First of two parts
Nadine Ljutic is telling me about the sport of trap shooting when she mentions her son, Joe. Her voice catches, and she takes a moment to recover.
Nadine, her husband Al, and Joe made the family's Yakima, Wash.-based shotgun company, Ljutic Industries, the leading brand in high-end trap guns in the U.S. From the 1960s to the early '80s, the Ljutic Mono Gun was the best-selling luxury trap gun in the country, known for its durability, balance, and light recoil. The three Ljutics became legends in the sport for their pioneering gun designs and their own championship shooting.
But two years ago, Ljutic Industries, which Al and Nadine founded in 1959 — one of the few companies still making trap guns in this country — nearly went out of business. A Yakima industrialist who knew the Ljutics bought the company and is trying to revive it.
Last December, Joe, who served for many years as the company's lead gun designer and goodwill ambassador, died of heart disease at age 52. "Joe was a good guy," said Bob McLendon, treasurer of the Spokane Gun Club, which was founded in 1892 and is the oldest continuously operated gun club in the country. "Everyone knew that if he was at a shoot, he'd beat you."
In his honor, the gun club designated an event at its big annual trap shooting competition in May the Joe Ljutic Memorial Handicap. The Ljutic company, now called Ljutic LLC, gave $2,000 in prize money, and Al and Nadine attended the event.
Now the company is struggling to make a comeback without Joe. In September 2006, Jere Irwin, president of Irwin Research and Development in Yakima, a company that manufactures machines that make food containers for supermarkets and restaurants, bought Ljutic Industries from the IRS for $250,000 and paid the Ljutics a smaller sum for the rights to the company name.
"My financial people told me I was crazy, and they were totally right," says Irwin, 72, a self-taught engineer who also operates a Christian TV station. "But I liked the Ljutics and what they did, and I wanted to keep it going."
He retained the Ljutics as employees. Nadine, 78, remains in charge of customer relations, relying on her file cards on every customer and every gun over the past 49 years. Al, a vigorous but forgetful 91, keeps Nadine company in the office. Their younger son, Jimmy, does quality control and works with customers.
A professional boxer in the 1930s, Al spends his time at the office reading up on vitamins and health elixirs, peppering conversations with the phrase, "Hit first and ask questions later." He's still a crack shot, and he continues tinkering with new gun designs. "He could still put your lights out with one punch," Jimmy marvels.
Trap shooters from around the country who can afford anywhere from $8,000 to $30,000 for a new shotgun make the pilgrimage to Yakima to be custom-fitted for a new gun. Jimmy brings the customers to the family's trap field, behind Al and Nadine's home in nearby Selah, to shoot. A fitting and tryout is a key part of selling a trophy gun. "It's like buying your first Rolex," says Doug Gray, a shotgun dealer in Amarillo, Texas.
Brian Styke of Whidbey Island, who shot a Ljutic at the Spokane competition in May, bought that gun for $9,500 after getting fitted last November at the Yakima facility. Before that, he had shot a Perazzi, a high-end Italian gun. Perazzi has eclipsed Ljutic to become one of the leading brands in the world.
"I always wanted a Ljutic [so] I went to Yakima," Styke said between events at the Spokane shoot. "Jimmy fitted me up and took me out to his mom's place. It was great." Styke boasted that he had hit 99 out of 100 clay targets that morning. "I was just smashing the targets. I love the trigger release. It's the same every time."
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