Redmond grows a firearms cluster.
From the outside, the building is a bit of a mystery. It sits alone on a dusty 4-acre lot in northeast Redmond on a road that ends abruptly in dirt. The windows are tinted. No signs betray what’s inside. But push through the doors and the answers emerge from the hustle of the workers gliding around boxes of mounts and silencers.
This is the new home of Radian Weapons, makers of some of the world’s most innovative assault rifles.
A stack of Radian Weapons' Model 1 AR-15 rifles on a shelf in the new warehouse
The company moved to this part of Central Oregon in late February from Salem, where it started as a machine shop in 2001. The unpacking had just begun and the company’s 42-year-old CEO and founder Joshua Underwood couldn’t have been more pleased.
For years he’d been working out of a pole barn and using his 2,300-square-foot house as a makeshift warehouse and office space. Rifle components spilled from his closets. He had employees in his bedrooms. Now he lords over 18,000 square feet of brand-new shop space plus another 7,000 for offices, and that is more than enough to hold thousands upon thousands of his Oregon-made AR-15s and accessories that he sells worldwide for up to about $2,700 a piece.
“The whole political atmosphere over in Salem is very different, you know, pretty liberal and somewhat anti-gun,” Underwood says. “Here, we had a meeting with the City of Redmond, and they were like, ‘We love gun companies, we want you here, and here are all the things we can do for you if you come here.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’”
A history of advanced manufacturing
Radian is the most recent firearm-related company to come to Redmond, a growing city that over the past five years has been quietly recruiting gun manufacturers to create what is now an unmistakable cluster.
The move has played off the city’s advanced metals manufacturing businesses that have long called the area home. Just as the Portland area has a sports apparel cluster and southern Oregon has a heavy-lift helicopter cluster, Redmond wants to grow its manufacturing cluster and guns present an opportunity.
“Industry follows talent and we’ve had a talent here for metals,” says Jon Stark, director of Redmond Economic Development, the regional economic development agency.
There are now at least seven firearms-related companies in town that do business internationally and officials are actively looking for more of these “traded sector” companies to bring in higher wages and deeper payrolls. A few businesses, (like Radian, MOA Rifles and Colfax Tactical) make actual firearms, while others, (like Cerakote Coatings, which creates thin film ceramics for everything from firearms to eye wear), bolster the supply chain with components and accessories.
On average, Oregon’s manufacturing businesses pay workers more than $60,000 a year and creating clusters of them is a more efficient way for communities to grow their economies. “It’s a shot in the dark to just pick a random company and try to get it to move to town,” says Jeremy Rogers, vice president of the Oregon Business Council, which launched the Oregon Industry Cluster Network in 2005.
“If you can say that you’re the center of the world for making something — that you have the workforce, the talent pool, the community colleges that offer the training — it’s far more attractive.”
Larry Myers of Redmond Black Rifle/Colfax Tactical holding one of his custom rifels at his shop in Redmond
But making firearms comes with an emotional charge that making, say, avionics, does not, and in that regard Redmond is appealing to the gun industry for other reasons, too.
Some of the city’s firearms businesses, like MOA Rifles, came to town because the owner, Bob Beck of Newberg, liked the area.
Others, like Colfax Tactical — which does business as Redmond Black Rifle and makes high-end, custom firearms like AR-15s — relocated from California in 2012 in part to seek solace from high insurance fees ($4,000 a year in Redmond versus $65,000 in Colfax) and an anti-gun culture that the owner, Larry Myers, found to be overbearing. “It was either Redmond, Oregon, or Gun Barrel [City], Texas,” he says with a laugh. “Redmond was ideal for us. It’s centrally located and redneck enough for a redneck like me to like.”
Redmond’s rural conservative culture is perhaps a natural fit for firearms businesses. Redmond Mayor George Endicott can remember back in the ’70s when Redmond’s mills would shut down so everyone could go elk hunting.
“They would hire guys who weren’t hunters for maintenance,” he says.
But so many decades later, as stricter gun control efforts appear to gain momentum in the wake of more mass shootings, and as Redmond urbanizes, city officials are mindful of the delicate balance between promoting economic growth and an ever shifting public opinion. “The conversation was easier before these [shootings] happened,” says Stark. “We do our due diligence. We’ve been cautious in how we step into this.”
Redmond rolls out the welcome wagon
For Underwood, the move to Redmond was a nice surprise. He’d worked for years as a designer and programmer creating components on contract mostly for medical and aerospace industries, but he’d always loved hunting, fishing and firearms. In 2009 he decided to start making his own assault rifle components, and he hit it big when he figured out a more efficient way to solve a common problem with semi-automatic rifles: the dreaded jam.
“Redmond was ideal for us. It’s centrally located and redneck enough for a redneck like me to like.” — Larry Myers
ARs use the exhaust from an ignited round to help ready the next round, but sometimes two rounds try to sneak into the chamber at the same time. That’s called a “double feed” and it jams everything up, rendering the rifle temporarily useless.
The fix involves pressing various releases and locks as the rifleman retracts the firing mechanism, removes the magazine, clears out the offending round, reinserts the magazine and cocks the rifle again, all of which requires moving your hands around both sides of the gun in a rather awkward sequence. Underwood figured out a way to make one button do multiple tasks, regardless of whether the user is right- or left-handed, thereby streamlining the fix drastically.
“When we first released a video on it, it went viral with people saying ‘Holy cow, this is amazing,’” Underwood says. He then created an ambidextrous charging handle that allows the user to cock the rifle using either hand. The Raptor, which retails for $60 to $100, is now one of the company’s best selling accessories. His clients include other larger manufacturers that buy it to use on their own firearms.
“We do our due diligence. We’ve been cautious in how we step into this.” — Jon Stark
With business booming, Underwood needed more space. A warehouse in Wilsonville and another in Salem fell through but then a third unit in Redmond popped up offering a lease with an option to buy. Redmond threw in some incentives. Underwood accepted and brought 25 jobs with him. “I’ve always wanted to live over here for the outdoors, the weather,” he says. “I tell people here what I do and they think that’s awesome.”
A worker assembing rifle components at Radian Weapons
About 2.5 miles south of Radian and just off Southeast Veterans Way sits Colfax Tactical, a showroom and shop where Myers works out of a small side office where rifles serve as decor. For years he based his business out of Colfax, California — thus the name.
But after state officials set up a sting on him in which a buyer tried (but failed) to get a firearm illegally, Myers said he wanted out of the state, which he calls “the people’s republic of free-range yogurt.” To this day he says he pre-empts the hassles and doesn’t ship to California any of his rifles, which are custom and go for upwards of $5,000. He’d heard of Central Oregon and visited a few times. He also liked the name “Gun Barrel [City,] Texas,” so he checked out that town of about 6,000 people, too. Alas, he couldn’t ski in Texas, where the mosquitos were “big enough to file flight plans,” he says. “I’m a mountain guy.”
Redmond rolled out the welcome wagon for him too, he says. “I wanted to make sure, that before I spent $60,000 to $70,000 moving a machine shop up here that we would be welcome,” he says. So he met with the police chief, Endicott and Stark. “I said to them, ‘Look, do you guys want a gun manufacturer here?’ They said, ‘How soon can you be here?’”
Sharon Preston of Ladies of Lead Group Therapy posing before her laser shot video training program
Other firearm-related businesses have moved to Redmond too. In the heart of downtown attached to a martial arts studio and near a bank you’ll find Ladies of Lead Group Therapy.
In 2012 Sharon Preston started the company, which specializes in training women in personal defense strategies using firearms, after she sold the Rakkan Equestrian Center that she owned for 20 years. With her children out of the house and her husband often away for work, she got serious about using firearms for personal defense, took lots of training through groups like the National Rifle Association, and then grew interested in training other women, too. She moved to Redmond after selling the ranch.
“I’ve always wanted to live over here for the outdoors, the weather. I tell people here what I do and they think that’s awesome.” — Joshua Underwood
Endicott, whom Preston calls “amazing and a great marksman,” was again very welcoming, but her business was too small to attract any incentives. As part of her training programs, Preston uses a Laser Shot Virtual Infrared Training System that allows students to interact with videos projected onto a large screen that show various scenarios involving guns.
The mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, had just happened when I visited, and Preston handed me an infrared pistol painted bright red that mimicked a Glock 17 9mm. She loaded a scenario in which I entered a school library to find a student behind a table holding other students hostage with an assault rifle.
“Shout at him!” Preston told me. “Tell him to drop it!”
Before I could say anything, though, the shooter stood up and shot a girl in the back before I panicked and fired four virtual rounds, only one of which sent the assailant slumping to the floor.
“Now you see what we’re up against,” Preston said.
Gun ownership doesn't preclude concern about the wave of horrific school shootings, she added. “I can be pro-second amendment, and I can also hate all of this gun violence."
Around 750 new residents move to Redmond every year.
A conservative community, where the demographics are changing
There is no doubt that guns are an increasingly divisive topic these days, which means the business of making them will never be just business. So far that’s not the case in Redmond, which sends representatives to trade shows, produces marketing materials and helps companies eyeing a move to arrange interviews for potential employees.
But attitudes in the city of about 30,000 people could be changing as Redmond becomes more urban.“We see our growth as brisk,” says Deborah McMahon, Redmond’s community development planning manager.
About 750 new residents move to town every year, she says, and more than 1,300 new homes have come online since the end of the recession. Meanwhile, Redmond voters are becoming increasingly independent. Since 2002 both the Republican and Democratic parties have each lost about 10 percentage% of voter share while non-affiliated residents now make up the largest voting bloc at 34%, according to Deschutes County statistics.
No matter what happens on a federal level with gun laws, local economies often trump national politics. People want jobs and guns are good money in Redmond. More non-traded sector companies, like Redmond Firearms, a training and consignment business, continue to flesh out the cluster as demand increases.
Even so, communities change and with them the businesses that call them home.
“Everyone knows that the forest buttered our bread in this state for a long time and during the heyday you had timber companies with headquarters in Portland,” Rogers adds. “But Oregonians changed their opinions on that industry. That’s not why those headquarters moved, but it’s part of it, that changing culture. You see that now with fossil fuels and hubs for their export. The economy is far more politicized than it used to be.”
Stark, the economic director, is all too aware of that as he gazes toward Redmond’s future: “Redmond is a conservative community, but it’s changing,” he says. “At the end of the day, though, this is a rural community.”
Endicott puts it more bluntly: “We’re not the moral police.”
A version of this article appears in the April issue of Oregon Business. To subscribe click here.