BALD KNOB, Ark. – Most people know nothing about this town, but gun owners know the industry leader headquartered here. It’s a family-owned business that lives a prepared life, and loves the gun industry, warts and all.
Set in an innocuous looking shop, Choate Machine and Tools is a finely-tuned operation with a reputation for manufacturing innovative and quality firearms products.
The facility is part mechanics shop and warehouse, where nearly 40 employees make everything from lifesaving tools to parts and accessories for weapons systems.
Yet, despite a history of making some of the gun industry’s top products, Choate Machine and Tool may be a relic within the traditional firearms industry. Why? Because the owners are gun people.
Garth Choate, who launched the company in the 1970s and introduced the first shotgun magazine extension for civilians, started by making and selling ammunition.
At the time, Garth spent his weekends at gun shows hawking his wares and making special products for friends.
One of his most famous, and successful, friendships grew from a request by Mel Tappan for a shotgun magazine extension. Tappan, a founding father of the survivalist movement, was the editor of the “Personal Survival” newsletter and a writer for major gun magazines.
He wrote about the magazine extension Garth produced for his Remington 870, and Garth’s business changed forever.
Garth turned the company from a weekend gun show retailer to a major firearms product manufacturer and distributor.
Now he’s retired and working on other pursuits while his son, Fred, runs the business. Exactly who is Fred Choate, and what does he bring to the table?
A Lifetime of Guns Integrated with Preparedness
Garth always lived a firearms lifestyle. Today, his home is on a five-acre property that is both a farm and a 350-yard rifle range (with backstops at 100, 200, and 300 yards, an AR500 plate at about 60-degree angle and a 6-inch AR 500 plate at 300 yards).
Fred Choate, Garth’s son who was named CEO 10 years ago, grew up in the business and lives virtually the same lifestyle as his father.
“I feel lucky that I live in a state where guns are really common. Not demonized,” Fred said. “You can literally drive around with a rifle in your back seat, and if a police officer stops you, they won’t blink an eye.”
Like his dad, Fred is an avid hunter and a competitive shooter. They’re also preppers.
The Choates see a fragile economy propped up by gimmicks like Quantitative Easing (money printing), unsustainable debt, and other machinations that could quickly lead to a financial crash.
Fred believes “something funky happening on Wall Street” could easily cause a run on the banks.
“If one in 100 people freak out, they’ll shut the banks down and declare a holiday,” and the cascading impact would be devastating.
Like his son, Garth reads ten different blogs a night, several of which are focused on preparedness.
Being aware of world problems and threats to everyday life makes sense for leaders in an industry that makes products for self-defense, and food production (through hunting).
For Fred, making guns and gun parts is just what life is.
“I’ve always been a gun guy. It was always something I knew I was going to do. It was never a want to do anything else,” he said. “I come to work and it’s fun to come to work. I get to work and it’s ‘Darn, it’s noon already?’ and ‘Darn, it’s quitting time already.’”
He fondly remembers sitting on the back of a Star reloader making ammunition at the age of nine. He worked in the business all through his childhood and at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, where he majored in business management.
Besides building guns, Fred loves to shoot. He competes in three competitive fields – the International Defensive Pistol Association, sniper matches and the Amateur Trapshooting Association.
But it’s not all about Fred either. This company CEO gives back to the community with his own personal time, and in monetary support.
Fred coaches the White County 4H shooting sports team representing Bald Knob in pistol, shotgun, and archery. He also coaches the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program statewide teams, a program with more than 6,000 kids participating in trap shooting competitions.
“I love coaching kids,” he says. But it’s not just coaching. Choate will give kids stocks and other weapon parts if the family can’t afford to buy them.
At 48, Fred’s life has been blessed. Good family, college degree and a successful business. There isn’t much he would change except for one thing.
“My one regret in life is not serving in the military,” he confesses. “I really wish I had.”
But Fred doesn’t just live with that regret, he uses it fuel his devotion and commitment to military veterans.
For seven years, he served as a board member for a group called Darby’s Warrior Support, a non-profit helping veterans reintegrate into peacetime civilization.
The mission for Darby’s Warrior Support is to provide “combat veterans of the 9/11 generation free, all-inclusive Arkansas duck hunting in luxury accommodations, while also providing educational scholarship assistance for the severely wounded and permanently disabled seeking a college degree.”
Jim Daniels, chairman of the organization, praised Fred’s dedication and spirit as a board member of the group. He wasn’t just a decision maker, Fred personally led duck hunts and events for the veterans.
“Fred is continually ready to give, to serve, to work and to care for warriors. He’s part of our family,” Daniels said.
Now V.E.T.S. Shooting Center gives residents of Bald Knob, Searcy and Russell a place to go for gunsmithing, firearms training and a well-managed outdoor range.
Choate Enters the Modern Age
But while Fred clearly spends time in the community, on the business side he doesn’t rest on his father’s laurels.
Under Fred’s leadership, Choate steadily expands its worldwide markets and e-commerce sales.
Since 2015, the company experienced marked growth in the number of international dealers in Germany, Spain, Greece, Australia, and Canada.
France, despite its strict gun laws, represents one of the company’s largest growth markets as one of that nation’s largest distributors recently picked up Choate products. There, where long guns are still available, customers snap up sniper and tactical accessories for their rifles.
“The growth of the business in France is terrorist related,” Fred explained. “People in Europe are starting to wake up that it might not be a bad idea to get a gun.”
His next target for European growth is Finland and Switzerland.
The current breakdown of Choate’s sales is three distinct channels. At 60 percent, the company’s largest customers are major distributors like Midway, Brownells and the E. Arthur Brown company. Direct sales to gun manufacturers make up another 20 percent, while the remaining 20 percent is attributed to online sales.
But with more than 270 products for sale on its website to a worldwide market, internet sales are clearly poised to overtake other sales channels.
And what are people buying on the Choate website?
Most Popular Products
Magazine extensions for all makes and models top the chart. Tactical and sniper long gun stocks are next, followed by products like Choate’s new Heckler and Koch folding stocks.
“We probably sold as many HK folding stocks this year as all of last year,” Fred explained. “The HK MP5 model SP89 is a new import for them.”
Can an after-market brand really be that good, and that important to the industry?
Obviously, the distributers and gun manufacturers using Choate’s products are one clear positive indicator.
And if having customers like Maj. John Plaster, author of “The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual for Police and Military Snipers” and an instructor at the Gunsite Academy, is another indicator, the answer is “Yes.”
Strangely though, it seems that the Choate’s love for guns, and lifetime spent in the industry, is exactly what sets them apart from the iconic brands that control much of the market today.
When a reporter asked Garth and Fred to recommend a gun, the answer was a resounding “anything old.”
“Find an old Remington 870 at a pawn shop that is high polished blue,” said Fred. “They didn’t make any bad guns in the old days.”
What’s Wrong with The Gun Industry
Unfortunately, quality and gun manufacturers don’t always go hand-in-hand.
“The firearms industry has been infected by the refugees from the automotive industry when it was failing years ago. Engineers and managers got jobs in the firearms industry because they had experience working with metal products. Unfortunately, they brought the same just-in-time, let’s-make-it-cheaper, and make-a-new-design-every-year mentality that was driving U.S. auto manufacturers down,” Fred said. “They have really hurt the firearms industry. The guns that the majority of the industry is putting out now are cheap shit.”
An example of what used to be a tried-and-true weapon is today’s Remington 700. According to the Choates, the fit is bad, and the finish is bad. That wasn’t the case with the weapons made 30 years ago.
Garth says he’s met executives manufacturing shotguns whose only experience was making Maytag washing machines. He’s even met a top gun company engineer that wasn’t a gun owner.
“I have had this talk with others in the industry as to what we think is wrong with it,” said Fred. “There are lots of people in the upper echelons of gun company administrations and on the manufacturing side that are not gun people. They don’t shoot, and don’t have any history with firearms. Lots of the smaller companies in the industry have owners and staff that are shooters, or compete in some kind of shooting sport. That’s why lots of the better ideas come from smaller companies. You cannot make firearms using the same methods as you use making cars.”
“They don’t realize that those failed car manufacturing processes are what almost put the American automobile industry out of business,” said Fred. “If I say that, they get real indignant. Makes them mad when you point that out, but it’s true.”
Obviously, the family that hand-wound springs on a lathe knows the difference between good and bad gun products. Unfortunately, too many traditional manufacturers get away with business practices that are anathema to the Choate way – quality products, delivered on time and with a lifetime guarantee.
“If they can increase the company profit two to three percent, that’s millions of dollars. They get bonuses. They forget the long-term affect,” said Garth. “We’re different cause we’re in it for the long term.”
Stifling Competition and Good Companies
Perhaps the biggest sin by iconic companies like Remington is the drive to stifle competition by consolidating quality manufacturers and competitors under one roof instead of beating them with better products.
“What happens far too often is a big company will buy out the smaller one for the intellectual property, and end up killing that company and screwing up a good product,” said Fred.
The Choates lament the fact that Smith & Wesson bought Thompson/Center and eliminated its muzzle loaders.
Even Remington is not above reproach, despite its place as an important part of the Choate business.
“Remington has screwed up more gun companies,” said Garth. “They bought Marlin, H&R and dropped most of the lines that were different from (and competition to) the Remington products.”
In recent years, it was easy for manufacturers to flood the market with substandard products because consumers, fearing gun bans under the Obama Administration, flocked to gun shops to buy anything available.
But as the threat of gun bans cool down under President Trump, the industry must deal with a glut. Certainly, gun buyers now have the luxury of time to shop for quality over sheer availability.
The Choates believe that if knowledgeable consumers can see the difference when evaluating a Remington 870 made in the 1950’s, and one selling today (“there is absolutely no comparison”) then those manufacturers skimping on quality will be in trouble.
When Fred shops for a new gun, his criteria is pretty basic: look at customer service and the history of the design.
“You can research customer service on the internet and through forums, same with the firearm you are looking at,” he said. “Aftermarket accessories are also important. One of the main things to take into account is the cost and supply of magazines, if the weapon uses them.”
A good example is the comparison of the Sig MPX and the CZ Scorpion EVO. Both are very good pistols. In Fred’s opinion, the Sig MPX beats the CZ EVO on ergonomics “hands down.” But the magazines are hard to get, and more than $60 each. The CZ EVO steel lip magazines are under $30 and easy to find.
“The best rifle or pistol in the world isn’t much use if you can’t get magazines.”
In the end, it’s not all bad for the gun companies. For instance, Fred points out that Mossberg’s designers and engineers are shooters and hunters.
The Future, and Coming Full Circle
Of course, Fred is content to give back to his community, and make good guns into the perfect weapons systems for customers worldwide.
At 77, Garth claims he still works for the company, but mostly he works on his new gardening business geared to preppers and gardeners alike.
It’s called the VersaPot. Essentially, it’s containerized gardening.
“People have been growing stuff in five gallon buckets since they ran the first run of five gallon buckets,” Garth says. But, as expected, the Versapot isn’t just a five-gallon bucket. These are specifically designed to simplify the growing process.
It’s a self-contained, self-watering bucket thanks to a built-in water reservoir. It also comes with its own stand, creating a raised bed that makes weeding and other maintenance easy.
Garth grows nearly 2,000 tomato plants, and 500 squash, among others.
He calls it a “hobby business” that resulted as a direct offshoot of his prepping mentality (can’t rely on hunting alone in a crisis, even in game rich Arkansas).
But does anyone think the elder Choate is taking it easy on the farm? Of course not.
While Fred takes Choate Machine and Tool to new heights internationally and with e-commerce, Garth has come full circle. Once again, he spends his weekends selling the products he makes, and the produce he grows. This time, instead of gun shows, it’s farmers markets.
It’s great to know some things don’t change.