Brownells: Behind the Scenes

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Here’s one of the two primary video studios used to produce instructional videos.photo by Tom McHale

Who would have thought that a business started by a guy working on gun parts from his bed, while suffering from Meniere’s Disease back in 1939, would have grown into one of the country’s largest retailers of gun parts, accessories, ammunition, and just about everything else related to shooting?

Yet that’s exactly what happened. Back in 1939, when times were tough, Bob Brownell got resourceful and figured out a way to solve a market need that would support his family. Over the years, Brownells has grown under the leadership of Bob’s son Frank, and Frank’s son Pete. Nowadays, Frank tends to strategic industry relationships while Pete guides the day-to-day business of the company.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
The part of the warehouse that stocks smaller items is three stories tall. Automated conveyors weave through that, allowing pickers to drop items into bins. The system moves bins to the next relevant area based on what items are on the orders.photo by Tom McHale

How large have they gotten? How about somewhere north of 84,000 unique shooting and accessory products? If you put one product in each chair of Madison Square Garden, you’d fill it up – over 4 and a half times. The day we toured the warehouse, we walked by three large rolls of aluminum sheeting. Brownell’s uses those to make their own AR-15 magazines. Each of those three rolls turns into 20,000 magazines, so the three together would make enough magazines to line up seven miles. Or, if you stacked all those mags on their sides, it would make a pile taller than the Empire State Building. Three and a half times taller, actually. You get the idea—Brownells handles massive volumes of shooting gear.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
It looks kind of like a roller coaster, doesn’t it?photo by Tom McHale

Recently I took a trip to Grinnell, Iowa (and Montezuma, but we’ll get to that later) to visit these children of the corn. Unlike those creepy kids in Stephen King’s novel, the folks at Brownells are about the nicest you’ll ever meet. Part of the reason for that is Bob Brownell’s founding vision. He wanted to develop a business that treated customers as lifelong friends. Sure, companies have slogans like that, but few live up to them like Brownells. Since day one, Brownells has offered a full 100 Percent Forever Money Back Guarantee. And they do mean forever.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
This isn’t your average corporate office. Concealed carry isn’t just allowed, it’s welcomed. You’ll see guns of all types in various states of configuration and testing all over the building. I’m guessing this facility won’t have any issues with armed robbery!photo by Tom McHale

Decades are no obstacle, as I saw first-hand by some of the products that had recently been returned. In one case, a woman whose gunsmith husband recently passed away returned his tools just because she didn’t need them anymore. He purchased most of those tools 30 to 40 years ago. No matter—she got a refund.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Rather than filling individual orders, warehouse workers pick a pile of gear for multiple orders to fill bins with products from their area of the warehouse. Later, the contents of the bins are separated into separate orders.photo by Tom McHale

While we all appreciate a reputable source for our gun gear, the return policy is not the reason you should read on here. Also since day one, Brownells has put a lot of money and resources into educating consumers on products, techniques, and general knowledge. Whether you’re a customer or not, Brownells has the Gun Tech folks—a staff of professional gunsmiths ready to take your call and answer any questions you may have. It’s a great resource for new and veteran gun owners alike. We’ll get to that in a bit, too.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
While wandering the marketing department halls, we ran across the Armalite AR-50 personally owned by Frank Brownell. He graciously allowed us to shoot it the next day.photo by Tom McHale

Miles of Shelves

I had the pleasure of touring the Brownells operation and seeing first-hand how things work when you place an order. The process is a marvel of efficiency and technology.

Things have to be efficient when you’re shipping gun parts and accessories that weigh the equivalent of 538 African elephants every year.

In the original Montezuma warehouse, which was stocked with more ammo than I could imagine (and that’s a lot), products were grouped on miles of shelves by type and function. Order pickers would push carts up and down the aisles and fill nine customer orders at a time. That process seemed pretty efficient until a study revealed the fact that warehouse employees walked an average of 13 miles per day.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Current President Pete Brownell shows us a rifle donated by actor Tom Selleck. If you saw the movie Quigley Down Under, you might recognize this rifle.photo by Tom McHale

The company then reconfigured the warehouse. Instead of putting all the rifle stocks in the same place, for example, they grouped products by order frequency. So, American Eagle 9mm ammunition might be right next to Champion Carnival Duck Targets.

Employees who cruised the warehouse filling orders would work from a list that showed storage locations, so they didn’t need to keep up with the exact placement of every single one of those 84,000 unique products.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
The new warehouse facility also contains a 7,000 square foot retail store. The Brownells people aren’t talking, but it wouldn’t shock me to see these popping up in other locations.photo by Tom McHale

That was a big improvement, but when the company expanded into a new and seriously massive facility in Grinnell, they decided to really modernize. Now, when you enter the even bigger warehouse, you’ll still see miles of floor-to-ceiling shelves, but you’ll also see that the main product area is three stories tall. An automated conveyor system runs through this complex. Individual tubs resembling recycling bins cruise around on the conveyor, seemingly on their own accord. It’s like Disney’s Space Mountain roller coaster winding through the complex. But it’s more than a one-way ride: Each bin is scanned repeatedly on its journey and is redirected by a series of automated gates that send it along different conveyor paths, depending on which products still needs to be added.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Guns, rare taxidermy and art are scattered around the new facility. That’s because the company is setting up the entire operation as a museum too.photo by Tom McHale

Rather than one warehouse staffer filling an entire customer order, the employee’s hand-held scanner will receive picking instructions for a group of products for many orders in that staffer’s location. Someone working the second level of the warehouse might be picking products for my order, your order, and those of ten other customers. All of our products go into the same bin, which gets directed around the complex until all of our gear is in it. Then the bin is automatically redirected back down to the main floor.

Even with all the new automation in place, a Brownells warehouse staffer still walks about 70 miles a year getting your shooting gear from shelf to shipping box.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Incoming pallets of product occupy the open side of the warehouse until items are unpacked and moved to bin locations.photo by Tom McHale

The Cubby System

At the next stop along the way, the bin arrives at an order filling station. The computer system guides employees as they remove products from the bin and place them into cubbyholes for each individual order. As the employee scans a product after pulling it from the bin, a light goes on in one of the dozen or so cubbies in front of them. They place the product there, and then pull another product from the bin. As a cubby is filled with a complete order, a light on the opposite side of the pass-through cubby comes on, indicating that the pile of gear in it is ready for checking and packing.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Pop quiz! First, did you know Brownells makes their own AR-15 and AR-10 magazines? Second, how many magazines can they make from these three bales of aluminum sheeting? Answer: 60,000, or 20,000 per roll.photo by Tom McHale

A packer takes the items from the completed order, checks it, and packages it for shipping. Once a box is properly packed, it goes into an automatic taping machine. If you chose a specific shipping method, the computer labels the box accordingly. If you didn’t, a scale and scanner on the automated conveyor system measures and weighs the package to determine the optimal shipping method to your address and makes a label. At that point, the package moves on and is loaded onto a truck, where it begins its journey to your home.

How many boxes of gun gear go out the door every year? If you were able to pile them up, they would reach 215 miles—almost reach the International Space Station, which orbits at about 245 miles. The tape for all those boxes would reach the ISS with plenty left over to wrap it a bunch of times—about 355 miles of packing tape is used annually.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Ever seen this much .22LR ammunition? This is nothing compared to what’s in the ammo warehouse in Montezuma.photo by Tom McHale

The whole process is mesmerizing, but the scale is what overwhelms you. The sheer variety and quantity of stuff is simply mind-boggling, but when you place an order, it can be going through the fulfillment process in minutes.

Answers To Gun Questions

On day two of my visit, I took a side trip back to the original Montezuma facility. It still runs in full swing, and its warehouse is stocked floor to ceiling with ammo, reloading supplies, tools, parts, and gun accessories. Montezuma is also the home of the Gun Tech and Video Production teams. Supporting the corporate belief that an educated consumer makes for a satisfied customer, Brownells has invested millions over the years to produce educational content such as professional videos free for anyone, customer or not. One of the best examples is the Brownells “Build an AR” series. They’ve carefully photographed thousands of parts and components and crafted a custom computer program that knows what parts works with which other parts, and which ones don’t.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
The automated conveyor system scans what’s currently in bins zooming by. If all the items are there, gates direct it down to the order packing area, shown here. When bins arrive, items are pulled out and placed into separate cubby holes for each specific order.photo by Tom McHale

You can log onto the website, and using drag and drop, configure your very own custom rifle from the ground up. When finished, you’ll get a shopping list of the exact pieces and parts you’ll need. The company knows that not everyone who uses tools like this will buy from them, yet they do it anyway. That’s just how they do business.

You’ll also find dozens of instruction videos produced in the Brownells studio. It resembles your local TV station in terms of fancy audio and video gear, but it’s filled with guns, gear, tools, and reloading equipment (you certainly won’t find that at your local NBC affiliate).

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
See all these small and deep storage areas? They’re all for rifle barrels of various types, makes, and sizes.photo by Tom McHale

My last stop was to visit the Gun Tech folks. Long-time professional gunsmith and mega gun guru (although he'll never admit it) Steve Ostrem walked me through the operation, which started back in 1939. But back in those days, Bob Brownell did it himself. Now, the team is staffed by 10 professional gunsmiths.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
Brownells even sells guns and suppressors. If you buy a silencer, it’ll sit here while you’re waiting on Uncle Sam to complete your paperwork.photo by Tom McHale

They work together in a large room filled with books, parts, guns, and all manner of odds and ends. They even have a “gun reference library” that’s not stocked with books, but hundreds of different gun models. If you call and have a question about your gun, the tech you’re talking to may just be walk back there to pick one up so he can follow along with your questions hands-on, so to speak.

If you have a need, or even a want for anything gun, archery, or survival-related, check out the Brownells site. Or give them a call, there’s a bunch of gun guys on the other end of the line waiting to help you out.

Brownells: Behind the Scenes
That’s a LOT of ammo!photo by Tom McHale
Brownells: Behind the Scenes
The Gun Tech team keeps a variety of guns handy to help them answer your questions over the phone.photo by Tom McHale
Brownells: Behind the Scenes
I was offered the opportunity to torch off a few .50 caliber rounds using Frank Brownell’s personal AR-50. What could I say?photo by Tom McHale