IT ALL BEGINS with a piece of steel. Rifles get their name from the rifling in the barrel — the grooved interior you look through at the beginning of a James Bond film. To make that rifling, I apply some grease to the end of a dipstick-like “button,” which is just a hair wider than the caliber, or diameter, of the hole that’s been pre-drilled in that piece of steel. Then I lay the 20-inch-long steel barrel down flat on a conveyor-belt-type machine, insert the button into the end of it, and press start. Eight seconds later, the button has rotated all the way through the barrel. What’s surprising is that there’s no cutting involved. The 1,250 pounds of pressure move the button through the barrel, displacing or spreading steel to the side while making the grooves. Although there’s no scrap to worry about, there is quite a bit of mess, with all the guck that comes from using a 45-year-old machine.
Rich Goss Jr., the chatty goateed operator who guides me through the process, is a decade younger than the machine he runs. He’s worked at Savage for two years — part of a big class of employees hired in 2011 — and his father, sister, half brother, and nephew are also on the payroll. Before building guns, he’d been a manager at a Dollar Tree store. He’s expected to produce more than 400 button-rifled barrels every shift. “I can do this with my eyes closed,” he says. “But I like factory work. It’s easier than dealing with complaining customers in retail.”
If button-rifling feels like a holdover from the 19th century, the next step — barrel turning — feels firmly in the 21st. With the help of this station’s tech, I insert the barrel into a CNC — or computer numerical control — machine. OK, since each pair of these Japanese machines costs half a million bucks, everyone’s more comfortable if I mostly just look on as the tech, 57-year-old Bruce Moore, handles this step. This programmable CNC looks like a flight simulator — fitting since Moore came out of the aerospace industry. He clamps the barrel in place and hits a few keystrokes. The doors close. From behind thick glass, liquid coolant starts spraying as the barrel rotates. About 2½ minutes later, the barrel — which had gone into the machine as a pipe that was the same diameter for its entire length — comes out transformed. It is perfectly tapered on the outside and has a crown affixed to the end, where the rounds will exit after being fired.
With that, we jump way back, to a process that actually does date to the 19th century. Despite all the advances, it still takes a trained eye to peer down a barrel and know how to spot and fix even tiny imperfections. Reinaldo “Ray” Silva has been doing this barrel straightening for 10 years. We position my barrel at eye level in an ancient wheel-press straightening device, which looks a bit like one of those coin-operated telescopes you find at tourist attractions. Above is a steel circle with a series of handles. Silva demonstrates how to look for shadows to determine where the barrel isn’t perfectly straight and then how to spin that steel circle to get things right. It’s an art, but the process is so tedious and the distinctions are so tiny that my eye hurts after trying to spot the flaws in just this one. Silva straightens more than 700 barrels a shift.
Born in Puerto Rico, he came to Savage 11 years ago after losing his job as a sheet-metal mechanic pulling down $17 an hour. He prayed to the Lord and went as far as Rhode Island looking for a new job. When his brother, who worked at Savage, called offering a position that paid only $10.30 an hour, he jumped at it. Silva is 64 now, a diminutive grandfather of three, and he admits he’s counting the days until retirement. But he takes immense pride in the quality of his work, how more than a few satisfied Savage customers have gone so far as to track him down, determined to offer personal thanks to “the guy who got my barrel so straight.”
Silva has occasionally been called out by members of his church, who want to know how he can build weapons for a living. “I make guns. I don’t use them,” he replies. “This is my bread and my milk. This is how I put them on the table for my family.”
The average rifle has about 100 parts, according to Bob Browning, Savage’s director of supply chain. The most important components are made at the Westfield plant. These include the barrel, of course, and the receiver — the metal housing for the working parts of the action. The receiver is also the spot where the serial number is stamped, since as far as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is concerned, that is the gun. The stocks — or handles — as well as many smaller parts are brought in from suppliers, the bulk of them from within a three-hour drive of the plant. Continued...