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May 25, 2018

Behind the Firing Line: Bill’s Gun Shop & Range

By Peter B. Mathiesen

NSSF’s “Behind the Firing Line” column works to accomplish two things. First, it recognizes ranges that have met the stringent requirements necessary to achieve an NSSF Five-Star rating for excellence. Second, it works to explain how these ranges met specific criteria within the Star-Rating Range Program, so that other ranges working to make the grade can discover ideas and guidance for their improvement. For more information on NSSF’s Star-Rating Range Program, visit
—Zach Snow, NSSF Director, Range Services

Bill’s Gun Shop & Range, Robbinsdsale, Minnesota

After purchasing the range in 2003, the owner of Bill’s Gun Shop & Range has expanded over the last decade to five locations: three in Minnesota, one in Wisconsin and one in Fargo, North Dakota. The buildings each encompass an average of 20,000 square feet, typically with a 3,000-square-foot retail store that carries an inventory of 1,000 to 2,000 firearms along with a revolving stock of approximately 150 rentals. In each location, there are between 22 and 27 25-yard lanes.

Each facility has a customer waiting area and a classroom. Pistol lane rentals per hour are $20 for one shooter, $30 for two and $45 for three sharing a lane. Rentals range from $15 for the first firearm to $10 for the second. Full-auto rentals are $60 per hour plus lane fees.

Each location employs 10 to 12 full- and part-time staff members, though the Robbinsdale store has more than 20. The facilities operate seven days a week: Sunday to Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., with the exception is the Fargo, North Dakota store, whose Sunday hours are from noon to 9:00 p.m.

As a Five-Star NSSF range, the facility meets best practices standards for its state-of-the-art design. This ensures a high level of safety and comfort for workers and customers. We interviewed Owner and General Manager John Monson for this column, with a focus on daily operations at his five ranges.

Bill's Gun Shop & Range Owner John Monson
Owner and General Manager of North Dakota’s Bill’s Gun Shop & Range, John Monson.

A Standardized Format

“One store taught me volumes. However, when we got to three, I felt that we could duplicate our system,” said Monson. “We’ve centralized administration with 10 full-time employees managing all the range locations. At the store level, we cross-train employees, and a team of supervisors inspects and audits each location monthly. Each store has weekly reports that are due promptly,” he said.

Monson found he needed at least two full-time employees to act as “fixers.”

“One plugs the holes for sick employees or deals with specific rental needs. The second repairs larger-scale problems like inaccurate reporting, audits or major staff changes,” Monson explained.

Adopting Nimble Marketing

With five retail ranges to manage, marketing must be fluid and organized. Monson has a full-time marketing person that manages everything from social media to radio and newspaper ads.

The company implements a monthly promotion at each location. Each event is assigned a budget that ranges from $1,000 to $2,000. The goal is to find the correct media outlet for each event.

“We are in regular contact with more than 40,000 shooters in our database. One constant is activity on Facebook and other social sites,” he said.

When asked what worked best, Monson responded he was surprised that it was often, but not always, print newspapers.

“We’ll advertise in outdoor print newspapers and frequently pull the best numbers,” said Monson.

Although results vary due to the time of the year and the style of event, the owner found it remarkable that print still works in most of his markets. In addition, strong client responses have been generated from short, in-house produced videos.

“I realized quickly that a video that shows you how to clean a pistol in two minutes was far more successful than one at 10 minutes.

“Our goal is to drive and engage customers with content on our website,” he emphasized. “We found if we posted a video on YouTube, we could lose the customer on the next video cycle.”

Bill's Gun Shop & Range
This range emphasizes the fun in the shooting sports, something evident in the faces of its customers.

Avoiding High-Tech Training

While ranges across the country are refining their software and interactive video range training, Monson doesn’t believe his ranges are at the tipping point of needing those add-ons to recruit and retain customers.

“I understand that other ranges have had success with these systems — but I loathe downtime and equipment that breaks. So far, I haven’t been able to find the video system that can remain working without repairs, or one for which we can charge enough money to make it pay for itself. So far, they’re just not for us,” said Monson.

Along those same lines, Monson and his staff have been making the company’s shooting lanes quick and easy to repair with hardware refinements that are simple and easy to fix.

“We rarely have an issue that can’t be fixed in five minutes or less,” he said. Constant refinements to cable systems and target holders have kept this owner’s stores in full operation 98 percent of the day.

Range Vs. Retail Sales Mix

While revenue from many combination range and retail facilities have landed at a 60 percent range to 40 percent retail mix, Monson’s stores tip the scales in favor of the retail margins.

“It’s always our goal to increase activity and profit on the retail and range. However, our local mixes have edged to the retail side. It’s something we are working to change,” he said.

On his rise as a multiple range owner, Monson has learned a few lessons. One is to sell what can be used at the range.

“I wouldn’t open a gun shop without a range, and I wouldn’t stock anything that couldn’t be used on the range. It would be like selling a car without a test drive,” he said.

Bill's Gun Shop & Range
Employees are cross-trained at Bill’s Gun Shop & Range, and supervisors audit each store monthly to provide feedback and streamline the business through a centralized administration setup.

Targeting the Perfect Customer

As for a “perfect” demographic target, Monson identified a married couple employed in working class or professional jobs with kids in their early teens. He has found that his local families are trying to find a common ground between a screen device, television and sports.

“My favorite customers are those who have had a shooter in the family. Maybe it was a grandfather or uncle who enjoyed the sport, and now they want to find out why that individual was captivated by shooting. Our ranges and retail stores are perfect for them.

“We stress fun. We try to create an event so the family sees the range as an inclusive option, much like bowling or arcades were 20 to 30 years ago,” Monson said.

You may also be interested in: Behind the Firing Line: Royal Range

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