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Gunsmithing makes home in Hills

Gunsmithing makes home in Hills
Don and Norma Allen, owners of Dakota Arms in Sturgis, display a one-of-a-kind rifle at their manufacturing plant on Jan. 2. The gun is valued at $150,000. (AP Photo by Carson Walker)

STURGIS - Guns are a big part of the past in the northern Black Hills: Calamity Jane made her name, and Wild Bill Hickok met his fate at the end of a barrel.

Now, a century later, firearms again are putting the region on the map through a handful of gun and ammunition manufacturers. And, like the area's Old West past, the companies could help shape its future.

"Gun makers tend to congregate," said Tom Turpin of Sierra Vista, Ariz., a national magazine and book writer on the topic.

"These days, firearms and politics don't mix," he said, referring to places unlike South Dakota's "gun-friendly community."

For Dakota Arms, such friendliness was part of the reason owners Don and Norma Allen moved from Minnesota to Sturgis in 1985. Favorable laws, low taxes and an available building helped.

The company's custom-made shotguns and rifles for hunters and shooting enthusiasts around the world range from $1,795 to $150,000. The average is about $6,000.

Most of that money comes from outside the state and even outside the country. Hollywood actors and Saudi princes are among Dakota Arms' clients.

Don Allen said his company is "the Mercedes Benz of the production line."

The guns are meticulously crafted with rare walnut and metals polished to a perfect fit. The company's 30 workers are highly skilled and, consequently, better-paid than average.

"Gun making is referred to as a functional art," Don Allen said. "It has to look good but also go 'bang' every time."

Dakota Arms' diversity absorbs some of the economic shock when other industries falter, such as the planned closing of the Homestake gold mine, said Jim Doolittle, director of Black Hills Community Development.

Roughly 150 jobs in the Northern Hills are directly or indirectly related to gun manufacturing, he said.

"I don't think it's going to be a boom, necessarily," Doolittle said of the gun makers. "But there are going to be other kinds of industries that are going to be attracted. We need to diversify and not be so dependent on just timber and tourism and mining."

In the short term, gun makers and many hunters are pleased with the election of George W. Bush. The political atmosphere in the past decade has hurt all aspects of the firearms industry, even high-end weapons never used in violent crimes, Turpin and Allen said.

Tougher gun laws mean some people are fixing up or customizing their guns instead of buying new ones, said Matt Strickland, who runs Spearfish Gunsmithing out of his garage in Spearfish.

He has much local business and many jobs from around the country.

"I'm not in business to sell firearms," Strickland said. "Repair is a service.

"Gun people are really loyal. If you do a good job, they keep coming back."

Turpin, who owns two Dakota Arms rifles, said factors other than laws could hurt gun makers.

"As much as it pains me to say, it's a dying industry. It's a long, slow process," he said.

Fewer children hunt, carry the sport into adulthood and then share it with their children, Turpin said. And the loss of family farms takes people out of that traditional hunting environment and puts them in an urban setting, he said.

"The rural population is the heart of the firearms industry. That's changing. We've now got more people living in the city," Turpin said.

"As such, you can't be running off the penthouse suite balcony on the 48th floor and pop off a shot."

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