In 2013, the American shooting and hunting world was shocked and angered to learn the makeup and character of an event it looked forward to annually was endangered by a foreign-owned entity. That event, the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, Pa., known to many simply as the “Harrisburg show,” had run continuously since the 1950s; the trade show regularly drew hundreds of thousands of outdoor-loving Americans to eastern Pennsylvania each winter to book hunts worldwide, to glean hunting and fishing tips from outdoor professionals and celebrities, and to view and purchase firearms and gear. That foreign-owned entity, Reed Exhibitions of Massachusetts, is a British-owned company.
In January 2013, just three weeks before the annual trade show was to begin, Reed announced it would ban the sale or display of all AR-style rifles. The news spread like wildfire as it angered law-abiding gun owners who felt as though they were being scapegoated for the actions of a disturbed criminal. Attendees and vendors alike announced a boycott—indeed the National Rifle Association announced it would boycott the show, too.
In the short run, the 2013 show was canceled. In the long run, the actions of gun owners, gun sellers and the NRA in response to Reed’s decision saved the annual event. Today, it features more guns, gear and activities than ever before—and it’s one more historical anecdote NRA members can crow about amid the 150th anniversary of the founding of our association.
This is the story.
In January 2013, a mere three weeks before the annual Harrisburg show was slated to begin, Reed Exhibitions, the show’s British-owned producer, announced it had banned the sale or display of AR-style rifles. Sportsmen and women everywhere were outraged. A great deal of the visible outdoor market was at the time at the annual Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show (SHOT Show) in Las Vegas, Nev., when the news broke. As word spread from booth to booth at the SHOT Show, many individuals wondered just what the development meant for the future of “our” trade shows in general.
Gun owners and retailers already were smarting from blame cast on them by liberal media and politicians in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. There, a mentally disturbed young man accessed firearms left vulnerable to his possession by his mother in her safe, used one to murder his mother then used altogether two firearms to murder dozens of innocent people, the vast majority of them children, and as first responders arrived then killed himself. The event remains the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in our nation’s history. The scene was horrible; it was a tragedy. But it was not the fault of law-abiding gun owners. Indeed a report concluded Lanza acted alone and planned his actions, but those facts didn’t matter. Reed’s decision exposed once again the anti-gun movement’s flawed thinking: when criminals act they blame inanimate objects and punish law-abiding gun owners.
Cabela’s was first to respond. The retail giant announced on Facebook: “Due to recent changes made by Reed Exhibitions regarding the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, Cabela’s will no longer sponsor this year’s event.” Then floodgates opened. Word spread among gun-owning ranks that many individuals would not attend; national and local vendors announced boycotts; celebrity attendees and pro-staffers announced boycotts. The NRA joined the fray: “Due to Reed Exhibitions’ refusal to reconsider their decision to ban modern sporting rifles … the NRA has decided to withdraw from the show,” read our press release. “We called on Reed Exhibitions to reconsider their decision; unfortunately they steadfastly refused to do so. As a result, the NRA will not be participating in the upcoming show in Harrisburg or in any other shows hosted by Reed Exhibitions that maintain this policy.”
Vendors who loaded up on inventory specifically for the show knew they would sit on it, and lose money, if they boycotted the show but they stood by their intentions. The Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. estimated the no-shows would account for as much as $80 million in lost revenue for the regional economy.
Reed cancelled the show just two weeks from opening day of the nine-day event. There was nothing anyone could do about it … until 2014.
When the show was cancelled, the dates of future shows became available. With that in mind, the NRA and 18 other prospective show producers threw their proverbial hats in the ring. Due to the association’s extensive experience exhibiting 50-plus shows per year nationwide (including 30 years of vending at the Harrisburg show) and producing the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits, the NRA presented an exceptional vision for the show to propel it to national prominence. Add to this the fact the 300-mile area around Harrisburg boasts about a million NRA members and the fact Pennsylvania boasts about a million hunters, and it’s clear the partnership could be a win-win. Through an extensive process, the NRA was selected by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (owner of the venue site) to produce an outdoor show on the same dates.
In 2014, the event returned as the Great American Outdoor Show and included hunting, fishing, archery, camping and boating sections and a greatly expanded presence of firearms and accessories. But “better” did not end with guns.
In 2013, when the "Harrisburg show" was endangered by anti-gun policy, the NRA stepped in to rebrand the event the Great American Outdoor Show.
The NRA assimilated its many brands and divisions into the nine-day show to sponsor and improve all sorts of outdoor fun including a pond casting competition, airgun and archery ranges, game-calling competitions, game-cooking seminars, gun-safety programs, evening banquets and concerts, and special presentations from top-tier celebrities. As regular attendees know, the newest chamber of the complex, the Shooting Sports Hall, is a showcase for an array of firearm exhibitors.
Today, the Great American Outdoor Show is yet another example of the tapestry woven across the NRA’s 150-year history in service to law-abiding gun owners. More down-to earth: It’s a win-win-win. It delivers to the Pennsylvania outdoor community and Harrisburg economy booster shots of camaraderie and tourism dollars; attendees from far and wide benefit from a better-than-ever show; and NRA programs are supported by revenue generated from the show, with a portion of the proceeds returning to the region for projects supported by The NRA Foundation. (Incidentally, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, owner of the SHOT Show, announced later in 2013 it had dropped Reed Exhibitions as producer of its show—definitely not a win for the Massachusetts-based, British company.)
The 2021 Great American Outdoor Show was canceled due to the pandemic. But next year’s show already is scheduled for Feb. 5-13, 2022. As usual, it looks to attract 1,000 exhibitors, including hundreds of outfitters, to fill 650,000 square feet of fun. We’ll see you in Harrisburg.