The Lone Star State has 8 500 gun dealers and more than 22 million firearms but when a visiting Texan walked into Australia’s oldest continuously operated gun shop, R.F. Scott & Co in Ballarat, Victoria he couldn’t conceal his excitement.
“What a great shop,” the Texan exclaimed.
The compliment caught current owner Gary Huntington by surprise given the ready access to firearms in the United States and in comparison, the limited legal range he
could display for the Texan tourist.
The Texan’s reaction was nothing to do with the range on offer; it was that the shop looked nothing like a department store.
“This sir is your traditional gun shop, they are all like Kmarts now and the atmosphere isn’t there.”
At Scott’s the lighting is adequate but not overpowering, the space below the high ceilings is lined with taxidermy, shotguns, old trophies and Anzac memorabilia The patina on the benches is genuine and the displays follow the intricacies of the old building. Scott’s is the polar opposite of the modern retail outlet with flashing neon signposts to product categories.
It is a man cave; a place where a hunter’s instinct is useful and where the joy of self-discovery is still possible. You don’t just browse; you are swallowed up like when Jonah met the whale.
The Ballarat institution is celebrating 130 years and throughout its long history the business has occupied premises in the central business district. It has also resisted changes that have driven other retailers to fancy displays, bright lighting and easy navigation.
Scott’s still clings to its workshop past when gunsmiths (and locksmiths) worked behind the counter and guns were test fired through small holes drilled in the floorboards or taken into the back alley where pigeons on the police station roof were within range.
R. F. Scott & Co gunsmiths first established on Main Rd in 1886 during the gold rush era.
Richard F. Scott was an importer and well known big game hunter and the business thrived by selling guns, ammunition and bikes to the miners. A horse and dray would be dispatched to the Ballarat Railway Station to cart barrels of black powder back to the store.
The business remained in Main Rd until 1890, when it and many others burnt down in a blaze that destroyed some of the boom town’s oldest buildings.
Frank Butler took over the business and re-established in Sturt St with the shop at one end and the ammunition factory down the road.
During the early 1900s the firm directly imported the worlds’ finest shotguns from famous makers such as Webley & Scott, C. G.Bonehill, John Rigby & Co, W. W. Greener, W.J. Jeffrey & Co and Holland & Holland.
In the early days the popular 8 and 10gauge shells as well as 12, 16 and 20 gauge
shells were loaded on the premises andadvertised as being suitable for pigeon and
By 1933 Arthur Butler had taken over and he moved the business to Lydiard St. A larger shop was needed eventually and after 36 years Scott’s shifted but remained in Lydiard St where it has been a constant presence for 83 years.
The Butler brothers Bob and Joe operated as gunsmiths and locksmiths there until 1985. Bobby was the front man, the people person and for a couple of generations of shooters he was the best.
Gary Huntington was in the middle of a 40-year career driving interstate tankers when he first walked into Scott’s.
“In 1970 I first started coming in here.
“I used to go to Evans & Balfour in Melbourne and I came up here and they were such terrific people, really friendly, so I’d come up and buy three shotguns in one hit and take them back to town.”
Gary said he was hooked on hunting from an early age.
“The old man brought me a Brno Model2, I got it for my 13th birthday but I started off with an old Sportco, I thought that was Christmas,” he said.
“We were from Melbourne but we used to go shooting over at Cairn Curran Reservoir and all that, those were the days, you could shoot 20 rabbits before the rest of them knew what was going on.”
Shooting rabbits was a common pastime, whether it was sneaking onto the rifle range at Williamstown or the munitions dump at Altona.
“As a kid I worked in Melbourne and I used to go down to E. Dark & Co, I was 15 and I bought half a dozen Sportco barrels, I’ve still got them at home, brand new in the grease.
“I was just mad on guns; I’d buy anything just for the sake of it.”
When he was living in Kyneton and working at a nearby abattoir Gary would get up every morning, sling a gun over his shoulder and walk to the end of the residential street to hunt — nobody batted an eyelid.
“The police weren’t even interested mate, but they’d be there every day for a pair of rabbits.
“You would pick up half a dozen rabbits in the morning during summer easy and the local cop, the old sergeant got wind of it.
“He actually said to me one day ‘can you lift your shot a little bit I had to give that last one to the cat you bruised it so much’.”
In the 1970s acquiring guns and ammunition was easy; acquiring knowledge was harder.
In Bobby Butler, Gary Huntington had found someone who shared his enthusiasm but who possessed a greater depth of knowledge.
“You could go into Myer in Melbourne and buy guns, there was ammunition on any corner, any milk bar down in Williamstown or anywhere there was a pack of .22 ammunition sitting there and the ICIL Special shotgun shells , they were unbelievable times.
“Bobby Butler used to go down to Melbourne and buy guns from there and he would bring them back on the train, imagine throwing guns on a train now?”
“He always wore a hat, a dust coat and collar and tie. He was a top bloke, always smiling although they said he was always smiling because he’d just nipped over the road to the George Hotel for a shot of whisky.
“He was 12 when he left school to work in the shop so he knew everything about it. There wasn’t a thing he couldn’t answer, he was out fishing and shooting all the time, it was a pleasure to have known him.”
Entering the store was an experience according to Gary; the clatter of the workshop and the occasional but unmistakable crack of a gunshot.
“It was just a great atmosphere, you would come in and Bobby would get anything in you wanted within a week.
“He’d be there with the collar and tie and the dust coat and I remember he’d have a piece there under the dust coat in case there was trouble.
“They used to reload their own ammo years ago and sell it back to the general public, it was incredible.”
Bobby and his brother Joe Butler spent a combined 74 years working at the gun shop.
On his retirement Bobby told the Ballarat Courier he was stepping aside to “catch up on some shooting and fishing.
“I’m going to miss the shop, but we’ve got to get out sooner or later,” Bobby told the local paper.
“There’s a lot of nice people in the sporting game, although there are some terrible story tellers,” he said. “One chap almost convinces himself with the stories he tells.”
Gary Huntington would eventually take over a shop with a lot of tall tales attached and piles of historical gun parts.
“When we took over the shop we were finding stuff out there but a lot of the historical stuff had been squirrelled out long before I came in.
“We threw out I don’t know how many tins of hammers, muzzle loading stuff and shotgun springs , there were just boxes and boxes and I mean tonnes of it.”
The shop passed from the Butler family to Ray and Margret Pollock who operated it for 26 years. Margaret ran it alone afterher husband’s death and eventually she decided to sell up.
“I never thought I’d buy this shop I can tell you,” Gary explained.
“I was a tanker driver but I spent a fortune at gun shops, I was getting good money and I could have two or three lay-bys going in different places I travelled through.
“This came up for sale and after 40 years in interstate transport my wife said why don’t you get off the road and buy it.”
After a discussion with Margaret the decision was made partly on the basis that Australia’s oldest gun shop was a pretty safe bet.
“We figured you couldn’t go wrong with it, it’s been through the great depression and two world wars and survived.”
Gary’s dealer’s licence and permits took longer than he expected and a council officer informed him that a gun shop wasn’t exactly the sort of business favoured for the central business district.
“The only reason we are still here is because of the heritage, it is part of Ballarat’s history,” he said.
Nothing is forever though and Gary is contemplating a move in 2016.
“We’ve just run out of room,” he said.
He promises that the new premises will reflect the history of R.F. Scott and Co.
“We’ll paint it out with heritage colours, we will still have the old string holders from the 1800s dangling from the roof.
“When you have Australia’s oldest continuous gun shop you’re not going to make it into a modern Kmart, it has to have that atmosphere there with all the old memorabilia on the walls.”
Another thing that won’t change is R.F. Scott’s support of Field & Game. Scott’s has supported the Ballarat Field & Game Branch since its formation and Aaron Edmondson, who by day is Scott’s shotgun expert, is a committee member.