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The Boom in Guns

In general, the nation's gun manufacturers enjoy close to a carte blanche to manufacture any product they wish. As long as the firearm is not fully automatic and uses ammunition that is 50 caliber or less, there are virtually no federal restrictions on its design or manufacture.

One result is that there is strikingly little information available about the gun industry. Its members guard their privacy. With a few exceptions, they avoid publicity and shun the press. No earnings figures are available from the industry, except for such publicly traded companies as Sturm, Ruger & Co.

It is possible, however, to estimate wholesale sales based on excise tax paid to the federal government. Using these figures (10 percent for handguns, 11 percent for all other firearms and ammunition), the wholesale value of firearms manufactured in the United States in 1992 totaled more than $774 million. The value of handguns manufactured that year totaled $388 million, while the value of rifles and shotguns totaled $386 million. The value of ammunition manufactured totaled $449 million.

The health of the industry varies from year to year, but a decade ago it was in a crisis. Until the '80s, little real innovation had occurred in the firearms industry for nearly a century. Most of the models sold--revolvers, pistols, hunting rifles and shotguns--differed little from their 19th-century forebears. All this changed as the result of a sales slump that began in 1983. In 1982 handgun production reached an all-time high of 2.6 million, but the next year it dropped to 1.9 million and began a downward plunge, bottoming out at 1.4 million in 1986.

The drop sent a wave of panic through the industry. Reasons offered for the plummeting sales included the recessionary times, increased sales of used guns and an actual shrinking of the market. Eventually, the industry realized that the slump stemmed from the fact that the primary market of white males had been saturated. To improve sales, gun makers began to expand the market with niche-marketing campaigns similar to those employed by cigarette and alcohol companies. And they began to redesign and expand their product lines.

New Markets

Aiming for Women ...

In 1989, Smith & Wesson announced its Lady Smith Program, which targeted women with handguns that "manage to be elegant without sacrificing any of their practicality." An ad for Colt's All American 9mm pistol featured a presumably single mother tucking her beaming child into bed, a Raggedy Ann doll in the little girl's hands. The headline states SELF-PROTECTION IS MORE THAN YOUR RIGHT... IT'S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. The text reads: "You always have a right to protect yourself in your home. Even more important, you have a responsibility to be there for those who depend on you. At Colt, we believe that the safe and responsible ownership of a firearm can play an important role in personal security. Like a home fire extinguisher, it may be better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. For protecting yourself and your loved ones, we recommend a dependable Colt semiautomatic pistol."

While manufacturers present this marketing shift in their mainstream advertising as a concern for women's safety, in industry publications this pretense is abandoned. A Colt ad published in S.H.O.T. Business features as its centerpiece the company's aforementioned single-mother ad. Above it the headline reads YOU MIGHT THINK THIS AD IS ABOUT HANDGUNS. IT'S REALLY ABOUT DOUBLING YOUR BUSINESS.

This pitch may well be working. An April 1988 Gallup Poll conducted for Smith & Wesson indicated that between 1983 and 1986, the number of women considering buying a firearm doubled from 7.6 million to nearly 16 million. The National Rifle Association estimates that the number of women who now own firearms could be as high as 20 million.

And Don't Forget the Kids ...

Besides aiming at women, manufacturers of firearms have focused their attention on the country's youths. Youth versions of rifles and shotguns have long existed. Although historically, firearms marketed to youths have been traditional hunting rifles and shotguns, some handgun and assault-weapon manufacturers have begun advertising their weapons as "plinkers" ready-made for target shooting.

Taurus USA ads promise a "Terrific Taurus Afternoon!" for the family with its standard M94 22-caliber revolver. The ad features a father helping his son shoot the handgun; nearby are the boy's mom and a golden retriever, all sharing "an all-too-rare moment... together." The 1992 Feather Industries catalog offers an assault rifle available in both 9mm and .22 versions with a collapsible stock and a high-capacity detachable ammunition magazine and shows a father handing the gun to his baseball-capped son.

Even such traditional manufacturing names as Remington have recognized the appeal assault weapons have to youths exposed to a steady diet of the guns on TV and movie screens. In 1993 the company began marketing the Viper, a 22-caliber semiautomatic rifle with a detachable 10-round magazine (higher capacity magazines can be purchased separately from other manufacturers). Although the gun would not likely qualify as an assault rifle under most criteria, specific characteristics--the name, the detachable ammunition magazine and the black plastic stock--are a clear effort by Remington to parlay the appeal of assault weapons into increased sales. Initial sales figures for the rifle greatly exceeded Remington's estimates.

New Products

The second tactic used by firearms manufacturers to counteract the sales slump of the 1980s was to retool and expand the product line. Many of these changes in firearms design involved the application of military and law-enforcement technology to the civilian market. As the result of its all but unregulated status, the only limitations on the domestic firearms industry are its own imagination and technological skill.

The Return of the Saturday Night Special

Up until the early '80s, the handgun of choice for law-abiding citizens, the police and criminals alike was the six-shot 38 caliber revolver. But in 1985, the Department of Defense adopted a 9mm Beretta pistol as its standard sidearm. As Fortune noted in 1991, "Civilian pistol sales took off, and the 9mm soon pushed the .38 out of the spotlight." In 1980 pistols--semiautomatic handguns--accounted for only 32 percent of the 2.3 million handguns produced in the United States. The majority was revolvers. By 1991 this number had been reversed; pistols accounted for 74 percent of the 1.8 million handguns produced that year.

The fight over Saturday Night Specials--inexpensive, short-barreled handguns made from inferior materials and lacking sporting purpose--has long been a staple of the country's gun control debate. During the '60s, even the NRA questioned the need for such weapons, calling for the import of "these miserably made, potentially defective arms that contribute so much to rising violence" to be banned.

As public attention shifted away from Saturday Night Specials, a California family led by patriarch George Jennings was selling a new generation of the compact small-caliber pistols that would soon take the market by storm. In February 1992, Wall Street Journal reporter Alix Freedman revealed that different members of the Jennings family--or their associates--owned and operated all of the country's top Saturday Night Special manufacturers: Bryco Arms, Raven Arms (which burned down in November 1991 and re-surfaced as Phoenix Arms), Davis Industries and Lorcin Engineering.

With low manufacturing costs and prices that start at $35 wholesale, this new generation of Saturday Night Specials has become a favorite of criminal gun traffickers and gained cachet in inner cities. In criminal-tracing data, Jennings family guns have increasingly turned up in the hands of criminals and gun traffickers.

Laser Sights

Originally developed for military use and now available to the public, laser-sighting devices emit a thin beam of red light that offer users point-and-shoot accuracy. Primarily for use in low-light conditions (although new models claim to be effective in daylight), lasers alleviate the need for manual aiming--just follow the red dot. If the dot is on the target, the target will be hit.

An indication of the long-term role of laser sights lies in such guns as the Claridge Hi-Tec, the first handgun with an integral laser sight--an innovation that may soon define a new generation of handguns. One of the saving graces of the current wave of shootings in cities is that for the most part the shooters--as the result of inexperience and low-light conditions--are bad shots. Laser sights, with their point-and-hit capability, may well increase the urban death toll.

Better Bullets

The boom in pistol production has been accompanied by shifts in ammunition loads. At one end there has been a marked increase in guns using .22 ammunition, most notably in assault rifles and pistols. This has occurred for two reasons: First, it allows manufacturers to market assault weapons as "fun guns" ready-made for plinking tin cans; second, .22 ammo is traditionally viewed as a sporting round, and many proposed laws restricting assault weapons exempt firearms using this size ammunition.

At the other end of the scale, there has been an increase in firearms using more powerful ammunition. Even while the .38 was being pushed aside by the 9mm (itself an updated version of the .45), the industry began touting the 10mm, .40, .41 and .50. Also, Congress has tended to legislate controls over problematic ammunition types on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. For example, a 1986 ban on "cop-killer" armor-piercing ammunition uses a content standard rather than a penetration standard. As a result it fails to cover many armor-piercing rounds on the market. In addition, the law has no effect on today's generation of high-tech hollow-point ammunition, such as Winchester's Black Talon, Remington's Golden Saber or Federal's Hydra Shok.

Because the 1986 law also does not cover shotgun ammunition, some of the more exotic ammunition available is for those guns. Sabot slugs are solid-metal projectiles that are housed in a shotgun shell casing. Although Sabot slugs can be used for hunting, an ad placed in the now-defunct Rhino Replacement Parts catalog promised that at 50 yards such shells not only "go through a car door and out the other side" but "penetrate a very high-quality police vest in the process!" Other shotgun ammunition offered in the catalog included the "bolo" shell. "It slices! It dices!" the ad promised. The shell is loaded with a 5-inch piece of piano wire with a half-inch ball molded on each end.

A glimpse into the future of civilian ammunition trends can be found in the Army's Advanced Combat Rifle competition. Conducted throughout the '80s, the program was designed to find a replacement for the Army's Colt M-16 battle rifle. One type of prototype ammunition tested in the program represented a genuine technological revolution: "caseless" ammunition.

Unlike standard ammunition, caseless ammo lacks a metal shell casing. Whereas in standard ammunition the propellant is contained in the metal casing with the bullet at the front end and the primer at the rear, in caseless ammo a hardened chemical propellant replaces the casing. The bullet is embedded within the propellant, as is the primer at its rear.

One "benefit" touted by a manufacturer of a prototype rifle for caseless ammunition is that it leaves "no spent-case signature." Such an attribute would be devastating to civilian police investigations. Every day shell casings are used by criminal investigators in innumerable cases to identify the type of weapon used, track down the shooter and confirm that the found weapon was in fact used in the crime. Often a weapon's shell casing is the only clue left by a shooter at a crime scene.

Concerns about caseless ammunition might be academic except for the fact that in 1993, Voere of Austria began exporting to the United States its VEC-91 rifle, which uses the Usel Caseless Cartridge, for civilian sale. Andy Molchan, president of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers, is optimistic about caseless ammo's potential and the Voere's impact on the long-gun market. The only problem, as Molchan saw it, was that Voere "played it too safe."

"Looking at it from the outside," Molchan wrote in American Firearms Industry magazine, "you couldn't tell it was a radically new system. I think if they had [designed the rifle] with high-tech everything, they could have really stormed the long-gun market."

Cease Fire
   The Crisis

   The Lobbies

   The Boom in Guns

   A Brief History of Firearms Law

   The Embattled Past of the
   Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco
   and Firearms
   A More Comprehensive Strategy
   The Next Steps

All contents � 1998 Violence Policy Center