The tactical shooting market is now the fastest-growing segment of the firearms industry, approaching the size of the concealed carry or personal protection market. And this includes a fair amount of crossover between the two categories.

AR rifles and pistols still dominate the tactical market, and with good reason. Given their customization and the ease with which everyday gun owners can build them, the so-called “Legos for grownups” or the “man’s Barbie doll” is driving the tactical sales juggernaut.

Guns, gear, accessories, ammunition, training and customizing with unique finishes and gunsmithing services are keeping customers coming back again and again to their local gun shop or retailer. Your customers all have one thing in common: They are looking for the next new “must have” tactical rifle, shotgun or pistol. Thanks to blogs and gun-themed websites — as well as the glut of tactically themed magazines — your customers hear about new products almost as fast as you do.

The key to not missing out on sales is to stock the next hot gun on your shelves when your customers come asking. Tactical Retailer has been reaching out to gun makers, distributors and retail shops over the past several months — as well as attending exclusive industry trade shows — to get the scoop on what you need for 2015.

AR Rifles

The direct gas impingement system versus piston debate continues unabated, and there are plenty of folks on either side. Ruger — which entered the fray originally on the piston side with its SR556 rifle — has just announced the AR-556, which is a traditional DI gun. The company figures there’s no reason to not offer customers both alternatives. The new rifle is an M4-style carbine with all major components made by Ruger — a company with a reputation for building tough-as-nails guns.

The Ruger AR-556 has plenty of Mil-Spec features and includes a flattop upper with a folding rear sight that will accept all standard AR accessories. The price is also sure to attract customers with an MSRP of $749, far less than Ruger’s piston guns.

Daniel Defense, one of the most respected names in the AR market, has also introduced several new models of rifles focusing on keeping the rifle light and tricked out with popular handguards featuring the KeyMod rail system. The Daniel Defense M4 Carbine V5 LW is designed with maximum rail space on top for mounting optics and accessories, with a low-profile gas block that allows for the extended quad-rail handguard. The rifle also has a new Cerakote finish and includes a Daniel Defense-designed buttstock and pistol grip.

The Daniel Defense M4 Carbine V11 makes use of a slim handguard with the KeyMod attachment system, allowing the shooter to place rails or accessories wherever they’re needed. The new handguard is extremely lightweight and leaves the barrel free-floating.

“The trend we are seeing is a move toward lighter rifles, so the V11LW, our first KeyMod offering, was an answer to that,” says Daniel Defense marketing chief Jordan Hunter. “The rifle weighs right at 6.15 pounds, so we cut as much weight as possible without compromising the structural integrity of the rail or the rugged durability that we are known for.”

The next big trend does indeed seem to be heading toward lightweight ARs.

“Everyone wants light weight, that’s the new thing,” said Tom Miller of Spike’s Tactical.

This trend is also opening up marketing opportunities for women shooters entering the tactical market. Spike’s Tactical has just launched a new AR designed specifically for the female shooter. It’s called the Pure Estrogen.

“This rifle represents a new direction for Spike’s Tactical,” said Antoinette Rehak of Spike’s Tactical. “We realized that we have a lot of clients who love our weapons but were looking for that combination of firepower and ease of use.”

The Spike’s Tactical Pure Estrogen has a 14.5-inch barrel with a pinned ST Dynacomp 2 brake for a legal 16-inch length. With the mid-length gas system, the rifle features a lot of ST upgraded parts in the lower receiver for ease of use and reliability, and it weighs just 6.65 pounds.

“We are seeing a growing market for women shooting all kinds of weapons including ARs, and women’s participation in shooting sports has more than doubled in the last 10 years,” Rehak says. “We are ahead of the game in developing a weapon for women that is appealing, functional and a pleasure to shoot.”

Another big market for tactical retailers is in AR lower receivers for customers who want to build their own AR or just want to pick out the parts they like and ask a gunsmith to build it. Customers can choose between forged and billet uppers and lowers, with billet becoming an increasingly popular option for those who want a truly custom look and feel.

Spike’s Tactical has just introduced the Tactical Gen II billet lower receiver, which provides a very high strength-to-weight ratio and comes loaded with features already installed, including full ambidextrous controls and custom 3-D markings.

Even in states that have recently restricted tactical rifles, there are plenty of workarounds and willing customers. Major manufacturers are offering state-compliant ARs to satisfy this need, and several smaller manufacturers have stepped up as well with inventive new products.

Black Rain Ordnance has both a California-compliant AR and a New York-compliant rifle. The NY model has no pistol grip, a fixed stock, no bayonet lug and a nonthreaded barrel.

AR Pistols

Short-barreled rifles have always had a strong following in the tactical market, but the paperwork to legally own one is expensive and extremely time-consuming, discouraging potential customers. One excellent solution is for customers to buy an AR pistol and then apply to convert it to an SBR. In this case there is no delay in your sales.

Even better is the increasing popularity of the SB15 arm brace, which is designed to allow disabled shooters to more easily grasp an AR pistol. It also makes the pistol much easier to shoulder and fire (and this is a perfectly legal thing to do).

“The SB15 brace is groundbreaking, and every week or so it seems like a new platform gets an SB15 adaptation,” says Franklin Armory president Jay Jacobson. “That will likely continue. Congrats to Alex Bosco for creating such a cool invention.”

Franklin Armory is the only AR manufacturer in California, and it has found a niche developing tactical weapons that can be legally possessed in that state. The company’s F17-L in particular has proven very popular, and as a rimfire rifle firing the .17 Winchester Super Magnum, it is exempt from many tactical rifle restrictions. Its XOW (which is classified by the ATF as an “any other weapon”) is California-compliant and can be had with a $5 federal transfer fee. Most SBRs are not allowed in California, but this gun is, and it comes with a 7.5-inch barrel and the SB15 stabilizing brace.

Franklin Armory has also developed an AR that is officially neither a pistol nor a rifle. The XO-26-S Salus has no stock, so it is not a rifle, and because it has a forward grip, it is not a handgun. Further, since it is more than 26 inches in total length, it is not an AOW and no tax stamp is required.

The demand for AR pistols has grown exponentially, and Daniel Defense is now also producing them to the same high quality standards as their rifles. Customers looking for the DD brand will now have that option in a multi-caliber pistol. The DDM4 MK18 Pistol comes ready for the easy addition of the SB15 arm brace.

Another new entrant to the AR pistol market is Yankee Hill Manufacturing.

“We are proud to debut our first AR pistol for 2015 offered in 5.56mm and 9mm,” says Yankee Hill’s Matt Hebert. “The 9mm in particular will be an eye-catcher, because it will have a 5.5-inch barrel and an overall length of less than 17 inches. I expect AR pistols to nearly replace the SBR.”

Hebert also sees a huge demand for accessories to build ARs.

“With the scramble of 2013 to purchase as many lower receivers as possible, we have seen a high increase in the purchase of accessories so that people can now build that lower receiver into an actual firearm,” he explains. “We have seen a large increase in smoother handguards, or non-quad-rail handguards. The industry has been saying for a while now that a quad rail is extra unneeded weight, and it seems like the consumer is finally catching on.”

Big-Bore ARs

In addition to multi-caliber ARs including .300 AAC Blackout, 6.8 SPC, 7.62x39mm and .458 SOCOM, there has been a huge increase in .308/7.62 NATO-chambered ARs, with several companies launching new rifles in 2015.

DPMS introduced the GII AR in 2014, and several companies will be offering their own versions for 2015. Customer interest in these big-bore ARs is a combination of longer-range precision and power as well as a growing interest in using ARs for hunting more than just varmints.

The first .308 ARs had a tendency to be heavy with little interchangeability of parts and accessories with standard ARs. The new trend addresses this. The DPMS G2 is significantly lighter than the company’s previous .308 AR and has 70 percent parts compatibility with a .223 AR.

Adams Arms has also just released a new small frame .308 AR, the Defender. This is a piston-driven AR that weighs less than 8 pounds and maintains more than 50 percent parts compatibility with a standard AR. Other manufacturers, such as Ruger and Sig Sauer, also offer piston-driven .308 ARs like the SR-762 and the SIG 716.

AK Rifles And Pistols

Over the last several years, the AK platform has evolved significantly, with new aftermarket parts and accessories and a large influx of new importers, manufacturers and custom builders. Indeed, the AK is becoming almost as accessory-friendly as the AR and nearly as popular.

However, the annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine by Russia in 2014 and continued political upheaval in the region has led the United States to impose sanctions on certain Russian companies, including AK makers.

Bearing the full brunt of these sanctions is the relatively newly created Concern Kalashnikov, which encompasses the vast majority of Russian small arms production. This means that all Baikal, Saiga and Molot firearms — including all AK, VEPRs, and Molot shotguns — can no longer be imported. For the tactical retailer, this has created both a problem and an opportunity.

Customers might not understand the import ban and instead confuse it with an outright ban on all AKs. But most of these types of rifles are made in countries outside Russia and are not affected by import bans. The ban also places undue burdens on the U.S.-based aftermarket parts businesses that specialize in upgrades and accessories for Russian-made guns.

On the flip side, the ban is driving fence-sitting customers to go out and look for AK rifles and shotguns to add to their safes. Any retailer with a good supply of AK rifles is sure to do well, and several manufacturers, including ones like Inter Ordnance, have started making AKs entirely from U.S. parts.

Century International Arms is another that makes a wide range of U.S.-legal AKs.

I also spoke with Jacob Herman, director of business development at Century International Arms, who told me, “Century is excited to release a full line of U.S.-manufactured AK-style rifles at SHOT 2015. The American consumer will finally have a stamped-receiver AK rifle built with American manufacturing standards by Americans here at home.”

AK rifles imported from other countries are not affected, and there will likely be increased demand for these models.

Harry Pakhanyan at Arsenal, Inc. told me he expects to have his hands full with orders for 2015. Arsenal uses Bulgarian parts for its rifle — considered by many to be the equal or better than the Russian-made AKs — and the company is introducing several new models, including a throwback milled receiver under-folding AK called the SAM7UF.

Unlike imported AK rifles, which have to be assembled with U.S.-made parts here, AK pistols can be imported as-is direct from the factory. This provides customers with as close to an authentic AK as is possible with the benefit of a short barrel. The best part is that a version of the SB-15 arm brace that is making AR pistol sales go through the ceiling is also available for AK pistols. Having personally tested AK pistols with this feature, I can attest that it is a true game-changer that will drive sales.

The AK arm brace can be purchased as a stand-alone accessory and is extremely easy to install by anyone with a screwdriver. My advice is to have every AK pistol in the shop equipped with one, or at least have it on all the display AK pistols you have.

Shotguns

In terms of tactical shotguns, semi-autos continue to be very popular, especially the magazine-fed Russian Saigas and VEPR 12 guns. Importers and distributors still have some of these guns available as well as the accessories that go with them.

“We will have a VEPR 12 Shotgun 25-round drum and a VEPR 7.62x54R 20-round magazine coming out by SHOT Show,” says Arsenal’s director of sales, Kevin Phillips.

Sadly, the sanctions against Russian-made guns are also affecting shotguns.

“The executive embargo on the Russian firearms has really put a strain on the niche market of these firearms,” Phillips says. “With the imports ending and not having a lot of inventory on hand, it will severely hurt several companies. … It seems in my opinion that these bans on imports hurt American companies more than the Russian companies.”

There are a few companies developing magazine-fed semi-auto shotguns, and a few have been seen at the last SHOT Show, but none have reached full development yet. Tube-fed semi-auto shotguns, popular with 3-gunners, can be found in more tactical, less competitive configurations. Remington is actively pursuing a tactical/law enforcement version of its popular Versa Max shotgun, and early prototypes I have seen and tested show a great deal of promise.

Precision Rifles

Although not traditionally seen as tactical, precision rifles are making serious inroads into this market. Christensen Arms has just released its lightweight carbon fiber Tactical Force Multiplier rifle. This bolt-action rifle uses a Tier One tactical stock that weighs only 2.3 pounds (8 pounds total for the complete rifle) and is backed by the company’s 0.5 MOA accuracy guarantee. The TFM rifle is available in .223 Rem., .308 Win., .300 Win., and .338 Lapua.

Following up on the successful introduction of its Gunsite Scout rifle in .308, Ruger has just announced the availability of this rifle in .223. That’s not exactly in keeping with Col. Jeff Cooper’s maxims for a scout rifle, but it should be extremely popular nonetheless. This new bolt-action rifle weighs just over 7 pounds and comes with a threaded 16-inch barrel and a 10-round removable box magazine.

Ashbury Precision Ordnance Manufacturing has a new precision rifle that will be hot among some customers. Dubbed the SABER Precision Rifle SPR-308 and SPR-308K1, it uses the company’s SX bolt-action receiver. Featuring a modular rifle chassis, the SPR has a folding stock for ease of transport and comes with a double-locking aluminum alloy hinge for rock-solid durability. The SPR-308K1 is a “special applications rifle” with a short 16.5-inch barrel for tactical and law enforcement use, where exacting precision is needed at ranges out to 300 yards. It also comes suppressor-ready.

Custom Services

Sterling Arsenal is a custom tactical full-service retailer near my home in Virginia that specializes in its own builds, suppressors and firearm sales.

“I see continued increasing demand for AR-15 pistols and other lightweight/compact AR configurations,” says Sterling’s Luis Rose. “Calibers like the .300BLK — optimized for shorter barrel length configurations — are perfect for the AR pistol, affording superior ballistics versus 5.56 at shorter distances and quieter report with silencers while producing reduced felt recoil.

“We have responded to this demand earlier this summer with the launch of our own SAR-PREPR Pistol in 556 and 300BLK with the Law Tactical Gen 3 folder on the SB-15 arm brace,” Rose adds.

And as personal and home defense in the face of natural disasters or short periods without adequate rule of law seem to influence customers these days, shorter and lighter will be the name of the game in 2015.

“Customers from all walks of life continue to be concerned with their personal safety; women are largest amongst this group,” Rose says. “We are also seeing an increased number of customers that want practical high-quality firearms suitable for emergency preparation, training, defense and survival.”