Mickey Wilson pauses at a yellow machine the size of a car, where a computerized, robotic arm rhythmically picks up a length of metal rod slightly thicker than a garden hose and feeds it into an opening. The staccato vibration that follows hints of the violence inside, where the rod is being transformed into a barrel, complete with the inner rifling that causes a bullet to spin in flight, enhancing accuracy.
Tar Heel gunmaking is going through a revolution on two fronts. One is demand: The number of concealed-carry permits increased 141% in the last six years. The second is in manufacturing technology.
Wilson manages Sturm, Ruger & Co.'s plant in Mayodan in Rockingham County. Ruger is America's largest gun manufacturer with similar plants in Arizona and New Hampshire, which are expected to produce upward of 2 million firearms this year. The Mayodan site formerly housed Greensboro-based textile manufacturer Unifi Inc. Wilson personally presided over the planning and execution of the revamped plant. He hefts a barrel from the machine and examines it.
"This is called a hammer forge," Wilson says. As the blank barrel turns, mechanical hammers render thousands of blows. As they do, the seemingly unyielding, hard steel shrinks in diameter but, squeezed by the hammering, grows in length, emerging at 16.1 inches, several inches longer than it went in and now the barrel of an AR-556. "These machines cost us $1.6 million apiece," he says, "so it behooves us to keep these things running 24 hours a day."
Company spokesman Ken Jorgenson says Ruger spent more than $30 million on machines like this, equipping the 220,000-square-foot factory that it bought in 2013 for $1.7 million. The company then spent another $5.5 million upfitting it and upgrading utilities, the power supply and other needs. The bulk of machines here are top-line CNCs, the muscle of modem manufacturing.
"In the past, building firearms required metalworking and woodworking skills," says Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns in west Charlotte, which bills itself as "America's Largest Gun Shop." Hyatt employs more than 30, including 10 gunsmiths. "Now, it...