Back in January, I went down to photograph Shot Show (SHOT = Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade) again this year… Its huge. More products for the shooting, hunting and outdoor crowd than you can imagine. Its lots of work for everyone involved including photographers and journalists that cover it. Every year after I get back, people ask me what Shot Show is like as it is not accessible to the general public, but only to those buying, selling or documenting/publishing for the press the products on display.
So, what is Shot Show like and how does one go about covering it? Some background first: The convention itself is one of the largest shows I’ve ever seen, certainly much larger than the science conferences that I go to for professional conferences. While the annual ARVO conference I attend has around 12,000 clinicians and scientists in the field of ophthalmology, Shot Show attendance has historically mirrored the Outdoor Retailers Conference (around 40,000), but this year exceeded 61,000 with over 1,600 companies and 2,000 members of the media attending. Its currently the 13th largest trade show in North America and represents big business. The CES conference is obviously bigger at 100,000, but I’ve avoided that conference like the plague over the past few years, turning down a couple of offers to go photograph it to avoid those crowds as well as knowing that I have to carefully pick and choose which assignments to cover so as to keep the focus on my science career.
To attend Shot Show, you either have to be somehow involved in the industry, have press credentials or have a buddy in the business that can secret you in. For the press, its a *ton* of work and if you are interested in covering it from the press side of things, it seems like there is more press than ever before made possible through the magic of the Internet. So, how does one get a press pass to cover Shot Show? You have to apply months beforehand and be able to reference a reputable publication. If you can do that, press credentials are verified and sent out prior to the Show. Protip: Trust me… You want the credentials sent to you so that you do not have to stand in line at will call to pick them up the day of the show. That is inefficient (see below discussion for efficiency) and only leads to frustration.
With conferences this big, there are the inevitable parties that get thrown, with great music from bands that play these parties and others and much, much more. We don’t get anything like that at the science conferences I go to, though there is the rare salacious story/rumor of a grad student that needed bailing out of jail for doing something stupid. I am sure such things happen at Shot Show, particularly after the conference moved permanently to Las Vegas where its held at the Venetian Sands Hotel Convention Center. Housing Protip: Rooms at the Venetian Hotel are *really* nice, and the convenience factor of staying in the same hotel as the meeting is huge. In addition, the food that can be had in restaurants throughout the Venetian is extraordinary. But, I typically stay across the street at Treasure Island where the rates are less expensive. Given the price of travel, camera gear and lenses these days, every cent counts towards the bottom line.
So, while there are many outdoor products at Shot Show, the real emphasis at the convention is the firearms. Small arms companies have typically used Shot Show as an annual resource that focuses attention on the market where they release new products. Its all part of the relatively unique gun culture here in the USA which draws people from all over the world to Shot Show as citizens in the USA typically have more freedoms for firearms than most places in the world. Indeed, after talking with a number of other press from places around the world this year, some countries that I assumed would have more accessible gun laws (notably Israel) are actually quite strict. That said, other laws and regulations here in the USA that restrict access to certain things gun related might also surprise you for their silliness (for example: laws regulating availability of suppressors in the USA vs New Zealand, Norway or many other countries where they are viewed as not only polite, but are required in many cases).
For firearms during Shot Show, there are a number of events that matter. First is the Media Day at The Range which is held the day before Shot Show starts and is designed to host writers and photographers, providing access to non-profit, conservation groups and companies as well as get some hands on time with all the firearms, optics and firearm related products in an environment where they can be fired on a gun range. This is where you can get a real feel for how certain arms perform. Access Protip: In addition to Media Day, if you are plugged in to the industry with a good reputation, there are invites to special “shoots” that may come your way that provide much more intimate and prolonged access to specific kinds of weapons like fully automatic weapons and full on machine guns like the M240. These shoots will also typically provide much more range time than one might typically get at the increasingly crowded Media Day.
However, before any of this happens, the first thing that one does after getting an assignment to cover Shot Show is do your research. While firearms have always been a source of fascination to me, the mystique or near religious zealotry that surrounds them escapes me and I tend to view them as tools. That said, every market and interest group has details, facts and industry specific language for their toolset that it would be good to familiarize yourself with. A good place to start is the NSSF writers guide. This resource starts out with some interesting facts about the financial impact of hunting and shooting on the US economy ($27.8 Billion), an estimate of the number of firearms in the US (300 million) and then goes on to cover verbiage, facts, laws, safety, regulations and penalties for violating firearms laws. Its no joke, guns in America are big business. This past year, according to FBI background checks, gun sales set a new record, particularly during the holiday season where gun sales set a new record in November of over 1.5 million background checks. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) keeps statistics for all firearms trade, theft and trace data here if you are interested.
Next up: Based upon what you are being asked to cover, do your homework on the individual companies, their backgrounds, founders and most importantly, their products. All of the above will enable you to ask the right questions and get the vendors to take you seriously which… is good for them and good for you in that you get additional information, access to products for photography and more (see the above discussion on “special shoots”). Also, note the photograph of the fine gentleman immediately above… This is Ken Lin from GAPrecision, one of the finest companies doing rifle smithing around. This photo shows the kind of light that is available on the show floor. Photography Protip: Shoot your images in RAW so that you can adjust the lighting in post-processing. The quality of light on the showroom floor is atrocious. It casts an ugly yellow color to everything and shooting in RAW gives you the opportunity to correct this ugly yellow cast to something more pleasing.
There are also innumerable meetings that people will try and set up with you. Most of these meetings are related to vendors trying to get their product in front of you for some coverage in the press or other people setting up meetings to discuss all sorts of business related to providing coverage or press industry consolidation. There is quite a bit of consolidation going on lately with some really nasty politics as everybody jockeys for position. The Internet is having huge impact here and its been really interesting to watch over the last few years. Efficiency Protip: I tend to avoid *all* of that and the only meetings I attend are around lunch or dinner with close, trusted people or customers that have hired me to cover Shot Show for them. Caveat: meetings I set up with specific vendors on the show floor to photograph or see a product so I don’t have to wait in lines with the hoards. Its all about efficiency which brings up the next bit of advice…
Comfort Protip: The most valuable time spent at Shot Show is on the range and on the floor which brings up the next item of preparation: Wear comfortable shoes. You are going to be standing or walking all day for multiple days. An uncomfortable pair of shoes will ruin the experience and reduce your take and productivity. Additionally, the physical area to cover in the Convention Center is *huge* so plan your route beforehand and start each day with a plan. Consult the maps provided either for the iPhone or physical paper maps and figure out which floor and which rooms you will go to and stick to that plan. Of course, like any strategy, this plan will go awry, particularly if you see something interesting or unexpected or run into someone you know, but at least you will maximize your time on the floor so you will not have to be running up to the Media Room on the 3rd floor and back down every time you want to send a photograph or bit of material for publication. This brings up the next item… Communication Protip: Internet access. Bring your own. The Convention Center WiFi is pretty much useless anywhere but the Media Room and even data coverage from the cell phone companies gets lousy in Las Vegas, but at least you will have some connectivity to file stories/photographs.
There are gimmicks… Yes, there are all sorts of things designed to get you into a booth and stay a while so you hear the pitch. While there are always the promotional models (attractive, scantily clad women), there are a variety of other things designed to catch someones attention. This year it was the seeming ubiquitous zombie… Zombies, zombies, zombies… Lots of zombie themed items at the Shot show. Can I say how overdone the zombie thing is? I’ve got my own feelings about all the zombie themed ammunition and targets and gimmicks and what my interpretation of the meme is in the firearms industry. I don’t know if this is a commentary on post-apocalyptic fervor that is sweeping some parts of society or if it is the ultimate in being able to shoot bad guys without the associated guilt. Suffice it to say that I don’t like it. No sir, not one bit.
Schwag bags are provided for those that like to collect such things as slick glossy publications, baseball caps, patches and all manner of gimmicks designed to grab the attention. Mass Protip: I typically skip the schwag, particularly the glossy publications as most companies that produce them are either offering the identical data on small thumb drives that they will hand out as press kits or direct you to a server download site. The best schwag is rare and you cannot take it home with you on the plane as there are the occasional firearm raffles or give aways that happen. I’ve turned the free stuff down in the past to stay ethical in the coverage, but I’ve also purchased the occasional raffle ticket if the proceeds go to a good cause like the Wounded Warrior Project.
There are also keynotes, industry dinners and parties that will be both public and invite only. Take them in where you can, particularly if interested, but I tend to avoid most of those and focus on getting the work done which typically means a quick meal and a trip back to the hotel room to work where its quiet. This is important because the work does not end after the show closes. There are still hours of work to do to clarify notes, send emails, file images and makes posts… Its more work than it seems.
So, what was my take at the 2012 show? Most of that specific information this year is/was being covered over on The Firearm Blog, but I’ll briefly post the couple of products that I really took notice of this year. I saw some things this year that surprised me, both good and bad. The good that I see is that the firearms industry is a prime example of small companies that do exciting things that fill a niche need. These companies are often small operations with fewer than a dozen employees that are producing high quality products and they drive the economy forward by identifying unique niches and producing quality products that meet needs.
The Hog Saddle was the single coolest thing I saw this year at Shot Show. It is a simple concept, yet elegantly executed. I wrote about it over on The Firearm Blog, here.
The Rite in the Rain folks makes amazingly cool products that I use all the time, particularly out in the field. They have an innovative product that allows paper to get wet, but still be writable. Its amazing stuff and highly recommended.
Geissele is moving beyond triggers and into other areas of manufacturing. Specifically, SOCOM had requested they build a redesigned hand guard for the HK 416 rifle that was slimmer and lighter than the existing quad rail hand guard and Geissele delivered. This hand guard completely changes the feel of the rifle, making it far more nimble. The HK 416 is an incredible rifle, but it tends to be a bit unwieldy with the standard hand guard. This Geissele product fixes that. Bill Geissele is going to send me a hand guard for my HK as soon as they catch up with the military orders, so look for that review over on The Firearm Blog in the not too distant future.
The HK 45c sidearm was not new this year, but I’ve yet to see anything that can beat it in terms of accuracy, reliability and comfort from the factory. While I’ve spent a fair amount of time with this sidearm, putting a few hundred rounds through it, I do not yet have one for myself… But the pull is strong. HK may not have the greatest PR team, but their customer service is excellent and they do make the best products out there.