Precision Arms from
by Robert W. Hunnicutt
Reproduced by permission from American Rifleman, May 1985. Text only.
"Few in the gun business can claim the title 'Doctor'. But one California Ph.D. moved from the lab to international trade."
MANY of the familiar figures in the firearms industry got their starts by turning a hobby into a thriving business. Firms like Hornady, Nosler and RCBS all began when someone decided to make a living from the "better ideas" he had about firearms, ammunition or reloading.
Most of those industry pioneers were machinists or engineers, men who'd tinkered with a new idea and decided to sell it.
You wouldn't expect a scientist and university professor, a man ranked among the world's dozen leading experts in his field, to turn to the gun trade. But that's just what Robert D. Beeman did, and the result has been highly profitable for him and vital to the development of the airgun sport in this country.
In the early 1970s, Beeman was chairman of the marine biology department at San Francisco State University , where he used ultra-powerful electron microscopes to study some of nature's tiniest organisms. He was one of just 12 experts in the field worldwide-one of whom was Japan's Emperor Hirohito.
“It's against the rules for the Emperor to correspond with anyone directly, so we communicated through his chamberlain. Emperor Hirohito sent me some beautiful drawings of marine organisms in his correspondence," he said.
But if Beeman was at home in the arcane world of pure science, he was also at home in the outdoors, having studied wildlife management, specializing in the migration of elk herds. Shooting was a vital part of his early life, but it was a hobby he was hard-pressed to pursue in the hot-tub country of Marin County, Calif.
“When I was young, I'd done a lot of shooting just over the Berkeley Hills from here," he said. “I could take a 12- ga. or a .30-'06 and shoot to my heart's content.
“But while I was teaching, I found that my gun hobby had become dormant, simply because I had no place to shoot around here."
Beeman discovered that precision air guns were the answer to his problem, and that answer led directly to his new vocation.
"Having worked with high-precision machinery like electron microscopes, I found I had an immediate affinity for the precision workmanship of fine airguns," he said. "I was fascinated by the care and craftsmanship that went into their manufacture."
As his collection of air arms expanded, Beeman found that he had to order many of the airguns he wanted direct from Europe. Air arms had sporadically been imported for years, but always as a sort of curiosity item, never as the mainstay of a product line.
Beeman and wife Toshiko began to sell airguns, pellets and accessories "from the bedroom" of their San Anselmo home in 1972, while Beeman continued to teach and Toshiko worked at two other jobs. The products that got the fledgling firm off the ground were the Feinwerkbau Model 124, the Weihrauch barrel-cocking air rifles and Silver Jet pellets.
Beeman early established a tradition he has maintained ever since-publishing an extraordinarily complete catalog, which includes a tremendous amount of general information about airguns as well as very full and often surprisingly frank descriptions of products. "I always thought that our catalog needed to provide much more information than most such literature," Beeman said. "The whole concept of adult precision airguns was a new one when we started, and the catalog was a place for us to explain it.
"Later on, we had an ad agency that really gave me grief about the catalog. They said it needed more white space and fewer words. I kept the catalog as it was and got rid of the ad agency. Now we put together our advertising in-house. As for the catalog, it's sold on newsstands as an annual in many countries."
Beeman continued his teaching career while building up his airgun business.
“My academic career, oddly enough, proved a great boost to getting this business started," he said. "I made my first big tour of European factories while on a sabbatical, and my knowledge of languages, especially German, was a big plus in getting to know the manufacturers. The writing skills I'd developed came in handy when working on articles and our catalog."
The European airgun makers, having failed repeatedly to break into the U .S. market, were skeptical about Beeman's ability to move their products. But the erstwhile professor had a plan.
"I set out to establish myself as the nation's leading expert on airguns. My academic training came in handy again as I wrote articles in every magazine I could find. I went from being an unknown to being an authority on the subject."
The second part of the Beeman strategy was to establish the concept of airguns for adults. “In this country , we had always thought of airguns as toys for kids, and that's the way U.S. makers like Crosman and Daisy had marketed their guns. In our early advertising, we pounded away at the concept of airguns as arms for adults. It's been a continuing struggle to get shooters, and especially gun dealers. to accept that idea, but we've made a lot of progress."
Finally, though Beeman's Precision Airguns began as a mail-order operation, its founder always worked toward selling his products through dealers.
"We started out as a 100% mail-order company; now mail-order is only about 10% of our business. We sell at retail price through the mail, so we're never in the position of undercutting our dealers. We mainly look on mail-order as a service to our customers who don’t have a dealer nearby.”
Still, selling the concept of adult precision airguns to the nation's firearms dealers hasn't always been easy. "Your average gun dealer got into the business because he liked to hunt or reload or shoot trap. He has the tendency to sell the products that interest him personally. Many dealers simply can't imagine that anyone will buy a precision air rifle or pistol that may cost several hundred dollars.
“It's a continuous education process for our representatives to convince dealers to try precision air arms. We try to compare a precision airgun to a Porsche car or Rolex watch. We like to say that the man who wants the best of everything will be interested in our airguns."
Beeman even resorted to a guaranteed buy-back program at one point to convince skeptical dealers. "We guaranteed dealers that we'd buy back any airgun that they couldn't sell. In the life of the program we had to take back one gun - and that was from a dealer who went broke!"
Beeman added that dealers who sell airguns assure themselves repeat business through sales of pellets, cleaning accessories and targets which aren't usually available at discount stores and other outlets which undercut dealer prices on firearms.
Though Beeman had a general plan for the long-term growth of his business, grasping the intricacies of international trade took some trial-and-error learning.
“I really had to learn the import-export business from the ground up," he said. "There are a lot of things you just have to learn by experience. For example, when we started importing pellets from Japan, the sea freight rates were incredibly high. We investigated and found that they were classifying the pellets as ammunition and shipping them on armored vessels at a considerable premium. Once we got that straightened out, we saved a lot of money!"
The cultural differences among the far-flung nations which are home to the Beeman line of products have required some learning on both sides. .'When we first went to Japan to get pellet production set up there, the Japanese had a very hard time grasping the fact that Toshiko is vice-president of our company and is in on every decision. The business hierarchy there is all male, and the women stay in the background.
"We went to a geisha house for the traditional Japanese-style all-male business dinner. They weren't exactly sure what to do with Toshiko - so they assigned her her own geisha and it worked out fine. Of course, her fluency in Japanese and the fact that I had been in correspondence with Hirohito for many years didn't hurt either!"
Beeman found that, despite his knowledge of German, he still occasionally suffered a communications gap with his European suppliers. "They couldn't understand why they couldn't just sell boatloads of bolt-action rifles with European features like Schnabel fore-ends and double-set triggers. The American shooter is very conservative-Bill Ruger has made millions by understanding that fact.”
"But as we were able to move more and more airguns, they started taking our word about how guns should be marketed in this country, and it's paid off for everyone concerned."
Beeman no longer simply imports what European and Japanese importers make for their home markets. Foreign makers now build air arms to Beeman designs, a notable example being the new Beeman PI Magnum air pistol.
The PI is hardly a design that would occur to the average European manufacturer. Its frame is based on the venerable Colt .45 auto; even the grip panels are the same, so .45 grip accessories will fit the PI. Beeman offers a shoulder stock which fits the pistol's grip, too, but points out that using it on a .45 requires a $200 tax payment to BATF .
"The most interesting feature of this gun is that the air pressure, and therefore the pellet velocity, can be varied," Beeman said. "You pull back the 'hammer ’ which is actually just a latch, and swing the top of the pistol forward. An intermediate stop provides a power level for 350-400 f.p.s., while swinging it all the way forward gives full power. It also recoils to the rear, like a firearm, rather than forward, as many air pistols do."
The firm's ever-growing prestige led to a new line of products and a new name in 1983 as the company began importing firearms under the name Beeman Precision Arms.
"We were the exclusive importers for Feinwerkbau, so when they brought out the Model 2000 standard rifle and KK free rifle, it was only natural that we should import them. Once the word got around that we were importing firearms, other firms began to approach us because of the reputation we'd built up over the years."
Beeman says that firearms have become an ever-more-important part of the firm's business, but that he plans to keep first emphasis on what he knows best - airguns.
"We're trying to import guns that are a little different; which offer something no other firearms on the market offer , like the Korth revolvers or Unique pistols. We've turned down a lot of business proposals - the People's Republic of China, for example, wanted us to import a rifle, but when their representative tried to demonstrate it, it fell apart. We passed on that one.
"We've found that selling firearms is helping us to move more airguns, too. Once dealers have sold a few of our firearms, they're more ready to try some airguns." The new firearms line, as well as Beeman's ever-growing catalog of airgun and firearms accessories, is crowding the firm out of its present San Rafael location. So Beeman plans to move his operation 30 miles up scenic Highway 101 to a new plant in Santa Rosa.
The new facility will incorporate office space, warehouse and shipping facilities, an underground test range, gunsmith shops, a showroom and a museum to house Beeman's unmatched personal collection of airguns.
" A lot or people don't know about our gunsmithing services - we’ll try to repair any airgun ever made, and that takes in a lot or territory. We have a tremendous supply of parts for all kinds or airguns, and our gunsmiths can fabricate many of the parts they can't find. We also buy and sell old airguns and take them in on trade. We've had this service from the early days, and it's brought some very unusual guns for the collection."
Beeman claims that his is the largest all-airgun collection in the world, incorporating hundreds of air arms from the 16th century forward. "I was fortunate enough to get into the market at the right time, in the middle 1970s, before air guns really became sought after. I have agents in Europe and all over the country who find rare pieces for me.
"Oddly enough, I found most of the European guns in this country. The Germans and Swiss just thought of them as old guns - then one day, they discovered they'd sold their entire firearms heritage. Now they're over here trying to buy them back."
The early airguns are marvels of engineering for their times, and Beeman's collection has given him hours of pleasurable study. "When you buy an antique airgun, you don't get an instruction book with it," he laughed. "Half the fun is figuring out how it works without breaking anything. I never cease to be amazed at the craftsmanship and hand labor that went into these guns, and the performance that they could get with the primitive metals and techniques available."
Beeman is among those happy few who can claim to have made a hobby into a business empire. He remains a tireless promoter of the airgun sport, serving as a member of the NRA Air Gun Committee, and putting his firm's services at the disposal of NRA clubs through the Beeman/NRA airgun consignment program, which allows NRA-affiliated clubs to use Beeman-imported airguns on a consignment basis.
"There are times I miss the ivory-tower atmosphere of academic life," he said. "I'm still an adjunct professor at San Francisco State, so I get an occasional call from a graduate student to look over a thesis or dissertation. But all in all, I've never regretted going into the gun business."
Editor's Note: We didn't realize at the time how important this article was going to be to our future. We didn't really know then what an important writer Bob Hunnicutt was nor the business impact of the tremendous readership of the American Rifleman. I hope that you can dig out a May 1985 copy of American Rifleman and look at the interesting photos that Bob took of our operation then. Perhaps as I get more adept at setting up images on the web, I'll scan some of those pics into this article.