Many young women are making a name for themselves in the firearms industry, but none in a more unique way than Ashley Hlebinsky of Phoenix, Arizona. At just 32 years of age, she is already a nationally recognized firearms historian, consultant and television personality; she’s even provided expert testimony on gun issues before the U.S. Congress. Always on the go, NRA Women caught up with Ashley recently, long enough to ask her a few questions about her skyrocketing career and receive some very interesting answers.
“As a teenager, I thought I wanted to be a doctor,” Hlebinsky began. “At the time, I was very serious about a career in medicine. During high school, I volunteered in emergency rooms and even shadowed a few surgeons in the operating room. But it was during a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania on a family vacation that I learned how the advancement of weapons technology—specifically ammunition technology—changed the course of medical history, and I found it all very fascinating. As a result, I began studying medical history.” (Image by Kristen Strunk-Daulton)
Up to that point in her life, Ashley had never even held a gun, let alone fired one. “My parents didn’t own firearms, so I did not grow up around guns; they were just not part of my world,” she said. “But I loved going to museums and visiting historic sites, and began understanding how much firearms were entwined with American history.
“It was during college at the University of Delaware that I interned at a couple of museums. At one of those institutions, I was assigned the task of curating some 200 guns donated from a private collection, dating from the Civil War up to modern times. That’s when I really got hooked on firearms history,” she said. “My approach to the study of firearms ever since has been not only from a technological standpoint, but also the cultural and human perspective of guns. Firearms have been an integral part of human history for the past 700 years, and play a huge role in understanding international history.”
Ashley subsequently learned to shoot by taking the NRA First Steps firearms course. Today, not surprisingly, she prefers shooting mainly historic firearms, particularly black powder guns.
“I’ve shot everything from a reproduction hand cannon, which was the first handgun ever invented, to modern firearms. All those different types of guns have helped inform my scholarship, of course, but I’ve also found that they’re a whole lot of fun to shoot! That said, I don’t get the opportunity to shoot as often as people may think, but I do when I get the chance.”
While completing her undergraduate and graduate college degrees—Bachelor of Arts in American History (2011) and Master of Arts in American History with a certificate in museum studies (2013)—Ashley spent three years as a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. studying firearms. This eventually led to her becoming hired as an assistant curator of the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming.
“At the age of 25, I was promoted to the position of head curator, and found myself managing one of the largest firearms museums in the country, housing more than 7,000 firearms and 30,000 related artifacts,” she said. “During my time there, I oversaw a $12 million renovation of the museum, which opened to the public in 2019 to very positive reviews from both the firearms media and mainstream media. It was also while at Cody that I began my firearms consulting business—The Gun Code—which is now what I do full-time.”
“I named my firearms consulting business The Gun Code because I see my job as decodify guns, technology and terminology for the public.”
Hlebinsky’s consulting business involves working with museums across the country, as well as providing expert-witness testimony on firearms issues in court cases, and appearing on firearms-related television programs such as Gun Stories on Outdoor Channel and a brief stint as the co-host of Master of Arms on Discovery Channel. In 2017 Hlebinsky became the first woman to win the Grits Gresham Shooting Sports Communicator Award from the Professional Outdoor Media Association/National Shooting Sports Foundation, which recognizes extraordinary achievements in communications in the areas of responsible firearms use, the shooting sports, and hunting.
Some women in the firearms industry have struggled to succeed in a male-dominated profession, but that has not been Ashley’s experience. “I see myself as an academic, and I’m constantly working with many different people, both male and female,” she said. “If anything, it has been my relatively young age and how young I look that has been a concern to some, not necessarily the fact that I’m a woman.”
Hlebinsky continued, “Me being female may have even opened a few doors early in my career, but I was also well aware that if I didn’t know what I was talking about, those doors would slam shut and never reopen. I believe one aspect that has helped build my credibility in the firearms and academic communities is the fact that I never pretend to know more than I actually do. I also tend to talk fast, so am able to communicate a lot of information quickly, which seems to impress people.”
An extremely large project Hlebinsky is currently consulting on is working with the Los Angeles Police Museum in California setting up its collections’ standards, raising its profile and ultimately a renovation. Her plans for the future include more of the same type of work.
“I love using my knowledge of firearms history to help renovate museums,” she said. “My educational background has given me the opportunity to work at all kinds of museums. Some of the renovation projects I’m now consulting on will likely extend a decade or longer.”
In addition to her museum work, Ashley enjoys interacting with people on both sides of the gun divide. “I like trying to unite the firearms community and how we communicate with one another. I also seem to have a certain knack for sitting down with people who hate guns and people who love guns, and being able to facilitate a productive dialogue between the two groups and the spectrum of opinions in between.”
As to any advice for other young women looking to enter the firearms industry, she had this to say: “The firearms world is so varied that I’d first suggest deciding what particular part of it you’re interested in. Then find someone knowledgeable in that field you trust and respect—female or male—who is willing to act as your mentor. My experience in the gun world is that most people are willing to help and are surprisingly accessible. It’s a refreshing mindset that I’ve not necessarily seen in other professions.”
Ashley Hlebinsky summed up her career, to date, with a candid insight; “I believe I’ve been successful, at least thus far, because I’ve found a unique niche for a historian. I’ve been able to walk the line between the two communities in America of those people who like guns and those who don’t. As a historian and professional, it is not my job to tell you what to think. It is my job to provide research and background on this complex history in order to help people make their own informed decisions—whatever they may be.”