A storied gun maker and the town with which it thrives
Ilion, N.Y. — it is reasonable to assume, I would venture, that nobody much cares if his toaster was made in China. Nor are we greatly vexed that our television set was manufactured in Korea and our khakis stitched together in the Philippines. Price, quality, and convenience have long inured even the most renitent of Americans to the regularity of free trade. Where once possessing foreign-built goods was a sign of sophistication, it is now quotidian. Who, after all, would boast to his guests that his kitchen furniture is “from Sweden”?
Yet there still exist some products that benefit enormously from that captivating “Made in America” label. Motorcycles, especially in the cruiser market, are one such example. The other is firearms. The term “gun culture” is so widely and indiscriminately bandied around American political discourse that it has come to mean next to nothing, but it is true nonetheless that since the first colonists arrived on these shores Americans have enjoyed a uniquely sentimental relationship with personal weaponry.
America’s gunsmiths are inextricably connected to the nation’s history. Smith and Wesson, Winchester, Springfield — these are names that inspire romantic reflection on revolutionary victory and the untamed West. There’s something quasi-religious about the firearm’s role in American lore: Simultaneously aping Genesis and the Declaration of Independence, a famous line holds that “God made man, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”
It is thus fitting that the longest continuously operating manufacturer in North America is a gun maker. The Remington Arms Co., which has been in business for just shy of two centuries now, is also the oldest company in the United States that is still making its original product. “A free people,” advised George Washington, “ought to be armed.” Well, America has a lot of free people nowadays, and they appear to have taken Washington’s words to heart. Demand for guns has never been higher. At Remington, as in general, the firearms business is booming.
This is particularly good news for Ilion, N.Y., where Remington’s flagship factory has stood, in one form or another, since 1816. Ilion, which was evidently named during the general enthusiasm for all things classical that marked the early 19th century, is a hospitable little town of around 8,000 people.
“Nothing bad happens here,” Remington’s CEO, George Kollitides, tells me as we drive around. “And if it does, everybody knows about it.” He pauses before those last four words, as if reciting a joke. On cue, the rest of our party joins in: “Everybody knows about it!” A few months ago, I’m told, local police arrested a man at gunpoint in front of the factory gates. People are still talking about it.
Ilion has a spa; a shoe shop; a trio of pizza joints (Franco’s, Sorrento, and Lombardo’s); a McDonald’s; a bowling alley; and a few more of exactly the sorts of places that you’d imagine you’d find in towns of its size. Pretty much all of the businesses rely on Remington for their livelihood. “That little shoe shop, for example,” Kollitides says, pointing, “makes all of our safety shoes.”
And so Remington tends to get its way in matters civic. “They moved the town so we could expand,” I’m told by plant manager Paul Merz. “See that factory building there? That used to be the center of town.” Later, I’m shown photographs of houses literally being picked up and transported down the street to make way for the plant.
They moved the Erie Canal, too. In 1827, the company, seeking access to the new waterway and to the expanding domestic market, switched from its original location in the Remington family forge at Ilion Gulch to a new position closer to the canal. Business boomed. Eighty-eight years later, the tables were turned: To facilitate the company’s growth, the town altered the canal’s path. “Ilion has molded itself to Remington,” Kollitides smiles.
To contemporary eyes, Ilion is a peculiar sight. I am reminded of Simon and Garfunkel’s uncharacteristically parochial track “My Little Town,” in which the duo describes “coming home after school / flying my bike past the gates of the factories / my mom doing the laundry / hanging our shirts in the dirty breeze” before qualifying the scene with the morbid observation that there is now “nothing but the dead and dying / back in my little town.” Spend a couple of minutes in many of America’s once-great manufacturing regions and you will appreciate this report. Yet it seems nobody told the people of Ilion that they were supposed to join the decline. This remains a good old-fashioned American success story — and, if anything, it’s getting better.
At the heart of the town’s continuing good fortune, as ever, is the factory. “Now compared to six months ago is night and day,” says Kollitides, who took the reins as CEO of the parent company, the Freedom Group, a little over a year ago. “We painted the walls, changed the lights, put in machinery, and invested $20 million. Last year, when I took over, we had guys in overalls covered in grease from the machinery. Now, we’re changing everything. This is a real bet on America.”
Walking the Edwardian building’s million square feet is an unusually pleasant experience. The floors are wooden and the halls are, in Paul Merz’s words, “narrow, like an aircraft carrier.” The place bustles: Thousands of half-assembled weapons are urgently moved around on trolleys, ready for the next stage — and the air is filled with the sound of drills, hammers, and hydraulic thrust. Last year, Ilion produced a million guns; this year it’s aiming to make 1.2 million. Everywhere there are charts showing improvement and increased production.
An Edward Hopper painting this is not. Aside from anything else, the prominently soulless McDonald’s and the collection of new pickup trucks and motorcycles outside the plant place one firmly in the 21st century. But those who long for a return to the heyday of strong community and local manufacturing will find a lot to like here. Most employees live within feet of where they work. They are “PTA members, football and baseball coaches, and churchgoers,” Kollitides tells me. The company prefers to manufacture in America, he continues. “We’re undoing outsourcing.”
Where possible, Remington also prefers to “hire military, law enforcement, and first responders.” There is an unspoken expectation, too, that employees believe in the importance of the Second Amendment, in conservation, and in the shooting sports. “It’s okay if you’re a vegetarian and you don’t agree with hunting,” Kollitides qualifies. “But it doesn’t make sense for us to have people working here who oppose what we’re doing. We want passionate people.”
Surprisingly for a company that operates in such a conservative field, Ilion is a union facility, the only one in Remington’s collection of factories or that of the Freedom Group. Chapter 717 of the United Mine Workers Association represents the more than 1,400 employees. I ask whether this makes a big difference. “No,” Kollitides says. “We have a great relationship with the union. The UMWA understands that the business needs to run.” I ask why that is. “Well, some employees can trace their lineage back four generations. They had great-grandfathers who worked here.”
I meet Joe Pugliese, a value-stream manager who has been with the company for 41 years. One man, Fred Supry, who retired recently, did a half-century. Another, Don Talbot, who will retire from the custom shop next week, has been here since 1971. Talbot, who has spent decades perfecting his trade, is an artist. Proudly, he shows me a 1911 handgun that a customer has sent in for work. He’s engraving a leaf-script pattern onto the barrel and the slide, and adding “Remington” in gold lettering.
“I’m waiting to see if I am picked for jury service next week,” he tells me. “If so, I’ll miss my last week here. It’s not how I imagined retiring!” I ask him whether he’ll miss it. “Of course!”
Paul Merz, Ilion’s charismatic plant manager and a former Navy engineer, points me toward Talbot’s shirt, which carries a “Support Our Troops” message stitched onto the left arm. “On Fridays, some of us wear them to recognize those who serve,” Talbot says, quietly. “It was awful after Vietnam how the soldiers were treated. It’s much better now.”
When we’ve left the area, Kollitides asks Merz, “What happens when Don leaves?” “We’re not sure” is the response. “How do you replace that?”
“We’re big on internal promotion,” Kollitides says. “All of our current team leaders were internally promoted. We’re not going to get 40 years of knowledge promoting off the street.”
I ask the predictable question: Despite the plant’s history and the cohesion of the town, do New York State’s business environment and sweeping new anti-gun legislation tempt the company to move? Some disgruntled gun enthusiasts believe that manufacturers should leave states that are hostile to their interests. Remington produces many weapons that are now illegal in New York State.
In answer, I am referred to a statement that was released immediately after Governor Cuomo signed the disastrous SAFE (Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement) Act in January. It reads: “Remington will not run or abandon its loyal and hard working 1,300 employees without considerable thought and deliberation. Laws can be overturned and politicians voted out of office, but the decisions we make today will affect our people, their families and entire communities for generations.”
The company is visibly conscious of its heritage and its story, which started, as so many engaging tales of invention do, with dissatisfaction. In the factory’s museum, I am shown some artifacts that belonged to founder Eliphalet Remington II, a hunter and competition shooter who in 1816 became convinced that he could build a better gun than he could buy. Remington set about crafting a barrel at his father’s forge and, when he was satisfied, added it to a gun kit he had purchased.
Sated, he took the gun to competition, where it made such an impression that fellow competitors asked if he’d consider building one for them. Orders began to pour in, and before he quite knew what had happened, Eliphalet Remington was a gunsmith — an American pioneer in an industry that had been dominated by foreign manufacturers.
In my naivety, I half-expected to find the Remington factory full of 18th-century gunsmiths sitting around making barrels with hammers and hand tools. Unsurprisingly, gun making nowadays is high tech. As part of the company’s new investment, computerized machinery is replacing the old tools apace. Now, with Remington midway through the transition, the two generations of machinery sit next to each other, like grandparents next to their grandchildren.
I’m shown a comparison of parts made on the old tools with parts made on the new. “With the old machines, a lot of the time we would have to work on the parts and file them down or perfect them,” an engineer explains. “Now it’s rare to have a dud.” And if there is a problem? “We just call up to the designers and they send down a modified file. Before it could take days to recalibrate the machinery.” The improvement is astonishing. This, it strikes me, is the end of the line — the point at which the transition from bespoke artistry to the exact science of mass manufacturing can be marked “complete.” Not only can we now mass-produce replacement parts but we can do so with breathtaking accuracy.
Yet inherent in this technology is a challenge. The process Remington is using here — in which small, computerized machines manufacture parts according to easily refined digital blueprints — is really just a larger-scale version of the 3D-printing process that currently has authorities in a tailspin. How long will it be before costs come down so much that one can build whole steel handguns in one’s garage? What will manufacturers such as Remington do to add value then?
I ask what happens if a part comes out wrong. “What does one do with a useless gun component?” “Well,” an engineer explains, “people don’t realize how heavily regulated we are. The federal government considers the receivers that we make down here to be the whole gun. So, whether it’s useful or not, it has to have a serial number. And if we destroy it, we have to cut it in half and document and photograph that in case they ask. Then we sell it off for scrap metal. But these new machines are significantly limiting our waste.” (A receiver is the part that contains the weapon’s vital operating components, such as the bolt, the magazine port, and the trigger assembly.)
From the production floor I am taken downstairs to the range, where my guides have promised me a little time to fire some weapons. First up is a Modular Sniper Rifle–Lightweight (MSR-LW), used by elite outfits in the U.S. military. Remington has just won a $79.7 million military contract to make 5,150 units plus provide ammunition and spare parts. “I can’t tell you exactly who is using these in the field,” Kollitides tells me. “But I think you can guess.” In its promotional material, the company observes that rarely in the last two centuries have Americans stepped onto the battlefield without Remington products in their arsenals. That this is still true is a clear point of pride.
I am familiarized with the rifle, which sits on a tripod and is calibrated toward a target at 200 yards’ range. “This weapon can kill a man from a mile and a half away,” Mike Streeter, head of Remington’s military department, tells me. “These .338 Lapua Magnum rounds cost five dollars each.” (I can see why. They are huge.) Although a suppressor has been attached, the rifle still makes one hell of a noise. When I pull its trigger, it recoils fiercely into my shoulder — and, the first time I fire it, the scope rams into my face. For my second shot, I push my shoulder more securely against the stock. This time, I do a little better, but it’s nothing to write home about.
After I flick the rifle’s safety back on and stand up, Streeter’s face lights up. “Do you want to go full auto?” he asks me, with a grin. Of course I do. So we move the MSR-LW out of the way and he hands me a select-fire AR-15. After firing a couple of test shots, I flick the switch to automatic and empty the magazine into a nearby target. I laugh: “I can see why these are so popular!” “Fun, huh?!” asks Paul Merz, watching from the next room. You’re damn right it is.
Criticizing manufacturing, the writer and academic Jeffrey Eugenides sneered in his book Middlesex that “people stopped being people in 1913.” That, he wrote, “was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line.” I might humbly suggest that Eugenides go up to Ilion, N.Y., for the people there have certainly not stopped “being people.” Quite the opposite, in fact. Amid all the bad economic news and the continued decline of manufacturing, Remington and its town present a ray of hope. The state government may be doing everything in its power to make life difficult for gun makers, but Ilion looks likely to thrive well into its third century nonetheless.