NEW ORLEANS H — NEW ORLEANS -- Other businesses may feel the gloom of recession. But at the Shooting, Hunting Outdoor Trade Show, the annual meeting of the firearms manufacturing industry, the glow of prosperity was in the air.
The 1,200 companies that took part in this year's SHOT Show, as those in the gun industry call the four-day gathering, needed 15 percent more space than last year to show their wares, from high-tech rifles and pistols to scopes, decoys and "Bee-A-Tree" camouflage.
Most of the 15,000 manufacturers, gun shop owners and dTC weapons buffs attending the meeting, which ended yesterday, had little to complain about.
"Profitability was up in 1991 over 1990," Alan Gottlieb, publisher of Gun Week, one of several trade journals that took booths, said of the manufacture and sales of weapons in the United States. "They're making more, and the feeling is that they are going to do well in 1992."
Not even the threat of gun-control legislation could dampen the mood. At booth after booth, exhibitors cited both the fear of such restrictions and the recession itself, which they say has increased concerns about crime, as factors driving purchases of weapons.
According to government statistics, U.S. production of firearms in 1990, the most recent year for which figures are available, totaled 1.8 million pistols and revolvers, down slightly from 1989 but up about 20 percent from the mid-1980s. Domestic rifle and shotgun production was 1.7 million, and more than a million weapons of all types were imported.
One of those enjoying boom times is Ronnie Barrett of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A photographer turned gun designer, Mr. Barrett became something of a cult figure in the firearms industry after the .50-caliber semiautomatic rifle he designed was certified by the military and performed well in the Persian Gulf war.
"I'm real proud," said Mr. Barrett, 37.
At $6,600 per rifle, plus $1,000 for a scope, Mr. Barrett's weapon is not cheap. He said his main market will remain the armed forces of the United States and 16 other countries -- "all friendly" -- but that he was happy to sell to gun buffs.
"It's a fun toy, a nice collectible," Mr. Barrett said of his creation, which has also appeared in "RoboCop," "Navy Seals" and other Hollywood action movies. "This is not something a drug lord or a bank robber is going to want to use. It's not easy to conceal."
Traditionally, guns have been considered a male preserve, and this year's show had its share of models in camouflage miniskirts and its stacks of posters of blondes in bikinis cradling weapons.
But gun manufacturers, distributors and dealers appear to have realized that women also constitute a large and mostly untapped market.
"We need to teach women that handling a gun is no different than driving a car," said Roy Melcher of Interarms, a weapons distributor with its headquarters in the Washington suburbs.
Smith and Wesson has responded with its "Ladysmith" line of handguns, the latest model of which was introduced here and will be in stores this spring.
"We've lightened up the trigger and smoothed out some of the rough spots," said a shooting instructor, Paxton Quigley, who taught actress Geena Davis how to shoot for her role in "Thelma and Louise.
Jean Warren, owner of a gun shop in Amarillo, Texas, estimates that 15 percent of her customers are women, compared with less than 10 percent a few years ago, and that most are just like her: living alone, either widowed or divorced.
The SHOT show also attracts makers of foreign weapons, which are gaining in popularity. Suppliers from countries including Brazil, which produced one-third of the 683,000 handguns imported into the United States in 1990, and Italy were in New Orleans, along with companies from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, scrambling for new markets in the wake of the Cold War's demise.
"The American market today represents 40 percent of our production," said Luciano Rossi of Amadeo Rossi Municoes, a leading Brazilian manufacturer of handguns.
Glock, an Austrian manufacturer, was also in New Orleans, hoping to increase sales of models equipped with its popular "New York trigger." That device, introduced less than two years ago, was made to fulfill a request by the New York state police for a trigger with more uniformity of response.
"It's become very popular throughout the country in law enforcement circles," said Richard E. Perkins, a former armorer for the Washington, D.C., police who works for Glock.