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New ideas are the best defense.

New American ammunition factories may be as scarce as loggers who like owls, but Lewiston, Idaho-based Blount, Inc. invested $8.8 million in a brand new, 25-acre military ammunition facility dedicated in July 1990. The new plant sits on a hill in South Port, Idaho, above 400 acres of open grasslands overlooking the steep Snake River Breaks. It's doubtful a more scenic corporate site exists anywhere in the country.

You might wonder about an ammunition plant expansion aimed at military markets in this age of the thawing Cold War. When asked about defense spending cuts at the new plant dedication. Winton Blount, founder and chairman of the board of Blount Industries, said, "In the long term there might be some impact, but we have four-year contracts with the Department of Defense," as well as business with foreign governments.

Warren Cloniger, a Blount spokesman at the Sporting Equipment Division, said, "We're making blanks for tests and primers. It's mostly training ammunition, so we don't expect a decline in orders."

Experts expect decreases in military budgets to affect big ticket programs and high-tech developments rather than the relatively "low-tech" primers and ammunition to be made at Blount's new plant. With a smaller military focused on brush fire wars and insurrections, it's likely the demand for small arms ammunition, primers, and other Blount specialties will grow.

Putting It All Together

Like most ammunition plants, separate buildings contain each specific process to minimize the effects of accidents, and massive underground bunkers store the product until it's shipped. Offices and lunchrooms, a chemistry lab, chemical storage, tetracene manufacture, lead styphnate manufacture, styphnic acid manufacture, chemical mixing facilities and a waste treatment center are widely scattered. Two separate buildings assemble rimfire and centerfire primers.

The new plant, built to military guidelines, represents a major change in corporate thinking. Blount now actively seeks contracts from the military and police departments as well as off-shore markets. With a state-of-the-art facility, Blount hopes to radically increase production.

According to Darrel F. Inman, General Manager of Blount's Sporting Goods Division, "Blount built the new plant because the older operation, doing $55 million of business a year, was not large enough. Military specifications require more separation between facilities."

Of course, government contracts offer both opportunity and obstacles. Tough specs and the usual Environmental Protection Agency standards caused some construction delays. One of the wettest springs in memory also slowed down the operation. These, along with some changes made in new contracts, contributed to the nearly $2 million cost overrun.

The resulting modern facility, however, is a major advantage for Blount. This newest U.S. ammunition plant easily meets all government requirements and, unlike some older plants, has considerable room for expansion as well. This should help in the acquisition of new government contracts.

The new plant will specialize in chemical manufacturing, rifle, shotgun, and pistol primers as well as primers for anti-tank weapons and basic and applied research. One example of the latter is the lead-free primer now under development. All of these projects and potential new products easily find space on the new property.

A Big Move In A Small Town

A few locals lament the move from the old riverfront plant when Omark purchased Blount in 1985. The old plant continues to produce Speer bullets, CCI primers, and rimfire ammunition as well as an assortment of other products.

When asked why they expanded in Lewiston, rather than offshore or at their other operations in California or Wisconsin, Blount mentioned the expertise of long-time workers and reasonable land and labor costs. Special incentives like the $2.6 million put up by local, county, and federal sources helped insure the plant's location on 413 acres near town too.

In return for the grants, Blount promised to create nearly 100 new jobs over a two-year period. They are less than 15 jobs from the goal after just one year thanks to a $2 million defense contract. Four pending contracts, like one for M-16 ammunition, could add a major expansion and over 100 new employees. At a time when so much of the gun and ammunition business goes abroad, the Blount expansion seems a good sign for American businesses flexible enough to locate in areas with willing labor forces and relatively low-cost labor and land.

Blount, a non-union shop, uses quality control circles and a unique hiring system to build employee skills and loyalty. New employees list on the "extras board" their first year and get $6.30 an hour. If they qualify according to the management and fellow workers, their pay increases to $8.70 an hour. The average for hourly workers is $10.12, pay tops out at $15.70. Respectable wages for Idaho and Eastern Washington where living costs are quite low.

Blount Quality Circles also keep employees focused on the business at hand. Several employees interviewed mentioned the pride they felt at being part of the "Blount Family" rather than merely wage earners. Blount avoids strikes and labor disputes with a bargaining agreement that sets wages by averaging those at other firms in the area. Obviously this works -- Blount, with 650 employees, is the second largest employer in town.

Blount also enjoys another major advantage that ensures smooth expansion: excellent relations with the towns of Lewiston and Clarkston across the Snake River in Washington, and with area governments. Employees are heavily involved with the local community. Employee Delitha Kilgore is mayor of Lewiston.

This local rapport goes back 47 years to the days when Vernon Speer first moved his bullet manufacturing business from Lincoln, Neb. to this riverfront town. Speer Inc., the bullet company, and brother Richard Speer's Cascade Cartridge, well know for CCI primers, worked hard to support worthy local projects as they boot strapped their business to employ over 100 people.

Richard sold CCI to Omark in 1967, Vernon sold his business to Omark eight years later. Omark, with more financial clout, was able to remodel and expand the old facilities and support a wide range of local activities.

In 1985, Blount, Inc. took over and seems likely to continue in the same community cooperative spirit. Blount supports activities like the PBS show Idaho Outdoors which covers fishing and hunting as well as the non-consumptive outdoor sports more familiar to public television. Blount and it's employees are also strong supporters of the excellent shooting grounds between the new plant and the Lewiston Airport.

These kinds of programs insure the future cooperation between Blount, Blount employees, area residents, and government that may be needed for survival by all American companies in the arms and ammunition business that face the dual threats of low offshore wages and growing anti-gun sentiment. Residents and politicians in small rural towns appreciate new jobs, support traditional activities such as shooting sports, and supply a willing work force sometimes lacking in urban areas. This could be one reason why more companies move away from the higher costs in urban and suburban areas each year.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:ammunition plant expansion of Blount Inc.
Author:Bignami, Louis
Publication:Shooting Industry
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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