On a hot August day in the plains west of Cheyenne, Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead hefted a semiautomatic rifle and took aim at a nearby target.
He fired the first three shots standing, then he moved back and shot while kneeling. Finally, the governor laid in the dirt at the Otto Road Shooting Range, an outdoor venue, and squeezed the trigger three more times. He stood, patted the dust from his blue jeans and grinned.
Gov. Mead’s enthusiasm for shooting sports and the state’s proud gun culture have proven to be fertile grounds for a growing firearms industry in Wyoming. Like any manufacturer, firearms companies are also drawn to the state’s friendly tax structure, low-cost living, robust business assistance programs and business-ready infrastructure.
Those factors have helped Wyoming recruit high-profile gun accessories makers like Magpul Industries and HiViz Shooting Systems and nurture homegrown businesses like Wyoming Arms, Gunwerks and Freedom Arms.
“These are solid companies creating significant jobs with good benefits,” said Nephi Cole, policy analyst for Gov. Mead.
An encouraging attitude toward the firearms industry is paying off. Wyoming enjoyed the highest job growth rate in the nation last year, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s 2016 Firearms Economic Impact Report. The industry employs more than 730 people and pays more than $19 million in annual wages.
“Wyoming’s a great place to do business. Compared to Colorado, it’s phenomenal,” said Mike Thomas, chief operating officer of HiViz, a sights and accessories maker that relocated from Colorado to Laramie in 2013.
For employees, there’s no personal income tax and Wyoming towns are healthy, clean and safe, he explained. From a corporate standpoint, there’s no corporate income tax or sales tax on manufacturing equipment. The state also provides fast-growth companies like HiViz grant and loan opportunities.
The Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, awarded a $2.9 million grant and loan in 2013 to the city of Laramie to construct a 20,000 square-foot facility for HiViz.
“That doesn’t happen in many states. The other thing that can’t be underestimated is our ability to hire locally,” Thomas said. “We wouldn’t have expected, necessarily, to be able to hire the kind of talent we’ve been able to get here in Laramie.”
HiViz employs 42 people but anticipates increasing its workforce to 128 positions by 2020.
Meanwhile, firearms accessories manufacturer Magpul Industries continues to exceed expectations. The company recently expanded its Cheyenne footprint and now consistently employs between 300 and nearly 400 people two years after moving to Cheyenne from Colorado in 2014.
Continuing the momentum
The state of Wyoming has designs to continue the industry’s momentum.
To that end, Gov. Mead announced three initiatives on that summer day at a dirt range in Wyoming. The first is the Open Ranges Initiative, which is designed to improve access to public shooting ranges.
“Everyone recognizes that the limiting factor to starting out in this spot and continuing to enjoy it is access,” Cole said. “If people don’t have a range to go to, they quit. It’s critical to have access to hunting or a range to continue the growth and health of the shooting sports. In Wyoming, we have world-class access to both.”
Nationally, fewer people are hunting every year, but participation in Wyoming is up 3 percent since 2010, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. About 13 percent of Wyoming’s hunters last year were new to the sport.
In the same vein of education and awareness, the Wyoming 100 Initiative established a competition to recognize the top 100 shooters in Wyoming.
Capping these events will be next year’s inaugural Magpul Governor’s Match, a national two-gun shooting competition featuring some of the country’s best marksmen. The event will involve eight action shooting stages, which will test the speed and accuracy of competitors with both handguns and rifles.
The idea with the two events, Cole explained, is to expose both the weekend sports shooters and the national-level talent to the opportunities available in Wyoming.
After all, the state is already the best place for gun manufacturers, hunters and firearms enthusiasts alike, now it’s about letting more people in on the secret.
Gov. Mead will promote the Governor’s Match during his visit next month to the NSSF Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show 2017 (SHOT Show) in Las Vegas.
“I’m really excited to have him there. It’s not often the governor of a state comes to a top-tier international shooting sports event like that,” said Zak Smith, co-owner of Cheyenne-based silencer manufacturer Thunder Beast Arms Corporation. “Look, guns are a growing industry and there’s a lot of innovation everywhere, but this is the place to do that kind of business. When I tell people around the country our governor visits our factory and buys our products, they are blown away.”
Gov. Mead isn’t the only one buying silencers from Thunder Beast, which takes its name from the iconic Wyoming bison.
Smith said the company has doubled its sales every year since its founding in 2008 in a Fort Collins, Colorado, garage. It wasn’t long before Smith and his cofounders outgrew those humble beginnings, and he said building the facility headquarters a few miles north in Cheyenne was an easy decision. Today, the company employs 45 workers and annually sells thousands of high-end silencers.
Like many Wyoming companies, though, Thunder Beast has made its mark on the industry through quality, not quantity.
“In Wyoming, we have quite a few companies going after the higher end to differentiate themselves, and that puts you in a pretty secure place in the market,” Smith said. “Our strategy is to make the best, and our price goes along with that. And along with us, you have companies like Freedom Arms (in Freedom), Gunwerks (in Burlington), Wyoming Arms (in Cody). Wyoming is like the incubator of great gun companies, and that’s going to create a critical mass of talent here.”
Hitting the international stage
One way to build that critical mass is through marketing at events like SHOT Show, said Gunwerks CEO Aaron Davidson.
Magpul, HiViz and Maverick Ammunition were all big recruitment wins for Wyoming, he explained.
“I’d like to see a few more big wins like that, because that could lead to a cascade of companies following suit,” Davidson said. “That gets you a nucleus of infrastructure and a talented labor pool. I’m really excited about where our industry could go in Wyoming from there.”
There is probably no better ambassador for Wyoming as a firearms-friendly state than Gov. Mead, Davidson added.
Gov. Mead will be at the weeklong event speaking to Wyoming businesses, and opening the eyes of other firearms manufacturers to the possibilities in the Cowboy State.
“I think seeing a governor of a state at the show will really make people sit up and take notice,” Davidson said.
Gunwerks is a regular at SHOT Show, and one of 13 Wyoming manufacturers who will join the 1,600 exhibitors headed to the event Jan 17-20. The trade show is the largest of its kind in the world and caters to more than 64,000 professionals in the shooting, hunting, outdoors and law enforcement industry. An additional 2,400 media members are also expected to attend to cover the show and promote the products they see.
The Business Council provided $20,900 this year to assist five companies in attending SHOT Show. Nine companies will also have space at the event.
Trade shows help mom-and-pop businesses expand their customer base, meet manufacturers and develop relationships with retailers. The success of those small businesses, along with the rapid growth of new recruits like Magpul and old guard companies like Gunwerks, has created a cluster of manufacturers with national prestige.
It’s an industry aimed and ready to flourish in Wyoming.