Mike Barnes chats to Charlie Bull, the man behind Just Cartridges, the UK's first online shotgun cartridge retailer.
Have you always been in the gun trade?
No, in a previous life I also ran a construction company. Fortunately I had the foresight to get out of it just before the recession bit. I like to call it foresight, although 25 years of stress probably also had something to do with it.
When and where did you start in business on your own?
I started Just Cartridges in 1999. I had previously bought an old farmyard and developed it into small business units as well as building a house on site. It's a sleepy little backwater of Oxfordshire, but our distribution tentacles stretch nationwide.The commute to work isn't bad either, taking approximately 30 seconds, whatever the weather.
Are you still in the same premises?
No, although we are still on the same site but in a much bigger unit.We now need about 4,000 sq.ft. to operate efficiently in the busy season when we shift more than 0.25 million cartridges per week.
What is your favourite aspect of being in business?
I love tailoring the business to make us the best at what we do. Being your own boss is no bed of roses however. Making the cashflow work can be extremely taxing and being a fanatical shot it is frustrating that it is very difficult to take a day off in our busy season.
Why had no-one done it before?
Probably because they hadn't thought about it! Cartridges are the potatoes of the gun trade; very small margin so you need to sell an awful lot of them. I very soon realised that distribution was the key and consequently this now accounts for over 80 per cent of the business. Gun dealers don't want to do this when they can make much larger margins on accessories, clothing and the like - in the meantime, we will stick to what we know!
Was it complicated to set up in view of legislation?
How long have you got? I spent about six years and an awful lot of money on legal fees, but this has culminated in Just Cartridges having the legal authority to conduct our business as we do. No other dealer has this and it is doubtful that they would get it.We operate our business in an extremely secure manner, more secure in fact than the law requires.
Were all cartridge manufacturers happy to be involved?
Lyalvale Express have been extremely supportive from the outset, but the others were very sceptical.When I started, some manufacturers would not give us an account, so we had to buy through a third party, which made life a little difficult. Perhaps the funniest thing is that Gamebore refused us an account back then, now we are their largest customer!
Was the business successful from day one?
I started it in a very small way, but it has grown incredibly. When you bear in mind that our sales have grown year on year, every year, then yes it has been successful from day one.When I started, we used to keep about 30,000 cartridges in stock, now we keep about 1.5 million on the shelf and the stock turnover is very quick.
What is your proudest achievement?
There is no single thing. If I had to choose, it would be being top of Google for eight years on our own merit. For me, the buzz is staying one step ahead of the game to continue growing our customer base. The gun trade is historically very conservative but technology is vitally important these days. So we have re-vamped our website, added a quick order system and search facility, a new mobile website and even produced a very useful App. This means our customers can now order on the move, wherever they are, with whatever medium they like. I am proud to have grown a business based on my original ethos: value, variety and the ability to deliver next day anywhere in the country. These are our USPs and this is why our customers use us. Simples!
Which do you sell the most of in terms of load and shot size?
Easily the most popular game cartridge is a 30g No. 6s and these days 32g in No. 5s is becoming increasingly popular, in fibre wad of course! The 30 No. 6 is the ideal all-round game shell and will do pretty much everything as long as you stick it in the right place. Our own Xtreme Game are easily the most popular as they offer top performance at amazing value and they are suitable for use in 65mm chambers. Our own brand sales now account for over two million cartridges per annum.
Have you noticed a trend for heavier loads?
Definitely. With the recent trend for higher birds, heavier loads and larger shot sizes are increasingly commonplace.There is a popular misconception that heavier loads are more powerful, but this is wrong. Heavier loads in fact tend to be slower ballistically. It is the larger (and therefore heavier) pellet size which increases striking power. Over about 45 yards, shotguns are inefficient killing machines because the pattern breaks down so quickly. So although the larger pellet may have the energy to kill, the chances of hitting the target are reduced. The larger the shot size, the less pellets you have in the pattern.A 28g No. 6s will kill a 60 yard pheasant just as well as a 36g load, but there's just a smaller margin for error.
Have you always been a keen shot?
Fanatical would be closer to the mark. Coming from farming stock, I had an airgun in my hands from about age of nine, thence moving up to a .410 from about the age 12 and so on. Stalking rabbits and pigeons along hedgerows was great sport and instilled safety and fieldcraft from an early age.
What gun do you use?
Caesar Guerini Essex 28-bore with 32" barrels. It has to be one of the best value off-the-peg shotguns on the market. It's pretty, well-balanced and fits me perfectly. I now use a 28-bore for all my game shooting because it's such a buzz when you get it right. I will always miss more than my fellow Guns using larger bores, which doesn't bother me at all. Because when you kill a high bird properly, it gives an immense feeling of satisfaction, and I have killed some staggering birds with this diminutive gun, which proves it is all in the mind.You have to have the confidence!
Your favourite type of shooting?
Easiest question on the list! Has to be driven grouse every time. Failing that, walked-up grouse or grouse over pointers. In fact if grouse are involved, then I am there! It's the combination of truly wild game, warp speed testing shooting and the moorland scenery. I can't afford to do it very often, but I was lucky enough to be introduced to it nearly 30 years ago (a day I remember like yesterday) and have met some generous friends along the way! Four or five days a year on grouse are the high points of my game season every year.
Your favourite shoot?
Hardest question on the list! Although any hill with heather on it is probably a fair answer. It's not just the shooting for me, it's the scenery and one of the most beautiful moors I have shot on is Dufton in Cumbria. Once atop the hill you have a full 360 degree vista of the North Lakes.And at about 2,300 feet, it's like being on top of the world, and is also one of the highest driven moors in Britain.
Are you optimistic about the future of the sport?
Yes I am.The Edwardian era has often been perceived as the golden age of shooting, but with the sport now accessible to people from
all walks of life, I think we are currently in the golden age of shooting. I read the other day that as a sport, shooting is now growing faster than golf which is a very good sign. That it is perceived by a large proportion of the general public as politically incorrect is unfortunate, so if we want to continue, it is up to us to try and educate. Further legislation and the threat of a lead ban are also worrying - as I say, it is up to us to try and educate.
What is the question you are asked most?
1. How much is 1,000 cartridges?
2. What is the best cartridge for shooting such and such?
3. How fast is such and such a cartridge?
What do you least enjoy about shooting?
Unsportsmanlike and elitist behaviour - in my experience the two often go hand in hand. This is a sport for all and we are its ambassadors, irrespective of our social standing. Sadly I come across these types of behaviour more often than I would like.You know who you are, fix it! Under the unsportsmanlike banner, shooting tame ducks is also right up there. I refuse to do it.
What do you most enjoy about shooting?
Apart from the above, what's not to like? I like to have a bit of a laugh when I am out shooting, so I don't take it (or myself) too seriously.The scenery is nice too and I enjoy remembering the birds that beat me, as well as the ones I have shot.