The complaint that there is nothing ‘new’ in the firearms industry is something I hear repeatedly. Whether joking about a larger company’s newest release (often a slight variation on an existing product) or just a general demand for something “innovative,” the clamor for NEW is loud within the industry’s customer base. And though we can look across decades to see many innovations in the industry, year-to-year changes often seem minor.
Innovation in the Firearms Industry
Flashback to the year 2000: many innovations accepted in today’s market such as 9mm double stack sub-compacts and red-dot optics were all but absent. Go back to 1990 and calibers outside of 9mm, .380, and .45 for semi-automatics were unheard of. Go back just another ten years to 1980, and suddenly striker fire and polymer guns are gone. The big picture may be easier to see for someone that lived through the last 40 years of innovation. Even so, compared to other industries, the firearms industry does appear to lag when looking for substantial changes from year to year.
For example, the iPhone was released in 2007 and is currently in its 14th version (almost yearly changes). By comparison, the Glock 17 was released in the U.S. in 1986 and is currently on its 5th generation (a new version a little over once every seven years) and the 1911 has been fairly stagnant for over 100 years.
Granted, this is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Electronic technology (memory, processing speed, battery capacity, cellular service) has undergone massive improvement since the first bulky cellphones of the 1980s (I had a car phone installed in the early 1990s!). Firearms, by comparison, are mechanical tools. As such, outside of newer optics they are reliant on very similar mechanic systems and technologies that have not changed much since the introduction of polymers in the 1980s. Firearms are not cell phones as much as they are hammers.
These facts aside, the desire to see innovation remains strong in the civilian firearms market. Many companies work hard to ‘reinvent the wheel’ to address this demand. The drive to fill this market need is likely part of what drove such releases as the Hudson H9 in 2017, the Laugo Arms Alien in 2019, and the Rock Island RIA 5.0 in 2023.
This call for the “new” results in my interest in visiting the smaller booths each year at SHOT Show to examine and test the newest innovation in firearms, firearms accessories, and training aids. Unfortunately, rarely do these products pass a quick series of questions.
What is innovation, really?
The goal of this article is not to name names or target specific products. Our goal is to discuss what innovation looks like, and that innovation alone is not enough.
Innovation is providing a novel (new) practical answer to an existing problem. It often starts with questions such as, “How has it always been done in the past?” Those questions lead to working through alternative ways to accomplish the same task. The trick, however, is addressing how the new product does it better. Cheaper. Easier. Or faster.
And what about marketing?
Innovation is the starting point, but the need for a clear and rational market plan is also necessary. And that leads to that pesky series of questions.
Who is your target market and are they interested in an innovative solution? Who would want this product—Law enforcement, military, just civilian defensive carriers, just competitive shooters? What percent of that smaller market would be interested in this product? Is there a genuine need beyond just a different way to do something?
What are the current products already serving this market? What is the alternative to your product? Sometimes the answer to this may be nothing. But you still need to ask if your product is better than nothing. Often there are other products. In that case, you go back to asking how is your innovative product better, cheaper, easier, or faster. Beyond innovation, what does your new product offer? Is it something your target market wants?
The final question is often the deal breaker; what is the expected retail compared to other products? A product that is widely wanted (larger market), and greatly improves on existing products may well be worth a higher price. But a product with a relatively smaller market, that is not significantly better (just different), and costs more than existing products is a recipe for failure.
An innovative product (one that does something differently) is always worth some novelty value, but for it to have a wider success it needs a clear customer base. Additionally, those customers need to clearly see the advantages of the new product over and above its expected costs. Innovation for innovation’s sake will only go so far, regardless of how many customers claim the desire for something new.
For innovation to translate into a successful product it needs more. Innovation has to be matched to a market (customers), has to offer a solution to a real problem, and has to survive the interaction of three factors:
- Market size.
- The efficiency of the solution.
- A cost the market will pay for that solution.
I have seen many products over the years that are innovative. However, when I start asking questions about the target market, competitors, and expected retail, I am rarely happy with the responses. Usually, the answers can be summarized as, “Everyone” (rarely correct). “It is innovative” (not enough). And, “$X.XX” (almost always more than existing products).
The biggest problem in these cases is wasted innovation. I have no doubt that a significant amount of effort, engineering, design, money, and product development takes place before I have a chance to look at the newest product and ask my questions. If such questions are asked as part of the initial marketing plan, imagine what could be produced!
Everyone wants the next ‘big thing.’ There is no question that sometimes an idea that skips the early tough questions may strike gold. Unfortunately, it more often than not results in a product that sees limited release and limited sales. Before long the product is gone.
I am a sucker for innovation. Often I am the product’s target market, but I am a rarity in my willingness to pay too much for something that is new. I have a closet full of the previous year’s newest guns, holsters, loaders, sights, training aids, etc., mainly out of sheer curiosity about the product. Most of these products never made it past the novelty market.
I will not give an example of a product that fails in these regards. I will, however, give an example of a recent release that has solid answers to all three questions: the new Glock Performance Trigger. The target market is somewhat limited across all Glocks but was designed to work with the most common Glocks currently in use (the 9mm Gen5s).
Within this market, it was designed to give a better trigger press experience compared to stock triggers, without changing the safety of the trigger system. In this way, Glock hopes to appeal to those using their guns for defensive uses, competition, and potentially for duty uses as well. Finally, the retail price is under the cost of similar triggers on the market. Though there are still limitations in this market, the answers to the questions result in an innovative product that likely will do well.
If you are a consumer, recognize that innovation does occur in our industry. It’s just not as fast as you would like.
If you are a manufacturer, focus your innovation on well-supported analyses of your markets. Make sure you can easily and confidently answer the questions I propose. Let those questions guide your time and resources. Don’t waste energy innovating just to innovate. Instead, innovate with a clear picture of how your innovation will appeal to a wide range of customers. That way, not only will you gain the novelty markets dollars, but you will also see wider and longer-term success!