Last bastion of gun lore

KEITH ELLIOTT at large
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The Independent Online
The site is a property developer's dream. Imagine 2,000 acres of undeveloped land - no hidden nuclear waste nor lurking radon - in a prime part of commuter-belt Surrey. Access is superb, with the M3 five minutes away, and towns like Guildford, Bracknell and Windsor are nearby. Yet it is rural enough, at least before those 10,000-plus homes go up, to be sold as "countryside" without fear of offending those schoolmarms at the Advertising Standards Authority.

I suspect the National Rifle Association, in its battle to oppose tighter gun controls, has found scant support arriving for those who make their living from turning fields into freeholds. You can imagine their lecherous eyes gazing at Bisley like stag partygoers watching a table dancer.

The logic is obvious. It is but a hop, skip and jump from stopping pistol- shooting to banning rifles and finally shotguns. With no shooting, what would be the use of preserving rifle ranges, however historic? Rather than leave that wonderful land fallow, why not do something useful with it like, er, build houses?

Loyalists say such a scenario is inconceivable, but an icy wind is already whistling through this strange outpost of Victorian England, where people still stop what they are doing when the national anthem plays. The demise of pistol-shooting will not, on its own, bring the gloriously faded clubhouses, so reminiscent of days of the Raj, tumbling down. But the NRA's income will slump, the place will look even more desolate in winter, and the quaint old gunsmiths at the heart of Bisley will suffer serious injury.

For many, Bisley without G E Fulton and Son would be like Christmas without Santa, London without Nelson's Column, England without the Queen. Its single-storey, timber-framed building was once the NRA offices. When the business moved from Wimbledon Common to Bisley in 1890, it took its verandahed colonial bungalow too. Soon afterwards, a young armoury sergeant called George Fulton took over the portion used as a workshop for pounds 15 a year in rent.

George was almost a rich man thanks to his shooting skills. In 1888 he had won the Queen's Prize, the highest honour in target shooting. It brought him not just glory but a pounds 250 prize, quite a sum in those days, which he used to start the shop. His son Arthur won the same trophy in 1914, 1926 and 1931, while Arthur's son, Robin, made it three generations by winning the Queen's Prize in 1958.

The shop has changed little, and it probably had the same smell of warm oil with a hint of gunpowder 100 years ago. The present partners, Roger Millard and Robert Taylor, have made a few gestures to the 20th century, such as selling night vision monoculars, but the old photographs, Arthur Fulton's medal case, a stuffed golden eagle, an antique safe and a pike's head remain.

Millard recalls: "We put in new lino about eight years ago and someone came in and said: `I hope you're not changing the shop.' When we took up that old lino, there was a copy of The Times from 1888 underneath, with a headline about the `Irish problem'."

In the surprisingly spacious area unseen by the public, there are ancient tools but little machinery. Most work is still done by hand. Hidden away, casually stacked, is a collection of antique arms, including a blunderbuss, a flintlock and an Arab matchlock with a crescent-shaped stock. It is like wandering around an Edwardian antique shop.

Millard joined Fulton's straight from the Army in 1969. Though he's now 65, he sees nothing odd about seven days a week opening or working 12 to 16 hours a day during the summer. "I can't retire. I still love driving through the gates here, into perfect peace. This is much more than a job, it is a service."

When Fulton-regulated rifles come up at auction, they always command a premium price. But Millard is not a rich man. "People come in, see the shop packed and think we must be making loads of money, but I always say: `Listen to the till.' This is a meeting place, and you can't really charge for a job if you do it while a person waits."

It may seem Fulton's is stuck in a time warp, but Millard says things have changed. "It was much more relaxed in the early days, and not so competitive. We struggle to keep up with the demands of shooters now. Though the bull's-eye is smaller, they expect to hit it every time, and of course it is never the shooter who is at fault."

Though Millard knows as much about target rifles as anyone in the world, he has never held a firearms certificate and never shot on the ranges. "I don't have the time and it wouldn't be a good advert if I didn't shoot well." Most of the firm's work is overhauling target rifles, though they build about 50 a year.

A pistol ban will hit them very hard. "Our trade has become about 50 per cent pistols, with pistol ammunition about 90 per cent. I don't think a ban will affect us fatally but we shall have to tighten our belts more than one notch, I fear." Unconsciously, Millard glances towards the back of the shop, where two staff are working on guns.

Dunblane inevitably enters our conversation. "I closed the shop immediately on 13 March when I heard," he says. "I would not presume to argue with the parents or families of Dunblane, but it has become a political issue and we are caught in the middle.

"I'm determined that Fulton's will survive but I have to admit I am worried about the future. The end of shooting? It seems unthinkable, but it could happen." No wonder the property vultures are hovering.

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