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Fully Loaded: Inside the Shadowy World of America’s 10 Biggest Gunmakers


by Josh Harkinson | Published: Monday, November 06, 2017

They are all white, all middle-aged, and all men. A few live openly lavish lifestyles, but the majority fly under the radar. Rarely is there news about them in the mainstream media or even the trade press. Their obscurity would seem unremarkable if we were talking about the biggest manufacturers of auto accessories or heating systems. But these are America’s top gunmakers—leaders of the nation’s most controversial industry. They have kept their heads down and their fingerprints off regulations designed to protect their businesses—foremost a law that shields gun companies from liability for crimes committed with their products.

With this investigation, Mother Jones set out to break through the opacity surrounding the $8 billion firearms industry and the men who control it. While the three largest companies disclose some financials, the rest are privately held. Some are further shrouded by private-equity funds or shell corporations based in overseas tax havens. We mined manufacturing data and import statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). We also examined obscure press clippings, court documents, private industry reports, and tax records from the Treasury Department. Together, the 10 companies we investigated produce more than 8 million firearms per year for buyers in the United States, accounting for more than two-thirds of the total market. (None of the companies responded to our requests for further information.)

Many of these companies’ top executives have donned the jacket bestowed to members of the Golden Ring of Freedom, an exclusive club for $1 million-plus donors to the National Rifle Association. Several have been the focus of criminal investigations and lawsuits over everything from arms trafficking and fraud to armed robbery and racketeering.

As the debate over gun laws has grown louder, sales have soared. In the year following the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the three largest gunmakers—Sturm Ruger, Remington Outdoor, and Smith & Wesson—netted more than $390 million in profits on record sales. Shares in publicly traded Sturm Ruger and Smith & Wesson jumped more than 70 percent that year, benefiting institutional investors such as Vanguard, Blackrock, and Fidelity. The hedge fund that owns Remington Outdoor—maker of the assault rifle used in Newtown—saw the annual return on its investment grow tenfold.

And the picture looks no different today, on the heels of the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. President Barack Obama once again mournfully addressed the nation after the massacre in Orlando—which was carried out with a Sig Sauer assault rifle designed for US special operations forces, the civilian sales of which have helped make Sig Sauer the fifth largest producer of firearms for the US market. In what has become a typical pattern after gun massacres, the stock prices of publicly traded Sturm Ruger and Smith & Wesson on Monday both jumped more than 6 percent (on a day when all the broader market averages dropped).

The upshot is that even as gun ownership has declined from approximately half to one-third of American households, those who do own guns are stockpiling them in record numbers. As the head of one investment firm put it, “Mr. Obama is the best gun salesman on the planet.”

1. Sturm Ruger



“No honest man needs more than 10 rounds in any gun,” a Sturm Ruger co-founder, the late William Ruger Sr., told Tom Brokaw in 1992. “I never meant for simple civilians to have my 20- or 30-round mags or my folding stock.” By 1994, with even Ronald Reagan voicing support, Congress banned high-capacity magazines as well as assault rifles. But a decade later, lawmakers let the ban expire amid pressure from the National Rifle Association. By then the elder Ruger was deceased, and the Connecticut-based company resumed civilian sales of 30-round magazines. Since 2007, the company has sold more guns in the United States than any other manufacturer.

As the business grew, Sturm Ruger CEO Michael Fifer lobbied personally against a Connecticut ban on high-capacity magazines, commonly used with the company’s semi-automatic rifles. “The regulation of magazine capacity will not deter crime, but will instead put law-abiding citizens at risk of harm,” Fifer wrote to state lawmakers in early 2011. The legislation died in committee that April. At the NRA’s annual Corporate Executives Luncheon the next year, Fifer presented a check to the group for more than $1.25 million—$1 for every Sturm Ruger gun purchased the prior year. Eight months later, 20-year-old Adam Lanza used a semi-auto­matic rifle and a 30-round magazine to gun down 20 children and six adults at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, located just 27 miles from Sturm Ruger’s headquarters.

In the year following the shooting, Sturm Ruger’s profits increased 56 percent. Fifer’s compensation that year was more than $2.6 million. He sits on the board of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a lobby group based in Newtown and run by former Sturm Ruger executive Steve Sanetti. Sturm Ruger’s largest shareholders are mutual fund giant Vanguard Group and a private investment firm, London Company of Virginia, which has assets worth $10.6 billion, including holdings in ammunition, cigarettes, missiles, and caskets.

2. Remington Outdoor



Shortly after Newtown, Stephen Feinberg, CEO of the $29 billion private-equity fund Cerberus Capital Manage­ment, pledged to sell off Remington Outdoor, the maker of the Bushmaster XM-15 used in the massacre. The company soon indicated it couldn’t find a buyer, but notably Remington’s profits increased nearly thirtyfold over the next year, with the biggest jump in sales coming from assault rifles. The company attributed the spike to “consumer concern over more restrictive governmental regulation.” With stakeholders such as the California teachers’ pension fund threatening to divest, Cerberus distanced itself from the politics. “Our role is to make investments on behalf of our clients,” the company stated. “It is not our role to take positions or attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate.”



In May 2013, the NRA inducted three Remington executives—CEO George Kollitides, Vice Chairman Wally McLallen, and President Scott Blackwell—into its Golden Ring of Freedom, reserved for those who’ve given the NRA at least $1 million. Kollitides has also served on the nominating committee that controls who sits on the NRA board. “It’s very easy to blame an inanimate object,” Kollitides said of the Bushmaster rifle used in Newtown.

After New York state enacted stricter gun laws in 2013, Remington laid off workers at its 200-year-old factory there and moved production to Huntsville, Alabama, where it gets $69 million in state and local subsidies—or about $14 for every Alabama resident. On a tour of the new plant, Remington and NRA executives were joined by GOP Sen. Richard Shelby—a co-sponsor of the 2005 law shielding gun companies from liability—who was running for reelection. The NRA executive endorsed Shelby’s campaign as Remington’s current CEO, Jim “Marco” Marcotuli (formerly a Cerberus executive), stood smiling at Shelby’s side.

3. Smith & Wesson



In August 2013, upward of 150 Smith & Wesson employees descended on a hearing with Massachusetts legislators to denounce proposed gun restrictions. The following year, CEO James Debney, already a member of the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom, presented NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre with a check for an additional $600,000. “Through its various programs, pro-gun-reform legislation, and grassroots efforts,” Debney said, “the existence of the NRA is crucial to the preservation of the shooting sports and to the entire firearms industry.”

America’s third-largest gunmaker has come a long way from a deal it cut in 2000 with the Clinton administration. Back then, Smith & Wesson received immunity from product liability lawsuits in exchange for agreeing to install safety devices, not to sell to unscrupulous dealers, and to limit bulk handgun sales. It also pledged to make “smart gun” technology available within three years.


The deal enraged industry bigwigs. “Boycott Smith now and forever. Run them out of the country,” an executive at rival Kimber America wrote to fellow firearms leaders. “You guys need to make sure that no one else is going to join the surrender.” After a boycott led by the NRA sent sales plummeting more than 40 percent, Smith & Wesson’s British parent company sold it at a $100 million loss to Saf-T-Hammer Corp., a startup run by Robert L. Scott, a former Smith & Wesson VP. Scott reneged on the Clinton deal. “It was important that we be an active part of the industry again,” he said in a 2002 deposition. (Today, Scott chairs the board of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.)

The company soon drew attention in other ways. In 2004, the Arizona Republic reported that 74-year-old Chairman James Joseph Minder had once been a serial armed robber known as the “shotgun bandit” who’d committed eight holdups in Michigan. (Minder soon resigned.) In 2010, a VP of sales was indicted for attempting to bribe an FBI officer posing as an African emissary taking bids on a $15 million arms deal. And in 2014, Smith & Wesson agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges that it had bribed foreign officials in Pakistan and Indonesia.

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