For my final day at the 2018 SHOT Show, I opted to disregard my practical approach to the gear on display and instead go on the hunt for just the coolest, most interesting stuff I could find. Sure, I may not have a legitimate reason to need to reverse-repel up to the ceiling of my house, and I may not have plans to devote an entire room to building a virtual range… but there’s nothing wrong with a little window shopping. In many ways, that’s what SHOT is all about.

On the main convention floor, you can find offerings from just about every name in the tactical or hunting markets, including tried and true standbys like Kershaw, Glock, Ruger, and Buck – but you can also find the sort of stuff that most folks outside the tactical world may not be particularly savvy to. One significant for instance, would be a piece of gear I could really only describe as a real life approximation to Batman’s grappling gun – a system designed to help individuals or even groups of geared up operators to quickly cover vertical distances. The Australian gentlemen operating the booth were great guys, and after I took their set up out for a spin, we asked if they had already secured any government contracts.

They hadn’t secured a contract with the U.S. military, but they were proud to report that they were already equipping “Tier One” Chinese special operations units. To be honest, I might have left that part out when trying to market a piece of equipment to a U.S. Marine Corps veteran that now makes his living analyzing international security issues.

The SOFREP crew moved from booth to booth, looking over new equipment being unveiled and, to be honest, drooling a bit over some gear we were already familiar with, but still wanted to get our grubby mitts all over. In my mind, this is the fun part of SHOT – grabbing the firearms, blades, and tactical gear I’ve looked at and considered buying before and seeing how they really feel in your hands. Sometimes, it even works in reverse – and you grab a piece of equipment you’d already disregarded and suddenly change your mind. In my case, that happened with the Glock 19X.

I may love my Glock 19, but I struggled to appreciate the value of the 19X to a guy like me when looking over the specs and press releases put forth from the company. What is effectively a Glock 17 polymer frame slapped together with a Glock 19 slide and barrel sounded a bit too much to me like the kind of Frenken-firearm I had no use for. The 17’s grip size makes for a larger footprint, making the firearm harder to conceal, while the 19’s slide and accompanying shorter barrel reduces potential accuracy… as far as I was concerned, the pistol bastardized what each workhorse Glock platform was good for and the result was a pistol made of vague compromises.

Then I held one in my hand, and realized that, no matter how hard I tried to talk myself out of it, I really liked the damn thing. My complaints still stand, but there’s something to be said for the feeling you get in your gut when you hold a pistol you want to tuck into your waistband. The price point may still be a bit high for me to want to scoop one up based on nothing more than a gut feeling – but I will no longer adversely judge my buddies if they opt to.

Honestly though, despite the littany of awesome stuff on display at SHOT, and even the opportunity to literally just bump into a personal hero of mine (Randy Couture) – the real value of attending the SHOT Show this year wasn’t anything you could hold in your hands. The SOFREP House, jam-packed full of writers and editors from a variety of Hurricane digital properties, felt an awful lot like moving back into the barracks. I was surrounded by veterans, special operations guys, mercenaries, and secret squirrel types – hailing from a broad variety of military backgrounds and social situations, but as we opened our laptops and tried to balance our writing responsibilities with ludicrous amounts of alcohol consumption and the ear-splitting decibels of six Marines constantly trying to talk over one another (full disclosure, I tend to be a pretty loud dude anyway), we were much more than a bunch of vet writers trying to make a living. We were a family.

When I’m asked if I ever miss my days in the Corps, I always respond with the canned answer, “I miss the people I served with.” It’s not a cop out – I legitimately do miss my days in Twentynine Palms, when the misery of our surroundings forced us to bond. I honestly do miss fleeting moments of laughter amid long, sleepless posts, and sitting around in a circle commiserating about the best and worst parts of the unusual lives we’ve opted to pursue. The life of folks in the military and the that of a writer, in some ways isn’t all that different: to make it in either world, you have to be willing to make sacrifices, you have to be driven, and you have to learn to rely on the guys to your right and left. The group of guys Hurricane sent to SHOT to represent our brand, in my opinion, offered me the very best parts of the Marine Corps: a bunch of sarcastic assholes that wouldn’t hesitate to step into the line of fire to help one another out.

If you ask me, the best thing on display at SHOT wasn’t in a booth, it was the laughter, the frustration, the heated debates and the dirty jokes a bunch of old dudes with DD-214s and tattoos brought to bear.  For this, admittedly fancy-gear averse vet, SHOT Show was an incredible experience – and an important reminder that none of us are on our own, and all of us have something to offer.

Next year’s SHOT might have all the same fancy AR platforms that cost more than my wife’s car. There are only so many new ways to make a pocket knife, and unless laser guns hit the market, it may be tough to get me really excited about a new butt stock for the piecemealed, but effective budget AR I’ve got cobbled together in my office – but you better believe I’ll have my ticket in hand, ready to come back and see what the world of SHOT has to offer. Because at the end of the day, SHOT’s gear is meant to be carried by the sorts of men and women that I pride myself in associating with.

And that’s well worth the price of admission.