Gun Owners We Love: The American Firearm Worker

These Marlin lever-action rifles were being made in Remington Outdoor Company’s plant in Ilion, New York.photo by Frank Miniter

If you get a chance to walk into a gun factory in the U.S., you’ll hear CNC machines churning as metal is cut into receivers, triggers, and more, and you’ll see men and women making the rifles, shotguns, and handguns. These are the often-forgotten people who build things, real things we hold in our hands and show off to our friends at the range or when we pull a fine gun from a gun safe.

There are an estimated 128,794 people in America who manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms, ammunition, and hunting equipment. There are another 133,850 people in supplier and ancillary industries related to guns and ammunition, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. These jobs pay an average salary of $52,220 in wages and benefits. (Click here to see the economic contribution of the gun and ammo industry by state.)

In 2014, the firearms and ammunition industry was responsible for as much as $42.9 billion in total economic activity in the U.S. and paid $5.8 billion in taxes. This is in addition to $760.9 million gun and ammo companies paid in federal excise taxes in 2014—taxes that fund conservation programs and more in the States.

These Bushmaster rifles were manufactured in Remington Outdoor Company’s plant in Ilion, New York, but are now being made in Alabama.photo by Frank Miniter

So sure, guns can be political and the words “American manufacturing” might sound like a throwback term to a lost era, but the thing is this sector of American manufacturing is healthy. Few know today that the American gun market is mostly supplied by U.S.-based manufacturers. Today, Savage Arms, Remington, Stag Arms, Mossberg, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, and many, many more companies proudly point out that their firearms are made in the U.S. In 2011, for example, 66 percent of the new firearms made available for sale in America were made in America. What other heavy manufacturing sector can boast that two thirds of its product is American made?

To stay competitive, many American gun companies have moved around the U.S. (Kahr, Bushmaster, Marlin, American Tactical Imports), are moving (Beretta), or have simply opted to expand in more tax- and gun-friendly states (Mossberg, Remington, Ruger). The Remington Outdoor Company (ROC), for example, decided in 2014 that a new expansion wouldn’t take place on its historic ground in Ilion, New York. Instead they bought the old Chrysler building in Huntsville, Ala., and announced they’d create more than 2,000 new jobs within the next 10 years in the much more gun-friendly state. George Kollitides, former CEO of ROC, said, “Remington was careful about exploring all the options when considering what could be their home for our next 200 years.” That sounds like a revealing statement about the company’s future, as in 2016 Remington will have been in Ilion for 200 years.

Many gun manufacturers still use skilled-labor to run drill presses and other machinery when making firearms.photo by Frank Miniter

Seeing Remington’s plant in Ilion is actually a vivid way to see the story of the American gun maker. This facility is America’s oldest factory that still makes its original product—guns. In October of 2013 about 1,400 employees were making 4,900 guns per day in this factory. That number has been falling more recently as ROC transitions some jobs to Alabama, but this multi-level series of brick buildings is still filled with row after row of humming computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines and grating, pounding, half-a-century-old, grease-stained lathes and barrel reamers.

The Remington factory in Ilion is right where Eliphalet Remington began the company as E. Remington and Sons in 1816. Upstate New York used to manufacture everything from guns to typewriters to bicycles—in fact, all of those were made in this factory. The factory has since grown into a complex series of buildings and floors that would give an architect an anxiety disorder. You can walk from one building to another and change floors without using stairs or an elevator or even getting the notion you’re going up or down. The Remington Arms factory is both a working museum and a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. When I’d visited the factory in 2008 I saw a semi-truck-sized machine that was a jumble of moving belts and metal arms that workers nicknamed the “Willy Wonka machine.” They’d feed it metal and it would puff and smoke and its arms would swing and its belts run until, finally, this one little piece of a trigger mechanism would pop out the far side. This spectacle of a machine is now gone. When I visited again in 2014 I found that Remington has invested about $20 million in this factory to add more modern CNC machines and to streamline manufacturing capabilities to meet a surge in gun sales and to make modern designs.

Three shifts of workers at the Savage Arms plant in Westfield, Massachusetts assemble rifles by hand 24 hours a day.

Like many of America’s other gun companies, the employees at Remington’s plant in Ilion were raised on the fortunes and misfortunes of American manufacturing. Remington’s employees in Ilion are members of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local Union 717. They are mostly blue collar. They wear work boots and jeans to the factory. Many have worked for Remington for decades. Often their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, have too.

This same caliber of hardworking people can be found in Mossberg’s plant in Connecticut, Savage Arms’ plant in Massachusetts, Federal Premium’s plant in Minnesota, and many more around the country. They make the products we cherish everyday. They are competing, innovating, and sometimes struggling. They are filled with American workers. For all they do, we say “Thank you.”