• The Basque Country and the ancient art of making weapons. >>
• Aguirre y Aranzabal from 1915 to 1938. >>
• Aguirre y Aranzabal from 1938 until today. >>
• Historic serial numbers. >>
From 1915 to 1938
Although the centre of the Spanish firearms industry has always been the Basque Country, another small gunmaking center existed for many years in Catalonia, near Barcelona. One of the most famous of the Barcelona gunmakers was a transplanted German, Eduardo Schilling. Word of Schilling's skill spread to the Basque Country, and two young Basque gunmakers, Miguel Aguirre and Nicolas Aranzabal, left their home in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa to work with Schilling and perfect their skills. In 1915, they returned home and went into business together as Aguirre y Aranzabal - AYA. The Basque gunmaking industry traditionally has consisted of hundreds of small shops, ranging in size from two craftsmen to two dozen. Each has its own speciality - making locks or lock blanks; soldering barrels or finishing bores; fashioning stocks or applying oil finishes. In this respect, the Basque industry closely resembles that of England's second city of gunmaking, Birmingham. In the 1800s, Birmingham's gunmaking quarter was a maze of streets lined with shops producing all manner of guns and gun parts. During working hours, the streets were filled with apprentices dashing from one shop to another, carrying bits of guns in various states of production. Today, in London, many guns with old established names are made "in the trade" - that is, by subcontracting them to outworkers - rather than in a full-time factory staffed with craftsmen. Similarly, Eibar has shops that produce locks, or barrels, or frames. Individual craftsmen either produce these bits, or are employed as outworkers, handling the overflow from larger shops. AYA began as a small shop producing components for established companies. At that time, Victor Sarasqueta was the dominant producer of long guns, but there were dozens of others, large and small, producing every manner of firearm from handguns, rifles, and military hardware, to trade guns and top quality side-by-side shotguns. AYA’s first shop was in Eibar, close to Carmelitas Church. As the company grew, it expanded and moved, first to Calle Julian Etxebarria in the center of town, and later to a large, new factory in the Vista Alegre. Each move brought larger quarters and more craftsmen, and the company’s reputation for high-quality work grew along with it.
The first half of the 20th century was a period of turmoil in Spain. From the 1880s onward, Spain was a constitutional monarchy, and its king was Alfonso XIII. Alfonso was a charming man whose great joy in life was shooting — both driven birds on the plains of Castile and the estates of England, and also live-pigeon competition. Alfonso’s tastes dictated the fashions of the day, and shooting of all kinds became a Spanish passion.
For the gunmakers of Eibar, this was a great benefit. Victor Sarasqueta, for example, was appointed “Gunmaker to the King,” and included Alfonso’s royal warrant in its catalogs for many years.
Unfortunately, the Spanish king’s skill with a gun (which was prodigious) was not matched by his skill at politics, and his reign was marred by a succession of upheavals. In 1923, General Primo de Rivera established a military dictatorship that lasted until 1930. After a brief restoration, the monarchy was replaced by a republic, but Spain’s political situation deteriorated. In July, 1936, General Francisco Franco incited the Spanish Army to revolt, and the Civil War began.
The Basque Country was, by general inclination, democratic and pro-republican. The arms-making industries of the Basque Country were a great prize, and Franco made it a priority to conquer the Basques. His forces rolled up the river valleys of the Cantabrian Mountains, taking one town after another — Elgoibar, Eibar, Ermua, Guernica. The carpetbombing of the market-town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, was a watershed in twentieth century warfare — the first mass-bombing of an undefended civilian populace. In June, Bilbao fell to Franco’s army, and, for the Basques, the war was over.
The gunmakers were put to work making guns and parts for Franco’s army. Those who had fled Eibar as the Nationalists approached (including AYA), gradually made their way back home and went back into business. After the war ended, Franco maintained a harsh hold on the Basque Country. He wanted to ensure that Basque aspirations of independence would never again threaten the Spanish state. The Basque language, Euskera, was banned from public use. It was the beginning of a long period of economic and social hardship for the Basques.
For Miguel Aguirre and Nicolas Aranzabal, however, it was the beginning of their company’s rise to become the largest and bestknown Spanish maker of fine guns.
In 1938, as the war ended, they decided to move on from making components for other companies, and began making complete guns themselves with the AYA name engraved on the barrels.