How Unicorn Guns Are Born (And Why We Hate Them)

posted on October 10, 2018

My little girls love unicorns. Love them! These mythical creatures of magic and fairytales thrill and delight them. But when some shooting enthusiasts hear the word "unicorn" associated with firearms, their blood begins to boil. If you haven’t heard the term “Unicorn Guns” before, it’s a colloquial label for those newly released and/or highly desirable firearms that have proven nearly or completely impossible to find. 

These trophies of gleaming gun metal make a splashy entrance in the media with lots of quality marketing and well-written gun reviews and then step nimbly into the deep dark forest, never to be seen again. Were they ever real, or were they just figments of our fevered imaginations? To make things worse, these elusive beauties are all too often subject to Area 51-type customer communication, “We can neither confirm nor deny that one of these rifles was seen at a downtown retail location on the 28th of this month. ...”

Remember the Kel-Tec KSG rollout? Kel-Tec was making them as fast as they could, but consumer demand was so high that delays seemed interminable, creating the perception that they were not on the market at all.

Just recently, I received the latest note from the "I Hate Unicorn Guns" club, a reader whose chase through the wilderness has left them feeling hot under the collar. The gun in question was announced around two or three years ago. In this case, early production models received thumbs-up reviews from writers who tested it (including me). The gun is currently listed on the website as available, but the company won’t say when it’s actually going to ship. Trust me when I say I understand exactly how this person feels.

Then the note took a sudden turn for the worse. The reader was not only mad at the gun maker, they were angry at me! Doing their best Sebastian Maniscalco impersonation, I was asked quite pointedly (in so many words), "Aren't you ashamed?! You, B. Gil, you wrote a review of that gun. You put your name on it for the entire world to see. You were complicit in getting our hopes up and the gun maker hasn't come through for any of us. So, what are you going to do about it? When are you going to take a stand and hold this company accountable for what they've done?” 

... making guns is a complicated process, with factors ranging from human behavior to bad weather playing a role.

Whoa there, pardner! Let's slow that horse down to a trot for a minute and have a conversation, shall we? No reputable gun company sets out to fail or to frustrate its customers. That's just bad business no matter how you slice it. As with any industrialized operation, making guns is a complicated process, with factors ranging from human behavior to bad weather playing a role. Before we sharpen our pitch forks and light the torches, let's first take a few things into consideration: 

Bankruptcy, Stock Market and Merger, Oh My!
The financial health of a gun manufacturer boils down to this bottom line: units sold. This means the marketing team has the unenviable task of juggling announcement dates for new products. If existing lines are selling well, they may shelve new models for a rainy day. If the market is slowing down then new models will be announced to drive up sales. Some companies post announcements with shipping dates six months out (or more) while others wait to send the press releases until the crates are rolling out to distributors.

Financial unicorns tend to arrive when an early product announcement collides with a significant internal business shift. The company simply can't make ends meet and goes bankrupt. No money, no guns. A company may not be going belly up but it may be staggering from a financial sucker punch on some level. One recovery strategy is to consolidate resources by stopping new model production, suspending research and development and consolidating remaining resources into existing product lines until things stabilize. 

Mergers can be unicorn producers too. The new owners of an existing company may say, "We're headed in a new direction!" which can result in the trimming away and shuffling around of new products. In some cases, whole product lines may vanish over night.

Production Delays
If a company is in good financial health and doing well, the next most likely culprit to cause Unicorn-type delays will be problems on the assembly line itself. I've been lucky enough to visit some impressive facilities and factory floors. If you think guns are expensive, you should check out the price tags tied to CNC machines and the die sets they use. Breakdowns, retooling, new software bugs and more can bring the line to a halt. Natural and man-made disasters including hurricanes, wild fires, earthquakes and floods simply can't be ignored when they come a-knocking at the door.

Third-Party Vendor Blues
I have yet to work with a single gun company, foreign or domestic, that produces 100 percent of its gun parts in house. All of the components may be American-made using a local workforce and U.S. sourced materials. However, the springs were outsourced to a company across town while the polymers were molded by yet another company two states away.

These third-party vendor relationships help to keep costs down by allowing the manufacturer to focus on core component production (barrels, slides frames) with other companies using their specialties to take up the slack (springs, magazines, specialized coatings). But the vendor contract is a two-edged sword. If the company making all of your trigger groups goes under, stalls out or flubs the order by sending faulty or out-of-spec parts, then the guns are stuck in limbo until the prblem is reesolved.

The Ruger P-85 of the 1980s (left), and most recently the Taurus Spectrum .380 Auto, are examples of guns that eventually made it to market but experienced unanticipated manufacturing delays that frustrated consumers.

Production Capacity Limits
When a new product is announced, the manufacturers are secretly praying for a just-right degree of popularity. If the gun flops, all of that R&D and marketing goes in the trash. If the demand is in harmony with the company's projected sales, then the well-oiled machine does its thing and a reasonable number of guns leave the factory at a reasonable pace. But what if the gun is the smash hit at this year's SHOT Show and everyone wants one yesterday?

Now representing the industry standard for how NOT to build a Unicorn Gun, Ruger moved toward lean manufacture and CNC machinery in 2008, when the rollout of its LCP proved an unqualified success. It seems the company finally redeemed itself from the unflattering designation "pulling a Ruger" it had earned in the 1980s with the P-85. Ruger's current business model, which it abides by 10 years on, is to introduce a gun to market only when an ample supply is available for distribution.

High product demand can easily outstrip production capacity, especially for smaller operations. Now the number crunchers have to roll the dice and consult their crystal balls. Will there be enough product demand to finance the expansion of the factory facilities or will the company go broke when demand plummets just days after the ribbon cutting ceremony? Maybe the best long-term strategy is to just keep on trucking as-is and hope customers will be forgiving of slow or delayed products once production catches up. Companies have lost millions, and even collapsed, by zigging instead of zagging under these conditions. 

Last Minute Issue Resolution
Of all the Unicorn Gun delays and disappearances this is my favorite. It's proof that an ethical company cares about its customers. The phone meetings go something like this: “Hey Gil, I know you're calling about model X and it was supposed to go out weeks ago. But the thing is, as we were getting close to going into production, we found a problem. So, the gun's on hold until we get all the kinks out. The last thing we want to do is ship a busted gun." Sometimes these discoveries cause a short delay while others may take the gun back to the drawing board or even into the trash heap. 

Where's the Beef?
Now, getting back to the notes from the reader mentioned at the start of this article. As a writer, I act in good faith when publishing a gun review which includes release dates. In fact, all launch dates are projections, not promises because any number of factors may cause a delay. If you sweep away all of the miles and mechanisms in between, customers will find a group of hard working people, just like them, on the other side of the Unicorn guns they're waiting for. I've had the good fortune of getting to know and respect these production teams. These folks wrestle with the same every-day problems as anyone else in trying to meet their customers’ demands. 

Thus you won't find me out in front of the factory with a picket sign demanding satisfaction when I’ve been told in confidence just how much damage that terrible storm caused to the production plant. Nor will you find me publishing that information because I respect these good people’s privacy. If they want to tell the community what’s up, they will. 

That being said, some companies are making frustrating customer communication errors that could be avoided. If a gun has been delayed, just say so. There's no need for you to show us the books or bare your souls. Just an indication that a change in schedule has occurred or a small news announcement letting us know is all we're asking for. A penny's worth of clarity will buy you a pound of customer loyalty. 

As for those shooting enthusiasts who are currently chasing unicorns, you have three choices. First, keep calm and await the unicorn's arrival at the allotted time. Second, ask the company directly through its customer service phone number or email—politely. If you get a vague boilerplate response, then there's a good chance the company is dealing with internal issues that they are not going to discuss with the public. If this state of affairs frustrates you then know that there's a very good chance some other manufacturer can meet your needs. That leads us to choice number three, which is to simply let that unicorn go and chase a horse instead.

Additional Reading:
The Keefe Report: The Changing Nature of New Gun Introduction and Manufacture 
The Keefe Report: Parts is Parts
The Keefe Report: So Why Is My Gun Backordered?
The Keefe Report: So, Where's My KSG? Kel-Tec Going Flat Out 


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