Click and Bang, the Art of the Deal in Online Firearm Sales
It’s no secret that the internet has changed how we buy things, from books and music to food and commodities. Nowhere is this more true than in firearm sales. I remember buying guns back in the mid 90s, when I was old enough to buy a long gun on my own and would make the trek to the local gun store (or Walmart!), pick out the one I wanted and would have something fun to go shoot with. There was very little store to store comparison, no internet full of fan boys and armchair snipers with videos talking about the pros and cons of each platform or pricing engines that ensured you always found the best deal. Along with it, I had never heard of an FFL transfer until I had to do one in the early 2000s from a little known company I found on the internet named Bud’s.
Now that the internet is omnipresent and so many of us have become savvy at finding the best deals, I constantly find myself price matching, watching sales, looking for free shipping deals, keeping up on the forums looking for coupon codes and otherwise getting more “bang” for my buck. This is all part of a pricing strategy game that I play over and over again, but it has helped me push my collection into the hundreds of pieces, including many hard to find items, relics and one-offs that I likely couldn’t have gotten (or had exposure to) any other way.
Who This Helps
The consumers, obviously, are the real winners here. If you would go to a retail chain and pay $500 for a rifle only to find the same one for $300 online, there’s a clear cut win there. Even after paying a modest FFL fee, shipping, etc. you’re likely going to be ahead. The manufacturers also are coming out ahead, moving more volume than ever before. Add in the administrative fees paid to do background checks, the concealed weapons permits that are purchased mostly to cut our waiting periods and all of the middle men (distributors, packagers, shippers, etc.) and you’ve built a whole industry around the art of saving money on buying firearms online.
In addition to the cost savings on the guns themselves, selection as vast as the internet makes the “hard to find” guns that much less hard to find. Auction sites like gunbroker, for instance, have person to person and business to person sales on every imaginable kind of firearm you could come up with. When I wanted a symbol-intact Walther P38, I looked all over a dozen local stores and couldn’t find it. No one had seen any at gun shows. Then, using some of the tools discussed before, I found not one but FOUR different vendors selling them. Two were a little rough, one was a lot rough and one was in fine to very good condition, and at a price substantially below what I had budgeted. I place an order online and, thanks to my C&R, I was able to have the gun in my hands within a week. I can easily say that getting my C&R, combined with the internet, has made me an avid collector of low end to medium end curios and relics. Without the middle man of the FFL for these 50+ year old gun transfers, I cut the cost and time out that I would deal with for newer firearm transfers and I get some cool pieces of history for my collection.
Who This Hurts
The mom and pop gun shops are taking the brunt of the backblow here, and it’s obvious in both how many of them are closing (even in a time of increased sales nationwide for firearms) and how many of them are trying to adapt by offering FFL services to keep up with the demand of shipped firearms. If you’ve talked with any local gunstore owners lately, you ultimately will hear the same story over and over again. They struggle to keep the doors open. More than half their business is doing transfers now. People try to beat them down on the transfer prices while they fight back to balance having inventory they can’t sell at a profit (compared to the high volume internet companies) and keeping their FFL prices reasonable to attract collectors.
The Economics of Online Gun Purchases
I used the example above of a $300 online sale on a $500 gun, and how that would make for a cut and dry savings. A lot of times, it’s not as clear. I’ll break down an example for you.
Your find a Savage .308 bolt action rifle at an online retailer for $300, plus a $25 shipping fee. The same gun is at Walmart for $400. While the online retailer is in another state, you won’t have to pay taxes on the sale, however, you will at Walmart. At 7%, that puts the Walmart gun at $428. You decide to go with the online sale. You pony up your $325 and you wait. The gun arrives at your FFL a few days (or many days depending on who you buy through), which charges another $40 to do your transfer, plus $5 for the call to the ATF. You’re now at $370. Is it still a bargain considering all the fees and transfer time and all that jazz? That’s up to you, but be aware that you may get nickled and dimed to death if you’re not careful.
Finding an FFL to do your transfers
A lot of this is a matter of preference. I found my FFL guy kind of by accident. I took my concealed carry class with him, liked his teaching style, proceeded to talk him up one day about what I do as far as collecting and I found out his does FFL services. Since I bring in a few at a time usually, I pay a normal fee for the first one and a reduced fee on any subsequent gun I transfer at the same time. I use the same ATF form, just paying a reduced fee per line for the other items when I pay full price for the first. The standard forms have either 5 or 6 slots on them, so if you can swing several pieces at once and your FFL person will allow it, you can see if they will cut you some slack on the others processed at the same time. I’ve also heard of others doing a flat fee where it’s the same price whether you do 1 or 5 on the same ATF form. My recommendation would be to call around to a few gun shops and ask them. Even better, find one or two you like, get to know the guys that work there, tell them what you’re looking to do and see how favorable they are to it. Many won’t accept FFL transfers without previous permission and they’ll hit you with a crazy FFL charge if you don’t play along with their rules. Remember that they are risking their licensing and credibility on your actions, so do everyone a favor and play by the rules and be respectful of their process.
Another thing to consider is their delivery process. Some won’t allow you to do FFL transfers for guns that come in over the course of a few days. Basically, they will only do transfers on Monday for the guns that came in on Monday. If you were expecting another gun on Wednesday and another on Friday, you may be stuck doing 3 sheets, paying 3 charges, etc. Others will know you have 5 guns coming in over the course of 5 days and will let you know on day 5 when the last one arrives, so you can do one pickup. Again, you will want to confirm all of this with your FFL *before* placing an order.
Along this same lines, some FFL transfer agents don’t work every day, or aren’t there when the big brown truck comes. The guy I work with now doesn’t keep regular office hours, so I keep the communication flowing with him before the transfer, send him the tracking numbers as they become available and make sure he knows ahead of time what days to be there to accept delivery. All internet gun sales have signature required, and most have Adult Signature Required. Your FFL will know the delivery schedules and will work with you on this to ensure they don’t waste their time chasing down packages for you.
A Word to the Waiters
An important note when it comes to doing these kind of FFL transfers is that the waiting period, if you don’t have a concealed weapons permit, is still going to apply. This isn’t from the day you ordered it or from the day it shipped, but rather from the day you filled out he form with the FFL transfer agent, which is usually after the firearm has arrived. Considering some of these online stores take weeks to ship items (Palmetto and Rock River, for instance, are notorious for 4-6 week wait periods before they ship), you may find yourself waiting for a shipment only to have to wait some more.
Once you get the swing of who ships fast, how your FFL agent wants to work this, etc. you’ll find the optimal order to wait ratio. Sometimes, the bargain is worth the wait. Other times, in this world of instant gratification, it is not. My best advice to you here is to get your concealed weapons permit and confirm with the FFL agent that they will allow you to use this permit as a means of skipping the waiting period. I’ve heard of some FFL transfer agents holding the guns for 3 days or 5 days even if you have a CWP.
Tools of the Trade
So, you read through all of this and you still want to buy guns online? Welcome aboard! Here’s the resources I use most often, and a brief explanation of why.
Aggregators and User-Driven Sites
- http://www.gunwatcher.com/Deals – My favorite aggregator by far. Awesome search function lets you search the web’s gun sites in one place by item name or number, alerts for prices and availability. There isn’t a gun I’ve looked for that I couldn’t find here. They add new sites to the bot constantly, so this one gets better and better. Click “popular deals” if you just want to see what’s a good deal out there.
- http://www.slickguns.com/ – My second favorite aggregator, behind Gunwatcher. I check it daily. I often find things here that I never intended on buying (or wasn’t exposed to) but a good deal is hard to pass up on something fun. User driven, so things get posted often and the deals are always fresh.
- http://gun-deals.com/index.php – Another good aggregator that I check daily. Tabs at the top for ammo and firearms. Admittedly, the firearm listings are strangely organized, so it’s sometimes difficult to manage. Moderate to high volume listings, so content is fresh.
- http://www.reddit.com/r/gundeals/new/ – A sub-reddit for the firearm crowd. Click the NEW or HOT tabs to see user submitted deals on firearms and firearm related sales. Like all of these sites, you often have to move fast as the deals they put up don’t last very long.
- http://gunbot.net/ – My favorite aggregator for ammunition. Looking for 22LR? You’ll get alerts for it to your phone or email. You can set alerts for any ammo you might use, along with what price per round you are willing to pay and only be alerted when that threshold is met. I use this site daily to look for deals.
- http://www.fatwallet.com/gun-ammo-deals/ – The occasional good deal makes it up here. Not a great selection, not wildly popular or high volume, but worth mentioning.
- http://www.budsgunshop.com/catalog/index.php – The biggest online gun shop I’ve ever found, and one of the longest running. Tens of thousands of firearms. Ship very fast. Most ship free. If you’ve never done an online gun purchase before, this is a great place to start. If you guy a lot, Team Buds gives you early access to limited firearms and ammo specials. User reviews are helpful too.
- http://palmettostatearmory.com/ – One of my favorite retailers. Rock bottom prices. Great deals on AR parts. The only down side is shipping time. They are known to have multiple week backlogs. Look for their free shipping weekends, which happen every few weeks.
- http://www.jgsales.com/ – Always something new and fun here. Good C&R deals. I buy a lot of used guns from them, especially police trade-ins. Fast to respond, usually ship in 1-2 days. Not a huge selection, but good pricing and great service make it one of my favorites.
- http://www.classicfirearms.com/ – Great C&R deals come up here often. Quick shipments. Their hand select really does come up with some good/clean/better than average finds.
- http://www.cheaperthandirt.com/ – Mediocre deals, but a nice big selection. If you watch the aggregators listed above, you’ll see the occasional gem on CTD that makes them worth checking out. Multiple warehouses means the items drop ship pretty quickly.
- http://www.sportsmansguide.com/ – Decent Ammo deals. If you shoot a lot, it’s worth mentioning that the Buyer’s Club saves you around 5% every time you order. It pays for itself if you buy at least $40/month in ammo. If you’re like me and you buy $100 or more, it pays for itself quickly. Look for coupon codes all over the net to save $10 on $100, free shipping, etc. Codes change regularly.
- http://www.gunbroker.com/ – the largest online auction site for firearms. Some bargain to be had, but watch out for snipers and fraudulent bidders that bid guns up for the sellers. A great place to find older stuff and odds and ends that might not be easy to find.
- http://www.armslist.com/ – Smaller than GunBroker, but some more good finds can be had here. I use the “by state” function and look only at local listings to avoid dealing with the FFL when possible.
Now that you have all the tools, get out there and buy some boomsticks!