Inside Safari Club International: the world's largest hunting convention

Maybe it was the giraffe without a torso, just its neck and tiny head left lying on the floor, its features set, seemingly unaware of the absence of body or legs, into a seraphic smile. Then again, it might have been the promotional video loop for a safari company that showed a party of hunters in some nameless expanse of African bush shooting at (but missing) a leopard, which - understandably irritated at having its afternoon disturbed - charged at its assailants and succeeded in clamping its jaws around the trousers of one of the hunting party. At this range, even they could not miss, and the leopard was no more.

But in the end, even this counterintuitive way of selling a hunting holiday ("Buy a rifle, travel to Africa... and get savaged by an extremely pissed-off big cat") paled into a wan shadow of mundanity when compared to the most extreme taxidermy diorama it has ever been my pleasure to gaze upon.

It was as if Jeff Koons, Ernest Hemingway and David LaChapelle had co-curated a natural-history exhibition, a sort of heightened realism that sees nature in terms of a nonstop action movie, depicting a bear standing triumphant over the prostrate corpse of a large walrus, being circled by wolves while an eagle perches on a nearby branch, the mise en scene artfully supplied by a photograph of a quasi-artistic, quasi-arctic seascape at sunset and a good supply of carefully arranged shingle and driftwood. Somebody had clearly spent a great deal of time and effort in getting hold of a walrus, a bear, a few wolves and an eagle to recreate this scene of everyday life on the Alaskan littoral. Had they been handing out awards for best in show, then this would have been a strong contender for the top prize - the show in question being the Safari Club International (SCI), the annual big-game hunting convention in Las Vegas.

SCI are three letters that encompass an entire way of life, a whole commercial and cultural ecosystem built around a single product: the gun and the outdoor life that comes with it.

And, each February, this world comes to life at the annual convention, sprawling over 100,000 sq m of exhibition space at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Resort on the airport end of the Las Vegas Strip, attracting tens of thousands of visitors and exhibitors from all over the world.

The feel is part major sporting event, a cup final (albeit without the cup); part trade show; part giant bazaar; and part school reunion. There is that collective sense of emotion that comes when tens of thousands of human beings who share a passion (whether for a music festival, a football match, or, in this case, the outdoor life) come together. You can sense it.

The air crackles with it. It is hard to resist. After a while, this becomes your reality and instead it is the world beyond this heterogeneous marketplace for guns, knives, scopes, safaris, shooting trips, Stetsons, scrimshaw, saddles, fur coats, furniture, taxidermy and curios of all kinds that seems strange.

This Glastonbury of the gun had rather small beginnings.

Back in April 1971, 47 like-minded individuals formed the Safari Club of Los Angeles. In March the following year, it united with the Safari Club of Chicago, changed its name to Safari Club International, one thing led to another and eventually it ended up taking over the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Resort.

As to what the poor boy from Shepherd's Bush was doing here in his natty tweed suits and dainty shoes - well, I was researching my book about Beretta, the 500-year-old firearms dynasty and the world's oldest industrial concern still in the hands of its founding family. In America, it is a brand that inspires the same sort of loyalty that you usually find in serial Hermes handbag-owning women.

It was the day before the opening of the convention and the main exhibition space sprawled beneath me as I surveyed the fevered preparation from the upper storey of the Beretta booth.

I got the sense of looking out over a giant nomadic city with temporary structures almost as far as the eye could see, ranging from the citadel-meets-safari-lodge solidity of the Beretta stand, to the simple table with a few laminated photo albums and photocopied order forms that characterised the more humble operations, which offered the chance to go and shoot some recondite mountain goat in some obscure part of Eastern Europe, or some antlered animal in remotest New Zealand.

The saddler left his pliers and revolver on the table.

He had no anxiety - there was more chance of his pliers going missing than his gun

I was ensconced in a leather armchair, sitting with Franco Beretta in an area walled by rack after rack of engraved SO10 shotguns (the Ferrari of firearms), and yet it was as if this small arsenal (worth, at a conservative estimate, GBP3.3 million) was just wallpaper. And that was just a small section of one booth.

All across the giant room, and on another floor above, firearms were left... well, lying about, and they might as well have been sanitary fittings or bathroom taps at a trade show for all the interest that was being paid to them, as stand constructors and forklift operators, cleaners and carpenters, truck drivers and electricians went about their business.

One image summed it up for me. I walked around and was drawn to the stand of a saddler specialising in the sort of heavily tooled and decorated leatherwork that you could never mistake for Hermes.

He had clearly just popped out for a cigarette or to obey the call of nature, but you could tell he was coming back as he had left his pliers, his crocodile-skin holster and his revolver (with matching crocodile-covered butt, of course) lying on the table. He clearly had no anxiety about it not being there when he got back - after all, there were guns everywhere, so why should he worry that someone would nick his? There was probably more chance of his pliers going missing as the work to erect the stands intensified.

In many ways, the guns were the least remarkable objects on display, there were so many other claims on one's attention.

I was hypnotised by a dining table featuring a relief woodcarving depicting mass migration of wildebeest, and everywhere I turned there was a piece of extreme taxidermy. Stuffed lions were two a penny - well, not quite a penny, but you get my drift. And why on earth should you settle for an elephant's foot umbrella stand when at the SCI there was an entire stuffed elephant to look at?

As the taupe blouson draped over one of its tusks demonstrated, it made the perfect coatstand. There were any number of giraffes (if 5 Hertford Street ever runs out of them, they can come and resupply here). A synthetic rockery crawling with mountain lions bore the signage of Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios: company mission statement "Designing & Building World Class Trophy Rooms" (and yes, people really do have these things put in their houses).

Coming a close second to the bear and walrus combo, there was a cape buffalo being brought down by a pair of lions. In fact, pretty much anything with fur or feathers that could be shot had been shot, stuffed and put on display.

My experience of trade shows has, on the whole, been a less Laurens van der Post or Wilbur Smith business of attending the annual Basel and Geneva watch fairs. But rewind a couple of years or so to February 2013, and I was having dinner in the West End of London with Franco Beretta.

I tend to forget that Franco is a large-scale manufacturer of firearms. He is such a nice bloke and so easygoing that it is easy for the million or so guns that his eponymous company makes 
each year to slip the mind. But, technically speaking, I suppose you would call him an armaments baron, if only for supplying the likes of James Bond with his handgun and that band of brothers known as the United States Army with theirs.

However, it is making sporting shotguns and rifles that is the core of Beretta's activity and, over dinner, Franco asked if I would be interested in writing a book about his family's firm.

I have shot (or perhaps, more accurately, missed) clay targets for a number of years. I came to game shooting rather late in life, and have found to my surprise that I rather like it. Moreover, as I have written one or two history books, I found it rather appealing that Beretta can trace its roots back to at least 1526, since when it has remained in the hands of the founding family.

A fine old northern Italian firm from Gardone, a town in the Italian pre-Alps indissolubly associated with the manufacture of firearms, Beretta had once supplied the Venetian republic with arquebus barrels to fight off the invading forces of the Ottoman emperor. I fondly imagined myself spending many happy days in the company's archives and museum, interspersed with the occasional trip to Venice to consult some highly important documents (among which I would count the menu at Harry's Bar).

Somehow I did not envisage my research taking me to the check-in queue of the Mandalay Bay Hotel on a February afternoon after a lengthy flight from London. But as well as being Italian, Beretta is also a big American company.

When Beretta won the tender to supply the United States Army with its sidearm back in the Eighties, there was some bitching from the losers. It is not as if the US does not have some perfectly good gunmakers of its own: Colt, Winchester and Browning among them, so to lose out to an Italian firm was, to say the least, embarrassing. But, in addition to making the better gun, Beretta also had a manufacturing facility in Maryland, so even if the name on the gun was not American, the workers who made them would be.

I do not really get Las Vegas. I really wish that most of what happened in Vegas really did actually stay there.

But instead this neon city in the desert is celebrated and mythologised in literature (granted, Fear And Loathing is not Turgenev, but it is amusing and required reading in one's late teens). And maybe it is the proximity to Los Angeles, but American cinema seems to be under some kind of legal obligation to make a certain quota of films every year either about, or including, plenty of scenes of desert debauchery amid the slot machines. And it has received the ultimate 21st-century accolade that sine qua non of modern city status - its very own police procedural show, the original CSI.

Still, at least the name Las Vegas (literally "the meadows" in Spanish) shows that the American sense of humour is a well-developed one, as a less bucolic place than Las Vegas it is hard to imagine.

So while we in England dutifully hold the Game Fair, that Woodstock of the countryside - actually in Woodstock at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, in the gently undulating parkland of the Duke of Marlborough's residence - in America, the most important convention dedicated to the American love of the outdoors is actually held in a place where there is no natural light and where, for the entirety of my four-day stay, I ventured out into the bracing Nevada air only once upon my arrival and once again on my departure from the Mandalay Bay.

There are many Americans for whom their country is not so far removed from the frontier nation celebrated in endless Westerns

Las Vegas is as much a giant convention centre as it is an adult playground. From the unexpected (the Roller Skating Association's Annual Convention & Trade Show); to the quotidian (the National Association of Pizzeria Operators' Annual International Pizza Expo), to the globally significant (the annual CES innovation technology show), the giant ballrooms and exhibition halls of the neon city in the desert host a bewildering panoply of trade shows.

The city's iron grip on the cultural consciousness of not merely America but the entire world means that, for many, to visit Las Vegas - with its golf courses, its restaurants, its shows, its Brobdingnagian resorts and, of course, its gambling - is to live the dream. However it was a rather larger dream that I was looking for in Las Vegas: the American Dream.

Seeing the throngs of cheerful firearms enthusiasts ambling along the motorway-wide walkways past the food courts, beverage vendors, slot machines and roulette tables, and surging underneath the banner welcoming them to the Safari Club International annual convention, brings to mind a more orderly and better-behaved rerun of the first day of the January sales: there is the same expectant enthusiasm, just without the sharp elbows.

Indeed, so good-natured was the atmosphere that it was only on the second day of the convention that it struck me. I surveyed a trestle table presenting a vista of firearms that stretched off into the distance as far as the lens of the camera on my iPhone could see, and then I looked up to see a giant poster depicting Wayne LaPierre of the NRA beaming a welcome smile directly at me. It was then that the reality hit: namely that I was attending one of those sinister-sounding gun fairs that one reads about periodically where guns are sold with unfettered ease to children barely out of pushchairs.

Should the stereotypical Guardian reader actually exist, then I imagine his or her attendance at the SCI would be like a vegetarian being taken on a tour of an abattoir.

The firearms tragedies that punctuate life in the US are exactly that - tragedies.

It is impossible to see them as anything else. However, it is very easy to demonise the gun lobby, seeing in every American gun owner a massacre in waiting. And, of course, arguments along the lines that it is not guns that kill but people, run the risk, at best, of trivialising genuine calamities.

The thing was, had I questioned any of the people around me about it, I expect they would have agreed that these were indeed terrible events. Often it is people not that different to those attending this event whose lives are touched by shootings in towns that you and I have never heard of.

Sitting in the Village or the Upper West Side or, for that matter, in Notting Hill, it is easy to solve the problem: simply restrict the supply of guns. However once outside metropolitan areas, the American relationship with the gun becomes rather more difficult to disentangle from the essence of what it is to be American.

To take away their firearms would be to rob many Americans of a strong part of their identity

It may sound strange and slightly corny to those of us on this side of the Atlantic, but there are many Americans for whom the country in which they live is not so far removed from the notion of the frontier nation celebrated and mythologised in endless Westerns.

And, travelling from overcrowded south-east England to the large and sparsely populated wilds of America, it is possible to sense why a gun might be considered a natural part of life - without the concrete beneath one's feet and the background hum of sleepless human activity that characterises city life, it's easy to feel vulnerable. I spoke to a well-known American musician who had moved to Montana and he talked about how people there grew up with guns and learned to respect them from an early age.

At this show, offering everything from extreme taxidermy to rifle scopes that did everything but pull the trigger for you, I learned just how embedded the gun is into the American psyche. We bandy the term "gun culture" without actually beginning to think what that means.

Shooting, or hunting as it is known in the US, is not an elite sport like it is in the UK. If you tell an American that a 500-bird day on a good shoot in Britain will cost you about GBP50 a bird before you have factored in cartridges, accommodation and tips for butlers, loaders, keepers and so on, they will look at you in disbelief.

For many of them, the idea of driving three hours cross country to spend a day at a Bass Pro shop (Bass Pro is a hunting, fishing and outdoors outfitter that is also a sort of themed experience, with restaurant, coffee shop and plenty of stuffed animals scampering over synthetic rocks) is the very definition of quality family time. To take away their firearms would be to rob many of them of a strong part of their identity.

I explained to normal rational, educated and successful professional people I met in the course of my travels around the US how in the UK there are checks on mental health, and how a police officer will visit a potential shotgun owner in his home, interview him, examine carefully the cabinet in which a gun is stored and make sure that only the certificate holder, rather than any unlicensed member of the family, has access to the keys - precautions that you and I might regard as sensible, but that they regard as an intolerable infringement of personal liberty.

In the rural US, a fair bit of which I have seen in the course of researching my book, a firearm is viewed much as a washing machine, or a piece of agricultural machinery.

For some it is a tool, for others it is an instrument of enjoyment, and for many it is a part of their identity. Firearms ownership is a strong component of who many Americans think they are, much in the way that the legally enshrined right to drive at lunatic speeds along certain stretches of the autobahn is the cherished birthright of those who live in the otherwise logical, clean, on the whole safe and at times really rather predictable country of Germany.

In the end, I decided against trying to smuggle back a giraffe head into the UK, and nor did I think that I would have had much luck bringing back a semi-automatic shotgun in my luggage. A couple of weeks after I got back to London I had another rather less agreeable encounter with a gun.

I woke one morning to find a bullet hole in my car and spent shell cases lying around the street. The bullet had entered the car near the petrol tank shattering the fuel cap of my relatively new Fiat 500 Abarth, causing the sort of damage that is likely to lead to a hefty increase in my insurance premium. It is not the first time that I have found a bullet in my car.

The last time was a few years ago when local entrepreneurs seemed to be attempting to settle a disagreement with exchanges of gunfire - ludicrous when, given the runaway house-price inflation in London, I live in a street where I would be unable to afford to buy the house I now inhabit.

Strange to think that I felt safer surrounded by countless firearms in Las Vegas than I do on the streets of London.

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