April Graupner was at her New Braunfels home with her kids one night when a stranger wandered onto her property. As a single mom, Graupner was understandably freaked out. Thankfully, the stranger left without incident, but the experience convinced Graupner she needed some kind of protection for her and her family. 

“I began to get nervous about being able to defend myself and my kids,” said Graupner, 51, who works as a kitchen manager for the Navarro Independent School District. 

Initially, she went to Tactical Safety Institute in east San Antonio just to buy pepper spray. But she ended up taking classes for basic handgun safety and for a license to carry, or LTC, for a concealed handgun. Over the years she’s bought multiple firearms, including ones she gave to her 24-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son. Graupner keeps a shotgun at home and carries a revolver whenever traveling. The family also goes to a shooting range several times a year to practice.

“I know you’re never 100% safe, but having a gun makes me feel better,” she said. “It’s there if I need it.” 

Graupner is among a growing number of gun owners who are helping fuel the booming firearm industry, especially in Texas. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), there were an estimated 5.4 million new gun owners in 2021 in the United States.

Since 2008, the number of jobs in the firearm and ammunition industry has increased 126%, from 166,200 to 375,819, while wages for workers in the industry have increased 234%, from $6.4 billion to $21.4 billion. The NSSF also indicates that last year the firearm and ammunition industry was responsible for as much as $70.52 billion in total economic activity in the country.

In Texas, the firearm and ammunition industry has created approximately 32,000 jobs, more than any other state, along with $1.6 billion in wages and $5.6 billion in total economic output. California is a close second, with 29,082 jobs created, $1.8 billion in wages and $5.2 billion in economic impact.

“The economic growth America’s firearm and ammunition industry has experienced in recent years has been nothing short of remarkable,” a recent NSFF report states, “and has been driven by an unprecedented number of Americans choosing to exercise their fundamental right to keep and bear arms.”

About 2,500 gun enthusiasts from 49 states and 15 countries gathered in October at the National Shooting Complex in far West San Antonio for the National Clay Sporting Championship. Michael Hampton, executive director of the complex, said last month’s competition marked the biggest event of its kind in the world.  

The National Shooting Complex is a sprawling 696-acre compound that also serves as headquarters for the National Skeet Shooting Association and the National Sporting Clays Association. A few weeks before the National Clay Sporting Championship, the complex hosted the World Skeet Championship. This event attracted about 700 shooters, another world record, Hampton said.

The complex opened in the late 1960s and Hampton has been the executive director for 30 years. Combining the skeet and clay associations, the facility has about 47,000 members, and about 30,000 people visit the complex every year, Hampton said. 

In addition to dozens of stations where you can practice shooting round, clay targets that are flung into the air via a special machine, the complex has a lighted stadium, club house, RV hookups, meeting spaces and a pavilion. And other than shooting competitions, Hampton said the complex regularly hosts corporate retreats and fundraisers. 

“People come to San Antonio for conventions, and we’re part of the entertainment,” he said. “Plus, we’re less expensive than golf, and it doesn’t take as long.” 

A participant unloads his shotgun while participating in a sporting clay shooting event at the National Shooting Complex on Sunday.
A participant unloads his shotgun while participating in a sporting clay shooting event at the National Shooting Complex on Sunday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The National Shooting Complex is one of about 20 facilities around San Antonio where you can learn about firearms and shoot guns. These facilities range from small mom-and-pop operations to more modern, upscale facilities, like Nardis Gun Club, which has three San Antonio locations, each equipped with state-of-the-art, climate-controlled indoor gun ranges and expansive retail stores. 

At Tactical Safety Institute in northeast San Antonio, co-founder and managing partner Christopher Patten coaches police officers and civilians. Patten served in the U.S. Air Force for about a decade and then went into civilian military training. He was in charge of Lackland Air Force Base’s Emergency Service Team, leading base personnel in preparation for emergency response. 

Patten and his business partner, Chuck Bradley, opened Tactical Safety Institute in 2006. The company has about 10 employees. They use the neighboring Bracken Rifle and Pistol Recreational Range for shooting classes, including license to carry classes and ladies-only classes, which Patten said have become increasingly popular. Patten said they see on average about 300 students a month. 

“We’ve seen a big increase in interest over the past few years,” he said. 

On the far east side of the city, at the end of a bumpy, half-mile dirt road, is Lone Star Handgun Shooting Range. 

Situated on about 130 acres, the facility has 85 shooting stalls, steel targets, clay shooting stations, an archery range, along with a retail store and gun shop. Lone Star offers about 10 classes, including license to carry and women’s-only classes, as well as instruction on active shooters and vehicle tactics.

LeAnn Madden, 13, has been sport shooting off and on for about three years through her local 4-H program.
LeAnn Madden, 13, has been sport shooting off and on for about three years through her local 4-H program. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Josh Felker and his wife Rebecca started the retail and training company in 2005 after they both retired from the U.S. Army, adding the range in 2013. They employ nearly 30 people, including two of their sons. 

In front of the gun shop, a miniature Statue of Liberty with a faux machine gun strapped across her chest greets guests. Felker’s cluttered, wood-paneled office is adorned with a Captain America shield, replicas of old rifle muskets and the bleached skull of a steer. A model helicopter with toy soldiers jumping out hangs from the ceiling fan — skydiving is one of Felker’s favorite hobbies. 

Felker said about 800 people visit the shooting range every week, with as many as 500 visitors on some Saturdays. He’s also seen a big increase in female customers, who now make up about 30% of the students for the license-to-carry classes, and the “Daughters of Texas” shooting classes are almost always sold out.

While he’s been in the gun industry nearly 20 years, Felker said a big turning point for his business occurred after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, during which 26 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed. After the tragedy, Felker advertised free classes for school teachers. 

“We had over 1,600 teachers sign up,” he said, which prompted Felker and his wife to open the shooting range. While it’s a grim reality, Felker said this same pattern has repeated itself. Whenever a mass shooting occurs, a spike in business follows, including after the 2017 First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs. 

“As much as we don’t want these terrible things to happen, it’s reality,” he said. “Unfortunately, you can’t use legislation to stop evil.” 

Felker said the biggest spike in business to date occurred in the summer of 2020, when the country was in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with social and economic upheaval.

“It didn’t matter which side of the political aisle you were on or what preconceived notions about guns you had, people wanted to keep their families and businesses safe,” he said. “It was a big pendulum swing. Now I’m not saying the gun industry is recession-proof, but it’s pretty close.” 

Sam Boykin is a freelance journalist. He previously worked at the San Antonio Business Journal.