Photo (above): Redding Reloading Equipment’s headquarters in Cortland, New York
From its humble beginnings in St. Louis, in 1979, to taking every nook and cranny of the Sands Expo Center in 2017, the SHOT Show is the industry’s signature event, bringing together more than 1,700 exhibitors and 65,000 attendees. Next January, SHOT Show will be celebrating its 40th Anniversary, so we asked a handful of today’s top outdoor writers to pick two exhibitors they know well to tell their SHOT Show stories. Third in our new “Blast from the Past” series is Redding Reloading Equipment with the company’s long-time Executive Vice President and industry veteran Robin Sharpless, interviewed by the inimitable Wayne van Zwoll. Enjoy! — Chris Dolnack, NSSF Senior VicePresident and Chief Marketing Officer
Robin Sharpless, Redding Reloading Equipment
Redding has attended all 40 SHOT Shows. The firm’s Executive Vice President, Robin Sharpless, counts 28 for himself, though first with other firms. “SHOT is Redding’s most important event by far,” he told me. “It’s our entry to markets worldwide!”
The Place for International Outreach
Founded in 1946, Redding Reloading Equipment of Cortland, New York, appeared on my radar shortly after Richard Beebe bought the firm in 1974. He shared loading data with me for his wildcat .270 Redding cartridge.
A member of NSSF since Richard attended the first SHOT Show in 1979, Redding hasn’t missed one since! Sharpless has an unbroken attendance record since 1991, when he represented gunmaker H&R at SHOT Show. After H&R sold to Marlin eight years later, Sharpless moved to New York, from his native New Jersey, for a stint with Ithaca. Six years at Cheytac followed. Now, after a decade at Redding’s helm, Robin modestly credits much of the firm’s steady growth to SHOT Show.
“We not only meet with U.S. dealers there, Redding earns or confirms its international business at SHOT Show,” explained Sharpless. “We don’t even attend IWA, SHOT Show’s smaller, European equivalent in Germany. The people who sell Redding products know they must attend SHOT Show. We have customers in Belarus and Ukraine, in New Zealand and New Caledonia. SHOT Show’s international credibility enables us to market from Iceland to South Africa at our booth. In fact, I view off-shore sales as our biggest growth opportunity.”
My, How Things Have Changed!
“Some would say SHOT Show has become too big. Acreage and attendance do challenge people bent on visiting each booth. There’s less time for chats. Meetings keep some executives off the floor entirely. It’s a less casual show now,” said Sharpless. “But more people can mean more business, and a bigger show is a bigger draw for international buyers. NSSF has done a fine job of managing the increased traffic. This event is costly and time-consuming for attendees; I think most welcome current efforts to tighten vetting. Our customers do too. We’re all pleased SHOT Show is still professionally run and focused on business.”
The value of the fast-growing “tactical” section? Robin concedes that some displays have little to do with traditional views of shooting, hunting and the outdoors. “But competitive shooting events — action pistol to long-range rifle — share gear and tactics with this corner of the industry. So does the self-defense market. Lines blur between service pistols, match-ready .45s and bedside semiautos, between sniper rifles and the ARs and long-range precision rifles in civilian safes. We’ve worked to dispel the image of Redding as a Benchrest supply house. The larger shooting community welcomes our products as top-end must-haves, while our younger customers favor firearms of little interest to veteran shooters who teethed on tube-fed lever rifles. But such shifts in the market present new opportunities for nimble companies like ours.”
Always a Memory Maker
Now 60, Sharpless has two daughters, the eldest beginning a pharmacy career at Johns Hopkins pediatric hospital.
“She’s in rare company. We’re mighty proud of her. But she reminds me of my age and how the industry has changed. I got my first hunting license when I turned 10, with a Model 94 Stevens .410 and an Irish setter pup. Then hunters wore red plaid, not camo. Competitive shooters used walnut-stocked bolt rifles … . Okay, I wax nostalgic. No apologies. People at SHOT Show have become a second family. Some are gone – stalwarts like “Gun Digest’s” Ken Warner, who mentored me when I was a fresh face. New customers and new products may fuel our industry, but other generations gave it footing.”
Some SHOT Show contacts can blur in memory, though.
“At one party long ago, the Margaritas were getting drained like lemonade on a hot day behind a hay baler. A well-known gun writer requested a new firearm for review. It was shipped promptly on the heels of SHOT Show. The manufacturer got a note in return: ‘Why did you send me this gun?’”
Every SHOT Show rookie stumbles, and though the 2018 show will be Sharplesss twenty-ninth, he was once new to the show. I asked him for wisdom he could impart to others and perhaps spare them some pain.
“I learned the perils of assumption at those early shows,” he explained. “Near the end of one show, I volunteered to stay and pack the gun crates for return shipment. The show dissolved around me as I waited. And waited. At 3:00 a.m. the crates arrived … . Needless to say, I check the move-out schedules a lot more closely these days.”
As to venues, Sharpless said, “Las Vegas is a natural, one of few places with the facilities to host SHOT Show at its present size. Sticking with one city makes SHOT Show easy for attendees; they learn routes, hotels, restaurants, the show floor. Still, I’d like to see Orlando back on the schedule. We saw dealers, especially proprietors of small shops, who would never visit Vegas. The Southeast is a big market for Redding. Orlando SHOT Shows were a short drive from millions of people. For us, Florida and Nevada events became SHOT Show East and SHOT Show West. We earned business at one event that we’d miss at the other.”
In recent years, Sharpless has held the same spot on the show floor.
“We once had to apply for a location each year; now NSSF lets us stay in one place — and I’m delighted! People know where to find us, and I like Redding’s aisle-end location. Close to the main entrance, it’s even closer to the LE room that opens an hour earlier than the main floor. Everyone passes our booth – most of them several times!”
No booth babes?
“We’ve never tried to draw attention with pretty young models. It seems at odds with making the shooting sports more appealing to women. Besides, most of our customers know a good deal about guns. Have a question on case-forming for a Gibbs wildcat? You won’t learn much from a girl hired locally for her figure.”
Ready for the Future
The industry will continue to evolve as on-line sales increase for items not requiring FFLs.
“We can adapt,” said Sharpless, “though I rue the passing of mom-and-pop gun shops, the small-town stores that sold firearms and ammo but also fishing tackle, hardware, horse tack and gopher bait. The classic gun shop of my youth was run by a crotchety old fellow who worked on guns. When in the mood, he’d spin out more than you thought anyone could know of rifles discontinued for decades, and handloading data as if reading from a chart. The general store was a gathering place for the community. People gossiped as they shopped, made plans for the weekend and, well, showed they cared for each other. Now so much industry business goes to web-order houses with gross sales of many millions. The net-worth gap between these and traditional local shops — which Redding still serves — has become a chasm.”
How should SHOT Show adapt?
“NSSF is guiding the show deftly, in my view,” Sharpless replied. “It has smart people in charge. I expect as SHOT Show grows, they’ll manage it well and preserve its business focus. But I hope, too, that we attendees don’t become so professional that numbers alone define our success, that we can’t still reconnect as friends at SHOT Show.”
Robin Sharpless comes by his career honestly. Fifty years a firearms enthusiast, he’s a past board member of the NRA. But Robin has also raced motorcycles and now treats his youngest daughter to rides on a Harley-Davidson Road King, one of five Harleys in his garage.
“I’m eyeing a Buell now,” he sighs. “A 1200 V-twin Ulysses. Built only between 2005 and 2010. This one’s pristine. Just 14,000 miles. But it will come very dear.” Motorcycle buffs and gun cranks have much in common!