The Cornered Cat

Those outside the firearms community often don’t realize that our industry isn’t a home for big businesses. Even the largest, most well-known companies in the gun world are, at best, medium-small when compared with big companies in other industries. In absolute terms, there aren’t many gun-related companies that grow even to that point. For the most part, firearms and their accessories are created, manufactured, and sold by family-owned businesses and one-person shops.

In human terms, what does this mean? It means that it can be difficult for a compassionate reviewer to say something bad about a new gun-related product. In many cases, people have gambled their entire savings and future livelihood on that product’s success.

Let me give you some examples of the kind of companies I’m talking about.

Good people, good products

Last spring, I spent some time in Arkansas with Jon and Kim Hodoway. Jon runs a training school there, Nighthawk Custom Training Academy. It’s only a few years old, but already an excellent school. Before starting his business, Jon paid his dues and learned his craft. He knows what he’s doing with his students. When he and his wife decided to grab that brass ring and start a training school of their own, they gambled everything they owned on its success – bank accounts and jobs, mortgages and the whole nine yards. They had a rough start with county government hassles, but they’re doing well and I hope they continue to succeed.

Their story is hardly unusual. Here’s another one from a different corner of the firearms community: Jay and Georgina French of CCW Breakaways. Jay designed an absolutely brilliant line of concealed carry pants for men. They look like ordinary office slacks, but feature deep pockets with built-in holsters that function extremely well in both concealing the gun completely and allowing easy access. With Jay’s pants, a man can carry a mid- to full-size gun in his pants pockets, instead of being limited to a smaller gun with lower capacity. When Jay and George started their company, they put their entire life savings on the line, and they have worked their tails off for several years to keep it going. You bet I’m rooting for them!

In another case, Mark Craighead designed a traditional holster with an extremely innovative twist – you’ve heard of it, because the holster he designed became very successful and the holster has been widely imitated. Like many other small business owners, this man put his family savings into his design, and for several years he poured all his energy into making his business grow. And grow it did! In order to make the company a success, this man worked long, hard hours and faced an extremely stressful series of legal battles to maintain control of his invention. He passed away far too young, but his hard work created a thriving family business and he left his family financially secure.

Or try this one: Julianna Crowder, founder of the fabulous A Girl and A Gun Women’s Shooting League. Julianna and her husband, John, have poured a lot of their time, energy, and income into making AGAG clubs a success. She has struggled with finding good volunteers, has worked hard to run a national organization on a shoestring, and has dealt with ongoing criticism for holding AGAG facilitators to high standards of know-how and safety at a time when copycat clubs don’t require as much. She has worked with product suppliers and local ranges, with club facilitators spread all across the country, with skilled trainers and instructors, to bring her people the best of what the industry has to offer. Her efforts have often cost money out of her own pockets, even while local instructors and ranges make a profit by associating with AGAG clubs. The cost of her hard work has been high for Julianna and her family, but every day she has the blessing of seeing her vision come to life in the women she works with. May she find continued success!

Those are all very typical stories about the small business owners inside the firearms community. Every one of them dedicated years of their lives to developing the products or services they sell. They took out second mortgages on the family home, or emptied savings accounts, or worked three jobs while getting their own business of the ground. Being a small business owner is never easy, and that’s true even in popular mainstream categories. Inside the gun world, it can be even more challenging. But these folks have done it. That’s worthy of respect.

All of the companies I mentioned above offer products or services any knowledgeable professional can easily recommend and support. They do good work and any writer in her right mind would be proud to give them a shout-out in print. That’s the easy call.

Good people, meh products

What about those whose products aren’t so good? What then? The small business owners who create these sub-optimal products still work just as hard, gamble just as much, put just as much of their future on the line.

A few years ago, at a convention, I met a very nice man who was very excited about the concealed carry product he’d designed. What was it? It was … um. No details here; I’m not giving the product any publicity. Let’s just say it added an unnecessary set of lumps and bumps under your outer clothing and also added an unnecessary level of complexity to carrying the gun. Frankly, if your belt sags when you put a holster on it, the problem is the belt and the solution is a better belt. That simple.

But this guy didn’t know that. What he knew as a new carry person was that his gun made his belt sag, and that when he wore his contraption along with his sagging belt he felt more comfy and less saggy. So he – wait for it – did what small business owners do. He gambled his savings, worked long hard hours, and poured his soul and energy into making his company a success. He laid everything on the line.

Here’s where the human factor comes into play for me personally. Because he seemed like a good guy and because I admire people who gamble it all, when I met him, I truly wanted him to succeed. But that didn’t make me blind! After looking it over carefully, I believed his product was unnecessary, a frippery and a foolishness.  

What could an honest reviewer do in such a situation? In this case, honor and emotion were both satisfied by this: I decided I would never send his company any customers directly, but I would never bad mouth his work either. Instead, I would simply continue to educate people about the purpose and function of a good belt. Nobody will actively endanger themselves if they use this good man’s product, so I really don’t need to say anything else about it one way or the other. And who knows? A product that I find useless and silly might be useful to someone else. If so, those others can wholeheartedly endorse his work, and I won’t ruin things by tearing him down.

This company and its humdrum product will succeed or fail on their own merits. As with the other good people above, I wish this small business owner every continued success – but I also quietly wish he were selling a more useful idea.

Good people, dangerous products

All well and good. That’s what I and most other professional writers have chosen to do about good people selling good products, and about good people selling not-so-useful products that won’t harm anyone. But that still leaves another possibility, doesn’t it?

Yep, you got it: the small business owner selling a dangerous product. It could be a school that offers unsafe training, or a company that sells a badly-designed holster which forces the user to do something idiotic, or a business that peddles an insecure way to store the gun. Whatever. These companies aren’t just offering useless fripperies. Their products fall into another category entirely, one that at least some qualified professionals believe will actively endanger people’s lives. In such cases, does a good person still keep her lip buttoned, rationalizing her silence because it’s a small business run by good people?

The immediate, obvious reaction is, “Well duh! Of course not!” Of course we should speak up, speak out, name names and let the chips fall where they may whenever we believe a company is selling a truly dangerous product. Of course we should  – lives are at stake!

You’d think so, but when was the last time you saw a clearly-worded, scathing review in a gun magazine? One written by a professional writer or trainer, someone who makes a living within the community? Or listened to a similarly negative product mention from a working pro on broadcast television?  If this call is such a no-brainer, why don’t the pros get their act together and police the industry better? They could be saving lives!

All about the money

The obvious, though cynical, answer to the above questions would be something like, “Oh, but they can’t annoy the advertisers.” Or, “Well, the professionals know which side their bread is buttered on, so they can’t speak out because they’ll lose money …”  It’s common to hear some similar variation of the same basic idea: it’s all about the money.

As tempting as this cynical view might be, I don’t buy it. Could it be true that every person who makes a living talking or writing or teaching inside our community is actually on the take? Sure. But is it likely that dishonest greed drives every decision made by every professional communicator in the gun world… every single one? That’s a little harder to believe. Surely at least a few would break ranks and break the conspiracy of silence.

With that in mind, before we jump straight to the easy but cynical answer, let’s look more closely at the question. It might turn out that the no-brainer decision is not that simple after all. It might also turn out that the emotional and relational factors that drive reviewers to remain silent in the case of useless fripperies are not the same ones that keep writers from naming names and calling out the specific products they believe are truly bad or even dangerous.

The Streisand Effect

Let me tell you a short story from outside the gun world. A few years back, entertainer Barbra Streisand felt upset when a photographer took a picture of her mansion and uploaded it to a web page dedicated to documenting California’s coastal erosion problems. Streisand was so upset, in fact, that she filed a $50 million lawsuit to suppress the image and force its removal from the web. The predictable result: a huge upswing in the number of people who heard about the image and rushed to download it for themselves. Before Streisand filed her lawsuit, only eight people had downloaded the picture – and two of those hits came from Streisand’s own lawyers. After she sued for its removal, the website received 420,000 visitors in a single month. That’s quite an impact.

Internet marketers now talk about “The Streisand Effect,” where any attempt to remove information from the web, or to suppress bad ideas, leads to an immediate and massive increase in the number of people who see the information and believe the ideas.


All Publicity is Good Publicity – for an unknown, anyway

“All publicity is good publicity,” or so they say. Careful research shows us that’s not exactly true all the time, but the perception is still a strong one based on a well-understood truth. Bad publicity does hurt large and established companies, as executives at both Toyota and Enron could tell you. Or ask Tiger Woods about his lost corporate sponsorships and precipitous drop in income a few years ago when the scandals broke. But for smaller companies and relatively unknown brands, it’s exactly the opposite: just getting the company’s name in print drives sales upward, even when the reviewer says awful things about the product.

Want some examples? Sure! According to a 2006 article in the Wall Street Journal, Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library once gave a horrendous review to a $60 bottle of Tuscan red. He said it smelled like “stinky socks.” When the wine’s review went live on that popular website, its sales jumped by 5%.  Or try this one, equally funny. After the movie Borat made relentless fun of the nation of Kazakhstan, reported a 300% increase in requests for information about that country. More recently, researchers found that all tweets are good tweets where politicians are concerned. No matter how vitriolic and negative the content, having a large number of people talk about you on Twitter corresponds closely to winning on election day.

Don’t believe me yet? Check the purchase stats for this bad idea on Amazon, then read a few of the reviews slamming it. It’s a legal product, and hasn’t been sued out of existence yet. There may even be one or two people out there who would use the product in a safe way, and who would not endanger other people by using it foolishly. Does that make the product itself safe, or a good idea? Probably not.

So maybe using your megaphone to warn people away from horribly bad products isn’t quite the no-brainer it seems at first. If nobody ever hears about the product, no one’s going to buy it and keep its producer in business. It will just quietly go away without much fanfare. But if well-known reviewers mention it in print or use their platform on the web to denounce it, many more people will hear about the product and some of those people will run to try it out.

But what about – ?

Unfortunately, not all bad products languish in the obscurity they deserve. Some become inexplicably popular. Let’s talk about those, and about what the reputable professionals in this industry usually do about them.

When an unacceptably bad product becomes popular, you can often find pros who will speak out against it. One example that springs immediately to mind: Blackhawk’s Serpa holster, which features a retention device that must be activated with the trigger finger during the drawstroke. Many professional firearms trainers believe the retention lever’s location is unsafe or that the holster design unreliable, and have banned its use in their classes and training facilities. The pros who find this popular holster a bad idea aren’t shy about saying so.

Another example: the scathing review of the Taurus Judge that was written by Tom Givens and published in the September 2010 issue of SWAT Magazine. Although you can’t find that review online, Givens discussed his findings on the ProArms Podcast (fast forward to 28:15) that came out a few weeks after the article’s publication. Several other professionals are also on the record with similar views of the same product around the same time.

While it’s unusual to find such a breathtakingly negative gun review in a commercial firearms publication, it isn’t uncommon for professional trainers to talk about the benefits and drawbacks of popular gear choices. They just don’t usually bother panning unknown or unpopular gear in print for the reasons mentioned above.

There’s one more factor to keep in mind. It’s definitely unusual to see strongly-worded negative reviews in gun magazines or in firearms related television shows because there are advertising dollars at work. But even with advertising money on the table, it is not unusual for gun magazines and television shows to simply refuse to talk about products the reviewers don’t like. If they really have to court the ad dollars, instead of mentioning products they don’t like, they’ll often focus all their attention on other products from the same company.

Bottom line on this one? The simple absence of a review for a new product from an unknown company might not mean anything. But when a product has been on the market awhile and has a lot of sales, if there’s still an industry-wide silence about that particular product, you can bet there’s a reason for it.

Other factors

In some cases, a product used exactly as the designer intends might be less than optimal – but a trained professional looking at the same product easily sees an alternative, safer use for the same item. In these cases, the writer might choose to avoid direct reviews and concentrate on teaching people how to use the product more safely.

Want an example? Sure! There’s a very popular line of sticky holsters that, in my professional opinion, hold the gun unreliably when used as intended under clothing. Although most people experience no trouble with this collapsible, unattached carry device under normal conditions, it cannot be trusted to hold the gun reliably during the extremes of movement someone fighting for her life might use. However, through repeated experience I’ve also learned that this device works very well as a pocket holster and can be a solid addition to other carry devices. Even though the company that makes the product suggests it should be used in one way, there are other ways to use the same product and those other ways could be much safer and more reliable. When students ask me about this product, I tell them the unvarnished truth about its intended use, but then I’ll show them some of the much more reliable ways to use the same device.

A slightly related point: it isn’t hard to find pictures and video instructions produced by holster makers or gun manufacturers that show people using their products in unsafe ways. That doesn’t mean these products themselves are unsafe. It simply means that the advertising people aren’t exactly well trained in defensive handgun use and related skills, nor do they get paid to teach buyers how to use the product. They’re just well trained in taking pictures and recording videos that improve the sales numbers.

No matter how much you like the product, don’t trust its salespeople to provide good training in how to use it. That’s not their strong suit.

Bottom Line

For the most part, most professionals within the firearms industry don’t waste time or energy reviewing bad products. In some cases, personal feelings are involved. Perhaps the reviewer is rooting for the nice guy running the show, and the product is simply unnecessary rather than stupidly dangerous. But in many other cases, the professional lips stay buttoned for much better reasons, and especially for fear of causing a Streisand Effect that creates more sales than it squashes.

Fortunately, there are some obvious red flags we can look for that help us avoid making bad choices when we shop for life-saving defensive equipment.

Red Flags

Here’s my own quick and dirty list of things that should make you stop and think before you buy the product. Keep in mind, any individual item that falls somewhere on this list might still be a good purchase, but these red flags mean you should look very cautiously for the catch before you put your money down. You might still buy the product, but you should look beyond the sales pitch.

1.      If they want to sell you their expert help and the company website features a picture of a craptastic holster with a man’s finger on the trigger while the muzzle is still inside his holster, you should think very, very carefully before you rely on that company’s  expertise.

2.      If their ads show ridiculously fake ginormous explosions erupting behind camo clad warriors with their faces hidden by mirror-goggled helmets, and the ad copy says their product is the best because military and law enforcement use it, ask yourself whether you will be using it inside a military or law enforcement context – or, if you are a military or law enforcement buyer, ask yourself whether your team’s mission would be enhanced by making them jump like a half-tamed lions through a fake-explosion hula hoop on your training days. The product might be a good fit for your needs, but before you buy it, you should look for a more meaningful reason why you should.

3.      If their ads feature a sexy picture of someone – male or female – who clearly doesn’t know how to hold a gun, their sales people do not know anything about guns and you should not trust anything they say about the usefulness of their company’s product.  

4.      If a product has been on the market several years, and you have never seen a review of that product on a professional blog or inside a professionally-edited publication other than on the advertising pages, think twice before you buy. The pros sometimes push blah  products because they want more advertising dollars, but when they avoid saying anything at all about a product, there’s usually a reason.

5.      If a shooting group’s website displays a picture of a woman putting her hand in front of the muzzle as she holsters the gun, you should think very, very carefully before you buy whatever that group is selling – especially if what they’re selling is an opportunity to shoot with them or learn how to shoot from them.

6.      If a firearms maker shows you a video of people who clearly don’t know how to safely use a gun, the particular gun design they’re selling might be okay – but you should think carefully before taking their word for that.

7.      If the company founder begins their pitch by explaining that they designed the product just a few weeks after they bought their first firearm because they “couldn’t find any other way” to carry the gun, they might be a nice person – but they didn’t know what they were doing when they designed that product. Be extremely cautious and skeptical of this purchase, and be at least three times more cautious than that if you yourself just began carrying a gun.

8.      If they try to sell you a very unusual way to store the gun, or an unexpected way to tote your gun to the range, you should ask yourself why nobody’s thought of that idea before – or, if they have, why it hasn’t taken off.

This isn’t a comprehensive list. What other red flags would you add?