U.S. firearms industry today: Surge Rockets Sales, yet industry still faces challenges.

Author:Thurman, Russ

It's been history-making on an unprecedented scale. The industry posted extraordinary firearm sales during the seven months beginning in November 2008. Driven initially by the "Obama Factor," consumers converged on gun stores in record numbers. Sales mostly centered on self-defense firearms and modern rifles--those gun buyers believe could be banned by the Obama administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress.

The FBI's National Instant Criminal Background system conducted more than 9.1 million checks during the November '08 through May '09 period, a 27.7-percent increase over the same months of 2007 and 2008. While the number of background checks does not reflect actual firearms sold, it's the most reliable indicator of customer activity.

Ruger reports its firearm sales during the first quarter of 2009 grew 55.5 percent over the same period in 2008.

"The level of demand for our products during the first quarter of 2009 has been unusually high, with more than 500,000 units ordered," said Mike Fifer, Ruger CEO.

Smith & Wesson reports its third fiscal quarter firearm sales were $78.5 million, a 27.5-percent increase.

"Sales of handguns and tactical rifles into our consumer channel for the third quarter grew 62 percent over the prior year," said Mike Golden, president and CEO.

Remington's overall annual net sales grew in 2008 by $102 million, according to Ted Torbeck, CEO of Remington Arms and its parent company, Freedom Group Inc.

"Improvements occurred in our firearms segment, which was up 34.7 percent," Torbeck said.

Beretta U.S.A. Corp. reports an "outstanding first quarter."

"First-quarter sales were up 66 percent compared to last year," said Gary Ramey, VP of sales and marketing.

Glock reports a 36-percent increase in U.S. pistol sales for fiscal year 2009 compared to 2008.

The remarkable firearm (and ammunition) sales since November have not touched every segment of the industry. Companies outside the self-defense and black-rifle market have experienced soft sales, at best. Some are struggling to the point of bankruptcy. The industry can expect numerous acquisitions in the later part of 2009.

New Dynamic, Be Vigilant

The unusual length of the buying surge is an indication of a new dynamic in the customer base. While consumers worried about anti-gun laws made the initial purchases, the third and fourth waves of customers were not driven by fear.

"The sales upswing is not a normal panic. In fact, it is not a panic at all; it is a phenomenon. In our case, 80 percent of the buyers were either first- or second-time gun buyers. They are new, special and unique to the culture," said Miles Hall, of H&H Gun Range in Oklahoma City.

On the political front, should the industry be concerned about anti-gun efforts by the Obama administration and Congress?

"Be vigilant. The administration has more than enough to do. But we have to be aware of who is talking about gun issues, and the circumstances that might cause them to think about restrictions," said Ron Coburn, Savage Arms CEO.

ATF's Annual Data

The industry continues to grow, according to the ATF's 2007 Annual Firearms Manufacturing and Export Report, the latest data available from the bureau. While the ATF report is a bit "historical," it's the only data available on actual unit production by U.S. manufacturers.

In 2007, U.S. manufacturers produced 3,860,130 firearms, the largest number since 1995, and Smith & Wesson was the number one U.S. firearms manufacturer (page 31).

"It makes us feel pretty good. Actually, we believe we're the largest manufacturer of handguns in the world. We got that way because of our innovation over 157 years, our marketing, our customer service, our helping dealers--you put all that together and that's how you sell more product," Golden said.

Smith & Wesson manufactured 523,554 firearms in 2007 and was ranked number one in pistol and revolver production (page 32).

In foreign trade, U.S. exports in 2007 dropped 44 percent, this after an impressive 78.6-percent increase in 2006 (page 36). Smith & Wesson was the top U.S. firearms exporter with 52,599 units exported, a 50.1-percent increase over 2006.

U.S. imports increased 18 percent in 2007, but had an unusual 7.28 percent decrease in 2008 (pages 38, 39, 40). Brazil continues to hold the number one importer position with 697,369 firearms imported in 2007 and 615,517 in...

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