Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

A Wilsonville success story


Crimson Trace bucks recession on way to new heights

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Crimson Trace President Lane Tobiassen joined the company as marketing director in 2005 and eventually succeeded company founder Lew Danielson at the top in 2009. Here Tobiassen poses in the companys indoor shooting range located at one end of the companys Wilsonville plant. The firearms industry has been a rare bright spot in the American economy in recent years.

Recession? It’s hardly touched on gun sales in Oregon or elsewhere. In fact, sales have not only bucked ongoing economic trends, they’ve positively thrived. Black Friday last year set a single-day record for the most transactions conducted through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System with 155,000, up from 129,000 in 2011.

The system doesn’t track individual firearm sales, only the background checks that accompany them. One background check could be done for the sale of multiple weapons to one person, for instance. At the same time, the system does provide a good window into overall trends in the industry.

There, federal data suggest domestic firearms sales have experienced a significant and steady rise over the past four years. More than 16.8 million background checks were done through the FBI during the four-year period from 2008 to 2012, and through the first 11 months of 2012 the number of checks conducted was greater than any other full year since the system rolled out in 1998.

All that is good news for companies like Wilsonville’s Crimson Trace, which designs and manufactures civilian and military laser sights and accessories for handguns, rifles and even shoulder-fired antitank rockets.

Nate Hoke, a customer service representative for Crimson Trace, said last year’s buying frenzy has carried over into the current year when it comes to accessories. And that is helping the company maintain its position as the industry leader in advanced laser sights.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Crimson Trace President Lane Tobiassen uses one of his companys laser sights (red dot visible on target) to fire a Glock G17 9mm pistol in the companys indoor shooting range. “As of January, folks were running out the door after Christmas to find a solution for their firearms,” Hoke said. “There’s a lot of speculation as to why it was.”

From a fear of crime to rumors of new and onerous gun control regulations, the reasons for the continued climb in firearms sales and accessories are many and varied. For Crimson Trace, it has benefited in 2013 simply by being able to outfit the owners of all those new guns with one of hundreds of different types of laser sights.

“The company’s growth has been on a nice, healthy upswing, long before the interest or acceleration in gun ownership really started,” said President Lane Tobiassen, only the second person to fill the top spot in the company hierarchy after founder Lew Danielson. “And that’s because laser sights as a product, the acceptance and growth of that category, had already begun accelerating.”

From 2008 to 2009, for example, Crimson Trace revenues jumped 58 percent. So far in 2013, sales are up roughly 40 percent over 2012 figures. The years in between experienced similar growth.

Aided by the National Rifle Association, which Tobiassen called "critical to the health of the industry," firearms manufacturers, sellers and owners have also effectively warded off any efforts toward stricter regulations or controls in the wake of high-profile shooting incidents that left dozens of people dead.

“You add to that the political pressure that led to gun restrictions being floated, the Newtown shooting,” Tobiassen said, “and the political climate created a lot of demand for guns and we’ve been drafting off that demand.”

Nationally, industry group National Shooting Sports Foundation reported earlier this year that shooting sports now contribute in excess of $13.6 billion to the economy annually, up from approximately $6.8 billion as recently as 2008.

Gun sales have been so strong in Oregon and elsewhere that many popular models and calibers of weaponry have become hard to find on dealer shelves. Even rimfire staples such as the .22 long rifle cartridge have become scarce and expensive. With some options closing, people looking to add to their defensive capability turned to accessories.

“We’ve benefitted in many ways from having product on our shelves and having solutions,” said Hoke. “Whether it’s fear-driven or simply an absence of firearms on the market, it’s helped.”

by: COURTESY OF CRIMSON TRACE - Crimson Trace production workers are shown at the company's Wilsonville factory.

An Oregon success story

Crimson Trace has been an Oregon-grown business success story from the get-go.

Founded by Danielson in 1994, the company started manufacturing its first laser sights at a small Beaverton factory. The company got a boost when its compact, yet reliable sights began to get noticed in the firearms press.

Throughout the 1990s the company steadily grew. After 2001 and the start of a new era of global U.S. military deployments, the company also started placing an increasing emphasis on law enforcement and military sales. Today, the latter is a growing segment of the company’s sales, but civilian sales still account for more than 90 percent of its revenue.

“(Danielson) invented what is the ideal means of attaching a laser sight to handgun,” Tobiassen said.

In virtually all Crimson Trace sights, the laser itself is embedded in a grip panel or some other convenient spot on the firearm. It usually is activated through a button located where the shooter’s hands are naturally placed when gripping the weapon.

It’s now a proven system based in the beginning on the ubiquitous red laser that also happened to be used by CD-ROM players. Later on, when green lasers, with their far different technical challenges, began to be mass produced, Crimson Trace began to incorporate that technology in its sights as well.

“It’s fairly leading-edge technology for the industry,” said Mike Caulk, the company’s director of engineering and technology.

Caulk said the firearms industry has had success in adapting outside technology — including lasers — into different roles.

by: COURTESY OF CRIMSON TRACE - While the Spokesman was not allowed to photograph the companys manufacturing facilities because of U.S. Department of Defense and other restrictions, the company provided this image of its production facility in Wilsonville. “The industry piggybacked off the CD-ROM industry, and that’s where the red lasers came into play,” Caulk said. “We’re now following (handheld projectors) and things like that, that’s where the laser industry has its volume. We have to piggyback on some of the technology because our volume is so much lower.”

Handgun sights have long been the company’s bread and butter. But one of the newest Crimson Trace sights is used by military customers to aim the U.S. military’s standard issue M-72 LAW antitank rocket. Others adorn rifles and shotguns, both civilian and military.

“Our longevity is based on a lot of factors,” Tobiassen said. “But we have the best product for the application and it’s proven itself time and time again to be the best product out there. It’s a great American story of someone who had a better mousetrap and a better way of doing something.”

by: COURTESY OF CRIMSON TRACE - Crimson Trace hosts the popular Midnight 3-Gun Invitational each summer in Central Oregon. The event pits some of the top competitive shooters in the world against a challenging series of courses set up for rifle, shotgun and pistol shooting. And its all done at night. The company currently holds more than a 50 percent market share in the sale of laser sights, more than twice its nearest competitor. That ratio has held for some time now and led in 2005 to a move to its current facility on the west side of Wilsonville to accommodate growth.

Little has changed since then. More than 150 employees now work in design, sales and manufacturing, with temporary staff sometimes added to meet production demand.

Tobiassen said the company’s “long-stretch” goal is to equip 50 percent or more of all small arms sold in the United States with the company’s lasers.

"We want to move (lasers) from optional to essential,” he said.

That will take marketing, as well as customer service expertise, and Crimson Trace already boasts a strong reputation in both areas. Perks such as supplying a laser sight owner with free batteries for the life of the product are a company hallmark.

“We take over 100,000 calls a year from people,” Hoke said. “We talk about lasers in particular and how to keep them running. We don’t want satisfied customers, we want people who are raving, wild and crazy about their experience.”