Melvin Forbes with the rifle that changed his life, altered rifle history and that was a hit at the 1985 SHOT Show.
From its humble beginnings in St. Louis, in 1979, to taking every nook and cranny of the Sands Expo Center in 2017, the SHOT Show is the industry’s signature event, bringing together more than 1,700 exhibitors and 65,000 attendees. Next January, SHOT Show will be celebrating its 40th Anniversary, so we asked a handful of today’s top outdoor writers to pick two exhibitors they know well to tell their SHOT Show stories. Fourth in our new “Blast from the Past” series, the well-regarded scribe Richard Mann speaks with New Ultra Light Arms’ Melvin Forbes. Enjoy! — Chris Dolnack, NSSF Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer
Two years after I graduated high school, a shop teacher from West Virginia introduced a bolt-action rifle to the world at the 1985 SHOT Show. That rifle forever changed the landscape of sporting rifles, because it weighed less than five pounds and shot with the precision of a Benchrest wonder gun. I lusted for one of those rifles in the most sinful ways for nearly 20 years, until I finally had enough money to buy one. Now I own five.
Melvin Forbes, of the company now known as New Ultra Light Arms, has been building that same rifle for 33 years. During that time, he has never missed attending SHOT Show, where, with his remarkable creation, he amazes those who walk into his booth. Other companies have tried to copy his rifle, other companies have even bought Melvin’s company and tried to build his rifle. They have all failed—but Melvin and his rifle remain. You might be able to learn a thing or two from Melvin. I know I have.
Richard Mann (RM): Melvin, tell me about your first SHOT Show?
Melvin Forbes (MF): It was January of 1985, in Atlanta. I remember I was looking for furniture for the booth, and asked a guy how much it would cost. When he told me, I said, “I don’t want to buy it, I just want to rent it!” He said, “You are renting it. Welcome to show business.”
We incorporated Ultra Light Arms in September of 1984. When I decided to attend SHOT Show, I had four complete rifles and was out of cash. I wrote letters to all the magazine editors and big-name gun writers of the time, told them we were building a .308 Winchester rifle that weighed 4.5 pounds, had a composite stock, a Douglas barrel and a Timney trigger. Jim Carmichael with “Outdoor Life” was the only one who responded. Twenty minutes after the 1985 SHOT Show opened on the first day, Carmichael came by the booth wanting to look at the rifle.
I then spent the rest of that SHOT Show grabbing the writers I recognized as they walked by. I remember one even covered his badge and turned his head as he passed the booth.
RM: How important was that first SHOT Show, with regards to the success of your company?
MF: Our success was totally dependent on the show. The first day back in the shop, Carmichael called, but I was out of the shop. I was excited to call him the next morning, but figured I ought to wait until at least 8:00 a.m. About 20 minutes after 7:00, my phone rang, and it was Jim. He said, “I thought you were going to call me this morning.” I told him I was waiting for a reasonable hour and he said, “I’ve been up since six.” I told him I had too, we laughed, and he said he wanted to include my rifle in “Outdoor Life’s” list of new guns for 1985. When that issue came out, they published a picture of my rifle, and Carmichael had written something like, “Get used to the name Ultra Light Arms, they are going to make some noise,” and the phone started ringing off the hook. Carmichael was right.
RM: What is your best SHOT Show memory?
MF: The opportunity to have had a conversation with fellow West Virginian and legend, General Chuck Yeager. I remember he was standing at a bar. I gathered up all my gumption, pulled my britches up tight, walked right up to him and nervously said, “General Yeager, my name is Melvin Forbes and I want to shake your hand.” Yeager glared at me, squeezed my hand, and said, “You build guns.” I was floored.
RM: What SHOT Show mistakes have you made or moment you had that made you realize you might should have done something differently?
MF: I should have gone to a 10×20-foot booth sooner. It would have helped me build priority points and move up the ladder. That allows you to pick a better booth each year. After I increased the booth size and got those points, I started selecting end-cap booths, which provide more prominence; you get traffic from more than one direction. It’s all about visibility. If those attending SHOT Show do not see you, you cannot talk to them.
RM: What advice do you have for other start-up and small companies/manufacturers when it comes to making the most of SHOT Show?
MF: Be prepared to spend the money. Take advantage of all of the various nuances of the show. Purchase banner ads and get your name out. And don’t snub opportunities to meet and dine with other SHOT Show attendees. That’s how I got to be lifelong friends with Bob Nosler and Bill Jordan.
You also have to have a good pair of shoes. If you’re going to be the face of the company, you have to be available from the time the show opens until it closes, because somebody’s going to walk by and want to talk to you. You better be there and you better be on your feet, smiling. Also, all along I knew I could not afford high-dollar ads in the magazines, so I put efforts into building relationships with writers and editors.
The company Melvin Forbes started in 1985 made such an impact on the firearms industry, almost every rifle manufacturer tried to offer a similar gun. In 1999, Forbes sold Ultra Light Arms to Colt’s, and, in 2000, the company went bankrupt. Forbes had to buy his company back and had to add “New” to the company name. Again, this time in 2010, Melvin sold his company to Forbes Rifles, which kept him on as a consultant. But the new owners didn’t listen to Melvin, and in just a few years that business, too, became defunct. New Ultra Light Arms is now back under the control of the man who started the company, a true legend in the firearms industry and a man who has consecutively attended 33 SHOT Shows! Make sure to stop by his booth at the 2018 show—he’s always worth your time.