It was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new age. On the final day of the 2017 SHOT Show all the business and gossip came to a halt, and we inaugurated a new President.
The fear is gone, and that put the spring in our steps even on the fourth day of the show. But the big topic of conversation during the show was: “What now?”
Companies no longer can run the CNC machines round the clock and expect to sell every stripped lower they make for $100 a unit. (I personally own the strippedlowers.com domain and don’t expect to find a buyer any time soon!) The folks who turn pallets of pellets from Dupont into full-capacity magazines are also looking at the end of an era when everything sells. Maybe some of the ammo makers are still capacity-limited and would happily add a few more of those massive presses (what one friend calls “money faucets”), if they could get their hands on them. But our industry is at a crossroads.
For the past eight years, we were easily selling anything customers feared would be banned, and now those anti-gun politicians are so far out of favor it seems like only a faint memory. That “silver lining” age was during a generally lousy economy, no matter how the politicians cooked the statistical books. Now, with the Dow breaking records and optimism at new highs we will likely have a more prosperous customer base, but one that is less motivated. The clouds have cleared, but the silver lining has also disappeared.
One exhibitor put it this way: “For 8 years we’ve been selling, but worried that there’d be a new law telling we ‘can’t make’ any more of our stuff. Now, we know we can make all we want, but we ‘can’t sell’ what we make because customers aren’t motivated.”
How to sell to these prosperous but blasé customers? To a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and to a gun patent attorney, everything looks like an invention. But I truly believe that the companies that will have fared best as we celebrate Trump’s second inaugural at SHOT 2021 will be those that will have focused on INNOVATION.
I don’t know how many of you have faced my question, but the first thing I ask any maker of AR-15 rifles is: “So, what sets your ARs apart from the competition?” I ask this of start-up companies I’m meeting for the first time, of my established clients, and of their toughest competitors. Some have a good answer (“We’re the market leader in fully ambidextrous controls”). Some have lame answers like “We make them precisely,” or “Ours are machined from billet.” Guess which ones are more likely to be around in four years?
The best candidates are the ones that can say: “We’ve developed a superior system that makes our rifles measurably more accurate/clean/cheap.” Or even: “Are you blind? Our rifle looks like no other!”
I also grant major respect to those who can persuade me that they’re using a respected trademark that carries years of good reputation and suggests desirable qualities. But be careful relying on a brand name alone to sell the same old stuff. That asset becomes depleted if not continually replenished by maintaining a reputation for innovation and superior product. Investing in promoting your valuable brand is smart. But investing in innovation that secures and builds the brand value for generations to come is even more important.
Because I see hundreds of firearms innovations a year, I’m especially sensitive to the differences between the innovators and the “No, nothing new this year” exhibitors at SHOT. But I don’t think I’m the only one who can get good sense of which companies are going to prosper in the Trump era, and which aren’t. You probably can too. The hardest thing is to be honest with yourself about your own business.
The “SHOT Show Plague”
I’m starting to think that the health effects of attending the SHOT Show are more than just a running joke among us. The reality is that few of us can afford to miss the SHOT Show. It’s economically unthinkable for any key player in a firearms industry company to miss even a day. And while I’ve never had to attend while seriously ill, I’d still attend even if I had any bug that didn’t leave me bedridden. I’d not shake hands, and take other precautions, but no matter how hard the infected folks try, illness spreads. I share this so no one think I’m blaming the carriers of the bugs that risk ending up in our systems.
Some call it the SHOT Show “crud,” but that seems too limiting, suggesting chest congestion – while there are a multitude of different bugs and symptoms that don’t just “stay in Vegas.” I call it the “Plague” because that encompasses the unlimited miseries that risk plaguing us all.
I’m not whining, and was lucky that my six hours of fever, aches and chills was during an evening, so I missed only a great Blue Force Gear reception, but not a workday or a night’s sleep. The next day I tried to restrict myself to a healthy handshake alternative: the Buddhist’s steepled prayerful hands and slight bow.
I have a suggestion for the Show planners: There is a real risk that one of the major talked-about effects of the show (up there with selling and networking) is the risk of becoming sick, and that’s not good for the reputation of the show or of our industry. My suggestion follows the pattern of the cruise ship industry that often faces costly bad PR for shipboard outbreaks of norovirus. In response, cruise lines have enacted special measures to sanitize public surfaces, and to provide automatic hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance to every public room, especially dining venues. I believe that several hundred (or more) of these units could make a real difference in cutting down on the spread of illness. One placed at the end of every aisle, one at every entrance where a guard is stationed, and maybe one in your booth as a service to your guests (more if you have a big booth)?
There might even be an opportunity for an entrepreneur here. Sell these $350 units at cost to exhibitors (this one is from Uline.com – a conservative family business), and put a nice sign on them with the exhibitor’s brand, reminding guests how much the company cares about their health. Then provide refill service at a daily rate. The exhibitor will have a much healthier and productive staff, and their customers will appreciate the TLC.
The realistic alternative is that the NSSF can use the public units as a sponsorship opportunity, and offer refill services as an upsell to exhibitors, much like providing power to your booth.
On another health and comfort note, I recklessly wore brand new dress shoes for the show. But thanks to Karmen’s Northern European influence (where clothes are expensive but high-quality, and closets are small) it was the best footwear experience in my 16 years walking the SHOT Show floor. The lesson is that you really do get what you pay for in men’s dress shoes.
Hearing Protection Act
One top topic on everyone’s lips (our chapped lips – nothing like desert air and non-stop talking to take chapped lips to a level requiring weapons grade lip balm) was the Hearing Protection Act. No one doubts that Trump will sign whatever hits his desk.
Will Congress work this out? My old friend Doc Dater told me he didn’t think the current bill is very good, but like the rest of us supports the concept. I agree that it’s politically dumb to include a rebate of past or recent fees paid for the transfer tax. When you’re fighting to restore liberties, don’t add a price tag to give anyone an excuse to oppose it.
I presume the law will treat suppressors like pistols, with a serial number on a key part like the tube or mount and requiring a Form 4473 and Brady check for each buyer. Not my ideal solution, but if hobbyists can experiment and make their own without any record keeping (just like pistols in most states) then at least the benefits of innovation will be enjoyed.
As I wrote last year, I predict that passage of the Act will transform our industry. When I asked around at the Show for past examples of “disruptions” that changed the face of the industry in our lifetimes, the only two I heard that might compare are:
- Polymer-framed pistols.
- “The Rail.”
My main thought is not that regulatory reform will change things overnight, but that it will unleash a firestorm of innovation (there’s my favorite word again) that will flood us with new inventions. I’ve predicted we’ll see “disposable” suppressors that last for maybe a magazine or two before failing safely. I think the $99 can will be a reality, perhaps the most popular one sold.
One new concept that I got at one SHOT booth visit was the idea of the “two-speed” suppressor. With the basic muzzle attachment that only minimally adds to the length of the firearm, you get maybe 15db noise reduction. Add the rest of the can, and you get another 15db. So, it’s like a muzzle brake that always stays with your gun but also makes it easier on the ears, with the option to make it much quieter as needed.
If I were helping draft the law, I’d make it clear that adapters that have no sound reduction effect on their own are not restricted, so connectors for oil filters and pop bottles are unregulated ($9.99 in a display rack next to the gun shop cash register). Nor are wipes, baffles or other replacement parts other than the main tube or mount. And let there be no doubt that manufacturing for research or personal use is not regulated.
Next month will be my first visit to IWA, Europe’s answer to the SHOT Show. I’m told that it’s more relaxed, but that appointments are more common than booth drop-ins. While I’m looking forward to meeting European companies needing my services to file US versions of their patents to get protection in our market, my main objection is simply to check out the event, learn whether it makes sense for me to add this to my annual travel schedule. Most of all, I look forward to seeing many of the clients and friends I missed at SHOT, or didn’t have the time I wanted to spend.
If you’ll be at IWA, let me know so we can connect at the show, or after hours in the old town for traditional German cuisine and beverages. I welcome any tips on how to make the most of the show and environs, and look forward to seeing friends. Be sure to email me if you’ll be there.