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SI profile: the Burris Company and the future.

SI Profile:


Don Burris, an acknowledged wizard in the design of firearms optical equipment and the founder of the scope company which bears his name, died in late 1988. A large number of companies founded by entrepreneurs do not survive long after the deaths of their founders, so a lot of people in the firearms industry have wondered if the company Don Burris built will survive, much less thrive, in the crowded and highly competitive market for firearms optics. After touring the Burris Company's modern facility in Greeley, Colorado, interviewing the senior management and inspecting a significant new product line, the Burris Company is thriving and just itching to go "mano-a-mano" against its competition.

Don Burris, an Oklahoma native with a degree in mechanical engineering from Oklahoma State University, had worked for the Redfield scope company from 1960 until 1971. He had designed a number of valuable innovations in firearms optics such as the Widefield lenses, the first internally adjustable target scope, and the ranging feature known as "accurange." At the time the Redfield Company was sold in 1971 Don Burris held an equity position in the company. Never one to brood, Don took his share of the proceeds from Redfield's sale and moved up to Greeley, a small college and farming community one hour's drive north of Denver, where be started his own gun sight company.

Don actually started off by manufacturing iron sights. Redfield had not wanted to continue with the manufacture of iron sights, so Burris began to manufacture the well known and popular "partridge" front sight with its solid post outline and brass faced 45 degree facet cut on the rear sight surface for better definition. The "patridge" and gold bead front sights, which are supplied on the majority of American produced rifles as original equipment, are manufactured by Burris, and Burris is the largest supplier of iron sights to the American market.

But Don's primary interest had always been the manufacture of high quality optics for firearms, and not too long after founding his own company Burris was back in the scope making business in a big way. From the onset of scope manufacturing operations in Greeley. Don Burris wanted absolute first quality firearms scopes, and he wanted them one hundred percent made in America. Some people might say that with the global integration of manufacturing and marketing operations present in today's economy, the emphasis on one hundred percent American made products is outmoded. Perhaps. But for whatever reason, perhaps the fact that Don was extremely proud of his American Indian heritage, Don Burris insisted that his scopes be made of all American produced components assembled in America. The dual hallmarks of absolute first quality and one hundred percent American manufacture endure today at Burris.

In recent years there has been a veritable invasion of the American optical market of high quality (and some not so high quality) scopes from European and Japanese manufacturers. Make no mistake, the best of these foreign-made scopes are very, very good. But the management philosophy which Don Burris built into his company, and which his successors are following, is that American design and manufacturing techniques need not take a back seat to any country's technologies or production abilities.

"Our Burris scopes are just as good, and in many ways superior to, the best that European and Japanese manufacturers are turning out," Gordon McClain, Burris' Sales Manager, told me during my visit to the Burris plant. "Our optical quality is equal to the best that the foreign competition offers," Gordon continued, "and we offer far more types of scopes than the foreign competition can ever afford to offer in this country. And when you compare our prices against the prices of not only the foreign competition but our domestic competitors as well, our scopes have a marked advantage."

International economics bear out this claim. Years ago most American scope manufacturers purchased their lenses from American suppliers if they did not shape and grind their own. However, lower production costs overseas lured a number of American scope manufacturers to source their lenses off-shore. The results --for a time--were lower total production costs compared to domestically produced scopes. However, as most of SI readers know, the American dollar has fallen dramatically against the more robust currencies of Japan, Germany and Austria. That decline has increased the price that American manufacturers have to pay for their foreign sourced lenses, and more than any other factor has been the driving force behind recent price increases.

Off-shore production has other perils as well. One major source of scope lenses is Korea, but Korea has recently lost its "most favored nation" treatment by the American government which effectively means that tariffs and import duties have increased. American scope manufacturers who have been incorporating off-shore sourced lenses into their products are now scrambling to find American sources for their scope lenses.

Ironically, American scope manufacturers -- with the exception of Burris -- must now pay duty of scope sights imported into Canada. The U.S.-Canada Free Trade Treaty recently ratified by both the United States and Canada, permits duty free entry of one hundred percent American made products, but assesses duty on the proportionate amount of foreign sourced components incorporated into a finished product.

All of these factors mean that any price increases you may see from Burris won't be nearly as steep as the price increases other American manufacturers and importers will have to post in order to maintain a decent profit margin.

"We've always purchased our lenses from Plummer Precision Optics of Pennsylvania and have a very good business relationship with Plummer," Gordon McClain told me. "Plummer does a lot of national defense work, and our purchases from Plummer are only a small part of their overall revenues. However, we've always believed in cultivating good relations with our suppliers and working closely with them to obtain the best quality possible. That's something which the Japanese are credited with discovering, but we've been doing it, as well as other things such as this `Just-in-Time' delivery schedule you've heard so much about, ever since Don started the company."

All in all, I expect to see the prices of Burris scopes remaining fairly stable over the long term, with normal adjustments for inflation, but the prices of other scope manufacturers' products will be more volatile. Holding the line of prices and settling for nothing less but high quality products has led to a doubling of sales at Burris from 1986 to 1989. Gordon McClain is projecting sales growth of 25 percent annually, and is quite pleased with the fact that Burris has exceeded these projections for the last two years.

So, what does the future hold for Burris? "We're very excited about the Signature Series scopes which Don had been working on at the time of his death," Gordon told me. "With this scope there is absolutely no reason to follow the other scope manufacturers into the 30 millimeter thicket. Don designed an interior lens which is 40 percent greater in diameter than the normal lens, yet still fits within our one-inch tube. This larger lens, coupled with the `light collector' feature and the larger 44 millimeter objective lens enables a shooter to adjust the scope so more light enters the scope during twilight conditions."

The Signature Series scopes do not have the greater bulk and weight that the 30 millimeter scopes have gained. Gordon McClain assured me that Burris has no intention of increasing the objective lens size of any of its scopes past 44 millimeters. The increased objective lens diameter of the 30 millimeter scope tubes has generally meant that a slightly higher set of rings is necessary to properly mount a 30 millimeter scope on a rifle.

Gordon showed me a 30 millimeter scope manufactured by one of Burris' competitors. The internal lenses were exactly the same size as the lenses used in that company's one-inch scopes, although the objective lens was substantially larger. Since one-inch equals 25.4 millimeters, how does this other scope manufacturer add 4.6 millimeters to get a 30 millimeter diameter scope? Merely by increasing the thinkness of the tube walls! The internal scope diameter remains the same in order to accommodate the normal one-inch components! Granted, the larger objective lens may gather more light, but to do nothing more to make a 30 millimeter scope than to increase the wall thickness of the tube strikes me as bordering on the unethical.

Incidentally, I had occasion to send back a scope to this company for repairs to damages incurred during an Afraican safari last summer. No, I didn't drop the scope, and it wasn't banged around on the safari truck. The rifle I used was one of Melvin Forbes' excellent Ultra Lights chambered for the .425 Express. The recoil of this combination of rifle and cartridge was just too much for the scope, and on the third sighting-in shot I fired in Africa, a small crack appeared in the lower left quadrant of the ocular lens, and several pieces of sealent were plastered against the inside of the ocular lens.

The scope went back to the manufacturer after I returned to the States, accompanied by a letter detailing my observations and requesting the company's comments as to how the damages were incurred. The scope was ultimately returned to me, but while it had been repaired there was no explanation from the company concerning how the scope could have been damaged.

"Don probably knew he didn't have long to live," Gordon McClain said as we were examining the new Signature Series. "He left us with a great heritage as a scope manufacturer, a sound financial basis and great products for the American shooter."

Don Burris has relinquished the helm of the Burris Company to John McCarty, company president, and Gordon McClain, sales manager. But not before he carefully plotted the course he wanted the company to follow. What I saw at Greeley tells me that the new crew will keep the company moving forward confidently into the future with pride in Burris' one hundred percent American made product line. That is a fitting testimonial to the man who built the company, and a measure of the men he left in charge.

PHOTO : Don Burris, founder of the Burris Company, died in 1988, leaving Burris with a great

PHOTO : heritage as a scope maker.

PHOTO : High speed multi-spindel machines are used for precision, speed and efficiency.

PHOTO : Recoil simulator and high speed vibration tester. Recoil is in excess of .458.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Publishers' Development Corporation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:firearm optics manufacturer
Author:Fender, James E.
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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