News & Features

Flathead’s Flourishing Firearm Industry

Firearm manufacturers in the valley have seen spikes in sales but struggle to find staff

At a 52,000-square-foot firearm manufacturing facility just off U.S. Highway 93 in north Kalispell, FALKOR Defense National Sales Manager Jacob Hutchens says sales have tripled in the last year.

“It’s the entire gun industry right now,” Hutchens said. “You’re looking at months and months of waiting to get any sort of orders … There’s no way to adapt and meet the demand.”

FALKOR Defense builds semi-custom actions, rifles, barrels and more at its Flathead Valley facility, which is also home to partner companies Dracos Straightjacket Barrels and Sonju Industrial, an aerospace manufacturer. Jason and Melinda Sonju purchased the company from Jason’s father in 2014.

The Sonjus’ company started as an auto body shop in the 1980s that Jason’s father later expanded into an aerospace manufacturer before eventually branching into firearms.

FALKOR starts with raw materials of steel and other metals to be transformed into actions and other parts to form a firearm, while Dracos Straightjacket Barrels focuses on manufacturing firearm barrels.

With millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, including electrical discharge machining (EDM), which fabricates metal to create the firearm parts, the facility is able to manufacture more than 90% of firearms, with the exception of plastic parts, right in Kalispell. The company also implements the engineering, programming and coding in addition to assembly.

Marc Brady, a machinist and CNC operator at Defiance Machine, puts the finishing touches on rifle actions at Defiance’s manufacturing facility in Columbia Falls on Oct. 21, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

While Sonju says the company is always busy, he saw a spike in sales in the spring when the pandemic began and Black Lives Matters protests started up after the death of George Floyd in May.

“Sales are usually driven in fear of firearm banning,” Sonju said.

While there is high demand in bolt guns and handguns, Hutchens is seeing an especially high demand in the ArmaLite (AR) rifle market.

“The AR market probably sees the ups and downs more than anything else,” Hutchens said. “The bolt gun market is probably the most steady, which is part of the reason we got into it. It’s not nearly as volatile.”

Hutchens noticed sales were on the lower side last year, which he speculates was because people felt their gun rights were safe since President Donald Trump was still in the middle of his term.

To offset the volatility of the AR market, Sonju is continuing to diversify FALKOR with different rifle platforms, including competitive shooting and hunting rifles.

“No matter what happens in the future, we’re gonna have a future,” Sonju said. “It’s completely different platforms. The audience and consumer is completely different in their styles from hunting to recreational shooting; it’s almost a whole (different) business from the ground up.”

Defiance Machine in Columbia Falls manufactures custom, lightweight actions primarily used for hunting and shooting rifles, while some of its customers also build firearms for law enforcement.

With 29 years of experience in the action manufacturing industry, founder and CEO Glen Harrison started Defiance in 2009. He continues to design and build actions at the 22,000-square-foot facility.

Defiance President and CFO Tom Lund has also noticed an overall increase in firearms sales, but he says off-the-shelf and home-defense products have seen the highest demand in the firearms industry recently, which isn’t Defiance’s market.

“It’s not an impulse purchase,” Lund said. “It’s a planned purchase. Our least expensive action is $85 and they go up to $1,900. We don’t build ARs.”

But Harrison says demand for Defiance’s actions has still been higher this year, and he says it’s difficult to identify exactly what’s caused the increased demand. “Our business just continues to grow,” Harrison said. “It’s always on an upward travel. This year seems to be growing a little bit faster.”

An oil lathe at work at Defiance Machine in Columbia Falls on Oct. 21, 2020. Defiance specializes in manufacturing high quality actions for rifles. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

While business is booming in the Flathead Valley’s firearm manufacturing industry, owners at both Defiance and FALKOR would like to see a more competitive approach to manufacturing in Montana. They pay significant business equipment taxes on their millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, and Lund says there’s a huge incentive to relocate to states like South Dakota, which has a lower tax base for manufacturing.

In addition to equipment taxes, geographical location also adds another disadvantage to manufacturing in Montana, Sonju says.

“We’re handicapped on employee base,” he said. “There are a lot of disadvantages. There are all kinds of world-class machinists in Seattle, but this is a great place to raise a family.”

Defiance has 39 employees, but Lund would like to see a staff of 45. The company works with Flathead Valley Community College to recruit student employees but struggles to fill all of its positions.

Sonju currently has 40 employees, but he says he could use at least five more. While plenty of work is available, Sonju says the company can’t find qualified people and barely gets any responses for interviews.

“What’s cool about this valley is there are some really cool manufacturers that do the same thing we do here and these manufacturers are industry leaders in my opinion,” Sonju said. “Why are they here in this little corner of Northwest Montana? Because the owners of those companies want to be here.”

maggie@flatheadbeacon.com

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