UPSTARTS: Custom rifle maker builds luxury firearms, rides out the Recession

Dec 7, 2012

Nathan Heineke, 38, builds and repairs custom rifles at his shop in Laramie.
Credit Rebecca Martinez

Now we’ll play the first installation of a segment we’re calling “Upstarts”. It’s an occasional series where we profile Wyoming entrepreneurs and explore what makes them – and their businesses – tick. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez spoke with 38-year-old Nathan Heineke, owner of N.L. Heineke Incorporated, where he designs and builds upscale custom hunting rifles in Laramie. He started his business eight years ago, and business is good but, he says it could be a while before he starts to see a profit.

NATHAN HEINEKE: The custom gun trade is actually pretty small. Most of my clients reach me by word of mouth, and virtually all of my clients are repeat clients.

The average sporting rifle that I make is a single barrel sporting rifle, either a bolt action or single-shot, and there’s approximately 200 hours of labor into each one.

This is bolt action rifle. The caliber is 350 Griffin and Howe. And this is being built for a client of mine who’s going to (clink) hunt all over.

They’re meant to be used, used hard. To be repaired if necessary. To look beautiful. To handle superbly. The price for my standard sporting rifle is $15,000. It can easily go up from there. The turnaround can be anywheres from eight or nine months up to two-and-a-half years or more depending on the complexity of the project.


I am milling the trigger body to fit into the action frame, and it’s a matter for doing the math to make sure it fits.

I grew up in a household where we hunt every fall, fill the freezer and throughout the rest of the year, that’s what you eat.

I’ve always made things. My whole life I’ve always worked with my hands and I’ve made things.

I knew I couldn’t just simply open up my front door, hang a shingle and call myself “gunmaker”. I wanted to get some experience in the trade, which, fortunately, led me to my first professional job on the east coast in New Jersey working for Griffin and Howe. They’re the oldest existing custom gunmakers herein the States, they were founded in 1923 by Seymour Griffin and James Howe. James Howe, coincidentally, also wrote the book that started my interested in gunmaking.

Working with the old guys in the shop, our master gunmakers. What I learned from them was absolutely priceless. They could show me in a few minutes … concepts and skills that you just simply cannot put into a book.

(stop whirring)

And that looks like it’s going to fit

Most of my clients are from out of state. Wyoming, I live here as much as quality of life as anything: the outdoor life, the hunting, the fishing, the shooting… Low population density, clean air...

(Wood steaming)

The time I spend working, half of it is actually running and organizing the business, managing the business. And the other half is actually working at the bench building custom rifles.

There are a variety of design considerations that go into each firearm. There’s the functionality… aesthetics… ergonomics… longevity, you want something that’s going to last a very long time. Not just a lifetime of use, but multiple lifetimes of use, a couple hundred years. No one design element is more or less important than the other.

With a small business, the profit margin is razor thin.

Prior to the Recession, when work was completed, payment would be received promptly from my clients. Since the recession, you know there was still a fair bit of work in the shop, but… I provide a luxury service. What I provide is not a necessity. And so I would be the last person on the list to get paid and often times, a project would be complete and instead of getting the final payment, it’d be, you know, a small payment here, a small payment a month later, which is very difficult to run a small business on that.

It allows me to do what I love to do and get paid for it. It’s very rewarding. Certainly, I lead a very rich life. I can assure you of that.