BALD KNOB, Ark. – There’s a couple of giants living in this small town, but you wouldn’t know it judging by appearances.
If you look closely, you’ll see them behind the pinkish façade of a non-descript shell building that people normally associate with mechanic’s shops or small warehouses. And in this case, the association would be partially correct.
Unless they are firearms enthusiasts or fans of survival websites such as the TEOTWAKI blog, the reThinkSurvival blog, Modern Survival Online or firearms-related websites where the company advertises, visitors to this tiny town in northeast Arkansas probably have no clue about who or what Choate Machine & Tool is.
But for others who know the industry, they know this building is where these giants spend most of their lives. They know it is part mechanics shop (though not for cars) and warehouse. They know this place, and the men that run it with nearly 40 employees, represents everything from lifesaving survival gear, to life-sustaining hunting gear, or more plainly, the perfection of personal firearms used for self-defense, self-reliance or sport.
They also know Garth and Fred Choate are the father and son team that makes some of the finest weapons accessories and parts in the world.
It’s hard to imagine, from looking at the modest business front, that a shopper could stop in and buy more products for their guns than any average person could dream of.
From stocks to molded, plastic recoil pads, Choate Machine and Tool’s motto is right on target, “Where good guns become great weapons systems.”
And if you spend any time with Choates, it’s hard to imagine that people with such a rarely matched history of business success, while being true pioneers and innovators, could be as friendly and down-to-earth as these two men are.
A perfect example of the men’s personality played out at the entrance to a local restaurant during the business lunch hour. As the Choates approached Who Dat’s, the local Cajun-themed restaurant, three local volunteer firemen recognized the elder Garth then son Fred and started peppering them with questions about rifles and hunting. Both Choates warmly greeted the men and affably answered each and every question, ending the conversation with a round of hugs and handshakes.
This interaction offered an illuminating view of the personalities that make up two leaders in a multi-billion-dollar firearms industry that most might not expect.
Both Garth and Fred are humble, religious, friendly, and open. Despite the reality that these men could be millionaires (we did not ask), there are no airs or affectations. You could not pick them out in a crowd as being any different or more successful than the average Arkansan.
Fred drives a basic pickup truck, though he and his father could afford much pricier, showy cars.
But despite their humility, and their personal warmth and kindness, pre-judging these two as anything less than fierce competitors, aggressive businessmen and brilliant inventors would be a mistake.
One of the best examples of the difference between Choate products (and the way these men do business) versus all others comes from a published comparison of their products to a competitor.
In an article for Tactical World magazine, author Capt. John N. Raguso reviewed the “must have” items for the Remington 700 bolt action rifle, and compared a Hogue block stock against the Choate Machine & Tool Rem 700 Tactical version. His goal was to find the best product that would stabilize the gun’s barrel and keep it from touching the stock.
Capt. Raguso started with the Hogue:
- full bed,
- V-shaped billet made of aircraft-grade aluminum,
- total rigidity, and
- zero flex
On Choate’s stock:
- adjustable length of pull (via removable polymer inserts),
- multiple mounting points (via four recessed sling-swivel studs),
- raised cheek weld,
- large aft grip (perfect for larger hands),
- wider beavertail forend,
- sliding bipod rail,
- ergonomic “hook” for resting the shooter’s off-hand,
- “practically indestructible” Rynite polymer construction, and
- a lifetime warranty
Needless to say, Capt. Raguso purchased the Choate stock.
To those knowledgeable of the Choate Machine & Tool history, it comes as no surprise that its product was “over-manufactured” for quality, and offered more features than its more expensive competitor.
How exactly did the company get here?
The company’s founder, Garth Choate, likes to tinker and make things, and that’s essentially how the company got started. In the 1970s, Garth launched a company called Red Line Ammunition where he began loading ammo and selling it at gun shows around the country.
Garth used his manufacturing license to make and sell bullets for pistols and rifles, along with his own bullet lube. Back then, he would buy lead by the 18-wheeler, mostly airplane weights, then melt it down for production.
Along the way, his inner inventor and tinkerer was unleashed when he decided to fabricate a magazine extension for the Remington 870 shotgun. The product allows gun owners to increase their magazine size from five rounds to seven. At that time, the extension was only available to law enforcement.
The idea came while he was duck hunting. To put it simply, he wanted to kill more ducks without reloading his shotgun.
So, he made it, just like that.
He began selling the parts at gun shows along with his ammunition. In the blink of an eye, he had more orders than he could personally keep up with, so he started using local foundries to meet demand, and Choate Machine & Tool was born.
It also was in those early days that Garth’s ties to the preparedness community took a legendary turn.
Garth, like his son Fred, are preppers. And in those early days, Garth was a fan of Mel Tappan who became the most influential writers and proponents of the survival movement.
“When I started making (the magazine extensions), Mel Tappan called me and said he writes survival articles for Guns and Ammo Magazine. He knew somebody that wanted to add three or four shells to their shotgun and they were looking for an extension. Mel wrote about ‘em and that started it (the relationship),” said Choate. “Turned out to be one of my best friends.”
Over time, Tappan would ask Garth to make other items we take for granted today, but couldn’t buy then, such as military type front sights for a Mini 14 and a flash suppressor. Choate made these from scratch for Tappan.
Garth makes no bones about it, the publicity from Tappan’s writings helped Choate Machine & Tool get its name out.
And since its launch in 1981, Choate grew from a one-man shop in a 1,200-square foot building to three separate factories: an injection molding plant, an investment casting plant and a final assembly plant with a total of 95,000 square feet under roof.
Choate has produced parts for virtually every respected firearm manufacturer in the world including. Anschutz, Beretta, H&K, Harrington & Richardson, Kahr Arms, Marlin, Mossberg, Nighthawk, Remington, Ruger, Savage, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory and Winchester.
Never in Debt
As his business began to take shape and grow, Choate chose the path shared by many successful business leaders that live the self-reliance lifestyle: he did not take loans to finance his business ventures.
“I never borrowed a dime in my whole life,” Garth said. “Debt makes a slave out of you. I don’t owe anyone a penny.”
Fred agreed, “If you’re not in debt, you never have to make a payment. Never go into debt and never sell the land. Two mantras from early childhood.”
As his business expanded with one factory after another, Garth paid with his own money, while always paying close attention to quality.
For instance, early on he was contracting with local caste foundries and tool and dye companies. But when their quality started to dip, product went missing, or prices started to increase, Garth bought his own equipment and put those contractors out of business.
At one point, people laughed at the idea of Garth opening his own caste foundry. One soon-to-be competitor scoffed, “It’d cost you a million dollars to put in your own OSHA- and EPA-approved invest caste foundry together,” Garth recalled. “He wasn’t lying.”
It actually took $1.2 million.
“All I wanted to do is have the idea, fund it, and sell the stuff,” he said. But not all the business expansions took place because Garth had an idea. Sometimes it was protection.
One good example comes from the company’s decision to purchase its own plastic injection molding equipment.
“I had contracted with a tool and dye shop to build my products, but my merchandise was showing up at the gun shows and it wasn’t finished. It’d be a butt stock, with no recoil pad, no screws, no grip cap,” he said. “It was obvious they were stealing stuff and selling it. So, I put in my own plastic inject molding factory. Put his ass out of business.”
With the company owning all of its manufacturing processes, Choate is capable of managing distribution to as many as 2,000 shops.
Quality and Legacy
It is a truism that success in a crowded space such as the firearms industry doesn’t happen without at least two key ingredients: innovation and quality products.
Innovation came easy for the Choate’s. They were the first to manufacture shotgun magazine extensions for civilians, pistol grip folding stocks, rifle stocks with aluminum molded inside, and Garth even designed a short shotgun and pistol grip forend that appeared on the television detective show “Miami Vice.”
But it’s not just owning the manufacturing and distribution that drives the company’s success, what’s more important to Garth and Fred is making the best product possible.
“You can get about 15 percent more for a product that is guaranteed forever. But it better be good or you’ll get them all back,” said Garth. “You overdesign, and overbuild the product and guarantee it forever, and you get about two percent returns if that much.”
To illustrate his point, Fred said the company has manufactured about 800,000 shotgun magazine extensions in the last five years, and because of the attention to detail, maybe 50 get returned in a year. Interestingly, the returns are the extensions Choate made prior to 2012 when employees silver soldered them by hand.
“We have been induction soldering since 2012,” he said. “We have never gotten an extension back that was done with our induction soldering process.”
Next Edition – Choate Part 2: What’s Wrong with Today’s Gun Industry and the Future of Choate