For those of you not familiar, the SHOT (Shooting, Hunter, & Outdoor) trade show is the industry’s largest in the world. I’ve been to Comic Con in San Diego, a big show in its own right, and the SHOT show makes it look like a small yard sale in comparison. Why is it important to us and the Defense industry? Read on.
I started going to the SHOT show in 2003 when I transitioned from an operational role to an instructor role during my time in the SEAL Teams. The Special Operations, and SEAL community had much more flexibility to open purchase (ah, the good old days) items for test and evaluation back then. Admittedly, attending the show was always considered a necessary “Boon Doggle” (massive industry parties are thrown…just for starters, your imagination can fill in the rest). It has always been an important place to be in terms of identifying new trends in the firearms industry that could be leveraged and improved for use on the battlefield.
What did I see this year? Not much new in the way innovation, folks. I saw the same “me too” brands competing in the tactical nylon and AR platform Hunger Games, and that was about it. Regardless, it was one of the best shows I’ve been to because of the 1st annual SOFREP TR members party, and I had the chance to connect with a lot of old SOF friends and make some new ones, too.
US SOCOM Acquisition
These days, US SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has gone the way of the conventional military with massive programs of record that impede rapid technology acquisition and emplacement. Many at SOCOM don’t want to admit this is true, but I’d argue this point all day long. An example, many of my friends in the active Teams today cannot quickly replace their field uniforms that are falling apart due to a manufacturing defect because the field uniforms are part of a program of record.
“The Acquisition empire that has been built at SOCOM is so entrenched with people who have a shelf life of 20 years that the only way to fix the system it to shut down and start over. The Acquisition Professionals are the ones running the show and NOT “OPERATIONS.” That is the biggest problem! When the money people are in charge they will always say “NO” and not “how can we do it.” They will always do what keeps them employed and promoted, which is bigger programs! SOCOM doesn’t need bigger programs, it needs to go back to basics. Technology will not win the next fight….it will be the OPERATORS and their skills.”
-Former US SOCOM Assigned RDT&E Operator
When I was at the Naval Special Warfare sniper cell, we pushed for the open purchase of a new scope made by a relatively unheard of company called Night Force (NF). A couple of SEAL snipers helped propel NF into the game with a good idea and a few thousand dollars of available funds, and the rest is history. In the early 2000s you could just open purchase items like this to gap the acquisition delay, not the case these days. Less special, more conventional.
The common trend I saw this year among many companies at the show, who focus on the Law Enforcement (LEO) and Military markets, was the quiet whisper of panic brought on by the reality that the 9-11 LEO/Defense e-ticket ride was done. I don’t care if you’re supplying textiles or weaponized hardware to the US government, the glory days of fat spending are over.
Smart companies saw this coming years ago, wisely invested their efforts into civilian product lines, and are now safely diversified (Magpul is a perfect example). So what will happen to the ones that went “all in” with the DoD? Odds are likely they won’t flop a winning hand, and they’ll be quietly escorted out of the game room by security unless they have a fat bank roll and are firmly embedded in a large program of record that’s not at risk of being chopped.
My advice to companies, from someone who’s been on both sides of the Federal acquisition game: it’s always better to build, test, and sell your products in the civilian consumer market first (unless you’re Boeing), rather then rely on Uncle Sam. It’s why guys like me attend the SHOT show; we want to see what’s already tested and proven before we recommend the buy, and bring you behind the curtain.