Gun Business Bucks Down Economy

By Beacon Staff

When Brian Sipe started making gun barrels in the 1990s, a fellow barrel maker said 1,000 barrels a year would make for a successful business. Today, if Sipe runs two shifts of employees, his company can do 1,000 in a day.

Sipe said his Montana Rifleman is now one of the biggest gun barrel manufacturers in the nation, churning out around 100,000 barrels a year. His 10,000-square-foot machine shop is a beehive of activity seven days a week, with 48 employees trying to keep up with persistent demand.

“Most people don’t realize the volume we do here,” Sipe said, standing in his shop east of Kalispell last week.

And that volume is about to grow exponentially. Sipe, through his sister business Montana Rifle Company, is about to launch a production rifle line that he believes could place his company among the biggest names in the business.

“We will be competing with Winchester and Remington,” Sipe said. “It’s not going to be too hard to do that with what we have coming.”

Montana Rifle Company has already been selling custom rifles, using barrels and components manufactured at Montana Rifleman just across the parking lot. The rifles have drawn rave reviews.

In a 2009 Field and Stream blog post, a reviewer for “The Gun Nut” said that while shooting the Ridgeline model you can “feel your heart fill with joy” and concluded “you can go anywhere and shoot anything and it will never fail you.”

“If you’re looking for a be-all and end-all working rifle, verily I say unto thee, I don’t see how you can do any better,” David Petzal wrote in another Field and Stream review.

But the production rifles will catapult the Montana Rifle Company into the major retail game. Jeff Sipe, Brian’s son and the company’s sales manager, said he has been in contact with the nation’s largest retailers, including Cabela’s. He expects the production line to begin in earnest within two months.

Jeff Sipe said the company “really got into” full custom rifles about three years ago and sales have been picking up recently. The rifles ship to locations across the world, he said.

“People find niches and we are the big game hunters’ niche,” Sipe said. “One of the advantages we have over other manufacturers is we do everything left-handed (as well as right-handed).”

Nearly everything, besides the stocks and small parts such as springs, will be made at Montana Rifleman. After being machined, the barrels and other components are finished and fitted with other parts at the Montana Rifle Company to form full rifles.

“To compete, you have make as many parts in-house as possible,” Brian Sipe said.

Not only will Montana Rifleman see a surge in barrels for the production rifles, it might also have another contract lined up for 50,000 more barrels per year. Between the rifle company and the barrel company, Sipe expects to bring a “lot of jobs” to the valley – maybe around 100 or so.

“Beats the hell out of pounding nails when they’re ain’t no jobs,” Sipe said, adding that he has received up to 100 applications in one day for job openings.

Sipe has come a long way since 1990, when he began gunsmithing “on a whim.”

“I was pretty much broke and didn’t know what to do,” Sipe said. “So I just start fixing guns.”

In those earliest years, the words of local barrel maker Les Bauska kept ringing in Sipe’s ears: “If you want to starve to death, keep gunsmithing.” Figuring he’d prefer a career path that veers away from starvation, Sipe started making barrels and Montana Rifleman was born.

Montana Rifleman surpassed Bauska’s recommended quota of 1,000 per year and started making 5,000-7,000 per year, Sipe said. Production then shot up after a huge contract with DPMS Panther Arms, mostly for AR-15 rifles. And when President Barack Obama came to office, sales of assault rifles went through the roof nationwide because of concerns over increased gun regulations.

“Anytime they talk about gun control, it takes off and goes crazy,” Brian Sipe said. “Some of it, there’s some basis for it. Some of it is just fear.”

In 2009, Montana Rifleman shipped out 135,000 barrels. After a dip last year, Sipe expects to be in the 100,000 range again in 2011.

“There’s nobody in the state or even the Northwest making them to the capacity we do,” Sipe said. “There’s only maybe two or three bigger than us in the country, that I know of.”

And, a fact not lost on Sipe, this rapid growth has occurred during a terrible recession.

“There’s two things people keep spending their money on in hard times: guns and booze,” Sipe said.

Booming business is good, but Sipe has discovered it comes with one drawback. The more work he gets, the less time he gets to spend in the mountains.

“I’ve got a little cabin and there’s a lot of elk to chase out there,” he said. “I just don’t have any time anymore.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.