• The Basque Country and the ancient art of making weapons. >>
• Aguirre y Aranzabal from 1915 to 1938. >>
• Aguirre y Aranzabal from 1938 until today. >>
• Historic serial numbers. >>
1938 to Now
The second world war had little direct impact on AYA, since Spain was officially neutral. Afterward, it even had a beneficial effect, since Spain in 1945 had one of the few functioning civilian arms-making industries left in the world. The British and American industries had been converted to war production, while those in Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Austria had been devastated by war, looting, and occupation. Returning servicemen, especially in America, were anxious to take up hunting and sport-shooting once again, and needed rifles and shotguns with which to do it.
This market represented a great opportunity for Spanish gunmakers of all types. Unfortunately, Spain was still subject to shortages of vital commodities, and rationing of essential materials such as steel. During this period, there was intense competition among Spanish gunmakers to export to the United States, and the majority of guns exported were low-priced, and low-quality.
At this time, AYA was producing a basic range of standard shotguns - mostly side-by-side double guns, in both boxlock and sidelock configuration, as well as single-shots. While their products were well-made and dependable, they were not yet "best" guns. They were low- to mid-range products that sold for prices competitive with established Spanish makers.
This was the situation as it stood in the mid-1950s, when an event occurred which was to change the course of AYA's history: Two English brothers arrived in Spain on holiday, and visited some gunshops in Barcelona. What they saw gave them an idea, and that idea changed the face of both AYA, and of the Basque fine-gun trade.
The brothers were Andrew and Peter King. In the Barcelona gunshops, they saw some of the products of the Eibar gun trade as it was then - almost all side-by-sides, with a few over/unders, varying in quality from utility grade to quite fine. What the Spanish guns all had in common, however, was their low price: They sold for a fraction of what a comparable gun would command in England.
At the time, the English gun trade was in a sad state. Those companies that had survived the war were having even greater difficulty surviving the peace, rife as it was with trade unions, Labour politicians, and the demise of many of the old-money landowners who were the trade's major customers. In that Spanish gunshop, the King brothers saw an opportunity, and when they returned home they called on the Spanish chamber of commerce in London.
A short while later, armed with a list of gunmaking companies in the Basque Country, Andrew and Peter King returned to Spain and began making calls. They visited a number of gunmakers, and in all but one instance, they found a "take it or leave it" attitude: Here's what we make. How many do you want? The lone exception was AYA.
AYA not only had the largest factory in Eibar, but its managing director, Agustín Aranzabal, was warm, welcoming, and open to any suggestion the King brothers might have about how the company could crack the market in the United Kingdom. The British market was then (and still is) the toughest in the world. Every gun sold there, regardless of price, is compared with guns from Purdey and Holland & Holland. No Spanish company had ever made inroads. This was a chance to do so.
The King brothers agreed to help AYA produce an "English range" of guns specifically for the UK market. In that meeting was born a partnership that helped transform the Spanish fine-gun business, and catapulted AYA from being a regional company known mostly in Spain, into one of the great names in shotguns around the world.
Until 1958, AYA's line of shotguns consisted of a wide range of models, from the most basic single-shot up to a rather exotic over-and-under, the Model Nº 37, patterned on the famous German Merkel. There were both sidelock and boxlock doubles, and the Model 53B, with sideclips and a heavy frame, was widely admired by live-pigeon competitors. The American writer, Colonel Charles Askins, who served as U.S. military attaché in Madrid in the early 1950s, spent a good deal of time in Eibar studying the Spanish armaments industry. He and Agustín Aranzabal were good friends, Askins owned several of their guns, and wrote glowingly about the Model Nº 37, which he called "the best over/under made in Europe."
In overall styling, however, the AYA guns owed more to continental European than to English taste. If AYA was to make an impact in London, it would have to produce guns with the severe, classic elegance of the London gunmakers.
The King brothers returned to Spain with two guns for AYA to use as patterns. The sidelock was a Holland & Holland. The boxlock was a Westley Richards with the standard Anson & Deeley action. These two guns provided the basis for four famous models - the Nº 1, the Nº 2, the Nº 4, and the Nº 4 de Luxe. These became the heart of the AYA line.
At home in England, the Kings established Anglo Spanish Imports (ASI) to distribute the AYA guns. They hired English craftsmen and sent them to Spain to teach English techniques to the AYA gunmakers. These included riblaying, best blacking, and stock finishing.
In the early 1960s, Andrew King moved to Spain with his family in order to work more closely with AYA, to oversee production of guns destined for ASI, and to check every order before it was shipped. Andrew's son, Edward, spent much of his boyhood in San Sebastian, and became fluent in Spanish. It established a bond between London and Eibar which continues to this day.
One gun that deserves a special mention is AYA's Model Senior, a self-opener built on the famous Beesley action employed by James Purdey & Son. AYA copied a Purdey gun down to the smallest detail. The Senior was a rare and beautiful gun. Only about 40 were made altogether, and almost all were 12-bore. A current director of ASI has the only Senior built in 16-bore, and Edward King owns a 12-bore Senior which he describes as "an absolute gem." "The engraving in particular is better than on any Purdey I have seen," King said, "Light, yet beautifully crisp. When we showed the first one to the English trade, one dealer took us aside and asked, ‘How much did it cost you to get a Purdey action out of the Purdey factory?' That's how good it was - and still is."
During the 1950s, AYA made its first efforts to export guns to the United States. While many thousand AYA's made their way to North America, imported by companies such as Sears Roebuck, and marketed under various trademarks, they had little lasting impact. An exception was the Matador, a massive boxlock made in both 12 and 10-gauge, that was sold in the United States for many years. It left many Americans with the impression that AYA made only utility guns selling for economy prices.
Yet in the United Kingdom, especially, as well as in continental Europe and on the great driven-partridge shoots of Spain, the best AYA guns were keeping company with the finest names in gunmaking - Holland & Holland, Churchill, Boss, and Westley Richards. With ASI and the King brothers backing them, AYA guns quickly established a reputation in Britain for solid quality at an impossibly low price. They put a nicely balanced and finished double gun within reach of the average British game shooter, and helped keep shooting alive through a period of economic and social upheaval.
Unfortunately, for AYA and every other finegun maker in the world, tastes were changing, and the 1960s and 1970s saw a general decline in demand for double shotguns. Prices were climbing because of inflation; fewer people were coming into a trade that was widely seen as dying; there was increasing competition from cheaper, machine-made repeating shotguns.
The Basque gunmaking industry was based firmly on the side-by-side double, with a scattering of over/unders and single-shots. Most companies consisted of a handful of craftsmen housed in a small shop. AYA was one exception, with its large factory, 500 employees, and annual production of up to 20,000 guns.
As the rest of the Basque firearms industry was hit by declining demand, one company after another closed its doors. Various solutions were suggested, the most common being some kind of amalgamation of small shops into one large company that would be globally competitive, with the most modern production methods and centralized marketing. In the early 1980s, AYA and about 20 other companies combined into one, called Diarm S.A. A new factory was built in the town of Itziar. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the new enterprise did not last. After a couple of years, Diarm closed down.
Imanol Aranzabal, a descendant of the founder and a former executive of both AYA and Diarm, assembled the best gunmakers from the Diarm shop and resurrected the AYA name. They repurchased the remaining stock of AYA parts, and set up shop on the second floor of a building on the Bidebarrieta in Eibar. With Imanol running the company and a dozen top craftsmen working in the shop, the new AYA reissued the last catalog of the old AYA, and by 1989 the company was back in the business of making fine double guns.
At first, the new AYA concentrated on only the best-selling models - the Nº 1 and Nº 2 sidelocks, and the Nº 4 boxlock. Gradually, they added other great models from previous years - the Model 37 over-and-under and the even more elaborate Model Augusta, the XXV guns (similar to Churchills, with 25 inch barrels), the competition side-by sides (Model Nº 53 and Model Nº 56), and a range of more elaborate boxlock guns.
Sadly, the Senior was not among the offerings, and probably never will be. The basic frame for making a Beesley action is no longer produced in Spain, and obtaining the raw materials elsewhere would be cost-prohibitive.
In the United Kingdom, Anglo Spanish Imports resumed its relationship with the new AYA, and began looking at how the line might be expanded to appeal to a new generation of English lovers of fine guns. The result was the Nº 1 "de Luxe", a gun comparable in quality and finish to the finest English guns, yet selling for a much lower price. The de Luxe would be finished in the white in Spain, with stock-finishing, engraving, blacking, and case-hardening carried out in England.
The Nº 1 "de Luxe" was a sensation.
AYA then took the concept a step further, for the rest of the markets, the Nº 1 "de Luxe" is built and finished completely in Spain. Since 1988 the company had steadily expanded its network of dealers and customers in all the world. Each dealer had his own ideas of what guns would sell to his clients, and AYA enthusiastically took to making variations on its standard models to suit individual tastes.
This partnership with its importers, which began with ASI in the 1950s and continues with all importers in the new millenium, has become a cornerstone of AYA's way of doing business, and a new generation of wingshooters and lovers of fine guns are the beneficiaries.
As business expanded for the new AYA, the company quickly outgrew its shop at the corner of the Bidebarrieta and Urtzaile. In 2001, AYA moved to the other end of town, taking over an entire floor of the Laurona factory at Number 25, Otaola Hiribidea, the main thoroughfare into Eibar from Bilbao.
The workforce expanded from 12 craftsmen to 25.
The new factory has the traditional long workbench, but it has much more as well. AYA is moving steadily back towards its previous role as a leader in Eibar's fine-gun industry. AYA is installing new machinery and adopting advanced technology that will allow it to make many of its own basic parts, and also supply raw materials to the smaller gunmakers of Eibar.
In this way, AYA is not only carrying on a long tradition of making fine shotguns, but also working to ensure that Eibar's fine-gun industry thrives long into the future.