I love shopping for guns…not necessarily buying them, but looking at them and handling them. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s at a store or a gun show, but I have found there to be several “catches” to both.
Gun shows can be a great experience because they afford you the opportunity to walk table to table, looking at such a wide variety of firearms you might not normally find under the same roof in other circumstances. All of the guns are out so you can look at them and feel them, and even with all the security cables that most of the vendors run thru them, you can do basic manipulations to get the feel for the weight and grip, and even the smoothness of a semi-automatic’s slide, in most cases. There are all kinds of parts and pieces to be seen and bought as well, so if you’re looking to repair a gun’s main spring, install your own grips, or upgrade the rails on your AR, this is the place to be. There’s just something to be said for the tangible feel of the parts, or the ability to see just what it is you’re buying that puts the gun show above a website like Brownells, not to mention the immediate gratification of having that part in hand instead of waiting 2-4 weeks. If you want a social experience, then you’ll be assured of having your fair share of conversations, whether it’s haggling over a price or hearing about the history of an older firearm, or even having a knowledgeable vendor explain the intricacies of an unusual or exotic piece. The adage of “buyer beware” must be adhered to though, as many of the guns are used, and I can tell you, from personal experience, that there are going to be unfortunate times when you buy a used firearm that will fail the first time you try to use it.
Stores are another experience altogether, but there is an enormous difference between box stores like Academy (I won’t go back into another Dick’s for personal reasons, regarding their firearms policies), and specialty stores like Storied Firearms in south Austin. Box stores have a fair selection of firearms, all of them brand new, as well as some accessories, but the main problem I have with them is their staff. While most of them are polite and mean well, they’re not there for conversation and many of them are either inexperienced or judgmental of new shooters. Both traits are less of a problem for experienced shooters or people who have done their research and know specifically what they want without the clerk’s input or advice, but for the new shooter it can present some problems. There are things that should figure into your purchase that most of them simply won’t ask. End use is only part of the equation, be it target/recreational shooting or personal defense. More importantly, there are questions of sizing, type (revolver or semi-auto), or trigger pull. I just recently learned of a woman that was looking to buy her first gun, and the salesperson behind the counter sold her a double-action only semi-auto with a trigger pull that was excessive and jammed constantly on the range her first time out, possibly due to a grip issue related to size. These are not positive experiences that new people would find encouraging. So, for me, box stores are good for getting a new firearm, if you already know what you want, and if they have it in their limited stock.
Specialty stores offer the best of both worlds. They sell new and used guns, but have a vested interest in making sure the used guns operate properly, or making it right if they don’t. They have a reputation to uphold, and the shooting community can be a small one that talks to each other. They are shooters themselves and know what to suggest, especially to the new or inexperienced shooter, and will take the time to explain the functions and features of a specific firearm, as well as why a certain size or style might be the best for that shooter. They usually will also have a gun smith onsite for those repairs or upgrades you might not want to tackle yourself. From a social standpoint, most proprietors are very engaging and will talk to you about experiences, yours or theirs, or happily answer your questions. I heard a really good story about former President Reagan, from one of his retired Marine security personnel the last time I was in Storied Firearms, and that’s simply because people enjoy the social aspect of that environment as well as the business side.
The best thing you can do is immerse yourself in the culture. Read, research, and ask lots of questions. If you don’t know what you want, go to the specialty store. If you want seemingly limited variety and, many times, a more inexpensive firearm, go to the gun shows, but be careful about buying used. If you want convenience, but have taken the time to learn what you want, go to the box stores. At the end of the day, they all have their places.