American shooters and hunters are prone to believe all kinds of myths, especially about guns. That's good for the people who write the tripe we read in magazines and those who develop "new calibers" that are nothing more than old calibers in new cases; but that's not what I'm talking about in this (and future) essays. No, I want to undertake to explain some of these myths in order to expose them as the fallacies that they are.

Here’s the first one: “Discount Stores Sell Factory Seconds.”

This is patent nonsense. Places like Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward once sold vast numbers of guns (alas, this is no longer the case) back when guns were widely accepted as part of the mainstream of American life (also, alas, no longer the case). Today Wal-Mart and some outdoors superstores like Sportsman’s Warehouse and Sportsman’s Guide sell guns. But there is a prevailing myth, one that goes back decades, if not a century or more, that these mass-market outlets get “second quality” guns, stuff the manufacturers are ashamed of, are trying to unload, rejects from their quality control programs.

On the face of it this assertion—one you will hear at any gun show and in nearly every Mom & Pop gun store in the USA—is ridiculous. Think about it: Wal-Mart and the other major outlets buy guns by the truckload. Wal-Mart alone is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) firearms retailers in the USA. If you were running, say, Savage, Marlin, Mossberg, or Winchester, would you really try to fob off shoddy merchandise on your biggest customers?

It is true that in the old days “private label” guns made for big retailers carried names and markings different from those on the manufacturers high-end “name brand” products at a different price point. But apart from markings and some cosmetics, there was and is no difference in “quality” between “name brand” and “private label” guns. Sears and Wards sold guns made by top-of-the-line foreign companies such as FN, Sako, BSA, and Husqvarna in addition to the major American makers. All those factories and more were happy to have that business and delighted to put private labels on the stuff they sold to the big outlets. Business is business; gun manufacturers are in the gun-selling business, they cheerfully sell to whoever orders them, especially when those orders are for thousands of units.

Going back to Wal-Mart, they don’t use private labels, nor do the “warehouse” sellers. When you buy a Winchester, Mossberg, or Savage product in Wal-Mart, the gun you buy is no different from the “name” product except perhaps for somewhat less flashy wood (these days, unfortunately, all too often plastic) for the stock and maybe a little lower level of pre-blue polish, but that’s it. The gun is the same.

Nevertheless this myth persists. Some time ago I had an e-mail exchange with someone about it, who asserted:

Now we all know or should know what spec. products are (Mart-store)… remember the old saying. "Buyer Beware".....You get what you pay for….I have to tread lightly here because I don't want to get sued by some large Firearms corporation for slander, but.....when products simply don't meet the required specification they are offered in many cases to high volume buyers at a much reduced cost. Way back in the early 60's there was actually a lawsuit against a M-art store for selling lower quality firearms without informing the buyer that the reason for the great price was do [sic] to lower quality standards. Now most people would have at the time regarded these as seconds but didn't fully understand that every part on the firearm was below the firearms industry standards. In the court it was decided to order the M-art store to start stamping a K preceding the serial number of every firearm they sold. The M-art store of course appealed the decision and got a more understanding judge that lifted the requirement when the firearms industry attorneys got him to believe that the buyers have to remember, BUYER BEWARE...YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR!!!

As for this alleged “court case,” that was overturned by the wicked “M-arts” there is absolutely no evidence of it whatever. I doubt such a case was ever filed; and if it were—which he claimed, conveniently, was “way back in the 1960’s”—it would be highly unlikely to have included any findings of “inferior” products being sold to large retailers. I’m willing to be convinced, and ask that if anyone, anywhere, has any  proof that such a court case was ever  filed anywhere in the USA during the period of, say, 1885-2021, I want to know about it, so I can look it up. But until someone presents actual, documented evidence of such a case, it has to be assumed to be rumor.

More nonsense from this same individual:

As it stands today I have been told by a very large Firearms Manufacturer that they don't scrap anything anymore they just find a buyer….I would like to see a full blown spread exposing the Manufactures [sic] for the Spec. Products. He told me you will never see it because they are their bread and butter for advertising income….So you see my friend there is a lot to the old saying. "Caveat Emptor"

Needless to say he did not name this “very large Firearms Manufacturer” with whom he claims to be on such intimate terms as to be privy to their operational secrets. But he insists it’s true and says:

In the American Gunsmith journal published in November of 1993 there was an article in the Editors file that address [sic] this issue. I have a brother that is an attorney and I will see if he has time to research the actual court case. As far as my own experience, being told by a large manufacturer that name begins with R, I was absolutely shocked as you may understand, and this was an issue with ammunition. As far as my conversation with a Rep. from a large Outdoor Magazine requesting an article exposing this, he certainly knew exactly what I was talking about, and explained why we wouldn't see it in print. Ultimately since this is assumed an industry "secrete" [sic] it may be very hard to actually document

I challenged this gentleman to produce the “article” to which he referred. As it happens I have access to a very good Interlibrary Loan service so I was able to get that issue of American Gunsmith myself. I told my contact about that and he replied:

If I may go back to this disbelief you have. When you receive the journal, which is just a couple of pages, not a magazine, the title of the article is "Learning the Hard Way". I always wanted to contact the American Gunsmith publishers to see if any manufactures [sic] threatened law suits but I never did. The journal does not reference any lawsuit it simply makes a statement about inferior guns going to the Mart stores.

I received the entire journal, courtesy of Pine Technical College, and there is indeed an editorial piece with the title “Learning the Hard Way,” on page 2. It is not an "article," it’s a letter, an anecdotal account by a Lime Rock, CT gunsmith of his problems with mounting a scope on a “mart” version of a Marlin Model 336. Here, verbatim, are some excerpts:

“I got caught out by a discount-store model of one of the more famous side-ejecting .30-30’s….the barrel is cocked a degree or more to the right…Put a straight edge on both sides of the action. Note the barrel alignment—or misalignment—on your K-Mart or Wal-Mart .30-30 rifle…One other thing to look for…is the bore’s alignment with the muzzle. I’ve seen discount store side-eject .30-30’s with non-concentric bores. I think I now know where all the cosmetically deficient guns that some manufacturers produce end up. They are no less safe and accurate, but they do cause heartaches for gunsmiths.”

Now, for the analysis: Nothing in this account, whose truth I don’t doubt for a second, is “proof” of anything, certainly not of the long-standing belief that discount store guns are “inferior” to ones sold to and through Mom & Pop’s Gun Shop.  It is an account of one smith’s problems with one gun, which certainly may have reinforced his belief in the myth, but is in no way a valid study of the quality control of that brand of rifle (or any other). Without taking random samples of the line production and examining them for defects on a statistically valid basis (which every manufacturer does, by the way) it is simply not possible to use this account as "evidence" to bolster the myth.

Oh, and by the way, his brother “who is an attorney” apparently never was able to find the "court case"—of course he wasn’t able to, no such case exists—or else he never bothered to try.

One more time: no sane manufacturer of ANY product, whether it’s automobiles, firearms, or baby shoes, is going to tick off his biggest buyers by sending them shoddy goods. The buyers’  quality control teams will inspect the products to be sure they meet the buyers’  standards. If any difference exists it will be in cosmetics, not in functionally meaningful ways. The anecdote cited even admits this to be the case, which kind of negates using this anecdote as support for the myth of inferior guns in “marts.”

My friends, it is no longer 1966. People in the gun game can’t do business the way they did 50+ years ago though unfortunately too many of them think they can. The on-going myth of the “inferior” guns at “marts” is part and parcel of the sour-grapes attitude far too many small retailers have. It's an expression of a wish that we’d go back to The Golden Times before the Gun Control Act and the repeal of Fair Trade Laws made life so much harder for them.

Small sellers need to stop lying to themselves. They need to stop griping, and figure out their niche in the market as it is, not as they wish it were. Wal-Mart probably spends more on toilet paper for employee restrooms every year than it would cost for them to buy out any given small seller’s entire operation. There’s no way Mom & Pop can compete with them on standard, current-production models. Mom & Pop have to compete by offering the customer something more, be it in service, selection, or added value. If Mom & Pop insist on selling a Marlin 336 for $40-50 more than Wal-Mart does, claiming that the one they have is “better” than Wal-Mart’s, Mom & Pop are going to go out of business. It isn’t the big retailers’ fault, it’s a problem with Mom & Pop’s business model.

The “marts” are not the enemy of the gun culture. The huge losses in the numbers of small dealers have occurred mainly because of the efforts of the government to shut the entire business down. Years ago Sears decided they were no longer going to sell handguns (this was after the Kennedy assassination, which made no sense whatever: Lee Harvey Oswald used a rifle). But I digress...

Sears Roebuck was a major stockholder in Hi-Standard, who made high-quality affordable pistols and revolvers. Sears also bought most of Hi-Standard's production. When Sears stopped selling handguns, H-S was torpedoed and dead in the water, so to speak. The company limped along on shotgun and small caliber rifle sales for a while but when the Gun Control Act of 1968 went into effect, that was the end. Hi-Standard folded and their very fine guns were gone except in the used-gun market.

The GCA68 also killed off a lot of other small makers and their products, which of course was one of its intentions. Before 1968 serial numbers weren't required on shotguns or small-bore rifles. When serialization was mandated production costs significantly increased due to the need to stamp every gun, to maintain records, and to account for every single gun produced. Tens of millions of .22-caliber rifles and utility-grade shotguns became too expensive to manufacture and their production was snuffed out. Savage stopped making their wonderful single-shot shotguns—a mainstay behind-the-kitchen-door firearm for many, many American farmers—completely. Score another win for the Bad Guys.

In the Clinton administration, the Jackbooted Thugs of the BATF were ordered to come up with new rules that deliberately were intended to put one-third of licensed FFLs out of business more or less overnight. I knew a few of these guys, and I knew gun collectors and other small fry who were—there is no other word for it—persecuted for their interests. The JBTs and those who give them their orders are responsible, not Wal-Mart or K-Mart.

If anything, the mainstreaming of gun sales through “marts” has been a preservationist element, by continuing to demonstrate that guns are indeed part of normal American life, not the fetish of some nutcase fringe. Small sellers who are smart enough to understand this, those who can make accommodations to the realities of the market, will succeed. You can't find classic used guns at Wal-Mart, but you can at most Mom & Pop stores. Lots of unusual and desirable guns, accessories—holsters, belts, ammo carriers—and other ancillary equipment are sold in small places, stuff with a pretty high profit margin. Try finding a pre-WW2 German-made drilling, a pre-1964 Winchester Model 70, a Webley Mark VI, a Don Hume Leathergoods holster for a Colt 1903, or for that matter, a Hi-Standard revolver, at Wal-Mart! Small shop owners who understand this reality—that they don't have to compete with the “marts" on bread-and-butter gun sales, but can easily serve a niche market the big guys don't care about—will survive. Those who don't—even more so, those who refuse to understand it—won't.