A Southern town embraces its AR-15 factory
In tiny Mayodan, N.C., the Ruger plant is a source of jobs, not controversy — a sign of how conservative areas are welcoming an industry increasingly shunned by liberal states
A series examining the AR-15, a weapon with a singular hold on a divided nation
About the terminology
Colt acquired the AR-15 patent and trademark from Armalite in 1959. The patent expired, leaving many companies to produce their own weapons, commonly called AR-style rifles. While Colt still holds the trademark, “AR-15” has become a ubiquitous term for a popular style of gas-operated, magazine-fed semiautomatic rifles. For this reason, we refer to the rifle broadly as the AR-15 in this series.
MAYODAN, N.C. — Kelly Menard had been working the front counter at the Sunrise gas station here for a few months when she began chatting with the man who stopped in every day a little after 5 p.m.
Menard was making $7.25 an hour, and when she learned that her regular customer worked for the Sturm, Ruger & Co. gun manufacturing plant on the outskirts of town, she asked if they were hiring. She was eager for a better-paying job. Ruger was always looking for people, he said. If she wanted to work, he’d put in a good word.
Menard put in an application and got a call the next day.
She started in December 2020 and nearly doubled her minimum-wage salary, making $14 an hour plus overtime for five 10-hour shifts a week. The money allowed her and her husband to buy their first house — a white vinyl and brick three-bedroom ranch home, with a yard and large carport. Working the predawn first shift allowed her to spend her afternoons with her son Bryson, now 3.
Since she joined Ruger, Menard, 24, has been working on the AR-15 line, helping to assemble the hundreds of semiautomatic rifles the plant produces during each of its two daily shifts. Putting together the weapons requires speed and precision, and the workers are on their feet for hours. It is a complicated process with about 30 stations. Some workers put in the trigger and the hammer; others assemble tubes and barrels; others work on the muzzle and the grip. Menard switches stations based on the day.
Menard said that she has heard the AR line is the fastest one in the plant — adding that she’s one of the fastest workers on that line.
“I’m so used to the work, I can put one together in my sleep,” she said.
Ruger, which is based in Southport, Conn., announced it was coming to town in 2013, less than a year after the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 dead — including 20 children — and prompted Connecticut to pass some of the nation’s strictest gun laws. They include requiring universal background checks, expanding the state’s assault weapons ban, and banning the sale of gun magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds.
The laws did not affect the ability of gun companies to manufacture in the state, but they served as a forceful cultural rejection of the industry. Ruger began production at its North Carolina facility in 2014. The company now also has production facilities in Arizona and New Hampshire, part of the trend of gun companies that in recent years have relocated or expanded from largely Northern, Democratic states with restrictive gun laws to largely Southern, Republican-leaning ones with less-restrictive laws.
In the past decade, at least 20 firearms, ammunition and gun accessory companies have made the move, shifting their headquarters or production to gun-friendly states, often wooed by tax incentives and the promise of a cheap and willing workforce, according to Washington Post reporting and firearms industry groups.
The migration of the gun industry out of blue states into red ones underscores how the sharp divide among Americans over weapons like the AR-15 has cleaved the country into two different lands: one in which the manufacturing of such guns is anathema and the other in which it is a marker of patriotism — or, at the very least, part of the fabric of American life.
For Mayodan — a sleepy town of roughly 2,400 in Rockingham County, about a 40-minute drive north of Greensboro — the story of Ruger is one of economic rebirth and jobs in a county that has long been losing them. The old Washington Mills Co. building, which made textiles until it shuttered in 1999, sits vacant and faded downtown by the river, across from Wall Lumber Co. The town is hoping to transform the site and surrounding area into an outdoor public space, but for now, cobwebs cling to the bell that used to ring in lunch break at the mill.
It is also the story of a gun company in a company town where nearly everyone who walks into the Beach House Grille on Main Street during lunch hour is wearing a shirt or cap that sports their employer’s name, and where customers at Mayodan Outdoor Sports almost always ask the price of Rugers.
Ruger’s subtle influence can be felt throughout the three-square-mile town, which was named after its two neighboring rivers, the Mayo and the Dan. There’s the 10 percent Ruger discount at Junior’s — officially, Downtown Jr’s 23 Sports Grill — where Ruger employees often gather at the dimly lit bar on Friday when the first shift lets off in the late afternoon. There are the dozen semiautomatic weapons that the company donated to the local police department. And there’s the smell of burning metal that wafts off Ruger employees before they’ve changed out of their work clothes that some locals say they instantly recognize.
A small-town welcome
The fortresslike brick Ruger plant — surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and signs for video surveillance and no trespassing — rises up off a road that dead-ends into a water treatment plant. The company declined repeated requests for interviews and a tour of the factory, and did not respond to a detailed list of questions from The Post.
“Ruger is a publicly traded company and therefore … we are extremely careful not to selectively disclose material, nonpublic information which, of course, many of your ‘facts’ touch upon,” Mickey Wilson, the company’s vice president of operations for Mayodan, wrote in an email. “I am not at liberty to discuss these matters with you for that reason.”
Mayodan Mayor Chad Wall, who spent college summers working in the Ruger building back when it was a dye factory, noted during an interview at Mayodan Town Hall how essential it was to bring new industry to the area. The town’s population has shrunk some in recent decades, he said.
“We’re a small town,” said Wall, clad in work boots and a baby blue T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his company, Dan River Oil. “You try to welcome as many businesses as you can.”
Ruger is now the second-largest employer in town, with 754 employees, according to 2022 Rockingham County data. The company offers jobs that pay “well above average,” Wall said. Ruger employees make a minimum of $38,000 a year, according to Leigh Cockram, director of economic development and tourism for Rockingham County — far exceeding the per capita income in the town (roughly $22,872) and surrounding county (roughly $27,092).
This same county used to be home to Remington Arms, the now-defunct gunmaker that produced the AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook massacre.
After Ruger arrived here, its AR-15 rifle and pistol variants were used in some of the nation’s deadliest mass killings. The shooter who massacred more than two dozen people in Sutherland Springs, Tex., in 2017 used a Ruger AR-15 rifle, and the shooter who gunned down 10 people in Boulder, Colo., in 2021 used a Ruger semiautomatic pistol, according to a House Oversight and Reform Committee report in 2022.
Town officials and residents said they had no qualms about the company staying after the shootings, and there had been no discussions to reconsider a recent expansion by Ruger.
“This isn’t a story about guns,” said Tony Copeland, who served as the state’s commerce secretary when Ruger announced its expansion in North Carolina in 2020. “It’s a story of economic development, maybe giving people the chance to enjoy a life larger than they were born into.”
For her part, Menard has long been ambivalent about firearms. “They’re loud, they’re heavy — it’s not my thing,” she said.
But her husband does like guns, and Ruger offers employees a nearly 50 percent discount, she said. So in October 2021, Menard bought her husband an American flag-themed AR-15 for his birthday. The plant sometimes customizes guns with scratches and blemishes by painting American flags on them, she said. And when she saw the plant was testing out a shade of purple — her favorite color — she bought one for herself, too, modifying the gun to make it more versatile and adding a front and back sight.
The two AR-15s stay in a large safe locker in the corner of their bedroom. She went out shooting twice in 2022, she said: One Saturday in December and over Easter weekend at a friend’s property nearby.
“You don’t think about it until you go out and shoot them, and you realize you’re making them all day,” she said.
‘The plant is going to go somewhere’
The history of guns and Connecticut is inextricably bound, so much so that the Hartford office of Sen. Chris Murphy (D) is located in the renovated East Armory building of the Colt factory — part of the Colt Gateway development.
Samuel Colt famously built his armory in the state capital, and about a century later, William B. Ruger and Alexander M. Sturm opened their gun factory in the “red barn” complex on Station Street in Southport, according to R.L. Wilson’s 1996 book “Ruger & His Guns: A History of the Man, the Company and Their Firearms.”
Ruger began with no administrative staff, according to the book, and the initial prototype was for a .22 pistol. The company’s first ad, in the August 1949 issue of American Rifleman, boasted: “For simplicity, strength and handsomeness it has no equal.”
In fact, Wilson writes, at first Ruger did not even make rifles or consider itself a competitor of its fellow gun companies.
Yet gun manufacturing defined Hartford and much of Connecticut from the 19th century into the 20th, Murphy said, making for what he calls “a very strange psychology.”
“Our state is very concerned about gun violence, our state is defined by what happened at Sandy Hook, but our state’s history and culture has also been defined by the firearms industry, which really started in Connecticut,” he said.
After Sandy Hook, none of the state’s new laws were aimed at shuttering gun manufacturers. But the general climate in Connecticut felt undeniably less hospitable to gun companies.
“There were companies that thought they could impact the debate by threatening to leave, and I think for people in Connecticut, their perspective was: ‘You don’t support universal background checks on your guns? That’s a you problem, not an us problem,’” said Murphy, who said he believes both in the Second Amendment and common-sense gun restrictions.
Then, in August 2013, North Carolina’s governor at the time, Republican Pat McCrory, announced that Ruger was coming to Rockingham County. The gun company promised to invest more than $26 million and create more than 450 jobs in the community. In exchange, it was eligible to receive up to $9.46 million from the state’s Job Development Investment Grant program.
McCrory said in an interview that his team was aggressive in recruiting, competing with other states — especially neighboring Tennessee — as it tried to lure manufacturing jobs to North Carolina.
“Where we were hurting most were the rural areas and manufacturing, because so many jobs had left the state and gone overseas or to Mexico, so we were looking for people who could build things and make things, especially for rural towns that were losing population,” the former governor said. “We would make efforts to recruit any legal industry where we thought we had the workforce to meet their needs.”
Asked if he had any concerns at the time about helping to bring a gun company — and all the associated controversy — to his state, McCrory chuckled.
“The plant is going to go somewhere, the product is going to be sold,” he said. “And I wasn’t a supporter of woke policies involving products that were legal according to state and federal laws.”
And Ruger, the former governor added, is “a quality company.”
Ruger took over the 220,000-square-foot space left vacant when Unifi, a major textile company, closed its Mayodan plant. The gun manufacturer began production in 2014, when the state’s rural counties were struggling with high unemployment rates.
Sharon Decker, who was the North Carolina secretary of commerce in 2013 and helped woo Ruger, said, “I do not recall any pushback.”
“Here was the opportunity for job creating, and good-paying jobs, that was positive for a county that needed them,” Decker added.
By the end of 2020, the company had received $3.2 million in state grant payments and created 452 eligible jobs, according to the North Carolina Commerce Department.
Kathleen Patterson, the town manager, likened Mayodan to the “Gilmore Girls” TV show — “wonderful people, a lot of pride.”
In December 2020, Ruger announced an expansion at its Mayodan site, promising the creation of 60 jobs and an additional investment of $10 million in the community, a Commerce Department spokesman said.
Under the 2020 expansion agreement, in exchange for meeting its promises — which include offering a minimum average wage of $38,000 annually — Ruger is eligible for two performance-based incentives: a $150,000 grant from the One North Carolina Fund and a $500,000 rural development grant, said Cockram, the county’s economic development director.
Mark O. Kinlaw, president of Rockingham Community College, whose offerings include workforce training programs that help prepare students to join area companies, said the community is “very, very rural” and “certainly more acceptable to possession of guns and so forth.”
But, he added, he believes the appeal of Ruger is less what the factory produces and more the company’s culture, work environment and financial incentives.
“People are mainly looking for a good place to work where they’re treated well and get some good company benefits,” Kinlaw said. “If I enjoy guns but the pay is not going to be as much as someplace that makes windows, for example, I’m probably going to go to the place that makes windows because I want to make more money.”
Remington Arms, the nation’s oldest gunmaker, also previously had a major presence in Rockingham County, in neighboring Madison, but began laying off employees at the facility around the end of September 2020 and closed by the end of the year amid bankruptcy filings. Remington manufactured and marketed the AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook massacre and faced criticism and legal ramifications afterward. In February 2022 it settled with families of nine of the Sandy Hook victims for $73 million.
Since the 2016 election of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, North Carolina has not placed a premium on luring other weapons manufacturers to the state.
Dan Blue, the Democratic leader in the North Carolina Senate, said that while he would not rule out giving incentives to gun companies in the future — and that he was glad Ruger had produced jobs in Mayodan — bringing in gun companies is no longer a priority of the state.
“I don’t think we are actively recruiting gun manufacturers to the extent they were in 2013,” Blue said. “I was not in agreement of rescuing a gun manufacturer after Sandy Hook. The state was under total Republican control then.”
He added: “I will assure you from my perspective and vantage point now, recruiting gun companies is not a high priority in the Department of Commerce. They are much more interested in recruiting companies that pay $100,000 a year.”
A presence in the community
Menard sets her first alarm for 3:45 a.m. and usually gets up no later than 4 — roughly an hour before she needs to punch in. She likes to get to work a little early, so she pilots her silver Toyota Corolla through the inky darkness the 2.8 miles from her home to the Ruger plant, where she sits in the parking lot and eats her breakfast — usually a cereal bar or a Jimmy Dean bowl.
“I don’t mind waking up early because I know I get off at a decent time,” Menard said.
She clocks in at 4:40 a.m. so she has time to go to the bathroom, fill her cup with water and get on the line before her 4:50 pre-shift meeting. Then she puts on her headphones — Metallica “just puts me in the mood where I go through my day”— and gets to work.
Menard with her and her husband's guns.
Menard said the company posts a daily production goal on a board that indicates which type of gun — and how many of each — employees need to make. When she began working at the factory during the pandemic, she recalled, they at one point were being asked to produce as many as 600 AR-15s during each shift — roughly one gun per minute. The production goal is now about 200 AR-15s per shift, she said.
“They told us people just aren’t buying as many guns as they were,” she said.
In 2021, Ruger sold 190,374 AR-15s, according to the House Oversight report, up from 16,665 in 2012. The company is responsible for a large share of the AR-15s sold in the United States, the House report said.
On the broad question of gun rights, Menard’s views trend conservative: She says she understands why felons can’t own guns but wonders whether, depending on their charges and history, there should be exceptions. She thinks metal detectors in schools are a “big help” to guard against school shootings, and she also believes that teachers should be able to carry weapons. She said she liked former president Donald Trump — specifically “how cheap gas was” while he was in office — but she did not vote. She was raised Christian but no longer regularly attends church, she said.
It bothers her when she sees news stories about mass shootings, she said, but she doesn’t see much point in agonizing over the policy implications. “I couldn’t have stopped it,” she said. “I don’t understand what goes through their mind when they do it.”
During her 10-hour shift, Menard gets two 15-minute breaks — the first at 7:45 a.m. and the second at 1:45 p.m. She also gets 30 minutes for lunch; she usually brings leftovers to save money. She says she takes most of her breaks in her car, where she checks in with the babysitter and FaceTimes her two sons; in addition to Bryson, she has Maverick, born in October.
Her favorite part of the day is picking up her boys after her shift: “Bryson — he’s so happy to see me.”
In some ways, Mayodan can feel a bit like a family. News and word of out-of-town visitors travel fast, and Kathleen Patterson, the town manager, likened the community to the “Gilmore Girls” TV show — “wonderful people, a lot of pride.” Nearly everyone in Mayodan seems to either own a Ruger or know someone who does.
Throughout Mayodan, residents, town council members and business owners said they were generally not concerned about school shootings, too many guns on the streets of their town, and, more broadly, crime in Mayodan. Some said more guns would be better than fewer guns.
Inside the Beach House Grille — where a T-shirt over the bar features a silhouette of an AR-15 and the words “Defend the Second” — server Ashleigh Tilley said she prefers Rugers because they are affordable, quality guns.
“Every firearm in my house is from this plant,” she said. She got her Ruger, a pistol, from her husband as a Valentine’s Day gift.
Since Ruger arrived, town council members Letitia “Tish” Goard and Buck Shelton have both acquired the company’s weapons.
“I did not own a Ruger before they came here,” said Goard, whose family now owns two Ruger pistols.
“Me either,” said Shelton, who also now owns two Ruger pistols. “I just liked the fact that they were manufactured here.”
The two council members say Ruger coming to town felt like a natural cultural fit. “When we were in high school, you could see pickups with shotguns in the window, so we don’t think anything of it,” Shelton said.
“I think you’re in the middle of a very pro-gun world,” Goard added.
But, Goard explained, at least from her perch as a member of the council, her personal politics come second to what’s best for the community.
“If Nike moved here, I wouldn’t want them here because their politics are so different. I’d want them packing and to send them north,” she said. “But sitting in this seat, it doesn’t matter — a job is a job.”
Goard said that the town faces a range of financial challenges and that many of its residents move away after high school and don’t return.
“We do have to make difficult choices in towns like this. They more often go bankrupt than they don’t,” she said.
Ruger, said Gregg Stegall, the manager of Mayodan Outdoor Sports, has “given a lot of people jobs.”
“We don’t have a problem with them at all,” he said.
Gesturing out his shop’s window to Main Street, quiet in midday, Stegall alluded to how his small town is still hurting for revenue: “Look at our streets — you don’t see anybody on our streets.”
A Mayodan police officer, with a Ruger pistol on his hip, attends a town council meeting led by Mayor Chad Wall.
Charles Caruso, the chief of the Mayodan Police Department, said that when the department was in the market for AR-15s, Ruger provided it, free of charge, with a dozen semiautomatic rifles — one for each officer on the force at the time.
Ruger has also established a presence within the community in other ways. The company has contributed money to the town’s annual fall festival and Christmas stroll and has privately helped a few sick people in the community with their bills, said Patterson, Mayodan’s town manager.
When it was time to replace the force’s handguns, the police department switched from Glocks to Rugers, sending its business to the hometown employer.
“We tested … and we liked them, and we felt like they supported our community,” said Caruso, who went on to praise Ruger’s impact on the town: “We like anyone who comes and provides jobs.”
Menard spent much of her most recent pregnancy working on the Ruger line. The work is physical, and some of the guys complain at times, she said.
“They’ll walk around like, ‘My legs are hurting, my back is hurting,’” she said, laughing and gesturing at her swollen belly, just several weeks before she gave birth. “And I look at them like, ‘Oh yeah? Your legs are hurting?’”
She added: “My team lead can tell you I can do more stuff than half those boys on that line.”
Many new workers don’t last long, she said, and she can often tell which ones are going to make it.
Menard likes the work, and she likes the benefits. Most of her medical co-pays are $20, she said, less than the $30 to $40 her husband usually pays, and Ruger also gave her additional paid time off when she and her son Bryson had covid last year. Her job afforded her family their first vacation together, to the beach. She said there were quarterly bonuses based on production: At times, she has received $1,500 or more a quarter, but for the last quarter, with slower production, she received $600.
She especially appreciated how Ruger made accommodations when she encountered complications during her pregnancy and required weekly doctor appointments. Near the end, she said, her bosses were understanding when she needed to sit down.
She is doubtful that other companies would have been so accommodating. “As long as you do good and do your work,” she said, “they work with you.”