The airgun market in 2018
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Serious airgunner
- The market has exploded
- No more cheap
- The gun crisis
- Where were airguns?
- Firearm crossover
- Airguns — cheap???
- Is that all there is?
- The future
- The point?
When I started writing about airguns in 1994 there weren’t but about 5,000 to 15,000 serious airgunners in the U.S. No one knew for sure how many there were because there was very little data about this market. There may be disagreement on just how many there were but everyone agrees that the American airgun market was small.
Let me define what I mean by “serious airgunner,” because that has a bearing on what I’m saying. Airguns are very prevalent in the United States. I would estimate that millions of homes have at least one airgun, but that ranges from the family who just inherited their parents’ home and are unaware of the old Benjamin that’s stuck up in the rafters of the garage to homes like mine, where the number of airguns is greater than 50. There are a huge number of families with airguns, but most of those people cannot be considered serious shooters. My definition of a serious airgunner is someone who owns and shoots an airgun at least once each month. My experience is that if they do shoot an airgun that often, they shoot it a lot more than that!
The market has exploded
In just the past 3 years the airgun marketplace has exploded. I get inquiries from my Godfather web page from people who tell me they are new to airgunning but have shot firearms for many years. This blog is being joined by those people at an increasing rate, and for every registered subscriber we have, I know we must have 5-10 who are just readers. For the first time in history we have a number that represents how many serious airgunners there might be. Before I get to that, though, let me tell you what has happened to the market.
No more cheap
When I started writing about airguns, airgunners were a frugal bunch. They talked about re-using pellets, and would drive 100 miles to save a dollar on a tin of pellets. Yeah, I know. That’s false economy. But that was airgunning in the mid-1990s.
The gun crisis
Then came political forces that threatened gun ownership, and the firearm market exploded! People were buying AR15s and Glocks at stunning prices. Ammunition was also red hot, which lead to the ammo crisis of 2008-2016. The real crisis ended around 2014, but some types of ammunition like .22 rimfire and oddball centerfire calibers remained scarce much longer. Conspiracy theorists had a field day during the crisis. A popular story was that it was an intentional shortage due to the federal government buying billions of rounds for Homeland Security. The ammo shortage fueled the gun shortage, and things like AR15s were rationed for a time.
Where were airguns?
While all this was happening American airgunners were sitting on the sidelines smiling because they were not affected. Innovations in airgun and pellet technology even took the market forward, as our firearm brethern were “suffering.” We started talking about shooting pellet rifles at 100 yards during this time. Big bore airguns sold like crazy while the firearm/ammo crisis was in full swing, and I had new airgunners tell me why. They said they still had their AR but an airgun can operate independently of a supply chain (cast lead bullets and hand pumps) and they wanted insurance against the takeover of American politics.
In fact, most of the people who said these things will never cast a single lead bullet in their lives and they emphatically detest the effort required to pump a rifle with a high-pressure hand pump! But it wasn’t reality they sought — it was the dream.
Whatever the reason, the political climate forced many shooters to look at airguns for the first time, and, when they did, the picture looked pretty good. Airguns were accurate, they were powerful they had great triggers and they were cheap.
Airguns — cheap???
The diehard airgun veterans of the pre-2008 days still complained about the prices of everything, but to a shooter who owns three $1,500 AR15s, a thousand-dollar air rifle is cheap. And these are the newcomers to airgunning. Once they found out all the hype was all true, they started telling their buddies and, before long, the race to buy airguns was on.
According to several polls (Pew, NY Times) roughly 30 percent of Americans own at least one gun. Based on the current population of over 328 million, that’s well over 100 million gun owners. BUT — and this is the important point — most of them are not serious shooters. I have read estimates that say there are between 5 million and 10 million active shooters in the U.S. Let’s take the lower number of 5 million.
These (the 5 million active shooters) are the ones who are crossing over into airgunning today. Sure, there are always new shooters who have never been exposed to firearms and come directly into airguns, but today the preponderance of new airgunners is crossing over from the world of firearms. They arrive knowing the basics of shooting and just have to learn the differences that airguns bring.
To them airguns do not seem expensive. Good pellets are not just cheap, they are plentiful — especially when they learn not to shop the discount stores, sporting goods chains and most brick-and-mortar gun stores. Airguns are primarily an online commodity in the United States today.
Is that all there is?
Though these new airgunners may have little experience with our guns, they do know bad from good. If a gun is hard to cock, shoots harshly or isn’t accurate, they pick up on it right away. I get questions all the time from new airgunners about this or that airgun. Invariably they have purchased their gun at a discount or chain sporting goods store and its performance doesn’t match what they read on this blog or or some of the forums. They ask me where the disconnect is.
Sometimes they have lucked into a good airgun like a Diana 34, but they haven’t yet learned the proper holding technique (i.e. the artillery hold). Once they learn that I get a “Thank you” and I never hear from them again. But too often they have purchased a mega-magnum from Europe or Asia that can never live up to their expectations. That’s when I go to work, because I know, based on what they tell me, the right airgun for them.
This is why I am so excited about guns like the new ASP20 from Sig Sauer. At just $350 (synthetic stock), it’s affordable, accurate, well-mannered (doesn’t need the artillery hold) and has a nice trigger. Firearm shooters don’t balk because it needs a scope. Their $1,200 AR flattop did, too. Before the ASP20 I was recommending the Air Arms TX200 Mark III to those who could afford it, because it had all those same things.
If they are on a budget I recommend the Diana 34P which has most of the same good features. I tell them about the artillery hold and ask them to watch my video that explains it. If they can live with that, then the Diana will work well for them.
I think the lid is now off the garbage can and all the raccoons will eventually gather to investigate. But are there areas of potential growth that airgun retailers and manufacturers should concentrate on? I believe there are.
This past weekend I was at a party with a lot of young people, including several from California. The guys were all interested in guns and the women were not opposed to the idea. Despite what we read and say, not everyone hates guns.
I had my new Sig P365 9mm pistol there — primarily to show to one person. He owns a Bullet Bunker bullet trap that allows shooting powerful centerfire handguns on his indoor range, so the whole crowd wanted to shoot. One woman had never shot a gun in her life!
The Sig P365 pocket pistol is a revolutionary 9mm sidearm. Easy to cock with very little recoil, it’s also accurate and has a great trigger.
We lined them up and shot the P365, one person at a time, and everyone got to shoot at least one 10-round magazine. Many returned for seconds and thirds. After the woman who had never shot before finished her first magazine (she was one who returned) I interviewed her. She found the pistol easy to rack (pulling the slide back to cock and to load), not unpleasant to shoot (low recoil) and accurate. She was able to hit small targets we called out.
My point is this — women are the fastest-growing segment of the shooting sports, yet the airgun market has not recognized them. They are buying firearm handguns for protection, they are buying guns to hunt and they are buying guns just because they want to shoot — not unlike the rest of us! The firearm world recognizes this and is marketing women in a big way. The airgun market has its head stuck in the sand.
The P365 is attractive because it’s easy to cock, doesn’t recoil bad and is accurate. When was the last time you saw an accurate air pistol that was easy to cock? I don’t mean an action CO2 pistol — I mean a pistol you can really learn on — one that can consistently hit a half-inch circle at 10 meters. Yes there are accurate air pistols like the Beeman P17, but they are too hard for most women to cock. Only 10-meter pistols qualify at present and how many women do you think are willing to pony up $1,000? For that matter, how many men?
We who are dedicated airgunners also know that this is the golden age of airgunning. You guys call me the Great Enabler, but the truth is I am just as captivated by all that’s available as the rest of you. The airgun market in 2018 is red hot, and is going to grow in intensity as time passes. But the market doesn’t understand why success has overwhelmed it.
Social currents outside the market have driven new customers to buy airguns in record numbers. And the airguns they can buy are far better than the airguns of just five years ago. So the market will continue to rise. Unfortunately it’s missing some of the most important growth potential because it isn’t offering products that appeal to the segment that is growing the fastest. It’s like a gun company during a war — they are so busy making guns that they don’t take time to think of what things would be like if the war ended.
The firearm market knows this all too well, because when the presidential election of 2016 was decided, the market collapsed overnight. That AR that sold for $1500 weeks before was now a $600 firearm. Entire companies went out of business because they weren’t prepared for a non-crisis sales environment.
There are still 5 million active shooters in the U.S. And, with the crisis ended, they can choose from a glut of unsold products. I estimate that those who have already crossed over to airguns now number between a quarter and half a million, give or take. That’s the size of today’s airgun market in the U.S. These shooters have discovered they don’t have to give up their firearms, and airguns afford them many times more shooting opportunities because of the safety factor.
Yes, times are great, but the fastest-growing segment of the shooting sports — women — are being ignored by the airgun market. Times could be a whole lot greater than they are.