Running a Gun Show Business – Part 1

At the urging of my readers and consulting clients, in this piece I’m going to go over the basics of running a gun show business. Renting gun show tables and then selling and/or trading items for tangible gain can be quite fun and rewarding. I rent show tables to make trades, primarily to improve my personal collection. For example, this weekend (Friday and Saturday only–Oct 25 and 26, 2019), I’ll have three tables at the Butte, Montana gun show. I won’t be there on Sunday.

To begin, I must start with some caveats on why renting tables is not for everyone. It takes an outgoing personality. It also takes a commitment of time–not just to travel and attend the shows but also the requisite hours of technical and market research.  You also need to be in good health. Hauling your merchandise in and out of shows takes a bit of physical strength.  And just standing up for 9 or 10 hours a days is demanding for some folks.

It also takes money to buy inventory. This falls in the category of: “It takes money to make money.” Unless you have at least $5,000 in cash or the equivalent in gun-related items that you already own and are willing to turn over in trade, then you should probably not consider a gun show venture. The alternative–that is, starting out with less than $500 worth of goods and gradually “trading up” to a large inventory–would probably prove to be a long and frustrating quest. It really does take some money to make money, in retail sales.

I must also mention that the current legislative war, if lost, might very well destroy gun shows as we now know them. (That is, at least in the 37 states of the Union that currently allow private party sales of post-1898 guns.) So put that risk into your decision matrix.

Retail Arbitrage

To fully understand American gun shows, you need to understand both the American gun-owning mentality and the essentials of retail arbitrage. Guns shows are perennially popular in the U.S. because they tap into the gun-owning bedrock culture of America. Free-wheeling guns shows are an almost uniquely American phenomenon. Yes, there are some gun shows in Europe, but they are tame and infrequent, by comparison. And there are the souks of Pakistan and Yemen, but that is the subject of a separate article.

The core of American Gun Culture is this: We are ‘Mericans and we own lots and lots of guns!  And we don’t like anyone saying otherwise. We are exercising a right that pre-dates the Constitution itself. Suffice it to say that the average American gun collector owns far more guns than he will ever need or shoot.  We also buy guns to benefit our kids and grand-kids.  And we buy them as investments–partly as a hedge on inflation of the worthless scrap known as the United States “Dollar.”  A $100 bill tucked under my mattress in 1980 would now buy only the equivalent of $29 worth of goods.  But consider $100 spent in 1980 to buy a brand new Colt M1911 that was oiled and tucked in my gun vault. That gun is now worth around $1,000. So well-selected guns are indeed a good hedge on currency inflation.

The Last Bastions of Free Enterprise

When you come down to it, American gun show are one of the last bastions of genuine free enterprise in American society. This is a market where people are expected to dicker. This is a place where knowledge is power. This is also a place where newbies and suckers often get fleeced. Remember the Ferengi aliens from Star Trek, and their Rules of Acquisition?  Those are your average gun show dealers. They can be just as  ruthless. They just have smaller ears. For some humorous further reading, see the brief “Gun-Trading” chapter in the book Rubber Legs and White-Tail Hairs by the late Patrick F. McManus.

Most retail trade is essentially a form of mutually-beneficial arbitrage. (That is: taking advantage of price differences within two or more markets at the same time.) Your potential arbitrage leverage in the trade can stem from a variety of factors:

A.) Time. You bought back when they were cheap and plentiful. Now they are expensive and scarce.

B.) Your knowledge. You know more details than the other guy, and hence you are the more qualified judge of exact value and marketability.

C.) Imperatives. He needs (or wants) it now, and you have it now.

D.) You bought at wholesale and are now re-selling at retail.

E.) They aren’t making any more of X, and you have X.

F.) He needs money more than he needs grandpa’s Mauser.

G.) You had cash when he needed cash. Now you own his old Winchester.

H.) He’s lost interest in X, and now wants Y. He’s willing to trade you X for Y, at a loss.

I.) He needs a shotgun for an upcoming hunt, and has an extra rifle available to trade, but little cash. You have a good shotgun available. But to complete your trade, he is getting your shotgun at retail and you are getting his rifle at wholesale.

J.) Legislative: You bought your ARs between the periods of gun banning frenzy. But now you are taking your profit.

K.) Incisive trading. This may sound cold-hearted, but there is no profit in a perfectly-balanced trade. You make your profit in taking a reasonable advantage of timing, circumstances, and the weaknesses of your trading partner. The ideal guy walking up to your table with a gun for sale is either: 1.) An old guy who has developed infirmities who no longer hunts, or 2.) Someone going through a divorce and who is forced to sell some guns at a loss. Sad, but true.

The Bottom Line

To be a success at the gun show game, you need to make a profit on nearly every transaction. Consider your costs: Fuel, motel rooms, meals, and the cost of your tables. Also consider the “opportunity cost” of taking time away from your other money-making ventures. If you are dentist and could make more money doing two extra fillings than you would in the profit in the entire weekend of a gun show, then you probably shouldn’t add a gun show business, as a side venture!

Note: Because gun shows can be hit or miss seasonally, or even because of the weather, it is important always have a few low-cost items on your tables alongside your high-dollar guns. Thus, even if you don’t sell any guns at a “slow” show, then you can at least cover the cost of your table(s) and travel.

First: Decide on Licensing

One of your first key decisions is whether or not you want to be Federally licensed. Licensing has great advantages, but it also opens up your home (place of business) to ATF searches without a warrant. You also need to consider that if licensed, you will be creating paper trails for both you and your customers. So, in a small way, you’d then be part of The System, and contributing incrementally to tyranny.  At least that is the way that I judge it. Your mileage may vary.

I had one old friend who got around the warrantless search issue by keeping his vault of inventory and his gunsmithing tools in a free-standing garage next to his house that he had legally assigned a different street address–with its own mail box marked with that address and brief posted business hours, two days a week. That garage was the licensed address for his FFL, so only it could be searched without a warrant–not his home.  I’ve also met some dealers who have chosen to get a Curio and Relic (“C&R”) license, rather than a regular Type 01 dealer’s license. The C&R class license limits the varieties of guns that they can buy and sell, but it also makes them very unlikely to ever have their transaction books and papers audited by the ATF.

I’ll have further comments about legalities, in Part 3.

Pick a Specialty and Do Your Research!

To be successful at gun shows you really need to do your research. The single-most import reference for post-1898 guns is the Blue Book of Gun Values. And if you want to buy, sell, or trade pre-1899 antiques, then Flayderman’s Guide is a must. And I might be biased, but I think that you should also print out a hard copy of my free Pre-1899 Cartridge Guns FAQ.

You can’t know everything about every type of gun, so you should develop a specialty (or two). But try to concentrate on a category of guns that you believe will grow in popularity. In deciding this, consider generational and cultural differences. Old Colts, Winchesters, and S&Ws will always be popular in the U.S., because they are practically ingrained in our culture. And of course the Hollywood producers are still making western movies.  But interest in Japanese Arisaka rifles will likely die out, along with The Greatest Generation.

Once you’ve selected a specialty, then gather lots of references on those particular models, both on-line and in hard copy. If some of your references are on your laptop’s hard drive, then consider buying a large (300+ Watt Hours) battery pack and a 12 Volt DC adapter for your laptop, so that you can run it all day. This is because power outlets are few and far between, at gun show tables. Even if you rent a “wall” table, it might not have a 120 VAC power outlet. Also, consider that wireless Internet is still uncommon at most gun show venues, and even cellular reception can be spotty in a few buildings. So don’t rely on just online references. You can keep the equivalent of a huge box of reference books in PDFs, on your laptop.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2. – JWR)


  1. Thank you for your article. I own quite a few knives, some somewhat valuable, but most are ‘users’ that are no longer manufactured. I figured I may be able to flip a few of them as a side gig when I retire and a gun show table rental might be a way to learn the game first hand. We only have a few shows in our city, maybe 7 – 8 a year, so my choice is limited.

    One of the vendors I often go to has offered to do me the courtesy of having my wares on his table, but I prefer to go the route myself. I’m not really a ‘people person’ so gaining gift of the gab will be needed. Thanks again.

  2. I loved going to gun shows in the 1980s and 1990s. Everything about the experience was just wonderful. I have not been to a gun show in close to 10 years. The last time I went it was mostly low end AR stuff, beef jerky and candles. It had been rare to even find private dealers, and most prices were inflated well above internet prices the last time I went. I started to find websites like armslist were more competitive and convenient.

    The way in which you talk about gun shows, JWR, makes me think that in your region, the gun show is still similar to the way I remember them from the 1980s and 1990s. That alone gives me interest to travel in that direction just to experience the excitement of that again. Looking forward to the next tomorrows article.

  3. Gun show comments,
    I have found that having a set of rubber interlocking pads to stand on will make a difference between total exhaustion and being just plain tired at the end of the day. (
    Also, don’t forget a flyswatter, snacks, water, tape measure, pen and paper. You will need zip ties for tying your guns and a small set of side cutters to take them off.
    Remember, as in all things, that the money is made on the “buy”.
    Gun Nut

  4. So far a good article , but l would like to give some insight from the other side of the table.
    I to use the blue book of gun values and also my phone to look at prices for new gun’s. Let’s take for example a cheap gun , a cpx.- 2 the blue book say’s msr. $270 these pistols are on sale often and I have seen them for as low as $149. But yet I go to gun shows and constantly see them priced at $250 used and the dealer will not lower his price at all.
    I belong to O.G.C.A this is a large club and we have a large bi monthly show. I have friends who sell there at $70 a table and every show I hear the same thing it a slow show ,No it’s not a slow show it boils down to people are now watching their money and there are better price’s on the internet.
    Most of the gun shop’s on the internet offer free shipping on gun’s and most of the gun shops in my area offer $5 transfer fee’s , so the old argument that you have to pay shipping and transfer fee’s is null and void.
    There is no such thing as a slow show just high prices and people who refuse to budge.
    Something is only worth what someone is willing give for it.

  5. I never met a gun show I didn’t enjoy. Most of my silver purchases have come from gun shows. I love to dicker on prices. You cant do that at a coin shop. I hope to have my own table at a show, soon. I need to whittle down my collection. Even if you aren’t planning a purchase, attend the next gun show. Show your support for the 2nd Amendment, by your attendance. The price of admission is a mere fraction of the cost of an NRA membership and twice as productive. Peace out, brothers!

    1. Years ago I helped my Ex’s father run his fleamarket enterprise and most of these rules apply but the most important rule is to supply what the customer needs at prices that make repeat customers. This makes it a game of buying right and taking the money.

  6. 1950s-1970s:
    Gun shows at El Camino high-school in Sacramento.
    Several hundred tables, several hundred transactions per hour.
    And everybody was having a great time.

    1970s-2004 or so:
    Gun shows at CalExpo fairgrounds in Sacramento.
    Three levels inside, and vendors out on the ramps from just inside the entrance gates.
    Several thousands of tables, thousands of transactions per hour.
    And everybody in our culture was having a great time.

    My final gun show in California was around 2014 or so.
    At CalExpo, instead of those many thousands of happy participants, there were about twelve tables.
    My table was the only one with firearms… and my inventory attracted the attention of all Law Enforcement Officials in seventeen counties.
    With Law Enforcement Officials mobbing my table four-deep for all the hours of the show, no paying customers could wiggle through to say ‘hi’.
    The other eleven tables had jerky, macrame pot-holders, and comic-books.
    And nobody was having any fun.

    Anybody younger than me has no idea of all we lost.

    1. This is confirmation that there’s a huge demographic shift going on with regards to firearms, and the gun shows in particular.

      The people who’ve been making a living traveling from show-to-show since the 1970’s are actually dying-off, and no one is replacing them, along the resources that they’ve been bringing to the shows all these years (hard-to-find parts, etc.). You would think that their younger kids (who often help them) would replace them, since many have nothing better going on in their lives, but their kids can’t even function as independent gun show vendors!

      And people wonder why I’m a Survivalist, when no one is coming-up behind us who can function in society, much less contribute to it.

  7. I don’t think the gun shows will go away because of any changes related to private party sales. Someone will see it as a capitalist opportunity and set up a table to handle the background checks for a fee.

    1. Well, it has in many places, and with laws that say all gun show firearm transactions have to do a background check it takes a lot of the want to go to a show away. Some dealers thought that they too would jump on the “I will do background checks and charge xx.” They too dried up as only dealers started going to the shows.

      As someone that grew up at the shows and getting knowledge about all sorts of random stuff it was a good time. These days I avoid going to shows at all like many have said, it is no longer fun, and to many other than gun related things at the show. My last gun show was back around 2005-6. I do miss the finding great deals and having a great sales week.

      1. That maybe true, but over half the stuff at gun shows these days are accessories and other related items. It’s just not about the guns anymore. I have even seen people at the gun shows here in Texas selling solar systems and we have private sales.

  8. I hate to pile on with a negative comment, but my experience with gun shows over the last +\- 10 years has largely mirrored the other commenters here. Overpriced tables run by surprisingly arrogant sellers unwilling to haggle over their inflated prices. Knowledge and research work on both sides of the transaction. Someone please explain to me why I should pay 15-20% more for the same product that requires the same background check, taxes, etc? I suppose they throw the poor attitude in for free? I’ll stick to Armsbroker and PSA and spend the difference and entry fee on magazines and rounds, thanks. Maybe other regions are different?

    1. I think that most of the negative comments must be coming folks in states that require background checks on all modern gun sales. The shows in those states have been ruined by legislation. But there are still 37 states with private party sales. There ARE still good old-fashioned shows being operated! Here in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the shows are still great fun, with lots of haggling and seeing some guns change hands two or three times in one day.

      1. I know here in the armpit of the Midwest Ohio we still have private sale’s at gun shows. But after the Dayton shooting who knows how much longer. Our Governor is a Republican in name only.
        Like I said in my comment I belong to O.G.C.A (Ohio Gun Collectors Ass.) and we have at least 18000 members so the show’s are large and not open to the public. You must be a member and can bring a guest.
        This is still a old fashion gun show only gun’s and gun related items are allowed. You have knives and other things that are in the same category.
        But over the last few years they have let more vendors in , and when these people came in the private sellers saw these inflated gun show prices and it was a free for all mess.
        Most of the vendors are now gone but the long term effects have ruined a good show.
        I mean I still see Ruger Blackhawks with $800-900 dollar price tags for used. Heck I would love to get that kind of money for mine in .41 mag and the yellow box it came in lol.

      2. Lets be truthful, the complaints are really about being able to purchase a firearm without having anyone in the government know. That is the bottom line. I get the desire for anonymity, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that argument concerning law-biding citizens. What we do need is a balanced approach to address the real concerns of legal firearm’s purchasers against those who are using the current system to purchase firearms they’re not legally allowed to own. What is the right answer? I certainly don’t have it!!!

  9. Gun shows here are still fun! I go to the largest one in the state and every gun show seller is an FFL dealer, but with a state-issued concealed carry licenses, you can just fill out the paperwork and walk out with your gun – no phone call or computer check with the FBI is necessary. As a result, transactions are fast and there are many major dealers from around the state present, most of whom have 10 or more tables loaded with guns of every type imaginable.

    I go with a list of a few things I want. I start at one end with an empty backpack and walk up and down every aisle until I reach the other end, by which time my bag is noticeably heavier. If I see a great buy, I snap it up. If I see an OK buy, I note the price and the dealer and keep looking, only to swing back at the end and pick up the cheapest one. Over the years, I’ve only missed out on one gun this way – a breakdown 10/22. I guess someone else snapped it up.

    The gun show is a great place to buy powder and primers without having to pay hazmat fees for UPS delivery. If you are looking for a particular used gun, the gun show can’t be beat. I also buy my reading glasses there ($15 each or two for $25) and leather wallets, often from the same guy year after year. You can have someone mold a pair of customer ear plugs while you wait, hand a fellow your gun and they’ll form a Kydex holster while you watch, get your knife professionally sharpened, and buy a myriad of raffle tickets to support all sorts of worthy gun-related causes.

    Over the years, I’ve taken my wife (she was a good sport), my kids, gone with buddies and gone solo. I always have a ball.

  10. Ive been to many in Reno Nv. Had great expierences and a couple bad. I am seeing more and more NON gun stalls/booths. Kettle Corn man is making a killing once the attendees with wives and children see it. Sometimes I encountered folks operating tables with propaganda and material that is racist/sexist/anti-government. . .I avoid those folks as I just cant abide by that stuff. There is one operator who hires a few women who clearly model for Victoria Secret or do Runway model work. He sells targets. A LOT of targets. America is a Patch work quilt, So are most of the Reno Gun Shows.

  11. We were vendors at the local gun shows for about 15 years. For the first 12 of those, my husband still had his FFL as a gunsmith so he bought and sold guns, took custom orders and promoted his day job employer (a shooting range). We sold Thrive storage foods, knives, ammo, mags, other accessories and I ran background checks for the private sellers who couldn’t (the state laws required all gun show sales to have a background check done), and for any dealers who didn’t have an internet connection (for many years, the venue charged $40 for a connection for the weekend) and at a maximum allowable charge of $10 per check, that was too much for some folks. We were able to hot spot our phones for free which made it profitable. We sold shooting simulator systems and had some set up for demonstration purposes, and charged $2 a game. We both taught kids and adults how to safely shoot with a five minute lesson (the lesson was free) and a one minute game or three. As NRA instructors, it was also a good way to get students to take classes at the range. I even sold some handmade items around Christmastime, as well as Urban Survival and Dry Fire Training card decks.
    Finally, with money getting tight a few years ago, the costs started to outweigh the income and we were losing money on the shows. That, along with getting tired of our lives revolving around the gun show schedules, and the promoters scheduling 12 or 13 shows a year, we decided to quit. If you miss more than one show a year, you run the risk of losing you location within the show.
    We miss the social aspect of the shows but life is not nearly as hectic now, especially having moved out of state full time.
    The biggest problem we saw was the fact that there are too many shows in that particular area of the state, at least 1 show nearly every weekend within a 5 hour drive up and down a single interstate (4 cities). And a few of the local gun stores would set up tables for the weekend, as well as having their shop open. The market is saturated and the customers know it.
    At this time, several other vendors have quit due to health issues, age and loss of their profit margin. When you can’t “make tables,” there isn’t much point in paying for the privilege of losing money. Once in awhile, we go to shows we haven’t been to before, if the scheduling and circumstances are right, but it is mostly just to see if we can find anything unusual. I happen to enjoy buying antique guns and I have been able to pick up a few at shows that you just won’t find at the local shop. Otherwise, if we want a particular item, we use the services of the LGS. If it isn’t a firearm, my husband still has his contacts with the distributors and he deals direct as much as possible.

  12. Being in the middle of the country and born in the late 70’s, I remember early-90’s gun shows as a lot of fun. The worst part in our part of the country was the quality and size started to wane as the frequency of the shows increased. Shows were still good after the ’94 Crime Bill limited cosmetics and magazine capacity, but less so. The main thing I remember was was being taught a lot of lessons of supply and demand, and the effects of regulation on the no-longer free market! I’m sure this crowd is well aware, but there is still a very good show in Tulsa twice a year (Wannamacher), although I have not been in about 3 years. Funny how having kids changes your free time…..

    Thanks JWR for all you do.


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