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Locked and Loaded
Utah is a Welcoming Home to the Gun Industry
By John Coon | Photography by Issac Miller
November 10, 2015
The Beehive State made national news in 2011 when it became the first state in the country to designate a state firearm—the Browning model M1911 automatic pistol.
The pistol was designed and manufactured by Utah gun inventor John M. Browning in 1911 for use by the U.S. Army. It served as the model for other Browning pistols that followed into the 21st century. It also serves as a symbol of Utah’s continued commitment to the gun industry.
“There’s not very many states in the United States that actually have a state firearm,” says Chris Chambers, vice president of sales and marketing for gun manufacturer Desert Tech. “That in itself speaks volumes. You also have a lot of heritage and history here with Browning being based here and being an American icon.”
Indeed, Utah’s reputation as an outdoors destination is not limited to skiing or snowboarding. Hunting and other shooting sports are also popular within the state, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of gun ownership.
Utah has been a vibrant center for manufacturing and selling firearms and firearm accessories from the 19th century to modern times—even while the gun industry has declined in other parts of the nation.
“It’s a state of sportsmen,” says Michael Gerulat, president of Utah Rifle, LLC. “A lot of people hunt. I hunt. Overall, it’s a good climate for the gun business.”
Evolution of an Industry
The firearm industry has deep roots within Utah. Browning Arms Company was founded in the state by John M. Browning in 1878 and is still based in Morgan. Browning became notable in his lifetime for inventing several pistols and rifles that serve as templates for many modern designs. He held 128 patents during his lifetime.
The spirit of innovation Browning embodied is still a part of the Utah gun industry. Many firearm manufacturers have originated within Utah or relocated here from other states because they see this as a place where innovation is encouraged and rewarded.
“The more prolific the state is for firearm [ownership], the higher the amount of innovations that come from that geographic location,” says Mike Pappas, director of new product development for Dead Air Silencers, a Georgia-based company with offices in Kamas.
With innovation comes expansion. Desert Tech started out as a military contractor that manufactured shorter and lighter rifles with interchangeable calibers based on what was needed for the application. Two years ago, the Salt Lake City-based company saw an opening for its products in the commercial gun market and put greater emphasis on distributing to commercial gun dealers.
The move paid off. Desert Tech has tripled its sales over the last two years and it expects to double sales again by the end of 2016. Increased sales have allowed the company to increase its staff from 65 employees in September to 85 by the end of December. Ninety-nine percent of those employees work and reside in Utah.
“Utah is a very gun-friendly state,” says Chambers. “You have restrictions for firearms manufacturers in different states that make it difficult. Utah provides a talented labor pool and individuals that have a passion and a true love for what we do. You combine that skilled labor with passion and joy, you get more of a quality product.”
Gerulat has seen firsthand what operating a positive climate can do for any business. Through his website UtahRifle.com, he offers gunsmithing and firearm restoration and builds custom rifles. Fifty percent of his customers come from outside the state.
Since starting the website in 2006, Gerulat has enjoyed consistent growth for his business. It grew 20 to 30 percent per year for several years and continues to grow at a rate of 10 percent per year. There’s a demand for gunsmithing and custom rifle building services because people want to tailor rifles to fit their skills as a hunter or marksman.
“There’s a lot of (rifles) you buy that are commercial and don’t shoot worth a hoot, especially at long range,” Gerulat says. “People are wanting to reach out further and further for big animals, and you’ve got to have a gun that shoots accurately—well under an inch at 100 yards. Most likely between 1/4 and 1/2 inch at 100. Take that out to 1,000 and then you’re at 5 to 6 inches.”
An Enduring Passion
Gun ownership and participation in hunting and other shooting sports is declining nationwide. Utah is bucking that trend in several key categories.
The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago revealed in a 2014 survey that 32 percent of Americans own a firearm or live with someone who owns one. It marked a 17 percent decline from 1973, when 49 percent of Americans were gun owners or lived with gun owners. The survey found that 14 percent of adults under the age of 65 owned a gun and 31 percent of adults over 65 identified as gun owners.