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[Prependum: I wanted to take photographs at the show and I did bring my camera. There were some fine firearms on display and some very beautiful and historic pieces that were well worth photographing, and the venue was nice enough as well — but there were no cameras allowed.]
I have to say I’m a little surprised, because it was my first gun show in more than 20 years and I had high expectations that it would be a rock’n sock’n rootin’ tootin’ affair here in Massachusetts, but I probably shouldn’t have. I just got back from the NRA-sponsored National Gun Collector Show & Conference at the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds in West Springfield, MA, and I had a very nice time: A nice, unsurprising, mostly boring, and pretty much unexciting time.
It cost $25 for my father and I to attend the show for the three hours we were there: $5 for parking on fairgrounds that could have held at least 10 times the number of cars (it’s a big place) and $10 each for tickets to the show as such. We walked a long way from where we parked, considering the number of cars, and when we entered the show there were no fireworks or flyers being handed out. There also weren’t any half-naked babes toting AR-15s, and there certainly wasn’t anyone offering coupons or schwag, or trying to get you to visit their booth on the floor. It felt very “un-trade show-like.”
There weren’t any loud announcers, no background music, flashy AV displays mounted on pedestals, people dressed up in costumes, or even anyone trying aggressively to sell anything. In fact, when you walked in, it was difficult to know where to go — because nobody seemed to be trying very hard to get you to look at what they had for sale. Most of them were very modest and subdued, even sedate, and so in order to find something interesting you basically had to walk around the entire place with an eagle eye. The feel was more “sedate flea market” than “Big-Production Gun Show.”
There were about 3 dozen small to medium sized vendors and a couple of larger kiosks representing Winchester and Remington, and that was about it. The NRA had a small, centrally placed kiosk that was there ostensibly to sign up new members, but I didn’t see anyone signing anything when I walked in. Smith & Wesson had a nice display with people from their Performance Shop, but amazingly enough, the guy they chose to help answer questions was completely unhelpful. I asked him whether or not it was possible to find out how many 4040PD pistols were made and he said: “I have no idea. If you call Smith and Wesson maybe they’ll know.” That was a little shocking, coming from the only identifiable S&W vendor at the show. So much for earnestness. This is a guy at their trade show booth.
Attending the event on a Sunday might have had something to do with that, but regardless, whatever enthusiasm I had built up was taken down several notches after spending 5 minutes on the floor: I just realized right away that it was a low-key, low-drama, low excitement event that I just paid $25 to attend.
There were, however, a lot of nice people there, and I talked with dozens of them on the floor, mostly “look and see” types. It wasn’t sparsely attended but it wasn’t crowded, either — and you could hear someone’s conversation at normal tones walking right alongside you. You never had to fight for a place to stand, and you never really had to wait in line to ask a question. Nobody was unfriendly and there wasn’t any unpleasantness at all, but neither was there much identifiable excitement or enthusiasm. Basically it was the same people you might see at the local mall, walking around and looking at all the guns and paraphrenalia on sale. I could have been at Sears or even CostCo, except for all the weapons.
I’d estimate that half of the guns for sale were used, and many of those were antiques. I wasn’t very interested in the WWII-vintage bayonets and miscellania., not at all what I was interested in seeing, and most of it was well-used and interesting only to someone who was really looking for a bayonet to fit an M1, so for the most part I looked at those from a distance and passed them by.
That said, I did look at a lot of firearms in all the normal size ranges, and a couple of supernormal (S&W 500 .50) ones, which actually was a kick. It’s a lot of fun to pick up different kinds of firearms and “try them on” for size, and there were a few really nice vendors who let you do just that. A couple of vendors really put in some extra effort to place a wider assortment of new guns on the floor, and I liked their booths the most. I really appreciated the guys who took the effort to put out a decent assortment of shotguns, rimfire and centerfire rifles in both bolt action and semi-auto. It was nice, for example, to see a few different kinds of Benellis, and there were a few nice Mossbergs as well, things like that. Still, the entire assortment there wasn’t any larger than a big Cabela’s — although the atmosphere was more relaxed and less “big chain store.”
If you had some money to spend, there were a couple of real deals to be had, but somehow nobody seemed to be in the mood. I didn’t see anyone buy anything big while I was there. I felt sorry for the guys who came with the expensive Winchester collector guns: they didn’t seem to have anyone interested in even talking with them, much less making a purchase. If I had had several hundred dollars that I didn’t have to justify spending, I would have bought the lone MA-compliant Sig 556 on the floor: really it was one of the nicest “black rifles” at the show, and at a good price.
In other words, despite a few vendors who really tried to put out some nice, newer guns, more money changed hands at the food court than on the floor of the show, as far as I could tell. You’d have had a better time identifying gun sales if you went to a Cabela’s or one of the local gun shops than if you attended that show, because as far as I could see, there weren’t any made in the three hours I was on the floor. The most I saw purchased were some t-shirts and some holsters, a pair of binoculars or three, a couple of books, a few magazines for guns people already owned, and that’s about it. Even the ammunition guys outside were a bit of a disappointment: they only had one variety of 9mm ammunition: Fiocci 158 grain subsonic FMJ, which are nice bullets but not what I was looking for.
I did get a nice compliment and a smile from a very pretty woman who was wearing the same NRA cap I had on, and frankly that was the highlight of the day. “Nice cap…” she offered. I said: “Yeah, yours too, you have good taste. Somehow I knew we’d meet like this…” and we laughed. That was fun.
So what’s the bottom line? It’s hard to say. This was my first gun show in more than 20 years, and it took place on a Sunday in the notoriously gun-phobic and antagonistic state of Massachusetts. It was worth the $25 but just barely. I didn’t learn very much that I couldn’t have already found out from the Internet, and the event was so low-key that it was getting hard to stay longer than three hours — both my Dad and I made 1 full circuit of the floor and we didn’t retrace our steps, so that says something.
I can say this: if this is the kind of event that people in Massachusetts and elsewhere are terrified of, their fears are completely unfounded, and they should be looking for something really scary to be worried about. It was — I’ll be blunt — a little boring, and certainly nothing that deserves the kind of hyperventilation some people want to expend on it. I enjoyed the show, I liked the people I met, and I want to attend again next year — but I’ll be there on a Saturday instead. Next year I hope the organizers try to liven the place up and promote it better, both inside and outside the show: it was a beautiful day and a great venue, and much more could have been made of it. There’s a lot that could be done. I was really surprised that nobody even asked me to join a supporter’s list so that I could be notified of the next show, and the lack of even that kind of basic self-promotion was palpable.
Sadly, the low-key (even downbeat) vibe of the show probably has more to do with the way gun owners and 2nd Amendment supporters are treated in Massachusetts than anything else: that’s my biggest takeaway, and that kind of treatment is really totally unjustified. Overall, I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 and say that I’m going to try to get in touch with some of the organizers and give them my suggestions. There’s definitely room for improvement, here.