While Australia’s firearms industry wasn’t immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on day-to-day operations, one major distributor was still able to report several monthly sales records amid the chaos with Winchester Australia managing director Clive Pugh saying shooting activity remained a constant outside the nation’s hard lockdowns of the past two years.
“In recent years we’ve seen a growth in pistol demand in Australia and despite the sodden summer and autumn in parts of the country, we do know that good rain leads to high numbers of animals and consequently a positive rection in shooting activity,” Mr Pugh said.
In early 2019 just before the pandemic stopped the world in its tracks, Winchester’s Australian manufacturing capabilities were shut down. Mr Pugh said at the time there was an outpouring of emotion, mostly lamenting the loss of manufacturing and ammunition supply, this despite only field and target shotshell, field rimfire, some pistol, .223 and .308 being made here and a lot of which was earmarked for export.
“To many people all Winchester ammo came from the Geelong factory which is definitely not the case,” Mr Pugh said. “All up we made about 80 million rounds across roughly 30 different configurations which by ammo standards is a high volume but just a narrow selection of what Winchester makes. By comparison the US Winchester factories produce hundreds of times the quantity and hundreds of times the calibre configurations than we ever did in Australia.”
The impact of rising production and overseas export costs when compared to Winchester’s US and other European factories, lack of new investment in more modern equipment and increased competition in the Australian manufacturing market all combined to force closure of the local factory.
“Little did we know COVID would soon arrive and cause havoc in Australia, limiting people’s ability to get out and shoot, putting pressure on retail stores and seeing an immediate decline in sales,” Mr Pugh said. “For Winchester Australia, ammunition supply kept flowing all through 2020 and 2021 resulting in some of our best sales months pre or post-COVID.”
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. “Initially our sales fell when COVID first came to Australia and we became eligible for JobKeeper which allowed us to continue operating,” he said. “We created a workforce bubble, segregating our warehouse team from the office staff and allowing people to work from home, a strategy which kept our warehouse COVID-free and we never lost a day of despatch. What we found after the lockdowns at the backend of 2020 was retailers re-stocked and that generated a sales boom.”
During the tough 2020-’21 spell Australians experienced changing restrictions, work from home orders and lockdowns and as firearms industry retailers reduced stock and held on to cash, Winchester was forced to increase prices as the cost of goods and importation rose.
With the uncertainty of lockdowns behind us now allowing for a relatively stable environment to continue operations, he said the real challenge this year has been getting stock into Australia. According to Mr Pugh the stock shortage has been created by a perfect storm of overseas factors including the election of US President Joe Biden, war in Europe, Remington USA going bankrupt and the “shadow of COVID” still causing labour shortages worldwide.
“The uncertainty in the US and concerns over personal safety has driven unprecedented demand for firearms and ammunition in America,” Mr Pugh said. “The US surge has had a real impact on our market in Australia and the bankruptcy of Remington USA added to the issues, affecting availability of ammo to export markets.” If that wasn’t enough to deal with he said the cost of raw materials for manufacturing guns and ammunition – steel, lead, copper and zinc – have all risen substantially in the past 12 months. “This resulted in ongoing increases in the cost of those items and potential for supply shortages in the second half of 2022.”
Impacts at home
During 2021 the domestic firearms market was forced to further adapt to changing conditions when FedEx-TNT announced it would stop transporting firearms and related products without notice or consultation. The resulting industry uproar prompted Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie and Country Liberals Senator for the Northern Territory Dr Sam McMahon to intervene and lead a committee, which included SSAA representation, to meet Australia Post in a bid to find an alternative transport option. The $2 billion a year Australian firearms industry was effectively stopped in its track by this news, including Winchester Australia.
“Our partner of 35 years gave us one month’s notice of this happening, which they did graciously extend to two months,” Mr Pugh said. “It has taken us six months to come close to having a solution that meets the needs of the market and this has resulted in an increase in cost and reduction in delivery frequency for some parts of Australia.”
He said work was still being done in this area as the Western Australian Government had flagged changes to regulations on the movement of firearms and firearm parts. “The challenge for our industry is to bring fact and not emotion to our discussions with regulators and politicians,” he said. “If we could unite our voice into one representative body on the regulatory issues facing our industry and our hobby we’d be able to have greater and ongoing success.”
As Winchester continues to navigate the current market conditions Mr Pugh said frequent meetings with brand partners, shipping and transport suppliers to ensure good relationships and strong communication between all stakeholders was an important part of shoring-up the supply chain. “Our team works extended days to join in discussions with the US and Europe to find ways to move products more efficiently,” he said. “It’s an ongoing challenge which we really enjoy and each day brings another challenge be it cost, regulatory or shipping-related.”
He credits the success of the company through its recent demands to a great team of staff banding together. “Right now we have one of the best groups of people I’ve had working for Winchester Australia and our commitment to the shooting sports has never been stronger,” he said.
- Clive Pugh addressed the SSAA National 2022 Annual General Meeting in May and offered insight into operating during the pandemic. SSAA National executive thanks both Mr Pugh and Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, who was also in attendance, for their time.