Teaming with national rifle maker good move for Rostraver businesses
Ron Helsel wasn't exactly sure what he was getting himself into.
He's president of Lesleh Precision Inc., a precision machine shop. He was operating out of a 10,000-square-foot building in Lower Speers, making parts and pieces for various industries, when an opportunity arose.
He got a call from Holger Schweisthal, president and CEO of PIAD Precision Casting Corp. in Greensburg. The company is the largest permanent mold foundry in the nation, Schweisthal said.
Schweisthal was casting the distinctive “high-strength nickel bronze” receivers and buttplates used in making Big Boy lever-action rifles for Henry Repeating Arms Co. A machine shop in New Jersey was finishing them.
That shop wasn't meeting the standards Henry had in mind, though, so the company asked Schweisthal if he knew of anyone else who might be able to do the job.
Enter Helsel. With at least some trepidation.
He figured he could make the Big Boy parts. But he also knew — as did Schweisthal — that if he was going to take over the job of being the only maker of Big Boy receivers in the country, he was going to have to greatly expand his operation.
“I told him this is either going to work for you or you're going to go bankrupt,” Schweisthal said.
“That's exactly what he said,” Helsel remembered. “He said, ‘I'm not sure if I'm helping you or hurting you.' ”
It sure seems like it's helped him so far.
Helsel has gone all in. He's spent $2.5 million to buy new equipment in the past six months, and another $2 million to buy the 35,000-square-foot building in Rostraver he moved into a month ago. He's become PIAD's second-largest of 300 customers along the way, having gone from ordering $40,000 in materials a year to $2 million last year. He expects to top that in 2014.
At the same time, he's looking to grow his work force from 35 to 50 people, all so that he can manufacture rifle parts full-time.
And still that's not too much.
When he began working with Henry, the goal was to produce parts for a couple of hundred Big Boys a month, Helsel said. Now, he said he's trying to create 1,000 guns a week.
“We've been shipping from empty shelves for three to four years now, which means that as soon as a rifle gets packaged, it's out the door,” said Henry president and owner Anthony Imperato.
“I have to order their guns a year ahead of time, and even then they trickle in. I have to, or I'd never get any,” said Tim Brown, owner of John Brown's Armory in Rochester, a “gold level” Henry dealer. “They can sell every gun they make.”
Big Boy rifles came to be in 2003 based on the popularity of Henry's “Golden Boy,” a .22-caliber lever action, Imperato said. They come in three brush-busting calibers, .44 magnum, .45 Colt and .357 magnum. Some people hunt with them. Others use them in cowboy action shooting competition.
They are not the dominant rifle in those competitions, in large part because they are “a replica of nothing, it's a total new design” in a game where authenticity counts for much, said Matt Mastorovich of Export, and a cowboy shooter himself. But Henry is made up of “good people” and their rifles do have dedicated fans, he added.
Kristopher Kniha of Washington is one. He typically competes in two cowboy shoots a month from April through October, putting 60 rounds through his .45 Colt Big Boy each time. He's found the gun to be reliable and fun, he said.
“It seems to shoot pretty strong and where I want it to go. And the action's really smooth,” Kniha said. “So I'm really happy with it.”
It takes a lot of people to make a Big Boy, Imperato said. Perhaps as many as 15 suppliers are involved.
“Making a gun, it's quite complicated. Besides all of the parts involved, and all of the processes, you're taking a typical gun that contains 50, 60, 70 pieces and you've got to make it feed, you've got to make it so that it can handle the explosion of a round, you've got to make it accurate. It's not like making salt shakers,” Imperato said.
But “the Big Boy starts right here,” Helsel said.
That's been good for PIAD, which operates 26 furnaces in its Greensburg plant. Two of them — each manned by two men at a time and operating two eight-hour shifts per day — are dedicated solely to making Henry parts, Schweisthal said.
It's been good for Helsel, too. He's now making not only the Big Boys, but all of Henry's centerfire rifles, including the new Henry Original, a replica of the lever action built and patented by Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1860.
That's been great, he said. But the enormity of his expansion still sometimes gives him pause, he admitted.
“When you start, it's pretty intimidating. When you're in the middle, you're too scared to quit, and at the end you think it wasn't so bad,” Helsel said. “But I'm not ready to say that yet.”