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AYA, Aguirre y Aranzabal

The Basque Country consists of three provinces in northeastern Spain, with the Pyrenees to the east and the Bay of Biscay to the north. It is a land of steep green mountains, hidden valleys, and rugged coastlines.

The Basque Country – El Pais Vasco – is an ancient land, and its inhabitants have dwelt in its mountains since the dawn of mankind. The Basques are believed to be the last of the original Europeans, with their own language and unique culture. They are seafarers and fishermen. Fishing villages dot the coast like pearls, and great navigators have sailed from Basque ports to explore every corner of the earth.

With a wealth of water power and substantial iron deposits, however, the Basque Country is also an ancient industrial centre. Steelmaking and manufacturing have been mainstays of the Basque economy for centuries.

From the beginning, the Basques were great arms makers. They began with swords, spears and shields, and graduated naturally to gunmaking when gunpowder was discovered and the technology swept through Europe in the late 1200s. The center of Basque gunmaking is the town of Eibar, situated in a narrow mountain valley cut by the Ego River.

For centuries, gunmaking has been the raison d’être for Eibar’s 28,000 inhabitants. It is home to the Escuela de Armeria – the gunmakers’ school – as well as the government proof house (Banco de Pruebas) which proof-tests every shotgun made in Spain.

The era of fine gunmaking in the English tradition began in the Basque Country during the Peninsular War, when Napoleon’s troops were driven out of Spain by Spanish guerrillas and British forces under the Duke of Wellington. Wellington’s officers took home gun barrels of Spanish steel (Spanish steel was renowned for its strength) and had them made into fowling pieces by London gunmakers such as the Manton brothers.

This gave birth to a strong bond between London, the commercial capital of the world, and Bilbao, the Basque port and center of banking, shipping, and iron mining.

The Basques shipped iron ore to Britain, and sailed home with cargos of British coal. The close commercial ties between London and Bilbao throughout the 1800s naturally led to exchanges of technology and technique; as the English perfected the game gun in the late 1800s, the passion for fine guns crossed the Bay of Biscay and established itself in the Basque Country.

If John Manton was the father of English gunmaking – making artists out of blacksmiths, as James Purdey described it – then Victor Sarasqueta was the father of the Basque fine-gun trade. Sarasqueta established his company in 1881, and for the next hundred years set a high standard for Spanish “best” guns. Although Sarasqueta was the oldest, however, his company was not the largest, nor was it the most famous.

That honour belongs to a firm founded in 1915 by Miguel Aguirre and Nicolas Aranzabal – Aguirre y Aranzabal, known around the world as AYA.