Flathead Valley firearms manufacturers were out in force at the annual Shot Show in Las Vegas from Jan. 21 to 24. The firearms industry’s signature event introduces the latest technology in guns and accessories, and this year’s gathering presented an opportunity for some local manufacturers to capitalize on new developments to rebound from a slow year in 2019. For others, the Shot Show served as a way to continue strong sales into the uncertainty of the election year.
Across the country, firearm sales have generally been lower since 2016 than in years prior to President Donald Trump’s election. Last year saw a modest increase across the industry from the year before. Small Arms Analytics, a nonpartisan consultant that analyzes monthly gun sales based on National Instant Criminal Background Check System data, estimated there were 100,000 more gun sales in 2019 than 2018.
Results were more mixed throughout 2019 in the Flathead Valley, where local companies largely manufacture high-end, specialty firearms and accessories.
Companies such as Montana Rifle Company reported dealing with “layoffs right now due [to the] lag period awaiting trade show orders” according to Montana Rifle Chief Executive Officer Ron Petty.
As they wait for orders spurred by the Shot Show, Petty said the Montana Rifle, located east of Kalispell, has suspended production and temporarily laid off a portion of its staff. Petty, who bought Montana Rifle Company in 2019, said the company usually goes through a production shutdown and seasonal layoffs during the slow winter season leading up to the Shot Show.
But in general, Petty said they are confronting a “slow industry.” Right now, he said the company employs about 40 employees, compared to 70 in past years.
And following the 2018 bankruptcy filing of national gun manufacturer Remington, “the barrel company side is basically going idle,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said 2019 was “a great year on the gun sales side.”
“We were up 50% on hunting guns. Production was up quite a bit; our production capability is up quite a bit,” Petty reported. “It was a great year this past year.”
Jacob Hutchens, Falkor Defense sales and business development manager, said Falkor saw a decrease in sales.
“This year was slower than a lot of years,” Hutchens said.
However, Hutchens noted the company’s focus on high-end firearms has helped the company weather the downturn in sales without cutting staff. Falkor produces semi-custom precision AR and bolt-action rifles ranging from $1,499 to $5,630.
“Part of the reason we’ve done so well is…our quality and accuracy,” Hutchens noted.
“We haven’t dealt with any layoffs,” Hutchens said. In fact, “we hired new staff lately.”
A general slump in gun sales, however, has impacted other local firearms manufacturers — particularly accessory makers.
“Last year has been pretty slow,” reported Noah McConnell, the one-man operation behind Extreme Tactical. The small Evergreen operation produces parts and silencers for AR-15 rifles.
“It’s been slower for a couple years,” McConnell added. As a result, he has cut out a lot of the manufacturing side of his business and instead mostly sells parts.
Mech Tech Systems, which manufactures carbine converters for three models of pistols, shared a similar experience.
“This year was a little bit slower,” General Manager Mark Allred said. “Sales are down.”
He said the general decline in gun sales over the past few years has had a direct effect on accessory manufacturing.
“We kind of follow along that trend to some extent,” Allred said. “If nobody’s buying guns, how many accessories do you need?”
As a result, Allred said Mech Tech has faced a series of layoffs. “We’ve had a few layoffs over the past couple years,” he acknowledged. But he said 2019 wasn’t particularly stark in that regard.
“It was pretty much like 2018,” he said, because “we’re already working with a short crew the last couple years.”
BUSINESS hasn’t been as sluggish for other valley gun companies. At X-Caliber Barrel and Manufacturing, company leaders said, “We’ve had serious growth every year” since opening in Kila six years ago.
Rob Sutton said X-Caliber’s sales have increased by about 30 percent every year, and for the second year in a row the company has had barrel sales in every state in the continental U.S.
“There have been no layoffs in six years,” he noted.
Nick Palmiter at Defiance Machine was equally positive in his recap of the company’s recent history. “We’ve had no layoffs,” he said. Instead, Palmiter said Defiance is growing.
“We’re looking to hire more machinists,” he pointed out. The custom gun manufacturer currently has openings for two to three machinists, but Palmiter stated, “I would say that’s going to grow” over the next few years.
He said the staff has doubled in size from 15 employees three years ago, and the sales side also has experienced “pretty consistent growth.”
Likewise, Dan Wynne at McGowen Precision Barrels said in an email, “we have not had to lay off anyone. In fact, McGowen has never had a layoff in our history here in Kalispell.”
“Outlook is great for McGowen as we are becoming more and more known as one of the industry’s premier rifle barrel manufacturers,” he wrote. “Our sales and production continue to grow.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint how a confluence of factors — politics, industry preferences, the economic climate and regulations — plays into the business climate for local firearms manufacturers.
It’s equally difficult to predict how these trends will affect the valley’s firearms industry in 2020; forecasts from business leaders are as disparate as their experiences over the past year.
Everyone largely agrees the 2020 election will have a direct effect on local gun makers, but expectations vary widely. Typically, concerns over more restrictive gun laws prompt higher gun sales when a Democrat is elected president than when a Republican is in office.
“It’s an election year, so it’s going to pick up,” anticipated McConnell at Extreme Tactical.
“I definitely think things are going to go up for us in general,” agreed Hutchens at Falkor.
But Mech Tech’s Mark Allred said he feels the 2020 election is unlikely to have the same effect on the industry as past elections.
“I haven’t heard anything that might suggest an uptick in sales in 2020,” he said.
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4459.