Gun Shops: Women Welcome Here

A seismic shift in customers poses challenges as well as opportunities for shooting sports retailers

Most women in gun shops a few decades ago were there because their husband or boyfriend was into guns. That’s not the case today. Women are in gun shops now because they’re into guns. Female interest in firearms is expanding industry opportunity, but it comes with challenges, and the market has to change its sales approach if it wants ladies to keep looking its way.

“The role women played as homemakers in the 1950s has changed,” says Jennifer L.S. Pearsall, National Shooting Sports Foundation public relations director. “We pay bills, we work, we make decisions, and we don’t do something anymore just because our husband does.”

woman hiking
Shift in customers poses challenges as well as opportunities for shooting sports retailers.Stika


Change

O.F. Mossberg & Sons, Inc., is the oldest family-owned firearms manufacturer in America. The company turned 100 in 2019, and its purpose still holds true: Build reasonably priced guns for all so anyone can be involved in hunting and the shooting sports. Mossberg’s founder, Oscar Frederick Mossberg, championed three principals: Take care of employees, listen to customers, and embrace change. Imagine the changes this company has adjusted to over the last century, with the most recent change being customer demographics.

“Right now, the biggest change in hunting and shooting is the female market,” says Linda Powell, Mossberg director of media relations. “We’re seeing the industry as a whole become more aware of that, and it’s shifting the way we market.”

The face of the firearms industry is changing. Study the ads when you flip through a gun or sportsmen’s magazine. The models don’t all have beard potential anymore, and you see women and kids participating in sports traditionally represented by men.

“Go back a few years and most of those same ad campaigns primarily featured men,” Powell says. “Sometimes men with sons, but rarely did you see women or young girls in ad campaigns.”

Family dynamics are changing too, and that’s reflected in everything from fabricated advertising to real-life ambitions. Powell was a single mom raising a son at the turn of this century. Her son didn’t have a father or grandfather who hunted, but he had a mom who did. That wasn’t the norm, but Powell treated it like it was. She took her son on his first turkey hunt in 2001, traveling from North Carolina to South Dakota to hunt in the Black Hills. Powell’s son, Jake, killed a turkey. It was the first animal he’d ever harvested, and his mom helped him.

“When people ask me, ‘What’s your favorite hunt?’—no question, it’s that turkey hunt with my son,” Powell says. “When you can introduce someone else to hunting and the shooting sports, that’s a great accomplishment. But when you introduce someone in your own family, there’s no greater pride. It was a tremendous bonding experience.”

Mossberg shares that pride, and it shows in its products. For its 100th anniversary, the company released a new pistol. The design team focused on the grip first and then overall dimensions. They wanted a gun that would sell to a variety of hand sizes, including women’s, and there are more options across the whole line.

“Women like options. Look at shoes!” Powell says. “That’s more of a female thing. Men have work shoes, tennis shoes, and dress shoes. Women have all kinds of shoes. As our market has expanded, so have the options.”

Options lag slightly behind demand, and that has a lot to do with cost. As new gun owners contribute to the industry, they don’t move the needle on demand when their presence is small. As their numbers grow, industry must catch up with the significance of the movement or miss out.

“Years ago, when the women’s market was small, making product for that market was cost-prohibitive,” Pearsall says. “Companies couldn’t tool up an entire line of clothing or firearms for women and have it be profitable. The industry has overcome that to a large degree now, but there’s still room for improvement.”

women staffers behind the gun sales counter
Proper Placement One way to attract more women customers is to place women staffers behind the sales counter.Kris Millgate

Challenge

Laurie Aronson didn’t recognize the change when she was a little girl, but she sees the challenge of a shifting market now. She agrees with Pearsall: There’s room for improvement.

Aronson grew up in a sporting goods store started by her grandfather in 1943. Her father ran the business when she was young. Steinberg’s Sports Center had four retail locations in Louisiana, but they weren’t just gun shops for men. They were destinations for families. Aronson worked there every summer until the stores were closed when the family business model switched from retail to wholesale in 1977. She is now president and CEO of Lipsey’s.

“This [the retail store] was an everyone-­included place,” Aronson says. “It was like going to an amusement park on the weekends, and a lot of it had to do with culture. There was a culture created that was inviting. It was something for everyone.”

Aronson doesn’t see the same offered in retail today. True, the retail gun shopping experience has come a long way in improving its welcome for women, but she’s expecting more—and so are other women.

“What happens oftentimes is a female goes into a firearms store and gets ignored or called ‘little lady,’ ” Aronson says. “Sometimes there’s a bit of ego behind the retail sales counter that I wish wasn’t there. Not every retailer is like that, but improvements need to be made to welcome in a whole new group of consumers into gun retail. We need to recognize we are doing ourselves a disservice by not treating everyone the way they should be treated.”

The firearms industry isn’t alone in this challenge. Aronson sees the same behavior in the hardware store. Employees ask her husband what he’s looking for when she’s clearly the one looking for parts. Pearsall can relate.

“We encourage everyone to adjust,” Pearsall says. “Women are a viable market that continues to grow. Don’t miss the opportunity to take advantage of it.”

Women hunters with their kill
Ready to Serve When you provide women hunters with first-class customer service and expert advice, they’ll come back for more.Weatherby

Opportunity

Katie McKalip is part of that viable market. She’s included in this country’s growing firearms owner demographic. She also represents a future business opportunity. She bought her first gun in 2005, a single-shot youth model shotgun she found at a local sporting goods shop in Missoula, Montana. Youth-size models fit her reach better than those customarily made for the body of a man.

“It kicked terribly,” McKalip says. “I still have it, but I upgraded a few years later to a Remington 870 20-gauge. I bought a youth model again, but women’s models have come a long way since then.”

So has the organization for which McKalip works. She’s the communications director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. BHA formed around a campfire in 2004. McKalip joined its staff in 2015. The non-profit organization has nearly 40,000 members who hunt and fish, and the organization’s focus is on making public lands available for all. That means BHA isn’t a boys’ club. It’s families and females, too. McKalip filled her last two deer tags with her favorite hunting buddy, a woman named Vickie Edwards.

“How could it not be a good thing? I love that I’m able to hunt in the fall and fill my tag with a whitetail buck in the back of my rig,” McKalip says. “My kids see that. For them, there is nothing remarkable about the fact that their mom came home with meat to eat. It’s just part of their life, and I think that’s pretty cool.”

Pretty cool for the firearms industry too. Adding new gun handlers to the market adds opportunity for retailers and manufacturers. Ladies, who can also be moms, share their sports with their kids, so growth is exponential. The youth model McKalip uses will eventually go to her young son, Charlie, when she buys herself her first women’s model. Her shooting vest will be handed down, too.

“My upland vest is a boy’s large,” she says. “Women options weren’t nearly as vast 10 to 15 years ago as they are today. I’m not talking just shrink-it-and-pink-it. Well, maybe the shrink-it part, because that’s important in gun fit, but the gun industry is making progress. It’s reflective of what’s happening on a larger scale within society.

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