By Massad Ayoob
A recent trend in the firearms retail industry is the operation that is a combination gun shop and shooting range, with luxury melded into the design theme. The following has become a common experience for customers who visit these new ranges: They’ll pull up to a vast edifice (usually brick) and it looks like it houses the headquarters of a good-sized insurance company. Inside, they may even be met at a reception desk. Things branch out from there.
There will be a retail area. Spacious! Generally, the floors will be carpeted or hardwood. Rifles and shotguns will be like the handguns: not necessarily under glass in showcases, but along the walls behind the counters. As with the handguns, the customer will have to ask to see them.
Staff will be nicely dressed, often wearing uniform polos with the establishment’s logo. More often than not, they have pistols on their hips and have been trained to be friendly and welcoming. Staff may number in the dozens — both part-time and full-time.
There will very likely be a small refreshment area, perhaps even a real café. It will be spotless.
There will be ranges, generally all indoors. There might be bays reaching out to 50 or even 100 yards. For some ranges, there may well be a simulator which projects situations in front of the shooter, who engages with laser-emitting “guns” or perhaps even live ammunition. A computer will record the shooter’s score, and let him or her know whether they should have fired (or whether they shouldn’t have) and there will probably be a coach there to go into deeper details with the shooter.
There will be classrooms, usually enhanced with state-of-the art audio/visual gear. Teaching is a staple source of income for these establishments.
However, there isn’t really a name for them yet. “Gun SuperStores” only covers the retail side. How about “Shooter Palace” or “Guntry Club?” These probably come closer to the total experience. Let’s look at a few examples.
Liberty Firearms Institute
Just a couple months ago, my significant other and I visited the new Liberty Firearms Institute in Johnstown, Colo. In the few hours spent there, we had an experience very different from a “traditional” brick-and-mortar store. For example, we went between multiple floors by elevator (y’all don’t see that at every gun shop). We also rolled the crank on a meticulously authentic Gatling gun. The room shook as the heavy .45-70 slugs chugged into the innovative shredded rubber backstop. We noticed the ammo wasn’t reloads out of a progressive machine: it was top-of-the-line Hornady .45-70, down to the little colored tips.
A tour of the simulation was immediately impressive — as these things usually are! We also fell in love with the small, separate range with almost too many brightly colored steel knockdowns to count. Plinking tin cans off the back fence has been elevated to the ultimate level of the game here. To cap it all off, we ordered some ammo shipped to our next destination; and it was available at a fair price, quickly expedited by courteous, skillful professionals.
Liberty Firearms Institute is not cheap. No one eats at a five-star restaurant and expects McDonald’s pricing. One does it for the ambiance and the atmosphere — and LFI delivered.
Heritage Training And Shooting Center
Whereas Kansas is so gun-friendly that it passed permitless concealed carry last year, Maryland is on the other end of the spectrum. CCW is tough to get, with only a relative handful of carry permits out. Nonetheless, a long-time heritage of American pride keeps home protection guns a booming business (no pun intended), and some of the best waterfowl hunting in the world keeps demand up for breakthrough hunting shotguns.
Heritage Training And Shooting Center has been a success story since its opening in June 2015. When it comes to curb appeal, this facility has it in spades — recently winning an excellence in construction award. It has two state-of-the-art 25-yard ranges, a virtual reality simulation lab and is one of Maryland’s largest firearm retail shops. In addition to these offerings, Heritage also provides a service to help its customers apply for and secure licenses and transfer firearms.
The company also recently introduced Complete Confidence Memberships, which provide a “streamlined opportunity” to help firearm users access the center’s training and practice facilities to create “more responsible gun owners.” This program includes three membership levels to cater to the varying needs of its customer base: Heritage Complete, Heritage Core and Introductory Shooter.
Thunderbird Firearms Academy
In the summer of 2015, I attended the opening of the fabulous Thunderbird facility. The spacious retail area is packed with everything from starter .22s to the sort of gear a professional shooter would take to a 3-Gun championship match. It maintains a very strong emphasis on training — with everything on the program from basic level to advanced courses — that draw students from a multi-state radius. More than a year after its debut, all reports I’ve heard indicate the place is crowded and business is excellent on every side of the operation. In case you missed it, we profiled Thunderbird’s early success last year in this column (Nov. 2015). You can get more information on the facility here: www.thunderbirdguns.com.
Scottsdale Gun Club Academy
One of the first such establishments created to fill the “elite” niche, Scottsdale Gun Club (SGC) remains busy, flourishing in fact — and not all of its regulars are rich. Its indoor range has 32 air-conditioned shooting lanes, a very important selling point during the blistering hot summer months. The range also features a programmable, rotating target system. It maintains a fleet of over 250 rental firearms, including handguns, long guns and even machine guns. SGC offers a variety of membership options for individuals or families; thanks to strong community support, members receive extended benefits from several other local businesses as well.
Some of you may be wondering: what’s the downside to setting up one of these operations? Well, the initial investment is in the millions; the risk is huge. To succeed, they must be located in an area of large population density. These aren’t local convenience stores — many of their customers are making destination trips with the expectation of a day or so of recreation. A key income stream for all of them is memberships. They’re selling constant access, identity and a sense of being “special” in that particular environment.