Brian Conley has quickly become the James Brown of practical shooting—no one works harder than he does. Brian works hard to not only educate shooters about their vision and his company Hunters HD Gold, but he also works tirelessly to grow practical shooting and to benefit its competitors. If you somehow doubt the veracity of that claim, I have evidence to prove it; in 2019 Brian drove 44,356 miles attending 41 practical shooting events, and sponsored over 130 matches. If that sounds crazy, let me let you in on a little secret—he’s committed to doing even more in 2020. His story has its foundation in Steel Challenge.
Brian, tell us about how it all began for you and Hunters HD Gold, and how Steel Challenge comes into play?
Steel Challenge will always have a place close to my heart—that’s where we started and that’s where we continue to grow. I started Hunters HD Gold because as a hunter, I wanted to see my target more clearly—an animal. At the time there was nothing you could pick up off the self that could do that—help you pick up a target faster and see it more clearly. Steel Challenge people found out about it later—it was a byproduct. My good friend Larry Steeley (of Steel Target Paint) actually introduced me to the shooting sports—he invited me to do Cowboy Action shooting—I didn’t even know the shooting sports existed. In Cowboy Action, they use metal targets, but they don’t get repainted as they do in Steel Challenge so the targets, particularly the shotgun targets, stay grey for most of the match. Hunters HD Gold was a tremendous advantage as you can imagine. Not long after, Larry told me he was putting together a shooting team and he wanted Hunters HD Gold to be a part of it. At the time, I didn’t even have a logo for Hunters HD Gold, but I created one along with a website.
I went to my first Steel Challenge match in Alabama in 2016. It took me six months after that to get all the ANSI certifications. Then Larry signed Steve Foster to Team Steel Target Paint; Steve was the first shooter to get a pair of prescription Hunter HD Gold glasses, and Steve really helped to take things to the next level. Steve was the “East Coast Cult Leader” and Trent Mitsuoka became the “West Coast Cult Leader.” It was actually Trent that drove me to find and partner with Z-Clear as an anti-fog solution. I took it to the World Rimfire match in Alabama—it was still owned by NSSF at the time. I went around to all the Hunters HD Gold shooters at the match and coated their glasses with Z-Clear, and it worked fantastic—no more fogged glasses in the Alabama heat and humidity.
It was late 2017 when I made the decision to go on the road with Hunters HD Gold. I talked to Brian at Tandemkross and he explained the matches that he was going to and why—Rimfire and Steel Challenge matches. Then I got a call sometime after midnight one night from a caller that said he’d been told about the glasses at the World Rimfire match. The caller turned out to be Michael Bane with the Outdoor Channel, but being new to this world, I didn’t actually know who Michael Bane was. Michael also gave me some recommendations on matches that he’d also be attending. Michael opened a lot of doors back in the hunting industry for us too.
Soon I started getting calls to sponsor events, and said yes to everything in 2018. The first match I did with the tent was the Georgia State Steel match at Griffin Gun Range; I got there early in the morning before the competitors arrived. I found the Match Director for the event and asked where I should set up my tent and he told me to set up my tent where I’d like. I learned a very valuable lesson that day—always get to matches early for the best location. The event competitors started arriving, and they came right by the tent. They really had nothing else to do that early so I was able to have some great conversations about the glasses and I gave them a pair to try—the start of demo days. What I learned in these early days of meeting Steel Challenge shooters is that the majority of shooters take their eyes and ears for granted, largely young people. No one was educating people about lenses and lens technology. I learned that seeing the edge of the target is everything for the top shooters in the sport. I was really caught off-guard that everyone was so nice and happy that I was there at the matches. I didn’t expect that, given the price of the glasses. But once I was able to make people understand the value, once you educate someone about what goes into the lenses and what they do for the shooter, the product sells itself. People will buy every time when the value is greater than the price. So I saw early on that my challenge was education. But Steel Challenge people have been the nicest people that I’ve ever met. And I think I’ve proved that I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve seen a lot of companies come and go even in the short time that I’ve been involved with the sport.
The great thing for me is that I’m having fun—more fun in the retail business than any other time in my career since I started when I was 21 years old. This year I will have done 41 matches and sponsored over 130 matches. I’m making plans in 2020 to do even more for the shooting sports than what I’m doing now. We will be doing Hunters HD Gold Custom—send me your frames, and I will put my lens in them. All of our lenses meet ANSI 2015 standards for safety. The frames that I l sell meet the Z87+1 (or +2 for prescription) safety standard for safety glasses. The lenses won’t have ANSI markings unless they go into actual safety frames—that’s due to OSHA regulations. If something bad happens, the lenses will still do their job, but the frames may not do their job if they’re not actual safety frames. But once I understood the fact that every shooter has their brand, I better understood the need for Hunters HD Gold Custom. So now people will have the opportunity to keep their frames that they love and take advantage of Hunters HD Gold lenses.
I will be attending even more matches in 2020 and more Facebook Live video from events. I’m hoping to attend the IPSC World Shoot in Thailand. And I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing and I’ll stay consistent. I will also continue to give back to not only the shooters, but also to the gun manufacturers that helped put me on the map—you see examples of their art in my tent.
I will always have a special place in my heart for Steel Challenge; it’s where we got our start. Every match is like a family reunion. I’ve always believed in people, and they’ve never let me down.
Article from the January/February 2020 issue of USPSA’s FrontSightmagazine.