For centuries, some of the biggest names in firearms — Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson — have made their homes in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut, a region that grew so rife with gunmakers it earned the nickname “Gun Valley.”
The signature weapons that powered America’s wars from the muskets of 1812 to the M1 Garand of World War II to the M16 in Vietnam were made by the millions here, as were the pistols on the hips of law enforcement officers across the land.
To many, it’s a surprising distinction for a region that reliably votes blue and sports some of the nation’s strictest gun laws. But you can thank General George Washington for that. He planted the seeds for Gun Valley even before he became the father of his country, choosing Springfield, Mass., as the place to store the fledgling Continental Army’s cannons, muskets, and other supplies — an inland trove safely out of reach of the British Navy.
Mass manufacture of weapons would follow, centered around the Springfield Armory and the many firms it spawned. In 2010, Massachusetts and Connecticut, along with New York and New Hampshire, produced nearly half the firearms for non-military sale in the entire country.
But what Washington long ago launched, the economy and politics are taking away. Gun Valley is rapidly declining as more conservative states lure gun manufacturers away with promises of cheaper labor and energy costs, generous incentives, and more favorable gun laws. Northeastern politicians, meanwhile, have increasingly targeted these companies for their roles in perpetuating gun violence — even as these same officials regret the erosion of the industrial workforce gun-making has sustained.
By 2020, a Globe analysis of federal data shows, the four Northeastern states’ share of non-military firearms production plummeted in a decade from nearly half to just 18 percent of the nation’s total. That includes a huge fall off in regional production by Smith & Wesson, which has since announced plans to move its headquarters from Massachusetts to Tennessee.
“Other states are very aggressive in recruiting these companies,” said Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, adding that governors from six states came to the group’s SHOT Show in Las Vegas in January looking to court gun manufacturers. None were from the Northeast.
It’s easy to understand why some states are eager to attract gunmakers: This is an era of unprecedented growth in the civilian firearms market.
Total firearms released to market for export and civilian and law enforcement sale have nearly tripled from 2000 to 2020 — from 3.8 million to 11 million — according to a Globe analysis of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives data. Gun-making employment has risen dramatically in that time, to 31,150 jobs in 2020, according to data provided by National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Ryan Busse, a former executive at Kimber Manufacturing, said that firm, which relocated from New York to Alabama in 2020, had been on the receiving end of marketing pitches from several states. He said the message is simple: “Come to a place where you’re loved and we’ll pay you to do it.”
“Their pitch was always, always, always mixed with the culture war they say the Northeast is waging on these companies,” said Busse, now a senior adviser at the gun control group Giffords.
Ultimately, Kimber received at least $19 million in tax incentives to relocate.
Political leaders in the Northeast are decidedly more ambivalent toward an industry that, last year, provided 8,220 manufacturing jobs across the four states, according to data provided by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
In particular, Smith & Wesson, one of Western Massachusetts’ top employers with 2,006 jobs in 2021 at its sprawling Springfield factory, has become a political target.
Earlier this month, in the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, mass shootings, Senator Ed Markey led a demonstration in front of the company’s headquarters, calling it out for manufacturing the military-style assault rifles favored by mass shooters and helping to strengthen the National Rifle Association’s “vise-like control over the Republican Party” with donations.
And, while some states are loosening gun restrictions, many Northeastern politicians are looking to not only strengthen them, but to go after the industry as well. Last year, New York enacted a law to make it easier to sue gun manufacturers. And in Massachusetts, legislators are considering bills that would ban the manufacture in the state of “assault weapons” and large capacity magazines for civilian use, products that president and CEO Mark Smith has said account for at least 60 percent of the company’s revenue.
One co-sponsor of the bill, Representative Bud Williams of Springfield, said that, as a city councilor, he advocated for Smith & Wesson, helping the company win government grants and promoting the sale of its weapons to police departments at mayors conferences across the country.
“I have supported Smith & Wesson on several fronts,” hoping to retain jobs in Springfield, Williams said. “However, on assault weapons, we part ways.”
Springfield, the unofficial capital of Gun Valley, is an exception to Massachusetts’ generally low gun violence rate: 36 people have been killed and 186 wounded in shootings in the city since 2020, making gun violence a potent local concern.
Juanita Batchelor, whose son Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr. was shot to death in 2014 as he was walking in Springfield’s Forest Park neighborhood, believes Massachusetts doesn’t do nearly enough to prevent shootings.
Politicians “all come out with the mass shootings, all the legislators, and everybody starts talking,” said Batchelor, who founded Mothers, Overlooked, Reaching Out, Empowerment, or MORE. “But these families like mine are just left on the back burner, like we just don’t matter.”
As unwelcoming as the present political climate of Gun Valley may seem to its namesake industry, for nearly two centuries, it was the place to be for an aspiring gunmaker. The Springfield Armory — where Washington had once stored weapons — became the American military’s first firearms factory in the 1790s, spawning a hub of innovation, industry, and skilled labor that rewarded companies in the region with secure government contracts. One of the innovative, early adopters of this new and growing trade was Eli Whitney, better known as inventor of the cotton gin.
“As Eli Whitney made muskets, it would be someone from Springfield Armory … who would go down and inspect them and accept them for the government and bring them back to Springfield to be put into circulation with the Army,” said Alex MacKenzie, curator for the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
Private gunmakers in the region helped arm soldiers in wars from 1812 forward, becoming industry giants along the way. Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven became famous for its lever-action rifle known as “the Gun that won the West,” while the Springfield Armory itself made the legendary Springfield rifle that helped the North win the Civil War.
But the region fell into decline after the Springfield Armory closed in 1968. Today, the portions of the facility that were not sold off operate as a museum and technical college. An Illinois-based company sells firearms under the Springfield Armory name.
“This area lost that beating heart of the government factory,” MacKenzie said. “When that went away, you start seeing all sorts of companies go away, too.”
Still, the Northeast continued to claim the largest share of non-military gun production well into the 2010s, even as gun laws in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut became among the strictest in the nation.
The three states restrict the right to carry concealed weapons of any kind, and ban the sale or ownership of magazines with a capacity of more than 10 bullets and firearms designed for rapid fire or military use, more commonly known as “assault weapons.” New Hampshire has no such restrictions. The state ranked second nationally in total firearm production in 2020, with 1.7 million firearms, most by two top manufacturers, SIG Sauer and Sturm, Ruger & Co.
In addition, every firearm sold in Massachusetts must undergo a lengthy process, which involves testing by an independent laboratory and approval by the state’s secretary of public safety and security, to be placed on the “Approved Firearm Roster.”
Two of the palm-sized, semi-automatic pistols manufactured at Whalley Precision in Southwick, under the revived L.W. Seecamp brand, are not on the list because the process of qualifying is too expensive and time-consuming, manager Dave Whalley Jr. said. “We say that we can make our guns here, but we can’t own them,” he said.
With family roots in Massachusetts, Whalley Precision plans to stay — and grow — despite the political climate. But, for other large gunmakers, the growing polarization of the United States over gun issues is giving them increasingly powerful incentives to leave.
Smith & Wesson CEO Smith cited the bills to ban the manufacture of assault weapons in Massachusetts in his September 2021 statement announcing that the 170-year-old company was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, saying, “We are left with no choice but to relocate … to a state that does not propose burdensome restrictions on our company.”
But, even before the bills were introduced, Smith & Wesson was being wooed by Tennessee. The company ultimately received a $9 million grant and a 60 percent, seven-year property tax break for the site of its new $120 million headquarters.
“When we looked at it, we were recruiting a great global brand, a publicly traded company. And it’s not just manufacturing, it’s the HQ — the big trophy,” said Tennessee’s economic and community development commissioner, Bob Rolfe.
Smith said in a March investor call that headquarters construction is on track to be “substantially complete” by late 2023. The company expects to create at least 620 new jobs in Tennessee, with an average hourly wage of at least $25.97. Roughly 550 of those jobs would be transferred from Springfield, though 1,000 will remain.
A representative from Governor Charlie Baker’s Office of Housing and Economic Development said the gunmaker was not offered economic incentives to stay.
Smith & Wesson will join former Springfield neighbor Troy Industries, which shuttered its 75-person firearms and parts factory in West Springfield in 2021 to relocate to Tennessee, receiving a $750,000 grant.
Other states have used similar incentives to lure gunmakers from the Northeast.
Georgia last year promised some $28 million in state grants and tax breaks for Remington Arms to build a new headquarters in LaGrange. But, like Smith & Wesson, Remington is keeping some production at its Ilion, N.Y., plant, first established in 1828, albeit with a whittled-down workforce of roughly 280.
And after announcing plans to relocate its headquarters to Arkansas in 2019, Colt CZ Group, the Czech firearms manufacturer that purchased Colt, reversed and plans to stay in West Hartford, at least for the time being, a spokesperson said.
Remington and Colt weren’t offered incentives to stay, local development officials confirmed.
Meanwhile, other states are intensifying the competition for gun manufacturing jobs. Oklahoma legislators are examining bills that would exempt gunmakers from paying state income tax for their first five years. Another bill would prevent government entities from entering into contracts with companies that ”discriminate against the gun industry.”
The state, which has so far failed to attract any major gunmakers, also has a full-time gun industry recruiter, and Governor Ken Stitt attended the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s convention in January.
“If Massachusetts doesn’t want those jobs, we are more than happy to take them,” Brent Kisling, executive director of the state’s Department of Commerce, said.