In the world of Guns & Ammo, guns are not a problem to be solved; they’re a technology to be adored.
Actually, in the beginning, Guns & Ammo wasn’t just about appealing to gun enthusiasts, but was one piece of a larger strategy to reach a desirable demographic of readers at a time when the magazine industry was thriving. Guns & Ammo was part of a portfolio of magazines, all published by Robert Petersen, that also included Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Motor Life, Car Craft, Hot Rod Cartoons, and Skin Diver. By 1981, his magazines had a combined circulation of about 4 million readers, most of them male and “action-oriented,” as The New York Times once put it. That number wasn’t exactly huge for the time, compared with mainstream magazines—National Geographic alone had more than 1.3 million subscribers at the time—but Petersen’s success showed there was a real appetite for niche publications.
In Petersen’s era, the special-interest magazine genre grew explosively. (Although going back to the 18th century, America has seen periods of expansion and contraction among special-interest publications. The Internet age has ushered in its own phase of unprecedented nicheness.) It wasn’t long after Guns & Ammo was founded that popular mass magazines began to lose momentum, as niche magazines—particularly those pertaining to fishing, hunting, and mechanics—made significant strides. David E. Sumner, in his book, The Magazine Century: American Magazines Since 1900, says that these trends may have been prompted by the rise of television. TV helped expose audiences to new ideas, places, and hobbies, which buoyed those same audiences’ interest in publications like Guns & Ammo.
Petersen knew how to cater to tap into huge audiences of potential readers. He may have been fixated on cars and guns, but he also founded Teen magazine, aimed at preteen girls.
Petersen, who died in 2007, apparently knew when to get out of print. He sold his company for $450 million in 1996, at a time when the web was poised to decimate the publishing industry. Today, Guns & Ammo is owned by InterMedia Outdoor Holdings, which runs several other shooting and hunting publications like Gun Dog, Peterson's Bowhunting, Wildfowl, Bowhunter, Handguns, Rifleshooter, Shooting Times, Firearms News, and several others. (Guns & Ammo didn’t respond to my request for an interview.)
“My main takeaway is that these are all essentially car magazines,” Justin Peters wrote for Slate in 2013, in a review of Guns & Ammo, Handguns, and Rifle Firepower. “They feature money shots of various guns, plenty of product reviews, and geeky, unbridled enthusiasm for their subject matter. They rarely stray into politics. If you don’t own a gun, there’s no real reason for you to read them.”
The look of the magazine is the reason Guns & Ammo has broadly the same feel as Macworld magazine, or Personal Computing, or Creative Computing—only instead of pages filled with images of monitors and keyboards, there are colorful close-ups of Glocks and silencers. But I disagree with Peters that politics rarely comes up. Politics is implicit in cover-story headlines (“Ready to fight”) and explicit in the “politics” section of the Guns & Ammo website. (Other dedicated categories include “shoot 101,” “ammo,” “gear,” “personal defense,” “survival,” “military & law enforcement,” and “suppressors.”)