Exhibitors in an "Arms Race"

ORLANDO, Fla. — Nowhere but here can you find a Remington show room, and that for four days only.

On wooden walls, above 4,800 green-carpeted square feet, all 180 of the company's guns are here — aligned in the same order in which they appear in the catalog, for quick browsing.

Also here are more than 100 employees who have booked solid eight meeting rooms and an air-conditioned conference room.

At the close of the SHOT Show, this huge display will be dismantled, piled back into five tractor trailers and shipped back to Delaware, the same ritual as last year.

It's a familiar routine for one of the biggest exhibitors at the show, where anyone with eyeballs will notice the arms race to pack a lot of bang into their small plots of convention center floor.

"This is a little city that gets built," said company spokesman Alfred Russo as he leaned against a glass display case.

Between the 500 or so man-hours needed to install and dismantle the exhibit, the cost of transporting and housing employees during the show, and the $21-per-square-foot fee for the floor space, he said, the company's presence at the show runs into the six figures, "the single largest marketing expense of the year."

Even with that economic situation, exhibitors continue to swamp the show.

Since the first SHOT Show in 1979, only three shows — 1996, 2000 and 2002 — featured fewer companies than the previous year. The record 1,870 companies this year constitute a 30-percent increase from 2002.

Likewise, the average area of displays has ballooned over the years.

In 1979, the 290 companies in attendance covered 180 square feet apiece.

A decade passed, and that average space had grown 50 percent. This year, the average footprint per exhibitor is a record 351 square feet, a reflection of profuse products, increased attendance and what can only be described as check-us-out peacockery.

The only garish aspect of the Remington display was a 10-by-80-foot banner hanging from chains overhead. Other companies distinguished themselves (and created more space) by building up.

The Nikon exhibit, designed to resemble a hunting chalet, included mounted deer and pheasants and an observation deck outfitted with telescopic lenses around the perimeter.

Browning's meeting space was on a platform above a wall of quarter- and half-ton safes.

Single-story displays were no less ambitious.

Mossy Oak's display surrounded a large, fake campfire with log benches and dangled antler chandeliers above its meeting tables.

Hornady founder Steve Hornady apparently bagged the Asian sheep and the brown bear that posed, dead and stuffed, in the company's exhibit (which also included the softest carpet perhaps anywhere in the show).

Winchester ammunition displayed a revolving, person-sized bullet reminiscent of a NASA model of the old Mercury rockets.

Limbsaver towed its display trailer to Orlando from its base in Seattle and set it up directly on the floor.

One wall of the trailer unfolded to reveal four rows of flatscreen televisions — 17 in all, each connected to a separate DVD player running video of hunting shows or technical specs on its recoil pads.

"Everyone passing by — see how it amazes them?" said Gary Sims, of Limbsaver's research and development. "Just stops them."

It is virtually impossible to pass 17 flatscreens without at least swiveling, if not drooling.

The hope was that potential customers could watch and learn while meetings continued apace, Sims said: "It babysits them."

Far more subdued, if no less impressive, was the setup at U.S. Fire Arms, which manufactures guns patterned after the sort favored by cowboys of 120 years ago.

Company president Douglas Donnelly hoped to evoke the days of a century past with the exhibits dark wooden walls and giveaway Teddy Roosevelt calendars.

The centerpiece of his exhibit is a cabinet with about 130 replica Colts arrayed in two concentric circles with a mess of cylinders piled like a pyramid of poker chips in the middle.

He modeled the display after one similar at the nation's Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 — The very month, he noted, that Custer died at Little Big Horn — and it has traveled with him "coast-to-coast" about 50 times, he estimated.

"This is not necessarily a trade show, easy-knockdown Velcro thing," Donnelly said. "If you're selling earplugs, headphones or some other accessory, you use more glitz. The gun speaks for itself."

Across the carpeted aisle at that moment, gun distributor Davidson's was challenging Donnelly's assertion.

Four young women in black, Vegasesque, sequin-and-feather outfits beckoned passers-by.

Donnelly went ahead and did them one better: He summoned the women for a photo in front of the wall of Colts, two on either side of them.

Never did the guns speak for themselves more clearly.