Two specialty firearms producers are expanding in northern Wyoming, proving the state’s manufacturing sector doesn’t have to rely on the mineral extraction industry.
This winter, after 70 years in California, American firearms manufacturer Weatherby Inc. moved its headquarters to Sheridan with support from the Wyoming Business Council.
In late March, long-range hunting rifles manufacturer Gunwerks broke ground on its new facility in Cody, after a decade of successful operation, including several years in Forward Cody’s light manufacturing incubator.
The Business Council has assisted Wyoming’s firearms industry through market expansion grants, technical assistance, recruitment and business expansion efforts, according to the WBC.
“I think the Weatherby project and this Gunwerks project represent a very strong backing by the state of Wyoming in the firearms industry for the state,” said Aaron Davidson, Gunwerks CEO.
Gunwerks was founded in 2007 in Burlington and moved into Forward Cody’s light manufacturing incubator in 2016. Last fall, the Wyoming Business Council awarded the City of Cody a $6 million grant and loan package for the construction of a building on a 5-acre site north of Big Horn Cinemas.
In five years, the project is expected to create 52 jobs, retain 58 jobs and increase payroll over $3 million.
The planned 44,396-square-foot building, which is scheduled for completion in 2020, will house the manufacturing of Gunwerks’ high-precision, long-range shooting systems, including the rifle, optics, rangefinder and ammunition. It will also include retail and warehouse space and a test shooting tunnel.
“The most significant impact of this project is getting us the necessary space available to expand,” Davidson said. “In the past three years, in our current facility in Cody, we’ve been able to add three significant product lines. In order to grow those product lines, we need to be better able to vertically integrate our rifle manufacturing, and this new space will allow that room to grow.”
Dirt work and utility installation is underway, Davidson said. And while manufacturing in Wyoming doesn’t always make a lot of sense because of infrastructure challenges, lack of a sufficient labor force and the need for skills training, Davidson said that for Gunwerks, Wyoming is the place to be.
“Our business, in particular, is well-suited for Wyoming because of the culture and lifestyle that goes along with it,” he said. “We make guns. Wyoming is a conservative state, and we make hunting rifles. We’re a part of that hunting, outdoor culture. That’s been our secret – that we mesh so nicely with the prevalent lifestyle, attitudes and culture in Wyoming.”
Gunwerks has worked with Wyoming Department of Workforce Services training programs in the past, but this represents its biggest state partnership so far. Davidson said he is committed.
“I signed a 20-year lease to develop this project,” he said. “I’ve made some very serious commitments to being here in Cody for the long term.”
Gunwerks has a few employees who live and work in other states, but the bulk of its employees are Wyoming residents.
“In the last year, I have recruited and moved in nine positions to Wyoming,” Davidson said.
In January 2018, firearms manufacturer Weatherby Inc. announced it would move its manufacturing operations and corporate headquarters from California to Sheridan. The move is expected to create 70-90 jobs and more than $5 million annually in payroll in the next five years.
The Business Council worked with the Sheridan Economic and Education Development Authority Joint Powers Board to develop a $12.6 million grant package to incentivize the move, according to the WBC. SEEDA committed $2,283,074 in local match funds, and another $1,960,200 as in-kind match for a lot in the Sheridan High-Tech Business Park.
“Essentially, what we did was we moved all our manufacturing here first,” said Kevin Wilkerson, director of marketing for Weatherby. “We packed up all the trucks in California in the end of February, and we moved into the manufacturing side of our new building on March 1.”
Weatherby has been moving strategically so as not to interrupt production, but did shut down for two weeks. The business side of the company was in a temporary building from June 2018 until April 1, 2019, when customer service, marketing and sales all moved into the new 100,000-square-foot facility.
“Everything is right here in one building, and our offices are still a complete mess,” Wilkerson said.
There were a lot of contributing factors that made the move feasible, he said.
“Primarily, it had become very difficult to be who we had become in California, both from a regulatory standpoint to what we do, and the taxes and restraints on what we were doing. We started thinking about a new area, and the move to Wyoming – it was a better environment,” he said.
“We went from the most-regulated state to the least-regulated state on what we do,” Wilkerson said. “We are naturally big-game hunters, so Wyoming is a big draw. For our brand, what we look for and what we are perceived to be by our customers, and for ourselves – we now have the opportunity to match that perception.”
From the manufacturing standpoint, the cost of doing business in Wyoming was outweighed by the incentives, he said.
“What Wyoming has done ... in order for us to be in this space has made us very excited to be here,” Wilkerson said.
While weather has already proven a challenge – winter conditions and closed roads have caused a few delayed shipments – Weatherby will adjust, Wilkerson said.
“We’ve seen that as a bit of a hurdle, but the only way we can fix that is to be better prepared,” he said.