This article, "The Best from Spain," appeared originally in the September 2003issue of American Rifleman. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page here and select American Rifleman as your member magazine.
The most common question I am asked is, “Which Spanish shotgun is the best?” It’s very difficult to answer, and I usually begin with “That depends … .”
Forty years ago, the answer was easy. The AYA Model Senior, a clone of the Purdey built on a Beesley self-opening action, was acclaimed as the finest gun made in Spain. It was so good there was no serious competition. Today, the Senior is no longer made, and other makers have come forward with other models, all vying for the title left vacant when the Senior was discontinued in 1988.
The fine-shotgun industry in Spain is relatively tiny. There are a half-dozen small companies that, between them, produce about 3,000 guns a year. Of that number, two-thirds would be termed high-quality guns, and only a handful—100 to 200—would be absolute “bests.”
The smallest company is Pedro Arrizabalaga, with four craftsmen, two apprentices, and a total annual production of 40 guns. The largest is AYA, with about 18 employees, and annual production in the high hundreds.
This matched pair of Grulla Royals, in the author’s opinion, deserve the name they bear, and he regards the Royal as the finest gun made in Eibar today. One of the first such sets was made for Spain’s King Juan Carlos.
Most of the company names are tongue-twisters—names of Basque origin that reverberate down through five centuries of gunmaking in the Basque Country of Spain, centered on the town of Eibar and, to a lesser extent, its neighbor Elgoibar.
Ignacio Ugartechea. Sarriugarte. Aranzabal. Arrizabalaga. Tough to spell and tougher to pronounce, but there is no mistaking the quality of the guns produced when you pick one up, feast your eyes, and throw it to your shoulder.
With the exception of Arrizabalaga, all the companies make a range of guns of different grades or types. The side-by-side sidelock is the most common today, all based on the Holland & Holland action. A couple of companies also make boxlocks, and a couple make over-unders. Almost without exception, every company makes one model that is its very, very best gun—and it is these masterpieces we are looking at here.
Armas Garbi DeLuxe
Armas Garbi is a company with a half-dozen craftsmen, founded in 1959, that turns out about 150 guns a year. Of these, only 40 are the top-of-the-line Deluxe, a gun that retails in the United States for about $25,000.
William Larkin Moore, who has been Garbi’s exclusive importer here for almost 30 years, says that in all that time he has sold only a handful of Deluxes in the United States. Almost all of them stay in Spain, where they go to members of the nobility, friends of King Juan Carlos I (a longtime Garbi admirer) and others who shoot driven red-legged partridge on the plains of Castile.
For many years, the Deluxe sported deep-relief engraving complete with gargoyles on the fences and a naked cherub on the sidelock, but in recent years the company has been allowing its high-dollar customers to choose their own favorite engraving. So now, you may see a Deluxe with traditional Purdey-style rose-and-scroll, or elaborate game scenes in bulino or “banknote” engraving.
The one thing that does not change is the basic specifications, which include barrels of the finest nickel-chrome steel, to ensure the greatest strength combined with fine handling and balance, exhibition grade walnut for the stock and fore-end, and fastidious attention to every tiny detail. The Deluxe is available in any gauge, made to each customer’s individual tastes. This is true of almost every Basque “best,” so I will not repeat it every time.
The No. 1 Deluxe is the best side-by-side produced by Spain’s AYA today. It’s offered as a rounded action (above) or in the traditional style.
AYA No. 1 DeLuxe
AYA, 40 years ago, was the largest gun company in Spain, with 500 employees, a large factory, and annual production of 20,000 guns. Today, after a failed consolidation of the gun business in the 1980s, AYA has been resurrected as a small custom shop. It produces many of the same models as before, but mostly they are the higher grades. There are boxlocks and sidelocks, over-unders and side-by-sides.
The late, lamented Senior is no longer made because the frames and lockwork for a Beesley-style action are unobtainable. When the Senior was discontinued in 1988, it retailed in Spain for $15,000. At the time, the Garbi Deluxe sold for $14,000. Today, a Senior would sell for $30,000-plus.
AYA’s best side-by-side today is the No. 1 DeLuxe, a gun with a family history dating from the 1950s. At that time, the King brothers in England were just beginning to import AYA guns to the United Kingdom. They began by helping the company to produce guns in a style that would appeal to English tastes. Among the guns they helped design were the No. 1 with its Purdey-style engraving, the less expensive No. 2, and a boxlock styled on the Westley Richards.
In the mid-’90s, Edward King suggested building an extra-special gun in that would take the place of the Senior. It would have exhibition quality wood, and the gun would be finished, engraved, case-hardened and blacked in England by English experts. This gun became the No. 1 DeLuxe. It has H&H-style broad-scroll engraving, which sets it apart from the traditional No. 1 that is much less flamboyant.
For the American market, the No. 1 DeLuxe is completely finished in Spain. It is available in a rounded action as well as the traditional style with bead and drop points. In either form, however, it is a spectacular gun.
Bryan Bilinski of Fieldsport, AYA’s premier American importer, says the No. 1 DeLuxe causes excitement everywhere it goes, and one look at the gun will tell you why. It retails in the United States for about $8,900.
Pedro Arrizabalaga has been in business since 1944. Today, there are just four partners and two apprentices working in the company. Like Purdey, they make only one grade of gun—the best—and there are no identifiable models. Every Arrizabalaga is made to measure, to the individual tastes of the client.
The walnut used in an Arrizabalaga gun is just short of exhibition grade, and the client can either choose his own blank, instruct the company to pick one out according to his taste in wood, or even provide his own. Similarly, the engraving can be anything the client chooses, from standard scroll to bulino game scenes.
The interior surface of a Pedro Arrizabalaga lock is as much a work of art as the exterior.
Arrizabalaga has its own ideas about what constitutes a “best” gun. They usually have a self-opener, and the guns are not lightweights. A 12-ga. will rarely come in at less than 6 lbs., 12 ozs. These are guns built to the ideal for driven-game shooting, expected to fire thousands of rounds a year.
Pedro Arrizabalaga has been called “The Purdey of Spain,” and in many ways the company deserves the title. Ironically, though, it is not the most expensive gun by any means. An Arrizabalaga retails here, through their exclusive importer, New England Arms, for about $12,000 and up—half the price of the Garbi Deluxe. Is it half the gun? Most emphatically not.
Arrieta Model 931
The firm of Manufacturas Arrieta, in Elgoibar, is a family-owned company now run by the third generation of Arrietas, Juan Carlos and his cousin, Asier. Arrieta has the most extensive network of importers, including New England Arms, Orvis, and Griffin & Howe. The company is the most familiar name in Spanish guns after AYA.
Arrieta makes a complete range of sidelock side-by-sides, and nothing else. They retail here from about $2,500 for the Model 578, to an estimated $25,000 for the Model 931. The gun shown on p. 77 is a rounded action with engraving like a 931, although it is far from typical. It is a 12-ga. built on a 16-ga. frame, and weighs 6 lbs., 4 ozs. with 28” barrels. It is intended for shooting light loads only, and it is an exquisite creation.
Grulla Armas Royal
Grulla Armas has become one of the largest of the Spanish gunmakers, and it is certainly the most progressive and adventuresome. It produces guns that are equal to or better than anything else made in Eibar.
From its antecedents as Union Armera in the early 1980s, Grulla has come a long, long way. In the 1990s, it introduced a new, “best” model called the Royal, and it certainly deserves its name. One of the first matched pairs was made for King Juan Carlos, and the company has several notable English clients. In fact, the majority of Royals are sold in the United Kingdom.
The gun can be engraved with any of three types of scroll—Purdey-, H&H- or Churchill-style. With Churchill engraving, the gun sells in Eibar for $13,500. It should be noted that the rapid appreciation of the Euro over the last year has increased every Spanish price, so the numbers given here are approximate at best.
Grulla, the maker of the side-by--side at top, is one of the largest Spanish makers, and the most progressive. The author regards Ugartecheas, such as the 1030 (above), as excellent for the money.
Jose Luis Usobiaga, Grulla’s managing director, has spared no effort over the last decade, not only to upgrade the company’s products overall, but to make the Royal as good as any gun ever made in Spain, and comparable to an English “best.” To that end, he has studied the features of the great English guns and incorporated many into the Royal, including set screws on the major pins.
Kemen is unlike the other companies in that it specializes in over-unders, notably competition guns. The company was created by the Sarriugarte brothers, and it traces its ancestry to the venerable firm of Francisco Sarriugarte.
The Kemen is a boxlock gun with a detachable trigger group, and can be built in any configuration for competition or game shooting. Kemen guns are customarily built with choke tubes, floating rib, pistol grip, Monte Carlo stock, and all the other wrinkles of trap and live-pigeon guns. They are available in either 12 or 20 gauge Kemen has now introduced a side-by-side, also a boxlock with a detachable trigger group, and these retail in the neighborhood of $17,500.
The over-under is Kemen’s flagship, however, and in its higher grades it is spectacular. As you move up, the guns sport sideplates and the engraving becomes more and more elaborate, although the Suprema AX, the most expensive of all (about $29,000) has exquisite Purdey-style rose-and-scroll and exhibition walnut. The firm’s Extra Gold “B” retails for $19,000.
Ugartechea does some things differently on its sidelocks, including offering them with coil springs instead of a V-springs. Many prefer V-springs, however, because they are traditional.
Ignacio Ugartechea makes both boxlocks and sidelocks. The company’s most expensive model is a rounded action called the Model 1042. There is a traditional-action gun, the Model 1030, which has arcaded fences like the Woodward. These are both fine guns, and for the price are perhaps the best buy in Spain.
For years, Ugartechea’s prices did not change, and to look at the list, you would think there was a zero missing. But it’s no mistake. Generally, however, while the Ugartechea guns are excellent for the money, they do not make the list of the creme de la creme from Eibar.
At Arrizabalaga, like with many best gunmakers, the techniques used in finishing and fitting the stocks are often family secrets passed down from generation to generation.
So which is the best gun of them all? I honestly don’t know. I believe it would vary from gun to individual gun, because each of the top ones is a unique creation. If you differentiate by cost, however, it becomes much clearer. For the price of a Garbi Deluxe, I could buy a matched pair of Grulla Royals, or three Pedro Arrizabalagas.
In my personal opinion, based on the guns I’ve seen, the very finest gun coming out of Eibar today is the Grulla Royal. It has everything—styling, sophisticated features, and workmanship. That was not true 10 years ago, when the Garbi Deluxe reigned almost alone, and it may not be true 10 years hence. But I believe it is true today.
Arcaded fences are uncommon in Basque country, but they are standard on the Ugartechea Model 1030 side-by-side shotgun.
The competition among the fine gunmakers of Spain to produce a gun that will be acclaimed the “very best” is quite intense. Today, for the first time really, there is no clear-cut winner. So if you ask me which is the finest gun made in Spain, the best I can say is, “That depends … .”