While many successful business ventures hinge on a carefully crafted plan of attack filled with branding messages and clever positioning, popular YouTube firearms reviewer Hickok45 rose to online fame on the wings of a humble, down-home personality and trustworthy advice on guns.
Launched in 2007, his gun channel now contains more than 1,200 videos. It has drawn nearly 2 million loyal subscribers and yielded more than 500 million views.
A Surprising Start
“There was no marketing strategy or even thought of making money at this,” recalls the 65-year-old former schoolteacher who, for privacy reasons, keeps his real name confidential. “My son John and I just wanted to put together a few educational videos.”
In fact, Hickok45’s first video wasn’t even produced for an internet audience.
“I taught English and literature, and one of my classes was reading the novel ‘Shane,’” he explains. “I thought it would be nice to show the students some of the firearms in use at the time, so I made a video on guns of the West.”
Hickok45 brought the video to school on a CD and the kids loved it. He also sent a copy to John, who was away in college.
“John told me I had to post it on YouTube, because he’d been looking for videos on shooting and there weren’t many out there at the time,” he says.
“I thought YouTube was just something where people posted dumb stuff, not useful information, but I gave it a try anyway,” he adds. Looking back, he also recalls how landing his undeniably cool handle was mostly a stroke of luck. “I actually didn’t put much thought into the name when I created the channel,” he says. “I’d always liked Wild Bill Hickok and already used Hickok45 as a username for a couple of other accounts, so I went with it when I signed up with YouTube.”
While the first video wasn’t a blockbuster, it caught people’s attention.
“It didn’t go viral, but it got more views than I thought it should have,” he says. “So we decided to do a few more.”
The father-and-son team put together a list of around 20 gun groupings they thought would be of use to shooters.
“I thought that would be it,” he says. “But the interest grew and we kept going.”
Continuing To Teach
Today, they are full-time gun reviewers who churn out a steady stream of fresh gun-related videos. Most review specific firearms, show viewers how to operate them or compare the features of various guns.
“I enjoyed teaching and loved the kids, but decided this was the future,” Hickok45 recalls. “It’s been great so far. I love guns, shooting, going to trade shows and working with my son.”
That’s not to say the life of an online gun guru is all fun and games, of course. Days are filled with research, planning, range prep, shooting and editing videos, and responding to countless messages from followers seeking advice. “I can’t get too far from my computer,” he admits.
Hickok45 is quick to credit the fans for their success, however. “I am always there for the viewers because I wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for them,” he says.
He also acknowledges the support of sponsors such as Federal Ammunition. “Federal is wonderful to work with,” he says. “The company supplies great ammunition and helps make everything we do possible.”
Hickok45 has other sponsors, including Bud’s Gun Shop, but shies away from ties to gun makers.
“We have to be very careful not to be in the pocket of gun manufacturers,” he says. “A common comment from our viewers is they trust us to provide honest looks at firearms because we’re objective.” As a result, nearly all guns are requested, reviewed and returned to their maker.
He notes that another key to the channel’s popularity is sticking to a viewer-friendly format. “The sweet spot is the basics,” he says. “Providing enough history and information on the gun to keep the video moving and enjoyable.”
In a similar vein, viewers embrace Hickok45’s down-to-earth, everyman approach to the gun world.
“I’m not in law enforcement and have never been in the military, so I’m not like a lot of the experts who have more credentials,” he says. “I’m just a regular guy who has enjoyed shooting since he was a kid, and people tell me all the time that’s why they like our channel, because they can relate to us.”
Looking ahead, Hickok45 has no plans to slow down or change this successful approach to engaging nearly 2 million shooting sports enthusiasts.
“It would be silly to change directions, and I can’t imagine retiring from something I love so much,” he says.
And for that, Hickok45 fans worldwide are thankful.