Montana leads nation in gun companies per capita

January 6, 2017 GMT

Justin Rowling machines one rifle at a time in his Butte garage. Every time he ships one of his custom guns to a client in a new state he marks it on a map above the work space in his home.

There are marks in 14 states.

Rowling is the owner and sole employee of Montana Precision Rifles. He works seasonally for the city of Butte’s parks department, but this year the gun business became his primary source of income.

More than 150 federally licensed firearms manufacturers called Montana home in 2016. The industry’s expansion has created a growing web of support for like-minded startups and skilled positions to service the industry across Montana.

Firearms producers in Montana accounted for just 8,104 of the more than 9 million guns manufactured in the United States in 2014, the most recent year the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has reported statistics.

But Montana’s 153 licensed manufacturers represent the most per capita in any state. Despite facing challenges like high shipping costs from raw materials suppliers, skilled labor shortages and few tax advantages, gun producers continue to choose Montana to host their operations.

Gunmaking in Montana

Rowling found the path to the gun business a natural one. Like many Montanans he grew up shooting and hunting. His great uncle is a national champion marksman and taught him to build the traditional rifles he favored.

Under the Montana Precision Rifles name Rowling produces modern, bolt-action rifles intended for extreme accuracy at long distances. He guarantees his package rifles to fire three shots into a half-inch circle at 100 yards, but a lot of them produce even tighter groups.

He draws satisfaction from receiving customer photos or videos of tight groups shot at long distances or animals harvested with his rifle. The same images end up on social media.

“It helps out too because people are seeing them make these amazing shots. It works through word of mouth,” Rowling said.

As of January he has 10 orders waiting to be filled. Each rifle is different and built with premium parts and takes about two months to produce.

Little Sharps

Like Montana Precision Rifles, Little Sharps Rifle Manufacturing of Big Sandy has orders backed up. There’s a three-year waiting list for one of their scaled-down models of the Sharps rifle and the two man operation has 25 on back order.

Ron Otto talks about Little Sharps Rifle Manufacturing in Big Sandy. The two-man company makes a scaled down version of the Sharps rifle and has a 6 year backlog of orders.

Even with the high demand and $5,000 price tag, the duo aren’t making money on the single-shot rifles. Gunmaker Ron Otto said his work is a passion and that he would starve if he was relying on the gun business to support himself.

Little Sharps builds about eight rifles a year, and engraver Aaron Pursley puts in 60 to 70 hours of work on each one. All the fitting is done by hand and the machining is performed in a shop behind Otto’s home. These custom guns are made to work, and many — including Otto’s personal rifle — have taken big game animals in Africa.

“People say ‘$5,000! You sure wouldn’t take that hunting.’ But I say, well, you bought a $50,000 Powerstroke pickup and drive it down a gravel road at 70 miles per hour,” Otto said.

Little Sharps relies heavily on word of mouth to find new customers and Otto markets the weapons at gun shows. He travels from state to state with a sampling of his products, including the company’s most over-the-top creation, a .22 with an octagon-shaped barrel inlaid with 50 golden stars and encrusted with diamonds, sapphires and rubies. The rifle’s receiver is engraved with a depiction of an infant Jesus, a golden cross and a cowboy lassoing a wolf. Spread angel wings work as a rear sight while the front blade consists of a ready to launch space shuttle.

“It was basically for the military who protect our farmers. We need both of them more than anything else,” Otto said.

Little Sharps Rifle Manufacturing in Big Sandy specializes in highly engraved custom rifles like this $20,000 millenium edition. Little Sharps makes a scaled down version of the Sharps rifle and the two-man company has a 6 year backlog of orders.

The rifle has 400 hours of engraving work and has never been fired. Otto said he’s never been too serious about selling the gun, but it draws attention to the Little Sharps booth at gun shows.

Falkor Defense

Montana lacks industry giants like Sturm Ruger, Smith and Wesson or Remington Arms. Many of its licensed manufacturers, like Little Sharps and Montana Precision Rifles, produce a handful of guns a year. But there are a number of Montana companies building world-class firearms on a commercial scale.

“Just because we’re here in Montana doesn’t mean we’re a little boutique company. Our footprint is very big in the industry,” said Clint Walker, executive vice president of Falkor Defense in the Flathead Valley.

Walker was one of the co-founders of Nemo Arms, another Kalispell tactical rifle company. Nemo moved its operation to Idaho and Walker joined Falkor, then known as SI Defense, where he championed a rebranding effort.

The company’s name changed in 2014, and its line of AR-platform rifles were completely redesigned. Falkor offers weapons in calibers ranging from 5.56 NATO — the traditional cartridge used in the AR-15 — to much larger rounds like .300 Winchester Magnum. Falkor also developed the first semiautomatic rifle chambered in .300 Norma, a cartridge gaining popularity among military snipers.

Falkor doesn’t advertise but utilizes social media heavily. Walker and the owners of Falkor, Melinda and Jason Sonju, have an extensive following on Instagram. The Montana outdoors feature prominently on their feeds, and Melinda is on her way to being only the third woman ever to complete a North American Super Slam — harvesting all 29 big game species on the continent.

“Our test facility is the mountains of Montana,” Jason Sonju said. “We don’t have a fancy bench and test chamber. We go out to the woods.”

Falkor frequently collaborates with nearby rifle and barrel maker PROOF Research. Walker said the Flathead Valley’s companies tend to work together. Montana’s gunmakers operate in a global market so they aren’t directly competing against each other.

“We service a multibillion-dollar industry, and to get into a pissing match with someone because they’re right down the road is fruitless,” he said.

Montana Rifle Co.

Montana Rifle Co., another Flathead Valley-based company, produces thousands of bolt-action hunting and tactical rifles every year. Ryan Zinke and Donald Trump Jr. have examples in their gun collections, and the “Rifle Company,” as many call it, is one of the largest gun manufacturers in the state by volume.

Montana Rifle Co. started operation in 1990. It was one of the first gun manufacturers in the Flathead Valley and until a few years ago operated a sister business machining AR-15 barrels. With peak production of about 600,000 barrels a year, the plant north of Kalispell was one of the largest suppliers of barrels in the world. In 2011 the barrel business was sold to Remington Arms and moved to Alabama.

Jeff Sipe, CEO at the Montana Rifle Company in Kalispell, gives visitors a tour of the company’s factory.

Jeff Sipe, owner of Montana Rifle Co., said there’s a growing trend of firearm businesses relocating to states perceived to represent the company’s values.

“If you live in New York City or Los Angeles, obviously there’s a whole other feeling with firearms. They’re scary and taboo. Obviously, in Montana they’re not,” Sipe said.

As the company expands, Sipe said he is often solicited by public officials from other states offering incentives to uproot his business and move to places with more manufacturing infrastructure, like Texas.

“My first response is you want Montana Rifle Company to move to another state? I’m not changing my name. To me, our name represents what it means to be Montanan. I think that’s more important to me,” Sipe said.

Basing a gun company in Big Sky Country isn’t without benefits. Sipe said people in the firearms business are drawn here by the outdoor opportunities and quality of life. Elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum also tend to support gun rights.

“It’s a big benefit having that type of political clout in Montana, which is probably why you see a lot of manufacturers popping up in the state,” Sipe said. “They know politicians are going to support them.”

Mike VanSomeren checks machining on a barrel with a magnifying glass at the Montana Rifle Company in Kalispell.

But he admits there aren’t many advantages from a business perspective to stay in Montana. The state’s geographic isolation adds to shipping costs and time for raw materials. There’s also a shortage of machinists, and Montana Rifle Co. has advertised job openings for the last year that remain unfilled. Sipe actively recruits both in Montana and out of state at technical colleges and job fairs.

Every component of the Montana Rifle Co. product is manufactured in-house in Kalispell, except wooden stocks. The plant employs just under 100 employees who machine barrel blanks for a variety of calibers, hand-fit actions and mold synthetic stocks.

Sipe said about 95 percent of the company’s employees start at the factory with little to no experience and are trained in-house. Many people want to build guns for a living but quit when they realize the job is less romantic than expected. About 500 employees cycled through to get the current lineup on the production floor.

Limited edition hunting rifles wait to be shipped at the Montana Rifle Company in Kalispell.

Noreen Firearms

Demand for machinists prompted multiple Montana technical colleges to offer vocational training in the field. Gallatin College Montana State University began offering a certificate of applied sciences in CNC machining in 2014, and Belgrade-based Noreen Firearms has tapped into its graduating classes to staff its growing operation.

“Firearms machinists are next to impossible to come by,” said Philip Noreen, president and general manager of Noreen Firearms. “We can go four to six months waiting for the right person.”

Philip’s father, Pete Noreen, started the company in 2007 building long-range tactical guns including single-shot .50 caliber rifles and AR-platform weapons. In 2015 the business expanded production capacity five-fold and two years later is eyeing further expansion with three shifts currently running Monday through Saturday.

Pete Noreen said only about 2 percent of the company’s sales are in Montana. The company works with national distributors, has contracts with the United States Department of Defense and has sold arms to foreign militaries.

According to Pete, his family business is one of about 20 firearm manufacturers in Montana that combine to produce more than 90 percent of all guns built in the state. Most of the federally licensed manufacturers are hobbyists.

“It’s not hard to get the license. It’s very hard to have an idea or a plan to do something with that license,” he said.