Let’s face it: There’s only so long you can blast away at a paper target. In the game of Glock, Paper, Bullet, paper always loses. So why not change the game up a bit?
That’s what new ranges like Defender Outdoors are doing.
Since opening its doors in 2013, this 43,000-square-foot one-stop-shop shooting complex in Fort Worth, Texas welcomes new shooters and old, including foreign travelers looking for a 2nd-Amendment-powered thrill and celebs like Kanye West.
It offers an experience similar to TopGolf, brightening up the range experience with fresh takes on live ammo shooting and an endless variety of themed run-and-gun simunition courses, wrapping the whole experience up in a nonstop party off the range floor.
For instance, for Father’s Day 2019 they held a “Run N Gun” special with discounted prices and a prize for the fastest run—plus they modeled their SIM house after the N64 Goldeneye video game.
Keeping the party going is Defender Outdoors president Will James, who sets the complex’s sights squarely on entertainment.
“We don’t ever want to sell fear,” says James. “We’re selling fun.”
And while that fun can include firing off practice rounds at the range, it also encompasses a 3,000-square-foot simunition shoot house, with modular walls that can represent any environment, paired with colorful lighting effects and immersive soundscapes.
Customers can charge through a 007-style run-and-gun adventure, or a horror-tinged Halloween shoot-the-clown experience. Over the sound system, the heart-pumping scores to action or horror movies help set the mood.
Defender Outdoors hosts corporate events, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and even gender reveals, with special targets set to explode in pink or blue powder. Afterward, everyone can relax in the lounge.
“We also host ladies’ shoot-and-sips,” says James, noting “the order of those two things is super important.”
Another blast of entertainment comes from Full Auto Friday, where visitors get a chance to fire a burst of 25 rounds for 10 bucks.
“Typically it’s a gun that they’ve seen in a movie somewhere,” says James. “They get to take a video of it, put it on their Instagram. You’ll never see bigger smiles.”
Despite the party atmosphere, Defender Outdoors takes safety seriously.
“Safety officers are on the range at all times. They’re not behind glass or in another room, they’re walking behind you so if you need help, they’re right there. But if somebody leaves without a smile on their face, we haven’t accomplished our goal.”
So beyond the focus on entertainment, what other changes has Defender Outdoors made to the traditional shooting range model?
James set up the retail floor with modern shopping habits in mind, knowing that people like to do their research and price comparisons before shopping in person.
“Our salespeople are not on commission,” says James. “Whether you buy ten items from us or none, you’re treated the same way. There’s immediately less pressure.”
Defender Outdoors keeps a display table of the most popular firearms tethered to the table, with the firing pins removed. That way customers can check them out for themselves, without asking permission.
“They can see, feel, squeeze the trigger, run the slide,” says James. Salespeople are nearby if they have questions.
Having a laser-based system also lets Defender Outdoors ramp up new shooter’s comfort level before they begin using live ammunition, which can be intimidating.
“You can get a grip, trigger stance, sight picture—all of those things in alignment, and get them shooting something similar to a real gun,” says James.
“By the time they get on the range, we want super comfortable with the function of a firearm, how they’re going to hold it, how they’re going to stand, how they’re going to load and unload it,” says James. “And then, ultimately, they’ll achieve their objective, which is to hit what they’re aiming at. And those people are typically going to come back.”
New Shooter Outreach
All the bells and whistles of Defender Outdoors’s approach is extremely appealing to new shooters, who find it less intimidating than a traditional range. And that warm welcome has long-term benefits.
“They don’t already own the equipment,” says James. “So we sell them their first gun, their first training class, their first LTC, their first case, their first magazine, their first ammo. We become their go-to place. Which is what we’re trying to do, right?”
Defender Outdoors is always open for single-day events, but it also offers memberships. Not only does it encourage long-term commitment, but it makes a range busier on the whole, increasing the party atmosphere.
“When people see you’re busy, they’ll say, wow, this must be the place to be,” he says. “It may seem like an initial loss, but in the long run it’s a great practice.”