Arkansas will continue to take its best shot at attracting firearms investment, state Commerce Secretary Mike Preston vows.
In April, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that Czech gunmaker CZ-USA would open a $90 million manufacturing facility at the Little Rock Port that would employ 565 people. If the plant opens as scheduled in March 2020, it will be the 13th firearm-related operation in the state.
“Arkansas isn’t as well known in other industries, but we are certainly well known in the firearms industry,” Preston said. “Companies are well aware of the strong presence we have in our state. They know if they bring their company here they are going to get willing participants ... and an engaged workforce.
“We will continue to keep our foot on the gas.”
CZ-USA will join a list of companies with Arkansas facilities — Gamo Outdoor USA Inc. in Rogers, Umarex USA Inc. in Fort Smith and Sig Sauer in Jacksonville are examples — that manufacture guns or ammunition, stage final assembly of gun parts made elsewhere or warehouse and distribute products made outside the state and country. Umarex’s facility at Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith also hosts a subsidiary, Walther Arms, which makes two models of the famed Walther handgun.
All told, the state’s firearms industry employs more than 3,000, government data shows.
Preston said the state has a great sales pitch when it goes after gun manufacturers looking to expand or establish themselves in the United States. First, the state points to statistics like a strong manufacturing workforce percentage in the state — seventh in the United States and third among Southern states, according to U.S. labor data — but also many of the state residents are no stranger to guns. There are 62 registered firearms for every 1,000 residents, so any company moving or expanding in Arkansas is unlikely to cause a cultural stir.
“From early on, the governor felt it was an important industry for us to go after,” said Preston, formerly executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “We included it in our targeted sectors. We feel it’s important because it fits into the natural heritage of Arkansas. We’re a gun-friendly state, we have a lot of outdoor enthusiasts [and] hunting is in our culture; it’s in our DNA. It only makes sense to help support that industry by helping them produce ammunition and some of their firearms in the state. You have a natural audience of ready buyers.”
‘A Rich Environment’
The Walther PPK handgun is one of the most famous in the world because it was the gun used by fictional British spy James Bond.
For the past year, that iconic gun has been manufactured in Fort Smith at the Walther facility, which opened in 2012. United States import laws prevent the German-made PPK from being imported for sale, but nothing prevented the same gun from being made in the States.
Adam Blalock, the CEO of Walther Arms and Umarex USA, said the Fort Smith facility manufactures two Walther models and handles domestic distribution for the rest.
Umarex, which manufactures and distributes air rifles and handguns, opened in Fort Smith in 2006 and moved to Chaffee Crossing in 2012. Its arrival in Fort Smith was almost solely a result of Blalock’s relationship with Wulf-Heinz Pflaumer, the CEO of the German parent company of Umarex and Walther.
Blalock had been CEO of Daisy Outdoor in Rogers and had worked with Umarex in Germany to distribute the American BB and pellet guns. When Pflaumer decided he wanted to open an American facility, he asked Blalock to find a suitable location and run it.
Blalock, a native of Fort Smith, told Pflaumer the only way he would run the U.S. operations was if they were located in Fort Smith. “I told him, ‘You won’t be disappointed in Fort Smith,’” Blalock said. “If we did a [site selection] study we would probably be in the top 10 anyway.”
Blalock said Fort Smith, and Arkansas in general, works for gun manufacturing because of its central location, its proximity to transportation lines and low union membership among the workforce.
“Our definite plan, especially for the Walther side of the business, is to increase the USA manufacturing,” Blalock said. “When we expand it will be here. We did everything with expansion in mind. The state has been good to us. There is no reason [not to]. We don’t foresee a shortage of workers. Machinery, labor, assembly: Fort Smith has a rich environment for that. We have everything we need here.”
Incredible ‘Gun Culture’
Daisy, also an air gun manufacturer, was bought in 2016 by a New York equity firm that already owned Gamo Outdoor USA, a global air gun company. The two companies share a site in Rogers, where Daisy moved in 1958 after being founded in Michigan in 1885.
When Gamo Daisy planned to expand the Rogers facility to about 250,000 SF in 2017, Hutchinson announced it from the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas. Preston said Hutchinson is the only governor to go to the SHOT Show.
The annual Daisy National BB Gun Championship was held at the Hammons Center in Rogers last week.
“The state government, the governor has been an incredible supporter,” said Lawrence Taylor, public relations director for Gamo Daisy. “He came in and saw the new facility. The gun culture has been incredible here. It is very friendly.”
Preston said when he and the governor make pitches to gun and ammunition makers, they can show the state’s roster of successful companies in what Forbes magazine called the third gun-friendliest state.
“A lot of historical gun manufacturers in the U.S. are from the Northeast and they aren’t being treated as well by their legislatures and respective governors,” Preston said. “We felt we would offer them a little Southern hospitality and perhaps we would be able to land a few. That is what we have been able to accomplish the last couple of years.”
Air Gun Mecca
The popularity of air guns has increased in recent years, and not just the BB guns many of an older generation remember using to shoot tin cans.
Today’s air guns are capable of delivering lethal shots to targets as large as a 2,000-pound bison. Umarex manufactures a .50-caliber rifle — called the Hammer — at its Fort Smith site.
In 2018, Arkansas opened deer hunting to air rifles, becoming the 12th state to do so.
“The state of Arkansas is one of the pioneers in creating air gun hunting seasons for deer,” said Richard Turner, the president of Umarex USA. “We’ve shot cape buffalo in Africa. Hunters want to do something different. It’s unique. Lewis & Clark traveled with an air rifle on their adventures.”
Blalock said he would love to have more Umarex air products made in the United States but it doesn’t make sense financially yet. While Daisy makes BB guns, Gamo manufactures several large-bore air rifles in Rogers.
► Largest Manufacturers
Ranked by number of Arkansas employees.
“Arkansas has become a mecca for air guns,” Taylor said. “It is very similar to what Daisy experienced in the early years, the 1880s. All of the BB gun manufacturers were right outside of Detroit.
“Guns are still popular. Daisy and Gamo, one trip around Walmart sporting goods or Academy [Sports & Outdoors] you can see we’re dominating shelf space. Our sales are still up. The political climate is favorable for us. Even culturally, we are even seeing a return to getting the youth involved with shooting.”
Turner of Umarex said one of the most underrated aspects of having operations in Arkansas is customer service. Umarex and Walther’s site in Fort Smith handles all its customer service on site.
“One of the advantages of being in an area that is rich in shooting sports history is you do find people with a solid knowledge of shooting sports and products,” Turner said. “Here we have a group of people who know the terminology and there is less training.”
Blalock said Walther will continue to expand its portfolio of gun models manufactured in Fort Smith but the financial metrics of air rifles require overseas production for all but a handful of models.
“We would love to make everything here because we are Americans and we want to see the workforce grow,” Blalock said. “You also have a certain amount of demand where people want to buy American.”
Firearm Industry in Arkansas
|Choate Machine & Tool Co.||Bald Knob|
|Federal Armament||Fort Smith|
|Gamo Outdoors USA*||Rogers|
|Thermold Magazines||Fort Smith|
|Walther Arms||Fort Smith|
|Umarex USA||Fort Smith|