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Historic gunshops of Ballarat

by Lionel Swift 

Until quite recently, there were two historic gunshops in Ballarat just around the corner from one another. Each has an interesting past and they are both well worth a visit for anyone journeying to this celebrated city, which of course is also an attractive location in its own right.

RF Scott & Co

This magnificent establishment in Lydiard Street, Ballarat, is possibly the oldest traditional gunshop in Australia still operating solely as a specialist outlet. Richard Scott set up an exclusive gunshop in these premises in 1886 and it operated for some years under the original ownership. In those days Ballarat had a number of gunshops, but RF Scott & Co became well patronised very quickly for both firearms and its own brand of ammunition.

The early proprietors of RF Scott & Co used to pick up barrels of black powder from the nearby rail station by horse-drawn cart to load its personally designed shotgun cartridges - a procedure and transport method used by many gun dealers across Victoria and other states in the mid to late 19th century.

After RF Scott’s successful establishment, the ownership changed sooner than expected due to unusual circumstances. Richard Scott, a gun enthusiast but also a keen hunter, disappeared while pursuing his animal interests in Africa and was never heard of again. You can imagine the whispered theories expressed in that Victorian era: Was it disease from tsetse flies or mozzies? Was he eaten by a wild animal and couldn’t come home? Was he eaten by a wild woman and wouldn’t come home? The conjecture must have been endless.

Whatever the cause of Richard’s disappearance, the shop had to change hands and was taken over by Frank Butler and his wife, who at that time already ran a window blind business in Ballarat. They decided to keep the original RF Scott name for the gun business to avoid confusion regarding the two firms. Later, his sons, Bob and Joe, operated the shop for several decades. The daughter of one brother survives and has been helpful in providing the current owner with many historical anecdotes and photographs.

When the Butler brothers retired, the business was bought by Ray and Margaret Pollock and continued in similar vein until Ray suffered a fatal heart attack in the shop. Margaret went on to operate the business for some time, eventually selling to Gary Huntington, the current owner. In keeping with tradition, he too has retained the RF Scott & Co name. Gary is delighted with the reputation of his shop and enjoys sharing this history with customers, mentioning that in January this year they celebrated 130 years of continual business in the gun trade under the original name.

Gary has administered the enterprise for some four years and is assisted by staff members Vaughan and Aaron. The current premises, which purposely retains a period decor, now occupies three shopfronts of the magnificent Old Colonists’ Hall built by that society in 1888 and is still owned by them.

RF Scott & Co was also famous for almost a century because of its extensive display of old guns, particularly pistols, in the windows at the original address just several doors north in Lydiard Street from the current shop. I can personally recall visiting it in the 1950s when, in my mid-teens, it was a magnet for gun enthusiasts.

This historical collection is no longer in the window, nor even within the shop, but is said to have been donated by a previous owner to the nearby Ballarat Fine Arts Gallery just a few doors away. Regrettably, there is now no trace of these items in that otherwise magnificent gallery.

A similar fate has befallen many firearms collections around Australia, where misguided humbugs believe they ‘saved civilisation’ by destroying or concealing an important part of our history. Indeed, the Melbourne Museum, when in Swanston Street, had an extensive firearms display for many decades and sold a comprehensive catalogue of its exhibits. I am pleased to still have a copy of the book, but the display is no longer extant.

Since Gary assumed ownership of RF Scott, the extent and display of stock of modern firearms, ammunition and related accessories has increased considerably. In addition, the shop houses two specialty displays of almost ‘museum’ quality. This includes an excellent collection of Lee-Enfield and Martini rifles in remarkably good condition and a manikin of a perfectly uniformed Australian infantry sergeant of the First Australian Imperial Force, circa 1915. He is holding an appropriately dated 1915 Lee-Enfield with matching serial numbers. A number of early Lee-Enfields in perfect shape are also displayed, together with other interesting items of military origin - and I hope Gary never donates any of these to a ‘real’ museum.

Even more extensive than the military collection is a great variety of mounted trophy animals, including deer heads of many species and a magnificent full-mount fallow deer. There are also buffaloes, wild boar and game birds. Most, especially the larger examples, are mounted just below the high ceiling and extend around all walls of both adjoining shops. Indeed, the ceilings are so high that if any trophy fell, it may well exact revenge on a staff member or customers below.

Although trophy mounts are not unusual in gunshops, this display is exceptional. It reminded me nostalgically of the late Frank O’Riley’s old mont-de-piété and gunshop in High Street, Northcote in the 1950s and 1960s. However, Frank’s mounts were never as numerous, nor in such good condition. Some even appeared to have died of old age.

At the time of writing, RF Scott & Co is planning a move later this year to 3km north of Ballarat.

H Rehfisch & Co Pty Ltd

Previously just around the corner from Lydiard Street in Mair Street, but now located in Latrobe Street also in Ballarat, was another fine old gunshop - H Rehfisch & Co Pty Ltd. This shop has been in business for slightly longer than the RF Scott business, although it was not initally solely a gunshop. The original Rehfisch was a Polish migrant, who operated as a leather merchant in nearby Clunes and began selling guns in the Mair Street premises in 1906. He bought this splendid two-storey building in 1911 for £1500 ($3000) and the receipt - among other historic items - is still held by Guy Rehfisch.

Originally, general hardware was also sold up until the 1960s, when the store began specialising in firearms - a practice continued today, combined with the supply of fishing equipment and expert advice on both activities. The firm is currently under the ownership of a fifth-generation member of the Rehfisch family, Guy Rehfisch, who is assisted by five staff, including Nick Whelan and Tyler Ridgwell. This fifth-generation family succession of gunshop proprietorship must surely be an Australian record and may even be a world landmark.

While the proprietorship and business name shows no end in sight, the beautiful old Rehfisch building, constructed in 1896, has changed hands after 104 years. Earlier this year, Guy moved H Rehfisch & Co to a larger new establishment at 903 Latrobe Street together with his staff, whose number will need to increase to maybe 10.

There are some fine mounted fish trophies in the fishing department, including both saltwater and freshwater species. As well, there are a number of hunting examples including a tahr shot by Guy in New Zealand.

Look for the May 2016 edition of Australian Shooter for the full story.

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