Based in Rayleigh, Essex, this well-known store is celebrating 40 years in the business. Mike Morton talks to owner Peter Zamit to find out how it all got started
Remember Victor Kiam, the customer who liked Remington electric razors so much he bought the company? Well, history has pretty much repeated itself with Peter Zamit and The AirGun Centre. The company can trace its roots back to 1978 when founder John Stevens was operating out of a bedroom in his house in Billericay, and Peter, a keen airgun shooter, was a regular customer of the fledgling company. Peter began working for John, initially on a part-time basis, then full-time – eventually going on to buy the business.
The bulk of the work four decades ago involved spring-gun tuning and repairs, but The AirGun Centre has come a long way since then, with the firm now specialising in putting together airgun packages rather than selling a gun on its own – although this is also an option. A special combo, for example, will include a rifle, a scope, mounts, a bipod, a sling and a hard case.
But there’s more to one of these AirGun Centre packages than just selling the separate components as a bundle – each combo is assembled before it goes out the door, including the fitting of the scope and mounts, and, where necessary, drilling the stock for sling swivel studs. With decades’ worth of experience between the various members of staff, that work is being carried out by skilled and capable hands.
Many of the combos are based on rifles from Air Arms, BSA, Daystate and Weihrauch, with the staff running through a customer’s needs and options with them before a final choice is agreed upon. Typical newcomers to the sport might be a father and son buying their first airgun together, or someone in their 40s who wants to give airgun shooting another go, having last shot when they were a child. “We work out what’s best for the customer and try to fulfil their needs,” says staffer Perry Paget-Clark. “PCPs are the most popular because they are easier to use.”
While many of The AirGun Centre’s customers will already be shooters, plenty of newcomers come through the door. Sending them away with the right combo for their needs gives Peter and his staff the most satisfaction. “It’s nice to put them on the right path as they start out shooting airguns,” he explains.
Those shooters aren’t just from the UK either, with customers coming from countries including Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, while others have visited from as far afield as India and the Cayman Islands. The shop has a few celebrity customers too, including boxer Frank Bruno, snooker player Ali Carter and comedian Phill Jupitus.
Thirty years ago, the average customer would come into the shop expecting to pay around £200 for a rifle, but nowadays it’s not uncommon for even a first-time buyer to spend up to £1,000 – and sometimes even more. While plenty of newcomers don’t really know what type of gun they want, just that they want “an airgun”, others are very well-informed. Peter puts this down to modern consumers being more savvy about the kit that’s available, thanks in no small part to the internet.
Any rifle bought from The AirGun Centre is guaranteed for life, and this incorporates free servicing, including replacement parts. Around 99% of servicing and repair work is carried out on-site.
One rifle received in the workshop had been damaged in an accident, with the stock being badly broken. This particular rifle had been expertly repaired and the stock not just put back together, but pinned as well, which, as fellow member of staff Ben Daye pointed out, made it even stronger than it had been before it took its tumble.
Roughly 50% of the combos bought are for target use, the bulk of the competition work being Hunter Field Target, while 20% of guns sold are bought by hunters. A relatively large 30% of rifle combos, meanwhile, are snapped up for plinking – albeit using more precise hardware than ever before.
Peter firmly believes the airgun industry is on the rise, with the quality of airguns in terms of both their construction and design increasing all the time. When asked if there were any particular rifles that stood out during his many years with The AirGun Centre, Peter chooses the Daystate MK3, because it was “an electronic rifle that really worked, put Daystate on the map and helped the company go from strength to strength”.
While many modern air rifles come dressed in synthetic or soft-touch stocks, there is still a hankering for quality walnut stocks with superior patterns, and a quick look at the firm’s current inventory showed several rifles with some beautiful tiger stripe figuring. Peter remarks how one customer came into the shop and insisted on buying a rifle on the strength of the dark burr of the walnut alone.
Peter believes the advent of the PCP has seen an upturn in the quality of pellets. Because PCPs are so much easier to shoot that springers or gas-rams, he says it is now easier than ever to highlight what works well and what doesn’t through a particular barrel. So while matching a rifle to a customer’s needs is paramount, Peter emphasises the need to use good-quality ammunition and match it to a particular rifle.
The AirGun Centre is renowned for working with gun manufacturers to produce certain limited-edition rifles. It will be celebrating its 40th anniversary with another limited edition, but Peter wouldn’t be drawn on exactly what it would be. Well, I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see!