Brian Sipe knew things would be busy, but the past year’s growth in production and sales was unexpected for the owner of the Montana Rifleman, a company that manufactures firearms barrels and actions in a building off Montana 35 east of Kalispell.
The company finished last year producing a total of 143,000 rifle and pistol barrels. In August 2011, Sipe figured the company’s could reach a production capacity of 300,000 barrels annually.
“Right now, we’re at 312,000,” Sipe said in mid-November. “We’ve more than doubled, and it shows no signs of slowing down.”
Sipe said the company is seeing “new business from every direction,” filling barrel orders for three major firearms companies in the country.
Last year, about 70 percent of the Montana Rifleman’s barrel production went to DPMS Panther Arms, the world’s largest manufacturer of the AR-15 rifle. DPMS now accounts for a larger volume but a smaller share of barrel production because of the two other companies, Sipe said.
Concern about President Barack Obama’s policies regarding firearms as well as general economic anxieties are the forces behind the growing volume of gun sales, Sipe said with certainty.
He noted that on a recent visit to the Sportsman & Ski Haus, he saw more AR-type rifles in stock than he’s ever seen there before.
“Sales of those rifles are going through the roof,” he said. “People want them for home protection.”
Sipe started making custom guns more than 20 years ago in an old dairy barn off Whitefish Stage Road. He had guidance from well-known local gunsmith Les Bauska, but he says he pretty much had to develop his own ideas, methods and machinery.
In 1999, he dove into the world of action manufacturing because most custom gunmakers were at the mercy of having to use actions that were stripped from other guns. By 2002, he had design and production capabilities that enabled the Montana Rifleman to start shipping actions, mostly to other custom gunsmiths.
When the economic downturn struck several years ago, Sipe concluded that he could no longer get by in the custom gun world and started turning his sights to barrel manufacturing for broader purposes, along with considering the prospects for a production hunting rifle line, which has come along in the last couple years with the Montana Rifleman’s sister company, the Montana Firearms Group.
Over the last few years, the manufacturing line has been bustling at the Montana Rifleman. It is made up of an eclectic mix of extremely high-tech, expensive gunsmithing equipment, World War II era machinery that Sipe swears by, as well as some homemade manufacturing equipment that figures prominently in the production process.
Sipe said Montana Rifleman now employs in the range of 160 to 170 people, and finding skilled workers has become an issue for the company.
“We’re looking to hire more, but we’re having a hard time finding machinists,” he said.
“We can hire guys every day for barrel production because we train them in-house,” he said, but finding machinists trained in programming and operating Computer Numerical Control equipment is a challenge.
“Right now I could hire at least 15 good CNC machinists” but they aren’t immediately available, said Sipe, noting that he has recently purchased 10 new CNC lathes and mills. “I need people to operate them.”
The company is currently running a 10-hour day shift seven days a week, and a night shift Monday through Thursday. Sipe said if he can fill out his machinist positions the production line will be running day and night, seven days a week.
He predicts he won’t see any changes in business, other than getting new business, in the near future.
“I see it staying level this whole next year if we don’t see it going up,” he said. “I’m ready to retire. Hell, I’m tired. I’m worn out. But that’s not looking good right now.”
Montana Rifleman is located at 3172 Montana 35 in Kalispell; call 755-4867 or go online to www.montanarifleman.com.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.