Running a Gun Show Business – Part 2

(Continued from Part 1.)

Not Just Guns

There is a lot more for sale at gun shows than just serialized modern guns. Magazines are always good sellers. In fact, your average guy walking in to a show cannot afford to buy another gun, at any given show. But he  usually wants and can afford to buy a few magazines. It is magazines that have always been my “bread and butter” sellers, at gun shows. There is also a lot of money to be made with ammunition, but that as a primary inventory should only be considered by men under age 50, with strong backs!

There is also a lot of money in optics. Those have a high profit margin, and are relatively compact and lightweight to transport and store, per dollar value. Another advantage is that they are fairly noncontroversial, and can be sold at sites such as eBay.

Books can be profitable, but it is best to mainly sell books that relate to your firearms specialty. They are heavy to lug around from show to show and tend to be slow sellers, so keep your book inventory small, and specialized.  Also, one word of warning:  If your main inventory consists of dirty military surplus or greasy items, then don’t sell any books. Otherwise, countless grubby fingers will end up soiling your books, making them un-sellable.

Bayonets and knives also tend to be steady sellers. Avoid selling any junky Chinese knives, or it will make your entire inventory look suspect. For liability reasons, you should prominently post a sign that reads: “No knife handling allowed by anyone under age 18!”

Selling holsters can be problematic. This is because they are sized items. This is something akin to running a shoe store–it takes a huge inventory to keep all customers happy. The inventory turn-over for modern holsters is painfully slow. So your inventory of new holsters gets toted around to dozens of shows, and ends up looking like a bunch of used holsters. One notable exception is specializing in selling antique holsters with marks from famous makers. Those sell quite well at cowboy-themed gun shows in the western states. If you want to try this, you really should get a copy of Richard Rattenbury’s outstanding reference book, Packing Iron.

Authentic Western and Native American artifacts sell quite well, especially at cowboy gun shows in the western states. But be warned: This is a very specialized market, and it takes a lot of research.

One growing market segment is 80%-complete frames and receivers. These days, you could easily fill two or three tables and have brisk sales, if you sold nothing but  80% AR lowers, 80% Glock frames, 80% SIG P320 pistol trigger group modules, along with the requisite completion parts.  I’ve often thought that this would be a good biz for someone. Ideally, you’d hunt around and find a police department that is retiring one model of Glock, and make a deal to have them strip (and discard or destroy) the frames and then sell you the full parts sets. Those, combined with an 80% frame, would sell sell like hotcakes!

Specialty non-gun items can be profitable, but just be advised that their markets can be fickle.  And you will also be up against online sellers.  Yes, there is a lot of money in selling ear muffs, shooting glasses, and targets–since those have broad appeal–but profit margins on them can be thin, and many of those items tend to be bulky (per dolllar.)  How many pairs of earmuffs do you have to sell to make $1,000 in profit, versus selling 1st Generation Colt Single Action revolvers?  If you limited yourself to high end antique revolvers, then your entire inventory (worth $50,000+) could fit in just two tote bins!

JWR’s Rules For Gun Shows

I’ve developed a few rules for gun shows, over the years. Your experience may differ, but for what they are worth, here are my rules:

  • Don’t trade hard items for soft items. Remember: It is a gun show. Don’t arrive with guns and then come home with a pile of holsters and slings.
  • Don’t trade compact items for bulky items. Read: Don’t trade handguns for long guns. (Do it the other way around.)
  • Don’t trade light for heavy. For example, don’t trade guns for ammunition unless the trade ratio is so favorable that you know you’ll make a huge profit on the ammo, quickly.
  • Never buy something that you believe won’t likely resell within the same day or at least by the end of your next scheduled next show.
  • Don’t buy or trade for junk. Always try to trade up. Nobody wants to buy old single shot .22s. That is, unless they are made by Anshutz, Tikka, or Winchester!
  • Don’t specialize in something too obscure or arcane. The bigger your market, the larger your gross sales.
  • Don’t buy a gun that is missing its magazine or another part unless you are certain that you have a source for an exactly correct replacement.
  • Get to know as many wholesale level dealers and importers as you can, as quickly as possible. They have the good stuff (often military surplus) in huge quantities that they bought for a pittance, but you have the face time with customers. The wholesalers and importers should be willing to cut you slack on prices, since you will be buying from them regularly.
  • Unless you are at a jam-packed show, greet everyone who approaches your table with a smile and a hello. Eye contact is crucial–or they will likely cruise by without hardly glancing at what is on your table.
  • Always ask your would-be buyer what he is looking for.  You might just have it in one of your overstock bins beneath your table.
  • There is arbitrage between face-to-face transactions versus Internet sales on eBay and other web sites. I know many dealers who do a brisk business online, based on their detailed knowledge of prevailing prices. So when they attend gun shows, they spend more time as “pickers” than they do selling.
  • Never buy junky aftermarket magazines, or accept them in trade.
  • Carry your reference books and magazine article photocopies with you.
  • Always keep a pair of wire cutters (for cutting plastic cable ties), a bore inspection light, a bottle of oil, and a few bore snakes handy.
  • Carry a small kit of basic gunsmithing hand tools with you:  Brass hammer, pin punches, screwdrivers, and Allen wrenches.
  • If, after checking your references, you are uncertain of the value of a gun, don’t hesitate to ask a nearby dealer who is more experienced. They will count that as a compliment.
  • When evaluating a gun brought in by a “walker”, point out its defects (wear, tear, or lack of originality) Those count as mental points in the dickering equation.
  • Keep some dummy cartridges handy. Those are useful for checking bore erosion at the muzzle.
  • If you begin to specialize in one particular type of gun (or of a particular chambering), then invest in dummy cartridges, go/no-go gauges, and perhaps even a throat erosion gauge.
  • Develop a rapport and then redirect the conversation and your gaze to some of your merchandise. Their eyes will follow.
  • Encourage qualified adult buyers to pick up your merchandise. I’m famous for saying: “Pick it up and bond with it!” That is much more than just a jest. Once someone holds something, they subconsciously start to think of it is as their own, and then they don’t want to walk away without it.
  • Offer discounts for people who buy items in quantity.
  • Generally: Don’t invest your time talking up expensive merchandise to anyone under age 30.  It is the older guys who usually have the fat money clips. So talk trinkets and accessories with the young folks and “high end” with the old guys.
  • Never approach some walker about buying a gun when he is talking to another dealer, at his table. That is considered “poaching”, and a big no-no.
  • Don’t be shy about pointing out the bargains on your table. Get them looking. The longer they are looking at your merchandise and prices, then the more likely they are to buy.
  • If a customer asks “How is the show going?” (they often do, just to be friendly), then answer with: “Busy! So my prices must be right!” That may get them looking seriously at your merchandise.
  • When handing a used gun (or other merchandise) to a potential buyer, it is often good to point out a flaw. (Such as: “I have to mention that this has had sling swivels added. Those aren’t factory original.”  Or: “As you can see, there is some holster wear, here at the muzzle.”) They’ll appreciate your honesty.
  • But when the buyer points out a flaw on a gun you are selling, then have a positive comeback ready, such as:  “And that’s why I have it priced so low.”
  • Never accept a trade (or buy) any item if it is something that you wouldn’t consider keeping in your own collection. Buy the items that you are sure to re-sell. This is also important, because at some point you will want to quit doing shows, and what you have left will be in your collection.
  • As a private seller, do not needlessly create paper trails. Such paperwork degrades personal privacy for both the buyer and seller. However, be prepared to provide a bill of sale, upon request.
  • Trade and sell with both today’s profits and the well-being of your grandchildren in mind.
  • If you label prices on your items (and you should!), then price items at retail and then be willing to negotiate down.  (There is an old saying: You can negotiate down, but you can’t negotiate up from a marked price.)
  • Spend most of your time standing. That will keep you alert for shoplifters and engaged with customers. If hard concrete floors bother your feet and legs, then buy a closed-cell foam floor mat, such as those used by hair stylists.
  • Once you’ve established that a customer is going to buy a particular gun, then start talking bundling. (“Since you’re buying this rifle, I can let you have up to eight of these 30-round magazines for just $10 each, which is close to my cost.”  Or: “Will you be looking for a sling for that?”)
  • Watch your table like a hawk. Leave your smart phone in your pocket, except for emergencies or to compare prices.You are not at the gun show to play Tetris! There are shoplifting thieves wandering about, so beware.
  • If you have any compact, high dollar value items such as jewelry, coins, or high-dollar handguns, then invest in one or more glass-top tabletop display cases. Add a lock hasp and lock them overnight, or whenever you are away from your table. Save the boxes that the cases come shipped in, so that you can safely carry the cases from show to show.
  • If you have lots of handguns, then invest in a sturdy security cable system.
  • Never leave your tables unattended. If you must leave them, then drape them. That takes just a few seconds.
  • Above all: Buy low and sell high.

Tomorrow, in Part 3, I will discuss legalities, taxes, cost tagging, and accounting.

(Part 3 will conclude the series. – JWR)


  1. I don’t like gun shows. I get worked over if I’m not careful. I was looking for a .50 cal scope, the kind that wouldn’t shatter the reticles when fired. Remember these people have paid for a table, transportation, hotel, even taken time off from work to sell you something. They will say anything, in my opinion to get there fair compensation for their expenses. I had to toss the scope in the trash after the first shot. I bought online, where there’s a factual description you can depend on being truthful and also a much wider variety to select from.

    Not all gun show hosts are like this, but I’m too stupid to know when I’m being bamboozled.

    1. JD,

      In this day in age with technology at our finger tips it is very easy on an iPhone or android to google a “reviews for (insert what you are looking at)”. I’ve seen items that seemed like a good price then Google reveals that it is a waste of money. I have had the opposite occur too. Buyer beware.

  2. Fun read. I know the article addresses being a seller. If, like me you are more of a buyer my experience might help you too.
    I remember attending the Washington Arms Collectors (WAC) show a few years ago. Before I left the house I grabbed the bolt out of an old Remington Scoremaster bolt action 22. The rifle was a family heirloom that had a broken ejector for decades. I found a table with a bunch of NOS parts, I handed the guy the bolt and he pulled one out of his box.
    $15.00 plus he had NOS Remington magazines for the same rifle. I spent $40.00 at his table and I made my father in law very happy. Priceless!
    If you have an old firearm that needs a small part, take that part with you. You might luck out.

  3. I like gun shows and I have enjoyed this article. I agree with the comments, sometimes you buy something that is not right, the gun shows 30 years ago were better, I liked the gun shows when everybody was dealing out of the bed of their pickup in the parking lot, sometimes guns are cheaper thru gunbroker & the FFL transfer, yep a lot of negatives. So, I will mention some positives that I have experienced. Local shows are usually small around here, but I look for private sales and target steel (heavy & expensive to ship), and primers without the haz-mat fee. The big show in the mid-south is the Tulsa Wanenmacher show.

    If you haven’t been to Tulsa, you haven’t been to a show! While you still get the kettle corn, with 4,200 tables there are plenty of guns and gun related items to look at. My buddy and I have had a few tables at Tulsa for 20+ years, so we have seen the good, bad and the ugly. While most of the gun dealers are FFL holders, there will be 100s of private sellers. Most southern states allow the resident to legally purchase a long gun from a dealer from a state that borders their own state. So, for me, most dealers can sell me a new AR or any long gun or shotgun. I like older guns, so 20+ years ago I got a Curio & Relics FFL (C&R), which allows me to buy any gun 50 years or older from either a FFL dealer or a private citizen. If I want to sell C&R guns at my table, since I am out of state, I just put up a sign “FFL or C&R needed”. More and more collectors are getting C&Rs. The ATF is there, so you want to do the legal thing. Lots of good suggestions on selling in this article. Only one to add, we have used a black fabric screen netting (bought at Walmart) for a few dollars, we lay that over the antique guns, when the show is really busy, and your attention might be distracted to discourage theft. The Tulsa show now has cameras and that has caught a few thieves.
    I agree with JWR, always price everything, be friendly, encourage people to pick things up, be ready to deal. For the young readers, CASH is king, leave your debit card at home. Most of the dealers will take plastic, but most of the other sellers want cash.
    If I am looking for a hard to find item, it can usually be found at Tulsa, sure it might be on gunbroker, but you might have 5 guys that really want it also, and the price quickly goes above your budget or what it is worth. For instance, I was looking for a M73B1 sniper scope to complete my 1903A4 sniper rifle, at Tulsa I actually found 2, as I was purchasing the scope, I asked the older gentleman who had the table if he ever sold on the internet, like gunbroker. He laughed, “heck no- I like selling at gun shows”. So, not every item is available or cheaper on the internet, there are a lot of old guys who would rather do the gun shows, and some of those may have the treasure you are looking for. Having a table at a show gives you the opportunity to see the many items people bring to the show ‘to sell’. While many of the younger show goers will have modern guns, some have just acquired grandpa’s pistol and are looking to buy an AR.
    We have bought many antique guns and C&R guns below value for cash, because the dealer who had the AR did not want to trade. Especially at the end of the day, they will carry it around expecting to get retail, but eventually come back to accept your wholesale offer. As a table holder you want to ‘buy it right’. Now, when I am visiting a show and walking around my local show with a gun to sell, I would not expect a table holder to accept retail. If I want a higher price, I need to market to the local show attendees. Table holders are like gun-shop owners, unless they want the gun for their collection, they need to turn it, and make a profit.

    1. I know of one individual who specializes in large fishing tackle boxes full of every spring, pin and sear for every old rifle known to man, at the WAC shows. He may be the one who actually hooked you up. He’s also a regular at the Centralia, WA monthly shows. Also shows up at some of the Portland (The Devil) shows.

      He’s part of that generation of vendors that plankowned the modern gun show since the 1970’s, and we’re rapidly losing them.

  4. Jim, this is a wonderful article. For many years, as a kid (age 9-12) my father would bring either myself or my brother to gun shows either at Fire Halls or Shiners facilities or little towns in Pennsylvania such as Honey Brook. I worked the cash register (back then in the 1970’s that was fine and we just kept our quiet and listened) and learned how to do the math in my head for sales and then how to count out change. It brings back a lot of memories, listening to all of the guidelines you offer which sound so familiar.

    Funny enough, I later used a number of similar principles in business. Thank you for writing such a thorough and wise piece. The folks at gun shows and their willingness to share info makes that community, for the most part, special. Stay well.


  5. Jim,

    Thanks for the article. Had to laugh about not selling books if you have dirty military surplus. I had a small part time surplus business and did local gun shows and flea markets. I ultimately gave up the retail gig and did it wholesale and did very well. I took a promotion at work and that ended that business. I was reading your article thinking that there seems to be some difference in shows based on what region of the US you are in. Do you only do shows in the Redoubt? Around me little shows at fire department social halls are the number one venue. If we want a bigger show we have to go to Pittsburgh or over to Ohio. I was shocked at how much stuff walks off!!! One of the book dealer I often saw would have one copy out of the wrapper for people to thumb through. If you you bought one it was in the cellophane. One observation I have is buy some inventory when the market is flooded. I remember buying 440 round cans of Russian 7.62x54mm for $40, now a can is over $200. Remember when the 26.5mm flares and flare guns hit the market? $10-$20 for a box of flares or smoke. I stocked up on a few boxes of the parachute flares and now you can about name your price on a box of those. Those might be bulky items but the prices have increased dramatically. I seldom buy guns at a show. I almost always go for ammo and military surplus.

  6. As for my own micro-enterprise at the shows, I’ve been minimizing my ammo on the table and focusing on preparedness supplies: Small LED flashlights, headlamps, cap lights, “affordable” survival knives, machetes, shoulder bags, universal tactical MOLLE holsters, etc. Basically anything that moves. However, most of the preparedness gear I sell is stuff that has personally appealed to me, and have been able to get a line on from other vendors.

    I’m basically just a flipper: I get my stuff from the internet and Ebay, brick and mortar retail, and bulk deals from other vendors. To me, the shows are like the floor of a stock exchange.

    As I’ve told other vendors, “I’d sell Pink Flamingos at the shows if they’d move.” I keep and analyze my sales data to see what moves, and at what prices people are willing to pay for things.

    Once in a while I’ll strike out. For instance, one of VISM’s newer products is a low-cost “PEQ,” or rifle-mounted dual laser box: Normally over $1000.00, these PEQ boxes were retailing at around $100.00! And, there was at least one good independent review on YouTube. These visible and non-visible lasers for use with night vision are a force-multiplier for us Survivalists! However, as far as the GDP (Generally Dumb Public) was concerned, you could have heard crickets.

    It’s all about knowing how to hustle. Many of my customers simply don’t research anything. All it takes is a smart phone. Otherwise I’d have a lot less customers…

  7. To expand upon Jim’s point about watching your table like a hawk – Don’t rent more tables than you can keep an eye on. If you need more table space, find someone to do the show with you – your kids, your spouse, your parent, a friend, someone from your shooting club who has a few things they want to sell. Anyone who can watch the table(s) while you talk to customers and when you need to take a bathroom break. We had a few friends who would come to the shows as our helpers. When we weren’t too busy, they could browse the show and they got in for free, but when we got slammed, they were there to help out and to keep an eye on things.

    Also, bring your own drinks and lunch or snacks. The food at many of the venues will be overpriced and, quite often, you won’t be able to leave the table long enough to wait in line at the concession stand, even if you have someone helping out. We actually did shows at one venue that tried to tell the vendors they weren’t allowed to bring in food from outside. The vendors pretty much told the venue management where they could get off. Most of us couldn’t afford the time or money to get our food from them.

    Sunday mornings were always slow so that was when the vendors got to browse and shop. My husband would usually check on the other vendors while I watched the tables and handled any customers who might show up. I very seldom got to do much shopping at the shows. If I happened to be looking for something specific – a particular gun, mags or a leather belt, I would wait for a lull in business and take a half hour break to look, but otherwise, I was at the show to work, not to shop.

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