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Things are looking up for the global gun market

The gun trade is expected to have a more favorable year—even though estimates on its size vary widely—after shooting blanks in 2014.

The Ruger Mark III Target Rimfire Pistol.
Source: Ruger
The Ruger Mark III Target Rimfire Pistol.

One proxy for U.S. firearms demand is the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which posted an 8.4 percent year-over-year increase in activity in January. That figure was the second-highest January on record for the 16-year-old system and marked the fourth consecutive monthly increase of year-to-year growth in the FBI's numbers since September 2013.

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Globally, the legal small arms market is forecast to grow from $4.1 billion in 2014 to $5.3 billion in 2020, a compound annual growth rate of 4.2 percent, according to projections in a new industry report from MarketsandMarkets, a Dallas-based market researcher. The projections reflect sales of small arms in the hunting, sport shooting, self-defense, law enforcement and professional markets. (Products include pistols, rifles, machine guns and carbines.)

According to M&M's forecast, five companies—Sturm Ruger, Alliant Techsystems, Smith & Wesson, Freedom Group and Colt Manufacturing—account for more than 40 percent of the total market. CRT Capital analyst Brian Ruttenbur, who follows the major gun makers, said the U.S. represents 41.2 percent of the legal global small arms business and is the world's leading exporter and importer of small arms.

CRT Capital estimates U.S. gun sales were down about 15 percent in 2014 compared to the prior year.

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Ruttenbur also estimates that the current legal, U.S. small arms market stands at roughly $8 billion annually, when including new firearms sales but excluding accessory sales such as gun sights, cleaning supplies, and the like.

Big share price gains after weak 2014

Shares of two leading gun manufacturers have shown big gains this year: Smith & Wesson is up about 40 percent, while Sturm Ruger has soared nearly 50 percent, although the stock was as much as 2 percent lower intraday on Friday.

After the closing bell Wednesday, Sturm Ruger posted fourth-quarter earnings that beat analysts' estimates. The Southport, Connecticut-based company held its conference call Thursday, during which CEO Michael Fifer fielded questions about tough industry conditions in 2014, including channel inventory headwinds and aggressive discounting.

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"We believe that the decline in consumer demand for firearms caused many retailers to buy fewer firearms in the third and fourth quarters of 2014 than they were actually selling, in an effort to reduce their inventories and generate cash," Fifer said during the call. "The decline in demand from the distributors was exacerbated by extensive discounting by our competitors, which, in particular, reduced our share of the large chain store Black Friday business."

That said, Fifer also indicated there were improving conditions this year. "For 2015, we are starting to see some early indications that demand from retailers to distributors is improving. We think that demand in 2012 before the huge surge in demand in 2013 is a good starting point for comparison."

Meanwhile, Smith & Wesson's fiscal third-quarter results are scheduled for Tuesday. The consensus of analysts' forecasts is for earnings for the quarter ended Jan. 31 to fall 69 percent, with sales down 15 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.