but it couldn’t be further from the truth. “We’re taking huge orders for our airguns,” affirms Alan. “We’ve got the biggest ever supply of the Umarex stable in the UK, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the biggest in the world outside America and Germany.”
On the other hand, those seven-figure stock levels aren’t a surprise when you consider Armex has now been the exclusive UK distributor of Umarex gear for over a year now. And what a frantic year it has been. “Our stocks have increased tenfold in the last 12 months,” says Terry, adding: “Yesterday, for instance, we had 18 pallet-loads go out – plus 35 parcels. We’re always busy.” That’s not just to the UK, either – Armex even sends out guns and gear to countries beyond our shores. For an airgun business that didn’t even begin to show up on the radar until just over six years ago, that’s a pretty impressive performance.