The American love affair with firearms and the firearms culture was demonstrated in the huge increases in the gun sales over the last three years, and at Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, SHOT Show, the world largest gun exposition held Jan. 16 -20 in Las Vegas.

“Together we comprise a record number of more than 7,000 of America’s favorite firearms and ammunition manufacturers, wholesalers, importers, retailers, shooting ranges, gun clubs, conservation groups, outdoor media, safety instructors, and many others, who share our avocation and our passion for our industry and our uniquely American way of life,” said Steve Sanetti, the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, show’s host, Jan. 19 in his address at the annual State of the Industry Dinner.

The dinner, which was sponsored by Outdoor Channel, was packed with more than 2,000 NSSF supporters filled the sold-out hall for both a report on their industry’s pulse and comedian Larry the Cable Guy. Other celebrities at the show were American Idol judge and rock star Steven Tyler and NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann.

In his 34 years in the industry, Sanetti said he has never seen the industry more unified.

“Our membership has never been stronger or more engaged. We have had great success in recent years solidfying our industry’s base of support,” he said. Membership in NSSF, the industry’s trade association, is more than double what it was just five years ago.

While the nation’s economy has remained stagnant the past few years, the firearms and ammunition industry has been one of its few bright spots, he said.

“Eighteen consecutive quarters of sales growth, as evidenced most recently by an all-time high number of mandatory point-of-sales background checks in December, and during the worst recession since the great depression, would be an enviable feat for any industry,” he said.

“Yet we have achieved it, and we have shared our prosperity by giving back,” he said.

Thanks to Americans’ passion for firearms, the $4 billion firearms and ammunition industry has been a bright spot in the down economy. The industry supports many small businesses and helps preserve the 180,000 jobs associated with the shooting sports.

In 2011, company executives saw records set for background checks, a reliable indicator of sales, including the most ever in a single month, December, and single day, Black Friday.

“It’s a wonderful time to be in our industry,” said Sandy Chisholm of North American Arms, a handgun manufacturer.

“We’ve seen tremendous enthusiasm on the part of sellers and buyers, and we see the prospect of a very good year ahead.” Many agreed with that assessment of the market and of the SHOT Show,” she said.

The largest trade show of its kind in the world and the fifth largest trade show in Las Vegas, a city of trade shows, the SHOT Show set an overall attendance record of more than 61,000, including new highs for buyers at 36,383 and media at 2,466.

Though show organizers deliberately reduced the size of the show to better accommodate attendees at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, still some 1,600 exhibitors filled booth space covering 630,000 net square feet. The show attracted industry professionals from all 50 states and 100 countries.

Chris Dolnack, NSSF senior vice president and chief marketing officer, “We have worked hard to make sure SHOT is a great selling and buying experience, and it has resulted in our best show ever.”

“Traffic is like we’ve never seen it before,” said Mark Malkowski, president of Stag Arms, maker of modern sporting rifles, AR-style rifles, a big seller over the past several years.

“Retailers we’ve talked to are expecting a record year,” he said.

Another firearms retailer, Todd Vance of Vance Outdoors in Columbus, Ohio, said he agreed.

“We had our best-ever year in 2011, and we’ve started off this year great and expect to be up.” In his store, Vance said buyers are interested in concealable handguns, home-defense firearms, ammunition and tactical rifles, particularly new .22 caliber models.

Another handgun manufacturer, Sig Sauer, reported having its best first day at SHOT since the company began keeping sales records, said Bud Fini, the company’s vice president of marketing,

“The market is stimulated,” who added that the company’s shooting academy is seeing many new gun owners. “First-time buyers, that’s where the expansion is coming from,” he said.

Accessories, from holsters to rifle slings to optics, are an important part of the SHOT Show. “We are selling sights like you can’t believe,” said Aimpoint’s Roger Bell of the company’s pro staff.

“We signed up a lot of new dealers, and that says to me the market is expanding,” he said.

In the Mossberg booth, Tom Taylor, vice president of marketing, said, “This is about as much excitement as I’ve seen at a SHOT Show. People are buying optimistically, and we’re going to build optimistically.”

For first-time exhibitors, the SHOT Show can provide a big lift. “When you are a start-up company without a big marketing budget, the SHOT Show helps put you in front of the right audience,” said Jeane Stewart of U.S. RAC, maker of firearm safety products for law enforcement.

Stewart said her company great valued the show’s New Products Center.

Opportunities abound at the SHOT Show, and some who attend are selling more than products.

At South Dakota’s booth, representatives had a goal of convincing manufacturers they should be making products in the state. “Last year South Dakota connected with more than 50 companies. Within four months, two of those companies expanded their operations to South Dakota,” said the state’s economic development commissioner J. Pat Costello.

The SHOT Show will return to the Sands Expo & Convention Center next year January 15-18.