When it comes to high-end weapons, there's a new company in town that's changing the way people think about rifles.
Founded in 2010, Proof Research of Kalispell specializes in creating lightweight, accurate weapons using carbon-fiber barrels and stocks unlike anything else on the market.
“Large gun manufacturers know we have the technology and we're being courted by some big names,” said Pat Rainey, chief executive officer of Proof Research. “We've changed the gun industry, just like the polymer pistol did. The cool factor of our weapons is off the page.”
Joining forces in the Flathead
While Proof Research may only be two years old, it is made up of four companies that have years of rifle-making experience, according to Rainey. Proof is actually a merger of Lone Wolf Riflestocks of Kalispell, Jense Fabrication of Missoula, ABS out of Lincoln, Neb., and Lawrence Rifle Barrels of Lewistown.
“Lots of people have tried to do this for many years,” Rainey said. “The idea of a carbon-fiber barrel has been around for 20 years. We're just the first to crack the code.”
Although only one of the core companies was from the Kalispell area, lead investor Mike Goguen said it made sense to locate Proof in the Flathead Valley.
“The Montana work ethic and quality is outstanding,” Goguen said. “When you look at firearms, so many of the parts in the best ones, the ones I really admire, come from Montana, from small, mom-and-pop places that maybe don't have the capital to go big. So it made sense to take advantage of that. There are a lot of really amazing craftsmen here, and we have the opportunity to bring them together.”
Goguen said he became involved in Proof while looking for a lightweight hunting rifle, and got more than he bargained for when his custom rifle was finished.
“I love Montana, I love hunting and guns, and I love technology and small businesses, and this checked all the boxes,” he said. “I was skeptical at first, but they built me a gun, and I fell in love with it and just had to be a part of what they were building.”
In addition to folding several manufacturers under the Proof umbrella, Goguen said the company still contracts out certain parts, such as trigger assembly and receivers, to local companies such as Defiance Machine.
“The Flathead is a very unique community that is very firearm-friendly and -centric to core groups of clients we're looking for,” Rainey said. “It just made sense to locate here.”
A growing business
With the four founding companies coming together to form Proof, the company needed a home in the Flathead. A new, state-of-the-art manufacturing, research and design facility was built on U.S. 2 between Kalispell and Columbia Falls. The grand opening was held Nov. 16.
Although the company had been producing weapons and courting larger contracts for the two years since its founding, Rainey said the owners and investors were very careful about making sure the business was strong before opening its doors to the public.
“We wanted to build a strong foundation first,” Rainey said. “We wanted to have everything in place, so when we opened, we could have that strong start we wanted. We're in it for the long haul, and we don't have to race to target our market. The market is coming to us, so we could take the time to do it right, right from the beginning.”
Currently Proof employs 29 employees, and Rainey said the company still is hiring. Goguen said there is great potential for job growth.
“One of the things we're doing is partnering with Flathead Valley Community College to get some of those trade skills we need, like CNC [computer numerical control] machinists,” Rainey said. “We've got ads in the paper now, and we are getting people from all over.”
“It's a slow, measured growth that we're aiming for; we've got a tight budget and we have faced challenges every single day, but we're overcoming them,” Rainey said.
The barrels Proof manufactures are not completely made of carbon fiber, rather they are traditional steel cores, machined down and wrapped with carbon fibers. According to Rainey, this results in a lighter-weight, more effective barrel of the same or similar overall dimensions and strength as more traditional all-steel barrels.
Although the technology for carbon-fiber barrels may have been around for the last 20 years, the big problem to overcome was failure due to heat.
In a typical rifle, the heat of extended firing will cause the barrel to warp slightly, and this can lead to a “fairly large” dispersion pattern. This means that what started out as shots in a dime-sized grouping on a target can expand to shots that could completely miss the point of aim. In some weapons, like the fully automatic M249 squad automatic weapon used by the military, the heat is so detrimental that multiple barrels are carried to prevent jams and increase accuracy.
When carbon-fiber barrels first came on the scene, the heat dispersion was not much better than that of a standard steel barrel, and it wasn't until recently that the problem was solved by Advanced Barrel Systems.
“Heat causes failure, and failure causes death, and we want to prevent that,” Goguen said.
Many of the weapons Proof produces are for military and peacekeeping operations where accuracy matters most.
The other big benefit to carbon-fiber barrels and stocks is a significant weight reduction.
“One of the sweet spots for us is to lighten the soldier's load,” Rainey said. “You can only take so much weight off a gun, and the best place to do that is the barrel and stock. Our barrels are lightweight and extremely accurate, and the soldier has a heavy gun to carry, so if we can take some of that weight, it makes a huge difference. We make the weapon a lot easier to handle.”
Rainey said that weight reduction can be very significant, whether it is for a soldier in the field or a hunter out for the weekend.
“We can take a 19-pound barrel off of a .50-caliber sniper rifle and we can make it 2.2 pounds, so the heaviest thing on the gun is the glass from the sight,” Rainey said. “That's a huge weight savings, and in the past you'd have guys jump in and have to leave the barrel behind because it was just too heavy to get out easily. Now it's no big deal to pack it out, too.”
No job too big or too small
While much of Proof's focus is on filling larger contracts, Rainey said the company also makes high-end custom hunting rifles.
“We do steel and carbon barrels for high-volume manufacturing, and we supply barrels to some special forces and long-range weapon systems, but we also do an exclusive line of high-tech hunting weapons from 7 mm to .338. We can completely customize a weapon in about six to seven months,” Rainey said.
He noted that although custom hunting rifles are only a small part of Proof’s business, there will always be a market for “very nice, extremely accurate, lightweight weapons.”
“All of us at Proof like to hunt and we all own very nice guns,” Rainey said. “Proof was born out of making high-tech hunting rifles, and we'll always have that line of weapons,”
Despite starting as a custom firearms manufacturer, Rainey said Proof is capable of filling much larger orders.
“We're geared for mass production, and we can scale up or down as needed,” Rainey said. “We looked at what the government needed as far as production numbers go, and we built to suit that.”
Part of the manufacturing process includes quality control, and according to Rainey, each barrel is inspected inside and out to ensure there are no flaws. The facility also has a three-target, 30-yard indoor firing range for testing.
“We didn't choose the name Proof by accident,” Rainey said. “We invested a lot of money into testing and research facilities, and we can prove every claim we make.”
For more information go online to http://proofresearch.com.
Reporter Melissa Walther may be reached at 758-4474 or by email at email@example.com.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer laughs after shooting an AR-15 during the open house for Proof Research.