Surrounded by Job Losses, Montana’s Firearms Industry Thrives

By Beacon Staff

Brian Sipe recalls when the noted rifle barrel maker Les Bauska told him: “If you want to starve to death, become a gunsmith.” So, naturally, Sipe became a gunsmith.

Then in 1990, he parlayed his skills into the rifle barrel business, starting Montana Rifleman with “about $200” to his name. But one by one, the rifle barrels began pouring out of his shop and that $200 grew some fat. Nearly 20 years later, Sipe’s barrels can be found across the world, on rifles with household names like Remington and Bushmaster.

And this year, prompted by concern over how the Obama administration will affect federal gun laws, business has gone through the roof. People are stocking up on firearms, Sipe said. Montana Rifleman, located on Montana Highway 35 outside of Kalispell, has already churned out more than 100,000 rifle barrels this year. In past years, the total was closer to 70,000-80,000, Sipe said.

“We’re not a hobby barrel maker anymore,” Sipe said.

The Flathead Valley, and Montana for that matter, has a rich history of barrel and gun manufacturing, boasting names like the Bauska family, the Sipe family and, more recently, the Sonju family. The Sonjus have formed a sister company to their Sonju Industrial, which manufactures aerospace parts.

The Sonjus’ new company, SI Defense, was formed shortly after, and partly in response to, the 2008 presidential election. SI Defense manufactures receivers for AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles. It also produces full rifles for stock and custom purposes, using nearly all Montana-made parts, such as barrels from Sipe and ammunition from Bitterroot Valley Ammunition and Components.

Companies such as Lone Wolf Riflestocks in Columbia Falls and McGowen Precision Barrels have also carved names for themselves in the firearms industry. Kimber, a large manufacturer, bases its sales offices out of the valley. An array of companies, such as Falcon Gun Finishing, and independent gunsmiths fill a variety of other niches in the industry outside of straight manufacturing.

“For the size of the area up here, there’s a lot of people in the firearms industry – a lot of talented people,” said Bob Culbertson, owner of Lone Wolf Riflestocks.

In a region hard-hit by job losses in the construction and timber industries, firearm manufacturing has stayed the course. Sipe had 80 employees over the summer and his son Jeff, owner of the Montana Rifle Co., had 20. Underground Skunkworks, a tactical rifle maker, moved its operations to Columbia Falls in September. Josh Sonju of SI Defense said his business has been robust.

Economic development groups are hoping to capitalize on this momentum. Kellie Danielson, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, said her organization has targeted firearms manufacturing as a viable source of job growth in the valley. The region already has a base, a reputation and a gun-friendly atmosphere. While such machine-based businesses don’t necessarily provide large numbers of jobs, they can create at least a few dozen at a time, Danielson said.

“There’s a mystique of firearms being made in Montana,” Danielson said. “That’s the only industry-specific target we have right now.”

And there are a lot of quality blue-collar workers itching to find employment in the valley right now, Sipe points out. He said his new employees don’t need to be trained machinists or gunsmiths: “Most of them, we bring them in and train them.”

“We have a ready pool of labor here,” he said. “We try to hire only local. They’ve paid their dues to live here.”

In both its regulatory environment and its culture, Montana is a welcoming place for firearms manufacturers. Lone Wolf Riflestocks was originally based out of California, but Culbertson said he “kind of got pushed out of the state” because of costly inspections and regulations. In general, Montana is small-business-friendly, he said. Culbertson moved his business to Columbia Falls in 1996.

Dan Wynne, general manager at McGowen Precision Barrels in Kalispell, said barrel makers don’t have to have a federal firearms license, though manufacturers that make complete guns do. And while there are different federal licenses required depending on the type of business, Wynne said Montana doesn’t heavily regulate what kind of firearms are made in state.

“I can make silencers here,” Wynne said. “You couldn’t do that in California without almost an act of God.”

The first wave of gunsmiths and rifle makers came to Montana after World War II. The Treasure State was an inviting place for war veterans and gun enthusiasts. Hunting is a cornerstone of the outdoor recreational culture here and gun rights are held dear to many people’s hearts. That hasn’t dissipated over the years.

Even the state’s Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been a constant proponent of guns rights. During the last Legislative session, he signed a bill aiming to exempt Montana from federal regulation for firearms, ammunition and accessories that are manufactured and kept in state.

While in other states there might be a stigma attached to firearms manufacturing, Sipe said Montana embraces it.

“There is no stigma; it’s actually an honorable profession,” Sipe said. “If you’re in the gun business, well by God a lot of people want to work for you.”