Staying The Course After The Surge


After more than a decade of shifting demographics in firearms ownership, the past two years have flipped the script on what makes up a gun owner today. Make sure your store stays the course in engaging these diverse buyers!

Since the start of the pandemic, industry-leading headlines have highlighted both the growth of target shooting participation and, simultaneously, the growing diversity of the ranks of target shooters. 

While headline-worthy news at the time, the diversification of target shooting ranks has been forecasted for over a decade. In 2014, the NSSF issued a special report — “Changing Face of the Shooting Sports: Meeting the Needs of an Increasingly Diverse Customer Base” — to highlight and educate industry members about the demographic differences of the traditional and emerging markets of target shooters. The report foreshadowed the trends of the future consumer market, citing data from 2008–2012, and identified the differences between cohorts of new and established shooters. 

This report identified new target shooters were younger millennial adults, more diverse in gender and home location and had little exposure to firearms or hunting before adulthood. These cohort characteristics were staunchly different from the traditional target shooter cohort.

Many reports that forecasted the demographic shifts also included recommendations on how to serve those new to firearms. In the aforementioned 2014 report, NSSF presented numerous accounts of new target shooters’ experiences to highlight their needs and help illustrate opportunities for industry members to grow and adapt their services to cater to them. Segments identified included women, millennials, Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans. 

This report, and many others, spurred increased industry investment in these emerging markets. A slew of marketing campaigns, research projects, special event panels and more followed — all offering information on how to convert these new target shooters to long-term customers.

Meeting Predicted Demand

The almost decade-long industry focus on recruiting and serving diverse target shooters primed the industry perfectly for the impact of the pandemic. In 2020 alone, an estimated 8.4 million people bought their first firearms, with 40% of sales made to women and a 56% increase in sales to African Americans since 2019. 

A report by NSSF and Southwick Associates (June 2022), titled “Retaining the Surge,” also highlighted “the COVID period provided situations more encouraging for women to try target shooting,” with the surge of 2020 participants exhibiting a higher proportion of women than men.

For many industry professionals, the pandemic headlines were less surprising and more affirming because they heeded the advice from the past decade. They hired new staff, offered new courses, designed new marketing campaigns or programs and more — well before the pandemic — and positioned themselves to serve these emerging demographics, reaping the benefits in the past few years.

With increased participation among diverse market segments, we’d expect the long-term market share of these segments to grow, too — and to some point, they are. Within the “Retaining the Surge” report, we learned we lost more racially and ethnically diverse target shooters in 2021 than we retained, with only about 20% of retained surge target shooters stemming from non-white markets. 

From year to year, this would offer the impression these segments aren’t growing. Another report from the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports (CAHSS) released October 2022 highlights 2021 “brought encouraging 3-year annual share growth among African American and Hispanic participants, up 5% and 4%, respectively” of the total estimated number of shooters, with the African American market segment maintaining that growth since 2018. 

When asked about this growth, the Director of Research and Partnerships for the Council Swanny Evans, responded, “These are promising indicators of our continually diversifying shooting sports participant base. It’s also an important reminder to the industry and state natural resources agencies: We need to allocate substantial effort to ensure we have access to what is available and relevant to these audiences and the types of shooting they want to engage in.”

Before the pandemic, numerous reports highlighted once recruited, the retention of these of new target shooters or first-time gun buyers of all backgrounds was the next challenge to overcome. Today, in a post-pandemic world, that challenge of retention remains.

According to NSSF’s 2022 Firearm Retailer Survey, there were 5.4 million first-time gun buyers in 2021, of which an estimated 22.8% of new buyers purchased a second firearm since their initial purchase. Measured growth in these specific segments highlights progress, but this new research demonstrates opportunity remains for the industry to retain new target shooters as repeat customers.

Opportunity remains for the industry to retain new target shooters as repeat customers.

Continuing Growth In 2023 & Beyond

As we look to 2023, in a post-pandemic world, we might think we need to adjust our business plans and try something new. However, if you’ve invested in any of these efforts to embrace new customers — of all backgrounds — I encourage you to stay the course. 

Customer retention is now the game. As Rob Southwick, president of Southwick Associates shares: “Retaining new customers has long been a challenge for the hunting and shooting sports industry. We’ve made great progress in recruiting new faces into our ranks, but a poor job in retaining them. We need to make them feel welcome, offer shooting opportunities geared toward them and greet them with a smile. Not only will many return, but they’ll bring you additional new customers, too. Retention efforts can be your most cost-effective way to grow your business.” 

Southwick and NSSF outline further tips to help ranges and retailers retain target shooters in the latest “Retaining the Surge” report referenced earlier.

As the economy shifts, political battles fluctuate and many more external factors impact our industry, it might be tempting to cut back on your new programs, trim staff or cancel a marketing campaign. But now’s the time to double down and continue (or start) to embrace those emerging segments because we’re witnessing some success. And, there’s still much room to grow in the future. 

Stay the course and ensure you’re not missing an opportunity for growth in these segments in the coming years. 

Click To Read More Shooting Industry December 2022 Issue Now!