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."Radical new design
Al Ljutic and his father started manufacturing rifles in Oakland, Calif., in the 1930s. Invited to a trap shoot, Al, who was an expert rifle target shooter, designed and built his own shotgun because he didn't own one. At the time, most trap shooters simply used standard hunting shotguns.
Al's futuristic-looking design consisted simply of a long barrel, a metal stock, and a recoil pad. It later became known as the Space Gun. That was the first in a long series of patented innovations which revolutionized trap shotguns.
Al and Nadine married in 1952 and moved to Reno, Nev., to manage a gun club and continue making guns. They founded Ljutic Industries in 1959 with $500,000 from a legal settlement they reached with Winchester over Winchester's use of one of Al's design features in its rifles.
A fire at their home and plant in 1964 led to their relocation to Yakima, where they established a new manufacturing facility. Word gradually spread throughout the trap-shooting community about the quality, durability, and comfort of Ljutic guns. Their friendship and association with former Green Bay Packer end Dan Orlich also helped. Orlich, a famed trapshooter, started using Ljutic shotguns, and before long, lots of people wanted to shoot the same gun Orlich shot. "We call it 'the house that Dan built,'" Nadine said.Hand tooling
The 12-employee Ljutic facility, located on the campus of the much larger Irwin Research and Development on the outskirts of Yakima, makes shotguns more by hand than mass production. Jere Irwin wants to change that, so he can produce more guns, and a greater variety of guns, while retaining Ljutic's famed quality.
Ljutic — which produced 340 shotguns a year at its height in the early 1980s — sharply lost market share in the 1990s to other gunmakers such as Perazzi of Italy, Krieghoff of Germany, and Kolar Arms of Racine, Wis. Last year it shipped only 50 new shotguns, though it expects to at least double that this year.
Ljutic officials admit the company failed to keep up with rivals' new products and design advances. Jimmy says his father just didn't see the need for new features. By 2006, dealers and customers were frustrated at having to wait many months for gun orders. The company owed nearly $1 million in payroll taxes to the IRS and was on the verge of being shut down.
Irwin has trimmed staff and provided manufacturing support from his adjacent 250-employee facility, which is probably the largest machine shop in Eastern Washington. Still, Ljutic relies on the irreplaceable know-how of employees like Leroy Duckworth, who has worked at Ljutic for 43 years. Staffers follow Duckworth around with a video camera to document how he does his job.
Gunstock maker David Finley, a construction worker until three years ago, learned his job from his father Jerry, who also worked at Ljutic for more than 40 years. In turn, David is teaching those skills to his son, who works as his assistant.
Finley's job is critical because a fine stock is the crowning beauty of a shotgun. Finley acquires blanks made from precious English or American walnut — the most desired wood — paying from $350 to $1,800 per blank. It takes him about a day to carve and drill the stock, based on detailed specifications obtained from the customer fitting.
Then his son takes as long as 10 days to apply 10 to 15 coats of finish with a 1-inch paintbrush, and rub them out. Finally, the stock is sent to a woman in town who does the "checkering," the fine engraving that gives the shooter a better grip on the bottom of the fore-end and stock.
"The wood sells the gun," Finley said. "It gives bragging rights."
Finley has tried, unsuccessfully, to coax his father to come back to work part-time. "It would be nice to have help and hear about the shortcuts," he said.
Another sign of how far Jere Irwin has to go to modernize the manufacturing process is that Ljutic workers still rely on production sequence drawings done by Joe Ljutic on graph paper in the 1970s. In addition, some of the machinery dates from the 1960s, such as the giant router used to rough out the gunstocks.
Ben Biegler, who has worked at Ljutic since 1996, showed me how, after they are manufactured, each receiver/block assembly is matched by number with the trigger assembly machined to fit that particular receiver. The receiver is the steel core of the gun to which everything else attaches.
Biegler explained that Ljutic hand-tools these components to fit more closely. "That's what we're selling, hand-fitting," he said. "People don't do that any more. If you're a mass production shop, that wouldn't be necessary."
Biegler said that under Irwin's ownership, the shop is using new tooling to speed production. "The Ljutics couldn't afford that before."
Still, Biegler says it's not the same without Joe Ljutic. "For me personally, losing Joe's experience affected the company," he said. "To make it a Ljutic, it had been Joe for some time."
Next: Shooting for money.