Defender Outdoors: A Shooting Range Dedicated to Fun

When you use Top Golf as a business model, your range customers can learn just how much fun shooting can be

Two men at a shooting range
Defender Outdoors hosts corporate events, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and even gender reveals, with special blue or pink targets.Defender Outdoors

At its simplest, golf is a game with one basic skill: hitting a ball toward a distant hole. But consider the business TopGolf has built upon that skill, inviting golf enthusiasts and newcomers into an environment with a driving range, a dozen different simulation games, and a perpetually hopping party lounge.

Now imagine that same atmosphere, but with guns. You’re picturing Defender Outdoors, a 43,000-square-foot, one-stop-shop shooting complex in Fort Worth, Texas. Since opening its doors in 2013, Defender has welcomed shooters new and old, including foreign travelers looking for a Second Amendment–powered thrill, and even celebs like Kanye West. Keeping the party going is Defender Outdoors president Will James, who sets the complex’s sights squarely on entertainment.

“We don’t ever want to sell fear,” says James. “We’re selling fun.” And while that fun can include firing off practice rounds at the range, it also encompasses a 3,000-square-foot simulation shoot house with modular walls that can be arranged to create any environment, paired with colorful lighting effects and immersive soundscapes. Customers can charge through a 007-style run-and-gun adventure or a horror-tinged Halloween shoot-the-clown experience.

Defender Outdoors hosts corporate events, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and even gender reveals, with special targets set to explode in pink or blue powder.

Afterward, everyone can relax in the lounge. “We also host ladies’ shoot-and-sips,” says James, noting “the order of those two things is super important.”

Another blast of entertainment comes from Full Auto Friday, where visitors get a chance to fire a burst of 25 rounds for 10 bucks. “Typically, it’s a gun that they’ve seen in a movie somewhere,” says James. “They get to take a video of it, post it on their Instagram. You’ll never see bigger smiles.”

Despite the party atmosphere, Defender Outdoors takes safety seriously. “Safety officers are on the range at all times. They’re not behind glass or in another room, they’re walking behind you, so if you need help, they’re right there. But if somebody leaves without a smile on their face, we haven’t accomplished our goal.”

So beyond the focus on entertainment, what advice does James have?

No-Stress Shopping

James suggests thinking of Millennials when setting up your retail floor. They’re a cohort that likes to do their research and price comparisons before shopping in person. “Our salespeople are not on commission,” says James. “Whether you buy 10 items from us or none, you’re treated the same way. There’s immediately less pressure.”

Defender Outdoors keeps the most popular firearms, with the firing pins removed, tethered to a display table. That way, customers can check them out for themselves, without having to ask for permission. “They can see, feel, squeeze the trigger, run the slide,” says James. Salespeople are nearby if they have questions.

Range Ready

Having a laser-based system also lets you ramp up new shooter’s comfort level before they begin using live ammunition, which can be intimidating. “You can get a grip, trigger stance, sight picture—all of those things in alignment, and get them shooting something similar to a real gun,” says James.

“By the time they get on the range, we want them super comfortable with the function of a firearm—how they’re going to hold it, how they’re going to stand, how they’re going to load and unload it,” says James. “And then, ultimately, they’ll achieve their objective, which is to hit what they’re aiming at. And those people are typically going to come back.”

Man looking at firearms display.
Defender Outdoors keeps the most popular firearms, with the firing pins removed, tethered to a display table.Defender Outdoors

Central Layout

Give a lot of thought to where you need employees. “Our employees are our most important asset, but they’re also our most costly one. Really think about where employees will be, and how many you need to run your business,” says James. Having a retail floor in a central area, with all the check-in and check-out hubs in a circle around it, means employees can shift around to deal with a rush. “If they’re centralized, it takes less to do more.”

Membership Benefits

James also recommends memberships as a predictable source of income. Not only does it encourage long-term commitment, but it makes your place busier. “When people see you’re busy, they’ll say, Wow, this must be the place to be,” he says. “It may seem like an initial loss, but in the long run it’s a great practice.” For more advice, you can reach out to James himself. “When we were setting up our business, so many people opened their doors to us and let us ask questions,” he says. “We try to pay it forward.”