by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Today, I just have to address all the discussions in the comments we’ve been having regarding the cost of production (of airguns) and why some companies can or cannot build certain guns. Let me begin with the Benjamin Discovery, whose story is a wonderful lesson of what’s possible.

History of the Benjamin Discovery
In 2006, Crosman held a conference with all the airgun writers. The four of us (Stop laughing! I’m telling the truth, here!) were flown to upstate New York and initially presented with Crosman’s corporate goals and objectives. We were then shown things that were soon to be launched. Finally, they asked us to tell them what we thought airgunners wanted. We sat in what they call their War Room (a boardroom with many of their products on the walls) and told them things we thought they should make — or at least consider making.

As we were telling them our thoughts, an idea began forming in my brain. Crosman could build a PCP! And the way I imagined it, they could build it cheap enough that it could retail for for under $200 at that time. But I knew my idea wasn’t fully developed yet, and also that it was an order of magnitude greater than the ideas we were discussing in the room.

I kept quiet about this idea in the meeting, but later I privately asked the advice of one of Crosman’s trusted contractors — a person I had known for many years and whose honesty I trusted. I told him that I had a world-beater idea and asked whether Crosman was an honorable company, or would they take my idea and shut me out of all that followed? He told me they were very honorable, but they were also businessmen — so I should at least have a non-disclosure agreement in place before any talking started. I later learned that it is Crosman policy to always have such an agreement in place before they talk to anyone — as it is with all honest companies.

Months passed as I started initial discussions with the company. Finally, when the non-disclosure agreement was in place and they thought I might be on to something, they brought me back to make my full presentation. I won’t bore you with the Powerpoint presentation, but that’s exactly how I did it. My idea broke down to the following points:

1. A PCP gun to sell for under $200 could be made from one of their existing CO2 guns.
2. It should be sold with a hand pump, a tin of pellets and full instructions.
3. The price of the set should be under $300.
4. MOST IMPORTANTLY: It should operate on 1,800 psi air pressure.

Now, I have to give the credit for the low air pressure operation to Tim McMurray and Larry Durham because they’re the ones who made it work in the USFT. I knew it would work because I owned a USFT rifle that was working on 1,600 psi and getting 950 f.p.s. with .177 Beeman Kodiaks.

I knew that older airgunners would resist the need to fill the rifle from a hand pump, so the lower operating air pressure was key to its success. Pumping to 1,800 psi is easy. When you pass 2,300 psi, it starts getting difficult.

Crosman listened to the presentation, and I think they were surprised by how passionate I was about the packaging of the gun, the low air pressure and some other things that didn’t deal directly with the actual gun. I guess they thought I would come in and try to tell them how to build an airgun, but I knew they already knew how to do that very well. What I was telling them was how it had to work, and how it had to be presented to the marketplace. I don’t guess too many people from off the street come to them that way.

CEO Ken D’Arcy then leveled with me. He told me they had tried to get into PCP guns years before. He was surprised when I then told him why that venture hadn’t worked. It was before he came to Crosman, but not before I started writing about airguns. They tried marketing British-made Logun rifles, and it backfired. Buyers knew where the guns were made; and instead of buying them from Crosman, they were buying them directly from the UK to save money. But more than that — and this is the real reason it failed — Crosman knew NOTHING about PCP guns, and everyone knew it. So, when support (parts, maintenance, operating information) was needed, how good would it be? That was the real problem that killed the Crosman/Logun deal.

By making a PCP right there in their New York plant, they would be forced to get their hands dirty and learn all the intricacies of precharged pneumatics…and that would make them a better company in turn. That fact, plus my complete marketing plan, was why this project would succeed where the other one had failed — or at least that’s what I believed.

They brought me back a couple weeks later, and I was prepared to demonstrate my idea to them. I’d made a pigtail air hose adapter with a built-in regulator that dropped 3,000 psi pressure from a scuba tank to 800 psi. It was set up to connect with their AT392T pellet rifle reservoir and turn it into a PCP right on the spot. The AS392T used 88-gram AirSource tanks, which my adapter mimicked. But Crosman had gone me one better. Ed Schultz, their production manager and also a real airgun enthusiast, had prototyped two 2260 rifles with stronger air reservoirs and special valves to run on 2,000 psi air. He built them both (one in .177 and the other in .22) in about one week and had astounded himself and the entire Crosman management team by producing decent shot strings and great velocities! The .177 got close to 1,000 f.p.s. with lead pellets, and the .22 was just under 800 f.p.s.

Benjamin Discovery demonstration air hose
This is all that remains of my demonstration hose and regulator for the Benjamin AS392T rifle. I sold the regulator, yoke and AirSource adapter at an airgun show years ago. The black end attaches to an AirSource port.

Before I could unpack my kludgy air hose, Ed burst into the room with one of his prototypes and several spreadsheets showing the performance he was getting. Everyone there — Ken D’Arcy, Bob Hampton (Crosman’s marketing VP at the time) and Ed Schultz — knew they were going to build this gun before I arrived.

The second meeting evolved into this: Should we really build this basic gun, or should we add a better trigger, shrouded barrel and better barrel?

I argued that they should build the basic rifle first. I wanted to call it the Benjamin 8020, because it represented 80 percent of the features of a European PCP for 20 percent of the money. I also wanted to put my name on the gun; because if they were going to really build it the way we were talking, I knew it was going to be a success.

I was pleased that Ed had selected the 2260 as the prototype instead of the AS392T that I’d recommended. It was far easier to modify, plus it was a cheaper base gun and had everything I wanted in this project.

I told them if they would just stick to the basic gun, it would get their production capability spun up and still be simple enough that it wouldn’t give them any insurmountable manufacturing problems. Then, Ken D’Arcy asked me the million-dollar question. Did I seriously believe that if they built this gun the way we were now envisioning it, could they sell 1,000 units in the first year?

When he asked me that, things got very serious because I was putting my reputation on the line. So, I gave him an answer couched with stipulations. IF they built it this way, and IF they packaged it the way I’d specified, and IF they marketed it the way we’d discussed and IF they held the retail price point to not more than such-and-such, then I said I thought they could sell TWO thousand rifles in the first year.

This all happened in February. They worked on the gun all that year. I worked with them testing prototypes, drafting the owner’s manual and on the website animations that showed how to fill the gun. I had wanted to make a short DVD of a teenaged girl filling the rifle with the hand pump, so we could silence all those old guys who say pumping airguns is for the birds and too hard, but we settled for an animation.

The rifle was launched at the next year’s SHOT Show, and it really did surprise the marketplace. Naturally, Cabela’s and Wal-Mart didn’t understand it — but hard-core airgunners did, and they gave it a try. They started talking among themselves, and the rest is history. I have no way of knowing the exact number of rifles that sold in the first year, but it was more than my prediction of 2,000 guns.

The lesson
The object here is that Crosman was in the right frame of mind to enter the PCP market when I took my idea to them. My idea wasn’t for a gun — it was for a package and a presentation that I knew the U.S. airgun market was ready to receive. In our discussions, I told them that if they did this project the way we discussed, and if they followed it with their upgraded gun a year later (the rifle that became the Benjamin Marauder), they would own the PCP market within 5 years. Ken D’Arcy and Bob Hampton both left Crosman in the years that followed; but before they left, they agreed that this project was a complete success.

What made it a success was the commitment that Crosman gave to the project. Had they faltered or had they had a steering committee overseeing the project, making useless contributions that derailed the effort, it could have gone the other way just as easily. Had the marketing department decided at some point that the Discovery was a cash cow and they needed $25 more profit from it, they could have destroyed all that we’d worked to build. But they didn’t. They stayed the course, and today they’re in the catbird seat as one of the power players in the precharged pneumatic airgun world.

As crazy as this is going to sound, we also discussed turning the Crosman Challenger 10-meter rifle from a CO2 gun to a PCP at the same time we were talking about the Discovery project. Ed Schultz even confided in me that they were going to be interested in big bores at some point, so when Lloyd Sikes showed me his radical new valve….Well, that’s another story.

The problem
People are the biggest impediment to success in any industry — or anywhere else, for that matter. You can have a wonderful, successful and powerful company; but if their marketing manager has other interests and if he’s the one traveling to China to make the selections and talk to the factory, you’re only going to get products that are as good as he asks for. If he doesn’t know the market, you’re going to get garbage because he can’t tell the difference. Would you go to a 5-star restaurant and let a 4-year-old order for you? NO! Mommy or daddy need to reel in the child and take control. In fact, 4-year-olds probably don’t belong in 5-star restaurants. And by the same reasoning, people who’ve just graduated from business school don’t belong on management steering committees that select the key features for a new airgun.

Another problem — and a solution
Managers who don’t know their market are another huge problem. That marketing manager who goes to China and brings back the wrong airguns is acting in good faith. He may not be an airgunner or even a shooter (though he certainly should be!), but he makes his selections based on what he sees in the marketplace.

Speed sells and everyone knows it. I’ll not deny that it really does sell. But — and this is key to understanding how this all works — WHO does it sell to? Does it sell to the 24-year-old kid with his ball cap on backwards and his baggy drawers hanging too low? Because if that’s who you’re watching — he’s not your main customer. His shallow pockets have holes in the bottoms and he has the attention span of a fruit fly. If you’re going to sell to him, everything has to be below a certain price point and has to be named something exotic — something like Extreme, or some jumble of numbers and letters. XZ7 or Zombie Revenge are a couple good model names for this guy.

On the other hand, the people who regularly spend hundreds of dollars a year on their hobby are the ones you want to please. They are the ones who will keep buying from you when the rest of the market goes slack. But what if you already have a pretty good handle on those people? Where do you get more people just like them? I’ll tell you.

When I started writing about airguns in 1994, there weren’t over 10,000 serious airgunners in the United States. When I started Airgun Illustrated magazine in 2003, we estimated there were 15,000 to 45,000 serious airgunners.

Today, I would estimate there are no less than 50,000 and probably closer to 100,000 serious airgunnners in this country. And I’m not including the youth shooters on teams in this number, because they don’t buy airguns, for the most part.

However, there were over 5 MILLION serious firearms shooters back in 1994 — and today I would not be surprised if that number was three times as much! NRA membership surpassed 4 million recently and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it top 5 million very soon.

So, I’ll ask again: Where can you get new airgun customers who like to shoot and are willing to spend money to do it?

Now, what do you think might attract a firearm shooter to buy an airgun? And I’m not taking about a Daisy Red Ryder for the grandkids. Please don’t try to answer this with a single answer because that’s what all those failed marketing managers are doing.

The reasons people want to shoot airguns today, or should want to, are numerous and complex. A 21-year-old woman in Oregon who wants to get her concealed carry permit has one reason for wanting an airgun (training), and a 73-year-old man in Maine who is living on a fixed income has another (economy). David “Hawke” Hunter in Lubbock wants to drop prairie dogs without endangering the nearby oilfield workers, but Sally Primrose lives in a two-bedroom condo in Pasadena and wants to shoot targets indoors without alarming her next-door neighbor, with whom she shares a common wall. NASA wants to remove woodpeckers from the sides of launch vehicles where they’re damaging the insulation (a true story), while the city of Spokane wants to eradicate pigeons under nets they throw over trees on downtown streets at 3 a.m. to keep from alarming the residents (also a true story).

Folks, the marketplace has burst wide open, and buyers with money are looking for what “They ought to make.” It’s necessary to reach out to these customers and inform them that there are airguns that can put 10 pellets into an inch at 100 yards, serve as a good training tool for a sidearm or drop a wild hog humanely.

Two things need to happen. The makers need to make the kinds of airguns shooters want to buy, and then they need to inform the shooters that such guns do exist. We need to do better on both accounts.