Lock, Stock and Locally Made Barrels

By Beacon Staff

Inspiration can strike in the oddest of places. For Kalispell gun manufacturer Ron Duplessis, beer and peanuts with friends at Moose’s Saloon produced a patent.

The new custom, switch-barrel rifle can change calibers with a few small adjustments. It’s just one of an expanding arsenal of products offered by Duplessis’ company, McGowen Precision Barrels, a fast-growing operation.

Since 2007, McGowen Precision Barrels has been housed in a warehouse behind Kalispell Lumber Company, quietly building upon its reputation for having some of the finest barrels in the industry.

While other companies are struggling with the economic downturn, McGowen has continued to grow. This month, the barrel manufacturer will move into a new facility, the former Semitool location near Fun Beverage Inc., and fully launch its sister company, American Gun Co.

With 7,200 square feet, the new facility will more than double the operation’s space and allow Duplessis and his staff to branch further into custom gun manufacturing, adding more actions and stocks to their already expansive selection of barrels.

The overarching goal is ambitious: “We want to be the largest custom gun builder in the world,” Duplessis said.

The companies’ growth means new jobs for a local manufacturing sector that’s been hit hard in recent months. Duplessis plans to expand his staff from 12 to between 35 and 40 people with the move. He hopes then to double that number within the next two years.

The company will be hiring for a wide variety of positions, including engravers, machinists, journeymen and apprentices.

“I saw availability of talented people right now,” Duplessis said, “and I could grab some of those people and give them a long-term job.”

Duplessis said Flathead Valley Community College has worked with him to add education programs that fit his companies’ needs, like the college’s computer and numeric control machining curriculum. The local business community and city’s economic development have also played important roles in the expansion, he said.

“In business, you work on rhythm a lot,” Duplessis said. “When you don’t see any obstacles you keep pushing and moving forward.”

In fact, it was a group of welcoming Flathead residents who drew Duplessis to the valley two years ago.

Duplessis is a car salesman from Louisiana, but also a self-professed “big gun nut.” In addition to car dealerships, he owns a gun club in Baton Rogue.

Still, when a group of Flathead gun enthusiasts first pitched the idea of him buying a barrel-making business, Duplessis hung up the phone. “But I couldn’t let go of the idea,” he said. “A few months later we were hauling everything to Montana.”

McGowen Rifle Barrels started in 1959 when Harry McGowen, a hardware salesman, purchased a collection of surplus gun manufacturing equipment leftover from the war and became a self-taught master gunsmith.

McGowen’s company had been “mothballed” for several years, however, when Duplessis bought the company in 2007 and moved it from Illinois to Montana. The move took 10 days and four semi-truckloads.

Today, the company still uses many of the McGowen’s original Pratt and Whitney machines, some dating back as far as 1905, to make its barrels. The reliable, old machinery is combined with computer design software to give customers as much flexibility as possible.

“It’s hard for someone to dream up something we can’t do,” Duplessis said, adding that people have even brought in designs on a cocktail napkin before.

Right now, the company is producing about 12,000 gun barrels and about 1,500 rifles.

After expansion, Duplessis said barrel-manufacturing capacity will reach about 35,000 a year, but for the best quality, turnaround time and prices he plans to keep production to about 25,000 annually. He hopes to eventually sell between 8,000 and 10,000 full firearms, with 20 percent of those in customs.

For Duplessis and his staff, gun manufacturing is a creative outlet, blending science and art into each project. Whether new ideas come from customers or brainstorming sessions over beers, it’s a constantly evolving business.

“We try to under promote and over achieve,” Duplessis said. “We take a lot of pride in what we do.”

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