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The Gun Counter 101: Or, How to Buy a Gun

It’s the gateway to shooting, the gun counter at a gun store. Behind the counter stands the gate keeper, responsible for your success or failure to purchase a gun.

I write an undercover shopper article for a trade magazine in the gun industry. To accomplish this task, I must create a story that I present to 4 gun stores in an area on why I want to purchase a firearm – I’ve been from Seattle to Charlotte and Sioux Falls to Phoenix to Savannah and in between. Let’s just say I’ve been around a lot of gun counters and told a lot of fibs.

How to buy a gun

Here are some techniques, tried and true, that have worked for me throughout the years to make the most of my experiences at a gun counter.


What do you want?

You wouldn’t go to a clothing store and ask for a dress or a pair of shoes, or to a car lot and ask for just a car. You know the function of the garment and you might have an idea of the design and color that you’re looking for. Think about what you are looking for – is it a rifle, shotgun or handgun? Then, narrow it down further. For what purpose will you use the firearm? Target practice? Self-defense? Hunting? Home defense? Concealed carry?

Approach with confidence

It can be disconcerting, walking up to a gun store counter. It’s almost like stepping into a foreign country for a first-time buyer. Take a deep breath and basically, put your big girl panties on. Act brave, people will not know the difference. Remember, you know what you are looking for so place yourself close to the counter near the types of guns you’re interested in seeing. Don’t hang back, hoping someone will notice you. Don’t stand down by the ARs when you want to look at a pistol. You’ll just have to move there.

Get eye contact soon

Start looking at the nearest sales associates. Catch someone’s eye and nod or give the hint of a smile so that they see that you mean business. They should at least acknowledge your presence. Did you need to take a number? This is your opportunity to check out the inventory of guns while you wait. Decide on at least 3 options that you want to see.

When help comes

When help arrives, tell the sales associate what you want and in what caliber or gauge. Such as, “I’m looking for a concealed carry pistol in 9mm, and I’d like it to be a small gun.” Then, point at the guns you’ve chosen to see, or ask for the makes and models that you want to see. (You can do prep work beforehand, thanks to the various gun manufacturers’ websites and helpful publications, such as this one.)


gun counter sales associateWhat a good sales associate will do

A good sales associate will start to work with you regarding what you want. He will listen to you and ask follow-up questions about the potential purchase. When it’s time to start shopping, he will bring a gun out of the case, point it in a safe direction and clear it (check to see that it’s not loaded). He will then tell you the features of it, and not just read them off the tag. 

What you should do

Now, you should pick up the gun, and if you want to double check that it’s clear, do so. Then, point it in a safe direction and acquire the sights. Always ask permission to pull the trigger. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to dry fire the gun. There are some guns, such as .22 caliber rimfire, where you should never fire the trigger dry. This is where you can take all the time in the world. Make sure it fits you, and if it doesn’t, and you want to move ahead further with this gun, ask how it can be made to fit you. Does the business have an in-house gunsmith? Can the grip or stock be modified?

What you might consider doing

Not so much at the big box stores, but at smaller local gun stores, the sales associates have been told to work with the customer. Sometimes, they can knock some of the price down for a cash payment, or if you know the gun costs less at another location, let them know that. Will they throw in a holster or some ammo? Let’s make a deal here. 

What a sales associate should not do

  • Train you on the spot. Sales associates are not trainers. Even if they teach courses, they are not teaching at that time. They are selling you a gun. You wouldn’t expect a car salesman to teach you to drive.
  • Touch you without asking. I’ve seen a sales associate wrap his ever-loving arms around my daughter-in-law to make sure she had a proper grip on a gun. There’s no reason for a sales associate to come around the counter to help you, or hold your hands in his, or basically touch you at all.
  • Try to sell you the most expensive gun. That’s why if you do your homework beforehand, or check out the inventory onsite, you’ll have a good idea of what’s available and the range of prices. If it seems he’s wanting to sell you the moon, ask if there are less expensive models.
  • Equate your lifestyle to his mom’s or wife’s or girlfriend’s reasons for buying a gun. I’d rather hear about why local women are buying a certain gun than why he bought this one for his mom, wife, girlfriend.
  • Talk bad about any of the guns he’s selling. Sure, everyone has an opinion, but he’s not entitled to his while at work and selling guns.

gun purchase

Now what?

If you find a gun that you want to buy, now you’ll do the paperwork. You may have to wait for a few days or 10.

Think about what else you’ll need for this new purchase.

How will you carry it or use it? Do you need a holster or gun bag?

liberty safes

How will you store it? Do you need a safe or vault?

Do you have ammo?

Does your gun need an accessory?

Do you have any cleaning supplies?

Parting shot

gun counter

Also, remember that a gun will feel different when it’s loaded (it’ll be heavier) and when you fire it and experience the recoil. This is one reason why gun stores with gun ranges and rentals are such a sweet deal. You can try before you buy.

gun counter 101

Head over to that gun counter, and good luck with your purchase. You’ve got this.



  • About Barbara Baird

    Publisher/Editor Barbara Baird is a freelance writer in hunting, shooting and outdoor markets. Her bylines are found at several top hunting and shooting publications. She also is a travel writer, and you can follow her at https://www.ozarkian.com.


The Conversation

  • Luke Allen says: January 26, 2017 at 11:58 am

    Wait Wait Wait… So you’re going into this as an admitted “newbie” and you don’t want to hear the sales reps opinions on the guns that he may be selling? He or She isn’t allowed to have a bad opinion on firearms when trying to educate you on the best purchase for your particular situation? Then you go on to picture a major box store location. If I was dealing with a locally owned and operated store I understand not expecting to hear bad things about the guns stocked inside, but they sell low quality and not-so-reliable firearms in big box stores as well. Those sales associates don’t get to pick what gets stocked, if my wife wants to go buy a gun on her own without me that’s awesome-sauce. She knows enough about what feels comfortable to her and what “type” of gun she wants. But she sometimes gets too focused on price and if she comes home with a Hi-point instead of a Sig I’m blaming the sales rep for not discussing the merits of both.

    Secondly, don’t patronize the store clerk about his wife, girlfriend, or mother. In one sentence you say you want to hear why local women are buying a particular firearm, then you say you don’t want to hear about the women THE GUY WORKING RIGHT HERE LOCALLY KNOWS PERSONALLY? It is pretty easy to assume if he works behind the counter at your local store, he is also local, therefore his girlfriend, wife, and maybe even mother is local… Men and women ARE NOT EQUAL. We are built differently, we approach problem solving differently, we have different strengths and weaknesses physically in different ways. If I have trained and sold firearms to a multitude of women I am going to pull from that experience to talk to you about your potential firearm purchase (without being sexist), and if several of those women happen to be related to me, consider it a blessing I have those experiences and didn’t have to hand you off to another associate who may better answer your questions.

  • Bridgette says: January 26, 2017 at 9:33 am

    I think it’s also important, particularly for new shooters, to let the sales associate know your experience level. If you’ve NEVER held or fired a gun before, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Ask lots of questions about calibers, sizes, the differences between guns – why is one more expensive than another, what will I experience differently when I shoot a bigger gun vs a smaller one. Also ask about disassembly and re-assembly (how easy/hard will it be to clean this gun – because you MUST be able to do these things, and some guns are simpler than others). Talk about safetys (or lack thereof) to understand the difference and your comfort level. I think a lot of new shooters are intimidated walking to a gun counter, because there are SO many questions, and we don’t always know what we don’t know. I suggest new shooters go at “off hours” – middle of the week in the morning or at dinner time, if they can, when the store is less likely to be crowded, so the staff has the time and patience to answer EVERYTHING. Don’t be shy about taking notes if you’re not ready to buy yet and want to remember things – it can get very overwhelming. When I was first starting out, I’d go multiple times and walk right up and say “I know I’ve asked this before, but I just want to make sure I understand it…” (I’m a slow learner :). If the staff isn’t willing to be patient, understanding and answer everything without attitude, leave and find somewhere else.

  • Lynne Green says: January 26, 2017 at 8:10 am

    Great article! I would also say, if you don’t get welcome and courteous service, leave and find a gun shop that wants the business from women! They’re out there and once you find one, send all your girlfriends there too!

    • oldshooter says: January 31, 2017 at 2:12 pm

      Two things come to mind:
      First, don’t assume that the store doesn’t want to do business with women just because the clerk acts like a jerk. Some clerks ARE jerks, and they act like that to everyone. I’m a guy (and a certifiable old fart at that), and I run into clerks like that too. Usually, I just browse around until a different clerk shows up. The odds are against BOTH being jerks, so if the second one isn’t any better, it’s time to move on to another store.
      Second, in my years of experience in gun stores I’ve found that an awful lot of the males who come in to buy guns don’t know anything about them either. The main difference between them and the female newbies is the readiness of the latter to admit they are new at it. Guys seem to be under the impression that their DNA is deficient or something if they aren’t already experts. I have found women generally easier to teach and to help because they ARE willing to ask questions about everything. Believe me, the clerk (unless he is a newbie or not a “gun guy” – like you may find at big box stores especially) will immediately be able to tell whether or not you know what you are talking about. By and large, answering questions is common and even considered pleasant, by most clerks. They usually work there because they LIKE talking about guns, and helping newbies typically makes them feel good. The biggest danger with this is that the clerks will have very different levels and types of experience with guns and shooting. A former Army Ranger will probably give you different advice than a former bullseye competition shooter. They may both be experienced, but their experience, which generally informs their advice, is vastly different. The best way to deal with this, is to ask about THEIR experience with the type of shooting you are interested in, and to get advice from multiple sources (including instructors as well as sales clerks) before you decide what to buy.

  • Julie Hill says: January 25, 2017 at 8:54 pm

    Please remember that not all gun sales are made by men. I own a gun store and enjoy helping women find the firearm that they will enjoy shooting and/ or carrying. We women are becoming a larger part of the gun sales market as well.