Buy local. It's such a common slogan these days that few of us ponder the meaning. But behind the buzzwords is a philosophy. Vegetables grown on local soil don't needlessly consume fossil fuels in transportation. Timber felled and processed into finished lumber at a family mill keeps the calloused hands of neighbors busy and oils the local economic machine instead of enhancing the stock ticker of a national chain.
Fair enough, you might say—it's easy to find all sorts of top-quality, made-in-Montana products, from lumber and produce to Thanksgiving turkey and beer. But what's a Montanan to do about another beloved item—a rifle?
If you aim to buy local, you're in luck.
Of all the Montana-made hard goods for sporting folks—drift boats, backpacks, fly rods and wall tents, among them—rifle-shooters just might have the finest range of options. Many of them can be found under a single roof.
Housed in an unpretentious metal building in lush farm country in Kalispell, the Montana Rifle Company is one rifle-maker that perfectly weds the values of community-based consumerism and fine firearms. With local owners and a dedicated workforce whose morning commute scarcely allows the coffee time to cool, the company is quietly garnering a reputation for rifles with impeccable accuracy, innovative finishes and superior design at a price within reach of almost any committed enthusiast.
The heart of Montana Rifle, founded in 1999 by local gunsmith Brian Sipe, is an action of his own design. For those unschooled in the mechanics of the modern rifle, the "action" simply refers to the mechanism that transfers the cartridge from the magazine to the chamber at the rear of the barrel, and then holds it in place for firing.
For several decades, two rifle actions have dominated the nation's custom rifle-making craft: the Winchester Model 70 and the Mauser 98. Incorporating the best features of the Winchester and the Mauser—the smooth, reliable trigger and three-position safety of the former, and the beefy cartridge extractor of the latter—Sipe created an action best described as a hybrid of the two. Dubbed the Model 1999, it also features an improved gas venting system that protects the shooter in the unlikely event there's a primer blowout. (A rupture in the primer, the component that ignites the powder charge, can shoot vapors toward the face.)
For hunters, the most important qualities of a rifle action are durability and ease of operation. Montana Rifle's 1999 action excels in both. When I arrived for a visit to the company's headquarters, Jeff Sipe, Brian's son and the current owner, was putting the finishing touches on a rifle. While I waited for him to complete his work, I plucked a rifle from the rack in the showroom. Working the action, I found it silky smooth. My thumb easily reached the three-position safety, the mechanism gliding forward and aft with just enough tension to clearly feel the various positions without binding.
As I replaced the rifle on the rack, a figure came striding from the production area to the showroom. A smiling, sandy-haired fellow extended a hand in my direction. "I'm Jeff. Nice to meet you."
For the next several hours, I followed Jeff on an intimate tour of his family gun-making operation, from the production area and the showroom to the rifle range. Along the way, my appreciation for the challenges of producing a superb rifle at a reasonable price heightened considerably.
In the shop area, two gunsmiths fitted parts on an action while another prepared a barrel. Gesturing at the workmanship, Jeff described the frustrations of being a small manufacturing operation dependent on outside sources for parts.
"We've gone through dozens of vendors over the years," he explained. "Custom guns are expected to function flawlessly. It comes down to finding sources for parts with very exacting tolerances, something that's tough to do. Even from good sources we might have to scrap 30 percent of our parts to get the kind of tolerances we demand."
Price fluctuations also dramatically affect Jeff's business. Some small parts he purchased for less than a dollar a few years ago now cost $15. In the near future, he hopes to acquire the equipment to produce most of the necessary rifle components on-site.
Until then, outside sources might influence the production of Montana Rifles. What they won't affect is the innovation in the firearms themselves. The company produces a series of Classic rifles, sporting traditional blued barrels and premium walnut stocks. For hunters who take their pursuits to the 10,000-foot ridges of the Absaroka Range, scour the punishing coulees of the Missouri Breaks or brave November snowstorms in the Yaak Valley, the company's High Country rifles hold the greatest appeal.
First and foremost, mobile hunters demand a lightweight rifle. However, reducing a rifle's weight often produces accuracy problems, since much of the weight is shaved by shortening and constricting barrel diameter. Montana Rifle's High Country models provide a solution, with rifles that weigh less than 6.5 pounds, yet come with one of the strongest accuracy guarantees in the business. Each rifle is range-tested with basic factory ammunition and guaranteed to shoot one "minute of angle" (MOA) groups with standard ammunition. In layman's terms, this simply means the rifle will consistently hit a 1-inch bull's-eye at 100 yards if properly sighted—accuracy that exceeds the expectations of the most demanding hunters.
High Country rifles are also completely composed of stainless steel parts, making them much more impervious to the elements than rifles with blued barrels and non-stainless parts.
Montana Rifle has stepped up durability in other creative ways, as well. High Country rifles boast nifty synthetic stocks capable of withstanding extreme fluctuations in temperature and moisture exposure without a whimper. On certain High Country models, the rifles also featured a powdered Teflon coating on the entire barrel and action, which provides additional weather protection and eliminates the glare associated with most stainless steel rifles.
While the Classic and High Country rifles compose the backbone of Montana Rifle's firearms line (they also sell actions and barrels to numerous custom gun-makers across the country), Jeff Sipe is poised to manufacture a new series of rifles to sell in gun shops and sporting goods stores. These stainless steel production rifles will be available in popular big-game hunting cartridges with an expected retail price of around $1,200.
Depending on a hunter's interests, it seems impossible to go wrong with any Montana Rifle. But let me poke my neck out for a moment and offer a specific recommendation for Montana hunters who push their bodies and gear to the limit. For my money, I'd take the Timberline, a High Country rifle with a granite-green stock and a greenish powder coat on the barrel. My caliber choice would be the .260 Remington, an ideal cartridge for deer and antelope that is also sufficient for elk. So configured, the Timberline weighs a wispy 6.2 pounds. At $3,000, the Timberline is more expensive than an off-the-shelf rifle but reasonably priced for a custom firearm—and a great opportunity for Montana hunters to buy local. The only downside to owning a Montana Rifle is its potential to damage your ego. If you miss the shot, no one will believe it when you blame the gun.
If you're hunting for a Montana-made rifle, you'll have no trouble bagging one. Aside from the Montana Rifle Co., top-notch local manufacturers and custom designers include:
Cooper Firearms of Montana, in Stevensville
Gentry Custom, in Belgrade
Kilimanjaro Rifles, (formerly Serengeti Rifles) in Kalispell
Shiloh Sharps Rifles, in Big Timber