GRAND FORKS — A Grand Forks-based company is making waves in the firearm industry, by manufacturing lightweight hunting rifles from magnesium alloy.
Roam Rifles has put out a line of semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, chambered for .308-calibre ammunition. One model — there are six in total — comes in at just under 5.5 pounds, depending on optional components. The rifles weigh considerably less than competitor brands, which can tip the scales at over 8 pounds.
The goal: a lighter, easier-to-carry rifle that lets hunters range further, or in some cases even make a hunting trip possible. That concept is reflected in the name, and the company’s slogan: “Travel Light. Roam Far.”
“We wanted something that reflected what we were trying to do, and that was to facilitate the semi-automatic rifle back into hunting, since all the wood-stock stuff went away in the '80s,” said Jerry Voegele, an engineer at Roam, who is also one-fourth of the ownership group. “A semi-automatic rifle for big-game hunting is nice to have, except they weigh so much that you don't want to carry them anywhere. The name kind of flowed with our concept of what we wanted to do with the rifle.”
The lightweight rifles are marketed to all hunters, as a way to lighten the load while still carrying a rifle that can drop an antelope. The company has also sold rifles to older hunters, and people who otherwise would have had to stop hunting.
“We've had quite a few customers call over the phone and speak to us, whether they are older or they had a shoulder surgery, or something like that,” said Jordan Senff, an engineer and part owner of the company. “They come across our rifle and they're excited to hunt again.”
Roam rifles are based off of a design by DPMS Panther Arms, a now-defunct company that upscaled the .223-calibre AR-15 to .308. Roam owners chose the platform because it has a larger share of the market, and not all states allow deer hunting with a .223-calibre rifle. Also, larger .308-calibre rifles have more aluminum components, which Roam can swap out for lighter magnesium alloy parts.
The rifles aren’t entirely made from magnesium. Components such as the barrel and trigger are purchased from vendors. The company tools five main components from magnesium alloy: the handguard, the upper receiver, lower receiver, barrel nut and the buffer tube. Once those pieces have been manufactured on site, they are sent to Technology Applications Group in Grand Forks. The company coats magnesium engine parts for military aircraft, including Apache helicopters, and others. There they are protected against corrosion and abrasion by TAG’s unique anodic coating process for magnesium alloys.
Both Roam and TAG share an owner, Axel Whitney. The rifle company came about after years-long discussions about manufacturing different components from magnesium. The group discussed making motorcycle wheels and pistons, before settling on rifles. The barrier for entry to the firearms market, while high, said Voegele, is much lower than in the automotive industry.
“We kissed a few frogs before we chose this prince, with magnesium products,” Voegele said. “This one got traction. It was a more dynamic market and it was more consumer driven.”
Each rifle is customizable, and can be set up in a variety of configurations. At the time of sale customers choose whether or not they want a single stage or hybrid trigger, the latter having some movement before firing, while the former doesn’t move until a certain amount of force is applied. Depending on the rifle, people can choose whether to include a forward assist, a device that pushes the bolt carrier forward, to make sure it is locked. Barrels range in length from 16 to 20 inches.
The rifles are meant for North American big game: deer, elk, moose and antelope. According to Bill Elmquist, a member of the company’s ownership group and president of TAG, the rifles have proven to be popular with people in southern states like Texas, where feral hogs have become a problem, and larger caliber rifles offer a “clean, humane kill.”
“We've actually had quite a few sales in the south for people that are out hunting hogs,” Elmquist said.
The price of the rifles is reflected in the material and the engineering. Magnesium alloy is more expensive than aluminum. Prices range from about $2,700 to $3,700. Sales mostly happen online, but Northern Rifle Accurizing and B and B Guns are local resellers. There are also resellers in Fargo and the Twin Cities. The company doesn’t disclose sales figures.
While the company’s owners are looking to sell more units, they are also looking to manufacture other goods from magnesium, and find ways to make the rifles even lighter. The hope is to become a broader-based maker of outdoors equipment, and expand the business.
“We’re hoping for a lot more employees working here,” Senff said.