The Valley’s Growing Gunsmiths

By Beacon Staff

Any other time, Jeff Sipe of Montana Firearms Group would be focused solely on his company’s exhibit at this week’s NRA convention in Houston, Texas, where the top brass and major firearms businesses are converging for three days. Instead, Sipe’s attention will be split between Houston and the developments taking place in the Flathead Valley, a booming capital in the gun industry.

The company that Sipe’s father created years ago as a local source for gunsmithing is enjoying a meteoric rise and has evolved into a worldwide distributor of award-winning custom hunting rifles.

The company is taking its latest evolutionary step this month with the completion of a new 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility its campus at 3174 Montana Highway 35.

The new building is right next door to its former 4,000-square-foot site, where employees have been crawling over each other to meet high demand in recent years.

In just the past two years, Montana Firearms Group has grown from five staff members to more than 22. The staff includes gunsmiths and machinists who create a full line of rifles from start to finish that compete with products by Winchester, Remington and other major firms.

Recently a local rifle made by Montana Firearms Group was named one of the year’s best new guns during the annual SHOT Show convention.

This week’s NRA event will be the second year in a row the company has attended, another reflection of its respected stature alongside industry heavyweights.

“The demand in the firearms industry right now is a big thing. There’s a lot of demand, but I think the main thing is that our product is being recognized as a high-quality product,” Sipe said recently. “It’s really exciting.”

Montana Firearms Group has become a central character in a success story that emerged during the heart of the Great Recession and is garnering national attention.

The country’s firearms industry has enjoyed boom times since 2008, and that’s particularly true in Northwest Montana. Of the 31 gun manufacturers and shooting sports businesses in the state, 18 exist in either Kalispell or Columbia Falls. In Kalispell alone, gun makers have added more than 200 jobs since 2005, according to a recent New York Times story that spotlighted the valley’s ascendant gun businesses, including Sipe’s.

The cluster of local firms has attracted not only distributors and buyers, but also the two most prominent leaders of the nation’s largest firearms advocate. In 2011, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president and CEO of the NRA, attended the inaugural launch party for the Montana Firearms Institute in Whitefish. Last September, NRA President David Keene was the keynote speaker at the Institute’s second annual conference along with Tommy Millner, the CEO of Cabela’s.

“The firearms manufacturers in Montana are really important to us as well as everywhere else,” Keene told the Beacon on Sept. 27 during the event at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake.

In 1990, Brian Sipe founded Montana Rifleman as a small business that specialized in fixing hunting rifles. The company expanded within three years into custom barrel manufacturing, and by 1999, Brian saw the need for superior controlled round-feed actions. Brian founded a separate business, called Montana Rifle Company, and his son Jeff helped it grow. Brian Sipe sold Montana Rifleman and handed over the reins of Montana Rifle Company to Jeff, who has renamed the company Montana Firearms Group and now manages it with his childhood friend, Dave Wisher.

Montana Rifleman, which produces gun barrels in a facility next door to Montana Firearms Group, recently made news of its own after Remington Arms Co., decided to acquire the company.

The managers of Montana Rifleman deferred questions to Remington, which has not made a formal announcement about the purchase. Company spokesperson Ted Novin did not return calls to the Beacon.

Montana Firearms Group’s new facility will allow it to continue to develop all its parts and rifles in house, but on a larger scale. The company purchased two costly manufacturing machines that will ramp up production exponentially.

Last year the company produced 1,100 units.

“Between the two new machines, we’ll be able to really bring production up about 40-50 times,” Sipe said. “It’s dramatic what the machines do for us.”

At the same time the company is expanding its staff and trying to fill several open positions, which has proved challenging.

To meet the demand of companies like Sipe’s, Flathead Valley Community College has devoted over $3 million in grant money to expanding training opportunities on campus for advanced manufacturing jobs.

“It’s definitely the challenge,” Wisher said of the valley’s need for a trained manufacturing workforce. “There’s a lot of machining type businesses in the valley that need to find staff.”

Sipe said he could see Montana Firearms Group doubling its current staff in one year.

Sipe and Wisher could even see the company outgrowing its new building within a couple years, which is why an additional space has already been set aside for further expansion.

“The growth that we’ve seen already, we don’t know how long it will be before we have to expand this building,” Sipe said.

“Every year we’re just growing and growing.”

For more information about Montana Firearms Group, visit www.montanarifleco.com or call 755-4867.

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