Last week I had the good fortune to tour the BLACKHAWK! manufacturing facility just outside of Bozeman, Montana. This isn’t just an assembly or packaging facility, it’s a soup-to-nuts, raw materials-to-finished product plant. Polymer beads come in one end, and really nifty gun parts and accessories come out the other.

Rather than blather on about how neat the BLACKHAWK! factory is, let’s take a photo tour:

Blackhawk 1651Everything starts with design. Here, an engineer works on a new stock prototype. Sorry folks, I had to blur the computer screens as the details are top secret! The design stations were equipped with advanced CAD-CAM software allowing a design to be “operated” virtually before the first prototype is built. Most of the engineers also had tool kits on their desks to allow work on physical prototypes during the design process.
Blackhawk 1594All polymer manufacturing starts with raw materials—small beads of various types and colors of plastic material. It feels like a heavier version of that mysterious stuff inside of bean bag chairs.
Blackhawk 1593Inside the plant is a farm of storage tanks for the polymer beads. Here, part-time tour guide and full-time Production Supervisor Tim Finlayson explains the process to American Handgunner Editor Suzi Huntington.
Blackhawk 1598The exterior storage tanks for raw materials dwarf those located indoors. That’s a lot of holsters folks!
Blackhawk 1636This facility houses one of the largest polymer molding operations anywhere. Note the piping from above that continuously delivers polymer raw material to the molding machines. These operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week!
Blackhawk 1579Here’s just one of the molding machine stations. Raw material pellets are delivered via the bin located in the upper-right, melted, and pressed into custom molds to create the desired part. Some molds produce a single item while others produce dozens per cycle.
Blackhawk 1589Here, polymer pellets enter a molding machine in preparation for a serious meltdown.
Blackhawk 1585This molding machine is currently set up to product cartridge separators for use in 20-round .223 ammunition boxes. The robotic arm and panel shown here remove “batches” of newly-molded separators and place them on the conveyor for cooling before inspection and packaging.
Blackhawk 1592While we were on the tour, this conveyor never stopped. These cartridge separators are shipped to ammunition producers continuously.
Blackhawk 1624Next door, this molding machine produces duty holsters—two at a time. At the end of this conveyor is a complete assembly line where belt mount hardware and SERPA retention hardware is added and function tested.
Blackhawk 1621A pile of (literally) hot BLACKHAWK! SERPA holsters right off the conveyor and ready for finishing assembly.
Blackhawk 1628Polymer components, like holster shells, roll off the conveyor from molding machine stations right into assembly lines. Here, BLACKHAWK! SERPA holsters for the Ruger SR series pistols are completed.
Blackhawk 1629Each holster is hand-tested multiple times for various fit and dimension checks. Notice that a REAL Ruger pistol, and not a blue gun, is used for testing.
Blackhawk 1581The factory houses an extensive gun room so each and every holster and add-on component can be tested with the actual gun, not a reproduction. That’s why these products work right out of the box.
Blackhawk 1614Not just hard polymer products are produced in the molding plant. These Champion DuraSeal self-sealing targets are molded here too.
Blackhawk 1618Varmints! More Champion DuraSeal targets. Champion, like BLACKHAWK!, is part of the ATK family of companies.
Blackhawk 1612You know that BLACKHAWK! makes gun stocks and fore-end parts right? Well, they’re molded and finished right here!
Blackhawk 1610Some of the product inspection steps are automated. Here, 5.56mm ammo boxes are checked by a machine for closeness to design specifications.
Blackhawk 1611If you’ve ever cleaned a gun, you might recognize these. Yes, they’re cleaning rod handles. It’s one of those parts you never really think about, but they’re made in Manhattan, Montana.
Blackhawk 1613When you make aftermarket upgrade components for lots of different guns, you have to have perfectly-sized originals to make sure everything fits. Here’s a box of various rifle stocks used to make sure the molding machines are set up perfectly before production starts.
Blackhawk 1602One thing I never thought about is the actual product packaging itself. That’s made here too. This is a Thermal Former machine that makes the plastic trays for product packaging.
Blackhawk 1605Huge, and very heavy, rolls of thick and rigid plastic feed into the Thermal Former machine.
Blackhawk 1606That big waffle iron that’s open in this photo lowers onto the plastic sheeting to heat it up. Once softened, the plastic sheeting can be molded into the desired shape.
Blackhawk 1601Here, thousands and thousands of packaging trays for Outers gun cleaning kits roll out of the Thermal Former machine.
Blackhawk 1647Speaking of Outers gun cleaning kits, those are made here too! These rolls of wire are about to become cleaning brushes.
Blackhawk 1646Fed into a wire-brush making machine, straight out of a Willy Wonka movie, a bunch of wire is fed in, some serious magic happens, and cleaning brushes come out the other end!
Blackhawk 1642Gun cleaning mops are also produced here. These spools of wire will be used to form the “spine” of fabric cleaning mops.
Blackhawk 1643Like the magic cleaning brush making machine, rolls of thread are fed into a magic mop making machine. It’s pure wizardry.
Blackhawk 1638What happens when a bunch of gun writers, with short attention spans, see the coolest machine in the entire factory? We stop and gawk of course! And throw the whole tour off schedule. This machine cuts cleaning patches. Many layers of fabric are sucked down onto the cutting table by vacuum pressure, then this scary robot zooms back and forth, carefully cutting cleaning patches to exact size specifications.
Blackhawk 1640The neatest part about this Jetsons futuristic cutting machine is that it sharpens itself. After every so many inches of cutting, a ceramic wheel automatically re-sharpens the blade. The whole process was mesmerizing, but then again, maybe we’re just easy to please with automated shiny objects.
Blackhawk 1639Here’s a manually-operated patch cutter. We never saw this high-tech equipment used during our tour.
Blackhawk 1635This assembly line creates ready-to-ship Outers cleaning kits. Those yellow trays made with the Thermal Former machine are stuffed with brushes, mops, and patches produced in other areas of the factory.
Blackhawk 1633The final product—Outers gun cleaning kits!
Blackhawk 1648A full-blown machine shop is located in the factory. Folks there maintain and repair aluminum molds along with various other chores.
Blackhawk 1650You’ll see signs of patriotism everywhere—from giant American flags to banners like this one. You get a warm, fuzzy just walking around this factory.
This Blackhawk! plant has grown leaps and bounds, but is designed for future expansion as needed.
This BLACKHAWK! plant has grown leaps and bounds, but is designed for future expansion as needed.

Images by Tom McHale

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  • fishunter

    Modern automation and technology boggles my old hand-style mind. It is great to see and read about this factory though. Thanks!

  • Harry Carlin

    I’ve got an ATK plastic stock for my old Columbian FN Military Mauser, it works well and shoots better than the original stock, which I’m keeping. Its my ‘loaner’ rifle, for feller that have never been deer hunting, but would like to try. Its taken a few hits, bit you can’t kill that black plastic stock 😉

  • gunwrites

    This place is about 20 miles from my home. I own a great many of the products produced here. Oddly, I can often buy one of their items cheaper online than I can buy it direct from them.