Lost in the din of machine tools on the factory floor, clanking sounds from a corrugated-metal test chamber the length of a bowling lane are barely recognizable as gunshots. Inside, technicians place a rifle in a jig set up in an armored box and insert a special cartridge. They step away and close a heavy metal door that automatically pulls the trigger.
When it does, the rifle spits a bullet speeding faster than 3,000 feet per second crashing into a downrange snail trap, named for its curlicued internal passages. In a microsecond, the bullet scrubs off velocity until, in a matter of only feet, it plops harmlessly into a bin to be recycled. Plant manager Mickey Wilson steps outside the chamber, holding the rifle.
"We shoot every single gun before it goes to the customer," he says. The first round is a super-powerful, 150% proof load. "We want to make sure it won't blow up by giving it more charge than it would normally ever see out in the field." More shots follow, called function testing. When it leaves the factory, the AR-556 rifle will be able to place bullets in a bull's-eye the size of a quarter a football field away.
This is the birth of a gun at the Sturm, Ruger & Co. plant in Mayodan and part of one of North Carolina's fastest-growing, least-noticed and most paradoxical industries. Direct and induced economic impact in the state from firearms manufacturing, sales and related activities totaled nearly $2 billion last year, including more than $540 million in wages, according to a trade-group study. Federal officials now license 364 gun manufacturers in North Carolina, from artisans turning out a few hand-crafted weapons annually to titans such as Ruger. That's a 26% increase since 2013.
North Carolina is embracing its burgeoning gun business, while other states with historic ties to firearms manufacturing have gotten tougher on the industry. Fear engendered by the continuing toll of mass shootings, stoked by politicians and talk-radio and cable TV pundits, is driving sales, enabling gunmakers to overcome obstacles that would stop other industries in their tracks. Potentially devastating news, such as the 2012 shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., boosts demand as buyers anticipate gun bans or tighter restrictions.
"After Sandy Hook, I was 4,200 rifles backordered in two weeks," says Andrew Barnes, who employs 25 people at his Apex gunmaking company, Barnes Precision Machine Inc. Ruger CEO Michael Fifer told stock analysts in February he's encouraging wholesalers to build inventory ahead of the November elections. Polls suggest that the next president will be Hillary Clinton, whose support for some gun-control measures has prompted denunciations from the National Rifle Association. "The day after the election, it's too late," says Fifer, whose company is based in Southport, Conn., 30 miles from Sandy Hook in an area called "Gun Valley" because of its many manufacturers. "We'll see a step up in demand if a Democrat wins, particularly so if they win the Senate."
Charlotte gun-shop owner Larry Hyatt used to bank on hunting season and Christmas to draw traffic. "Now, we have the political season as the big driver of gun sales," he says. "We don't want to be political--we have customers of every age, background and political persuasion --but you have to be aware of the political part."
Within a month of the Sandy Hook tragedy, New York stiffened its assault-weapon ban, cut the number of rounds a gun can hold from 10 to seven, froze state pension-plan investments in arms manufacturers and dumped its stock in Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., a publicly traded gunmaker founded in 1852. Soon, Connecticut followed with similar measures, including a new requirement for background checks. Four months after Sandy Hook, Maryland followed with a fingerprinting requirement and other tougher measures.
North Carolina took a different...