Along time ago in Southern Illinois, I remember sitting on a log with my grandfather out in the woods before light. We were squirrel hunting. One of the things that makes this memory so special, other than listening for the sound of acorns dropping from the trees that the squirrel chewed loose, and then sneaking up to the tree to shoot, is that I had in my possession a classic Remington 410 shotgun that my grandfather Pop had just given me. It was a work of art. Beautiful wood grain stock with an engraved picture of a pheasant flying out of some cattails. It was my first real hunting gun and one I learned to cherish with the passage of time. In fact, it has stayed in my family to this day, even though I have been offered a lot of money for it. I wound up training my son on the Bitterroot River with it, hunting ducks and pheasant back in the 80’s. I eventually gave the gun to him and now he is teaching his son, my grandson, how to hunt and shoot with it.
While speaking recently with Mike Hudgins, a manager at Cooper Firearms, these wonderful moments came flooding back. Besides the challenge of hitting what we aim for, whether it be in life or in hunting, Mike and I both realized the connection firearms have with the outdoors, family outings and friends spending time together in a very unique way. Also, little did I know that I was talking with a company that makes “the Cadillac” of all squirrel guns.
Cooper Firearms began in the Bitterroot in 1990. Mike Hudgins, an old Stevensville High School friend and teammate of my son, was kind enough to spend some time with me walking me through some of the history of this well established Bitterroot company. Cooper Firearms of Montana, Inc. has firmly placed its mark in the history of American shooting sports by having set a standard of quality formerly reserved only to custom gun makers. In 1990 a handful of craftsmen with over 50 years experience between them gathered in the Stevensville area and set a goal to design and build the finest production rifles made in the United States. They created and introduced two rifles with extraordinary accuracy and craftsmanship. Cooper’s reputation had begun!
Mike has been with the company since 1992 and has seen and contributed to periods of tremendous growth and interest in its products, both at the local level and throughout the industry. In December of 2012 the company moved from its old location just south of Les Schwab in Stevensville into the former Custom Log business, on Highway 93. This move has increased the production and operations space from 10,000 square feet to over 27,000 square feet. The expansion was sorely needed due to the increase in sales and the growth Cooper Firearms is experiencing and anticipating. Contributing to the increase in sales of existing products is the expansion into new calibers and the growing recognition of the high quality and accuracy of the product lines. In addition, Cooper Firearms has just recently agreed to build bolt action rifles for Colt Firearms. Rifle production will now double to over 6000 per year.
Even with this rapid growth, Cooper Firearms still embraces the concept that “the gun should shoot as good as it looks,” according to Mike. The stocks are made from strong and beautiful species of wood. Most wood products come from Northern California and Oregon, featuring French, English and Turkish walnut. There is no assembly line rationale or production at Cooper, as a lot of hands touch and work with each product. Each gun gets the individual attention approach, in respect to building the action, stocks, and barrels. And of course the finishing touch of polishing and bluing to enhance the beauty and durability of each weapon is involved.
Most people familiar with quality firearms are aware of the reputation that this company has for products possessing a high degree of accuracy. A lot of customers shoot competitively with these rifles. Factoring this concept into the production of hunting rifles, Mike describes the Cooper philosophy very well. “We work very hard to produce the product that will give some peace of mind for the hunter while preparing him for that one shot you don’t want to miss. You will hit what you aim at!” So performance and beauty of the weapon are clearly priority objectives within this company. Mike continues, “Let the gun do its job filling the freezer, then clean it and put it back on the gun rack so stories and great memories can take place as it hangs on the wall.”
Careful attention to detail by well trained production crews is a cornerstone to this successful company. Quoting the employees at Cooper, “Here at Cooper Firearms, in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley of Montana, we are very proud of every rifle we make. All of us share a common philosophy to express our commitment to our customers, ‘From Our Hands to Yours.’ We want you to feel as proud to own, shoot and enjoy your Cooper rifle as we are proud of making them.” Due to the growing success of this company, Mike Hudgins and Michael Wyant, the director of operations, are busy recruiting new employees at this time. The company is diligently looking for hard working, integrity minded folks that want to pursue a future in this line of work. “Any background in wood working, machinist or skilled labor would be most helpful,” Mike says. Work ethics are very important along with willingness to learn a new trade and stay with the company. “We are hoping to fill the majority of the positions from our local community.” Cooper Firearms currently employ 48 people.
Cooper Firearms embodies the concept of giving back to the community. They are very much involved with 4H projects and have provided 4H a facility at their company’s location. This facility is an indoor arena which provides an area for archery and pellet gun shooting. Training and teaching respect for these sports are included in the program as well. The staff is very involved with making sure the principles of the “Hunter Safety” program are embodied at these events.
Mike Hudgins works hard at directing and organizing the various production shops on company grounds, along with managing the customer service department as well. He is also very active at his other job as well – husband and father. He said, “I work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. When I get off work around 5 p.m., I go home, pick up the kids and head out to whatever activity they are engaged in for that day, and I usually get back about 8 p.m.” He realizes the influence and challenges kids face today with so much technology available. As so many families in the Bitterroot do, Mike and his wife, Angie, give their best in moving the kids’ activities in a positive direction. It’s easy to see that they make the time and exert the effort to take full advantage of the beautiful surroundings here in the Bitterroot. Yes, the folks at Cooper are good neighbors and are willing to help out in the community when possible.
Cooper Firearms has firmly established itself within the historical boundaries of American shooting sports and hunting since the early 90’s. This was accomplished by having set, and reached, the standard of quality formerly reserved only to custom gun makers. Their goal is to develop quality rifles ranging from 22 caliber to the larger calibers that can be used for overseas hunting in Africa. Expansion of the product lines is an ongoing endeavor that resonates throughout the company. Cooper also offers a very large list of options and accessories for your firearms, along with engraving packages. Cooper Firearms’ principle form of advertising has been through word of mouth, gun shows, and the Outdoor channel. The company does have a showroom at its current location just south of Stevensville. Feel free to drop in and browse through the beautiful displays, magazines and photographs. Guided tours of the production facility are also offered between 12 and 2 p.m. Calling in advance is appreciated.
Quoting Ted Kerasote, author of “Lessons from a Freethinking Dog,” “Hunting is a way to be intimate with nature, that intimacy providing us with wild unprocessed food free from pesticides and hormones and with the bonus of having been produced without the addition of great quantities of fossil fuel. In addition, hunting provided us with an ever scarcer relationship in a world of cities, factory farms, and agribusiness, direct responsibility for taking the lives that sustained us. We lived close to the animals we ate. We knew their habits and that knowledge deepened our thanks to them and the land that made them.”
The joy and the peace of mind that comes from owning a gun that is accurate and dependable is immeasurable when it comes to engaging with the outdoors and its provisions. Cooper Firearms consistently hits the bullseye!
3662 Hwy 93N, Stevensville
Website – www.cooperfirearms.com