Sales associate Dale Benner adjusted his stance, peering through two layers of reinforced glass. Less than 10 yards ahead, a soft “pop pop” barely registered over the low hum of classic rock piped overhead.
“You can’t really hear the shots out here,” said Benner, pointing to a customer on the indoor firing range at the Keystone Shooting Center in Cranberry. The man’s body filled most of a metal-clad lane as he lifted his weapon and fired four more rounds. “Our owners, they did it on purpose. The focus has to be on safety—it has to be—whenever you’re doing anything with firearms.”
Pittsburgh is one of the nation’s top growth markets for shooting sports, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group that tracks new firearms businesses. Customers or prospective gun buyers looking to practice with live ammunition have nearly 40 range options within 20 miles of Downtown, with another set to open soon.
Mike Bazinet, the foundation’s director of public affairs, said there used to be a season for buying and using firearms, and it often centered around that area’s hunting needs. But these days, retail stores and ranges thrive year-round.
"These ranges now are built with really the best in environmental systems,” he said. “They're well lit, they're well ventilated, they're open in the evenings, they're open on the weekends, and the best of them are really quite busy. You can find yourself on a given weekend waiting for an hour, two hours even, to get a lane at that range."
He said consumers, especially younger, more diverse crowds, expect a higher quality experience.
“This is not your Uncle Joe’s backyard,” said Cheswick patrolman Matthew Miller.
Miller grinned clutching a gold-plated .50 caliber Desert Eagle handgun, which he said is among the most popular for rent at the new center in Cranberry where he works part-time as a range safety officer.
A lot of the older shooting clubs began as hobby areas in unused basements, backyards or tracts of family land, Bazinet said, which Miller acknowledged can create bad habits if safety and training aren’t respected.
Keystone and a few of its newer competitors were envisioned as a way to challenge that.
“It feels like people right now are especially interested in learning how to protect themselves,” said Sam Rosenberg, owner of INPAX, which is slated to expand into a dedicated range and training space in McCandless this summer.
Rosenberg started the company in 2003 after serving in the U.S. Marines, and later working as a body guard. After 15 years doing self-defense and firearms trainings for schools, corporations, law enforcement and others, he said a brick-and-mortar facility was the logical next step.
“The No. 1 thing we’ve had people ask of us is, you know, “Where do I go to shoot? Where can I go to practice? Where can I go to learn more about this kind of thing?” Rosenberg said.
People don’t want to be victims, said Gregory Nascone, co-owner of Iron City Armory in Bridgeville.
“They want to take control over their own safety, their own fate,” he said. “And they feel being able to defend themselves is a way to do that.”
Attracting customers extends to the design of new buildings. Keystone offers an arcade-like, wall-sized, infrared simulator that even children are welcome to practice on. Among other amenities, INPAX opted for gender neutral bathrooms that cater to the diverse clientele he said he hopes to attract. (Rosenberg has been criticized for opinions expressed via social media about bathroom use in relation to gender identity; on Friday, he was apologetic about those posts and said they had been deleted—that inclusivity is and will remain a top priority.)
“The face of America is changing, the customers for America’s firearms retailers and ranges are changing, and the best of the operators out there see that,” Bazinet said.
For a long time, Anthony Arms in West Mifflin was one of the only public options for recreational shooters. Public ranges are still in the minority, but more get added to the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s mobile app Where to Shoot all the time, Bazinet said. The group lists about 5,000 nationwide, “but we know there are more,” he said.
Iron City Armory expanded just over two years ago, according to Nascone. Even then, there just weren’t that many places to shoot without joining a private club, many of which don’t openly accept new members, he said.
He and his two partners were happy to fill that niche, he said.
Like Keystone, Nascone said the armory’s specials for Sunday ladies’ nights are among their most popular events, and he’s gotten lots of free attention from social media.
“We don’t really tell people to do that,” he said. “I think that’s just the culture we live in now, whether they have a hamburger or buy something at a store, they right away start reviewing it [online].”
Bazinet said the popularity of Twitter, Facebook and especially Instagram has radically changed the face of firearms in America from even 20 years ago. Where once “you had to know a guy,” buy a print magazine or join a club without much information going in, now consumers can see their friends trying it out the same way they might covet skydiving, ax throwing or bowling.
The Washington Post reported three years ago that the number of firearms in America had surpassed the nation’s human population. And recent State Police data show the number of guns purchased or transferred annually in Pennsylvania more than doubled between 1999 and 2016.
Bazinet said some sales, and even rentals, will always be prompted by enthusiasts concerned about the political climate or the safety of their Second Amendment rights. Several gun store owners in the Pittsburgh area said it also fluctuates with the market; online sales help, as does tax season, when buyers may be more willing to buy.
But recreational shooting appeals to a previously untapped crowd. Bazinet said that's where these new public ranges can succeed.
“There’s good [precedent] out there and available for people who want to make the investment,” he said. “They’re going to have a good business for themselves if they do it right.”
UPDATED: 1:36 p.m. Friday, April 13, 2018, to include additional context about previous INPAX media coverage.