2008: The origins of the brand
Who: Me, 33 year old father of 5, California based graphics/web designer, lifelong firearms enthusiast, staunch 2A supporter What: Ballistic.US-Firearms Related Clothing Company Why: Kids keep eating my ammo budget Where: The internet. A series of tubes… This all started in 2008 (notice the date in the file properties) as I was trying to think of some kind of firearms related brand I could build to create opportunities within the firearms industry. The old, “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day” idea. The reality is that it makes work a lot more enjoyable, but it’s still work. As a designer, I know this as well as anyone. Anyway, thinking Ballistic was a decent name, I started with 2 stacked cartridges to form a B. I must have worked with 50 different ideas of calibers and different layouts with multiple cartridges to represent my B. I ended up going back to these. My first product ideas were jackets and shirts that had unique and novel features for CCW. I realized that it would be a costly process having custom design garments manufactured, but I thought there was merit to the ideas.
2009: First Shirt
At the end of 2008, my family had some trying times, and other than having some sort of idea of a brand name and a logo, there wasn’t anything going on, and really, I didn’t have the time to pursue it. Mid 2009, a friend from a forum asked about designing a t-shirt for the KNS Suppressor Shoot. I don’t even know if they used the artwork, but I knew I could do something else with it, so I wasn’t too concerned. I spent many hours creating the outline. There isn’t a filter that can do this. Vectorizing images usually results in very messy files, with thousands of tiny vector shapes. The only way to make a line drawing from an image is to draw the lines. More on the process later, but for this image, I used perspective lines and a MagLite body to approximate the suppressor. I contacted each of the manufacturers of the products featured on the rifle about printing the likeness of their product, with possibility of listing the product names and company on the shirt, sort of a product breakdown. All except Magpul responded, and they were all quite supportive, especially LaRue Tactical. Mark Fingar even sent me some high resolution images of the new OBR (back when it was the OSR) to work with.
Toward the end of that year, a close family member was interested in buying a screen printing outfit. I thought this would be the perfect time to get things rolling. I revisited the logo. The first thought was using 2 bullet holes to create a “B.” I liked the idea, and I still have shirt designs that will utilize it. Though it wasn’t as stagnant looking as the stacked cartridges, I wanted something that suggested action, movement, impact. I began toying with what an impact would actually look like, how I could pull a B from it, and what would be causing this impact. I used a cannelured projectile as a model, probably based on the 55 gr M193, but I don’t recall for sure. The idea behind the logo is that the suggestion of a B is created by the 4 triangle shards which have been created by the bullet impact. I worked with may different shapes for the frame, settled on the equilateral triangle with clipped corners. The first “finished” version enclosed the bullet and shard tips, but that didn’t sit right because it looked like a barrier to the bullet’s path. I decided that the frame should be broken, or rather, being broken. I thought it would make sense to go with a military looking stencil font. After several attempts, I settled on the final configuration for the graphic.
Life, once again, got in the way of living, and it wasn’t until mid 2012 that the thoughts of working reviving the idea. As I started looking at what I had been transferring from hard drive to hard drive over the past few years, it was apparent that my original illustration was looking pretty stale. The development rate of the AR platform is still, 50 years on, amazingly brisk. The furniture from 5 years ago wasn’t going to cut it. The ACS stock had been around awhile, but it looks good. I pulled the KAC RAS, put the MOE handguard back on, and added the more contemporary MOE Vertical Grip. I decided I could do something a little better than the standard stencil font, and found another. The font wasn’t clean, though, the lines weren’t straight, so I recreated the letters, tweaking a bit here and there. I now had an updated logo, and semi-current looking rifle illustration. One more delay was upon me, however. My family had a sudden chance to move, so something else pushed all thoughts of this enterprise from my mind.
I was on vacation with the family. I don’t usually take vacations- every hour I don’t work is an hour I don’t get paid, so I send the wife and kids on and I stay and work. This year, I was able to make it. I was still working, however. While taking a break from CSS on yet another Worpress site, I was checking out one of my favorite automotive forums that I have been a member of for many years. I noted the annual thread about the preparations for the invite only gathering in the Live Free or Die state had been posted. I have been missing out on this event due to everything from finances to a wedding that was cancelled at the last minute since its inception. I decided I wasn’t going to miss another. “I’m IN,” I boldly declared. It’s all well and good to say it. How was I actually going to fund a trip across the country right before Christmas? I realized it was time to launch this company. I started brainstorming immediately. I knew I wanted to use the artwork I had, but I didn’t feel that particular rifle was enough to launch a brand around. I settled on a mildly offensive, un-PC concept, and rolled with it. I wrestled with the design. It was too busy. I tried removing components, streamlining the design. I wasn’t really satisfied.
Beginning in Earnest
Once back home, I reached out to some people I am involved with through firearms and charitable work, looking for someone with cool hardware so I could get some pictures. Lo and behold, a guy about half an hour away had a slew of the latest and greatest LaRue Tactical rifles. He agreed to let me come up and take some pictures. As soon as I saw the Costa Edition, I knew that was going to be the first “flagship” design. I took several hundred photos of his various rifles, but really focused on that one.
As I mentioned, there is no filter or program that does this for you. I found the image I was going to work from, and got cracking. The illustration was created in Illustrator CS6. I used Photoshop CS6 to constantly adjust brightness, contrast, hue & saturation of the photo to get whichever part of the gun I was working as clear as possible, I also sourced other images that showed things from different angles. The first step is finding the approximate vanishing points. There is distortion that the lens creates that precludes an absolute true to life re-creation. Due to that slight warping, the lines of the illustration have to be adjusted and averaged so that the illustration maintains a coherent appearance, and the perspective isn’t destroyed. That is where the “artistry” comes in, I suppose. This screen shot is near the end of the first session. Every line is based on the vanishing point guides.
Even though it was a particularly brutal session, I was pretty pleased with the progress. The problem is that even with several images from (relatively) the same angle and different focal points, the stock lines in the photograph just aren’t very clear, so there was quite a bit of back and forth over some of these lines.
All About the Details
The details make or break an illustration like this. Would anyone really care if the striations on the bolt catch weren’t there? On the charging handle? Well, I would, and when it is your product, that is what matters.
LaRue Costa Edition Artwork Complete
After approximately 25 hours, I finished the Costa Edition rifle illustration. I was very pleased with the result. I created this composite image to post around the web and draw some attention.
I needed to get the shirts ordered as soon as possible. I suppose, in theory, I could have gone with something more along the lines of Kickstarter, and raised the funds before hand so I had definite orders. If you have been involved with firearms AT ALL over the last few years, you know about the crazy panic buying, backorders that are never filled, angry customers, and forth. I wanted to have product in hand, ready to ship when the buyer clicks submit. As I prepared to submit my order, I opened the somewhat forgotten Pest Control artwork. I was confronted with my previous unfinished, unacceptable design. I could not, with a clear conscience, use the crossed rifles. They are not symmetrical side to side. I would either have to scrap the left rifle or try to fill in the details. The sides of the lower receiver are different: the magazine release button is on the right, along with a shelf to avoid accidentally dropping the magazine. The upper receiver is significantly different on the right side with the ejection port, deflector, and forward assist. I settled on one rifle. I was still dissatisfied, but I didn’t have time to be held hostage by the design, the longer it took to get them ordered, the longer it would be before I could sell. Perhaps you see the irony here considering the caption in the “Details” photo.
But Wait, There’s More
In the midst of all the illustration work, I had also been setting the foundation for the business. Fictitious business name & sellers permit, ordering shipping bags, stickers, business cards. This is the tag I designed to attach to the shirts. It has a bunch of quotes on general liberty and the 2nd amendment, not that you can really read it in print.
The Web Site
I knew exactly how I would set up the web site and which shopping cart software I would use. One of the benefits of being a designer is that I don’t have to hire people to do this stuff. However, that means I can’t rely on anyone else to get anything done. I didn’t go crazy with the web site, and there are plenty of things I still need to adjust. Something I have learned over the years is that the aesthetics of a website matter a lot less than designers like to think they do. Ease of use and good SEO optimization goes a long way.
Guns On The Streets Blog
I decided to fold my GunsOnTheStreets.com blog into the Ballistic.US site. I hadn’t done much with it for a while. It seemed that there was an overload of 2nd amendment threats, frankly it was exhausting and depressing trying to keep up with it all. Having it repurposed has given me a lot more motivation to post, and having fresh content helps in the ever important search rankings.
Store- Initial Product Offering
I ended up with 3 shirts (a womens version of the Costa Edition is the 4th). There are a lot of other things in the works, especially simple logo shirts in other colors, hoodies, etc. I am always trying to think of new products I could create and manufacture easily. More than anything, I still hope to get to the point where I can have my CCW friendly design ideas put into production.
Doing It All
I had my business cards printed pretty early, because surely I would meeting people that I would want to inform of this new enterprise right away. I also had cards printed for my wife, so she could be an envoy to the world. A funny thing happened when she gave a card to her grandmother. “What is it? What does the company do?” Doh! I had failed to put any relevant information on the business cards. There was a logo, name, email, URL, phone, and that’s it. Decided I’d better get some purpose built cards I could hand out. Part of the cost of not having any real checks and balances in an operation. I also set up various social media accounts to connect to the customer base. More on this later…
After a couple delays, I had shirts. Now what? There were several preorders that needed to be filled. I started trying to get the word out on facebook, put some teaser shots out into various forums. Alternately terrified that I ordered too many or not enough.
The night I picked up the shirts, I headed up to my friends house who owned the rifle featured. Had to get a shot of him with his shirt & rifle. Plus, I need to get some more pictures to deal with the Social Media Burden. I am really happy with how the shirts turned out. They are very striking, people who are enthusiasts have been universally positive, and even people who don’t necessarily know much about firearms like them. It is always interesting noting the reactions of people while I am in the grocery store. The younger males are particularly interested.
I immediately started thinking of promotions, giveaways, discount codes, etc. I’ve run a few, which have increased visibility, but still a long way from where I need to be. I cleared a thread with a forum admin on a particularly honest firearms/gear forum about a team room thread. That generated a lot of visibility and support.
Promotion & The Socia Media Burden
I have a social media account for most major networks (head to www.ballistic.us, click on all the icons! Like! Share! Tweet!). It is important to me to offer something of value through these channels. If all I do is badger people to buy my stuff, they will get turned off pretty quickly. At least, I would. I am trying to create content that has appeal outside of my products, so I post pictures of various firearms I have photographed, some commentary on the 2A issues of the day. The problem is that it is downright exhausting sometimes. I have been selling since 9/20. Nearly every day since, I have tried to post some kind of original content- not only through social media, but in various forums, picture threads, and keep up with the responses, interests, questions. There are hundreds of photos to process, articles to read, tyranny to oppose, etc. Is this adding value to the brand? I don’t know. It definitely adds visibility. Sometimes it seems there is no rhyme or reason why some content is popular while other content is not. Included in these photos is a giant, fat Ballistic B logo watermark. I’m hoping to imprint that all over your brain, maybe one day, you’ll find $20 in your pocket and decide you need one of my shirts.
The main thing I have learned is that there are few easy sales. I have worked doggedly to get this thing going. I now have an inventory, a presence online & a couple hundred FB followers. Friends have been supportive. I will continue spreading the gospel via the web with all the tools at my disposal, continue coming up with promotions, contests, continue producing content, etc. I realize my content needs to feature my products more prominently, there are plenty of pretty pictures of guns out there, I need to bring it all together. The picture of my wife, official Ballistic covergirl, was particularly well received. The next step is pounding the pavement, getting out to local gun shops, ranges, gatherings, etc. The sales are not going to come to me, I have to go get them. There may come a day when that happens, but even though this has been a multi year process, and a couple solid months of long hours after coming home from my full time job, I will have to remain committed and motivated.