Guns, ammunition and accessories are an increasingly strong part of the manufacturing sector in north-central Idaho.
The number of people in the region employed in the ammunition- and gun-related field grew from 1,021 in 2009 to 1,567 in 2013, with payroll reaching $59.6 million - $17.1 million more than five years ago, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.
The companies responsible for that growth include newcomers like Vector Bullets; quickly growing younger companies like Howell Munitions and Technologies; and the largest regional player that forms the foundation of the segment, ATK's Lewiston operations.
This startup is beginning to make .223-caliber bullets often used in AR-15 rifles, one of the most popular weapons in the world.
The AR-15 was developed by ArmorLite in the 1960s to answer the need for a lighter weapon with a higher magazine capacity during the Vietnam War, said Dan Dorman, a banker-turned-bullet-maker. "The platform has been around for a long time, so it's very standard and easy to use. Anyone coming back from the military for the last 40 years has used that weapon."
AR-15 has become a term similar to Kleenex that now applies to rifles made by hundreds of companies and owned by millions of people who use them for purposes as varied as self defense, varmint hunting and target practice. "It's a more economical round to shoot," Dorman said. "Because of that, there's huge demand and higher consumption."
By making just the projectile for ammunition, Vector Bullets will help companies that assemble full rounds that sometimes can't meet orders because of a shortage of components, he said.
HOWELL MUNITIONS AND TECHNOLOGY
Like Vector, Howell began by serving the industry. Some of its first products were machines that assembled ammunition. That was followed by components, including bullets and cases, and later complete rounds that initially were sold to other manufacturers and labeled with their names.
The product fueling much of Howell's expansion now is its own line of ammo called Freedom Munitions. The brand has everything from lower-cost varieties for plinking to upper-end rounds used in competitions, said Doug Roberts, general manager. Since the Freedom Munitions' introduction, the staff has more than doubled from 130 in 2012 to 275, Roberts said.
Howell faces a shortage of gunpowder, which it doesn't make. That caused Howell recently to lay off about 10 percent of its workforce.
In 2009, employment at CCI/Speer, ATK's Lewiston location, topped 1,000. Now it's about 1,200, said Tim Brandt, a spokesman for CCI/Speer in Anoka, Minn. "Demand is high for the product, so it keeps us running 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Brandt said.
CCI/Speer started in Lewiston after World War II and became a part of ATK in 2001. ATK does billions in sales annually, making products for the defense and aerospace industries as well as military and civilian shooters. The company's sporting group includes the Lewiston operations.
PNW Arms, which set up operations just north of Potlatch in 2011, may build a larger plant at a new business park this year, said Potlatch Mayor David Brown. The company, whose initials stand for Pacific Northwest, came from Issaquah, Wash., three years after its founding. It makes ammunition for consumers and the government.
Glen Seekins' scope rings broke on a deer hunt in 2004. He wanted better ones. That led to the founding of Seekins Precision, which is building a small-arms factory in Nez Perce County.
Seekins sells AR-15 rifles, AR-15 rifle components and accessories online and through independent dealers. The seven models of rifles range from $1,425 to $2,800. The parts include scope rings ($129 to $149), the product that gave the company its start.
Seekins Precision had about 30 employees last year in Lewiston. Company executives told county officials they expect that number to double in the next 10 years.