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Rural Missouri Magazine

A superstore for shooters
Larry Potterfield grows a tiny gun shop
into America’s premier shooting supply house

by Bob McEowen

Kevin Wright confirms an item number on a wrist-mounted computer as he pulls merchandise from inventory at MidwayUSA. The Columbia mail-order house is one of the largest suppliers of firearms accessories, gunsmith’s supplies and reloading components in the U.S.

It’s the day after the presidential election, and the phones are abuzz at a sprawling industrial building west of Columbia as 40 operators talk with customers. Inside a glass-walled data processing room, 70 high-capacity computer servers busily process electronic orders that stream in from an Internet storefront.

Sales were up 40 percent at Mid-wayUSA on Nov. 4 amid concerns about a post-election gun ban. Otherwise, it was a typical day at this mid-Missouri mail-order company. The company is one of the nation’s largest direct-to-consumer suppliers of firearms parts and accessories, gunsmith tools and all the various components and equipment used by hobbyists who assemble their own ammunition. The motto printed prominently on the cover of MidwayUSA’s 970-page catalog sums up the company’s market philosophy: “Just about everything for shooting, reloading and gunsmithing.”

“‘Just about everything’ means just about every vendor, every manufacturer that has something for sale,” company founder and CEO Larry Potterfield says, explaining that as long as MidwayUSA can sell two of an item in a year, he’ll stock it. “If there’s any possible demand for it, then we’re going to carry it.”

The No. 4 mail-order sporting goods retailer nationwide — behind Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops and Sportsman’s Guide — MidwayUSA sells no complete guns. Instead, it offers a wide selection of products and accessories for shooting enthusiasts. More than just locks, stocks and barrels, the company sells nearly 100,000 items, from targets, optics and carrying cases to the tiny springs and screws that go into a gun and the specialized tools needed to install them. Ammunition reloaders can find bullets, brass, powder and primers for every conceivable cartridge, from .17 Remington to the .700 Nitro Express.

From the outside, there is little indication that MidwayUSA’s 140,000-square-foot facility alongside Interstate 70 houses an industry leader. Likewise, Larry’s unassuming manner belies a skilled businessman who saw opportunities and created a successful company to meet them.

Ever since 1977, when he and his wife, Brenda, opened a small gun shop near Columbia, Larry has been the public face of MidwayUSA. His image is displayed in advertisements that run in virtually every major firearms-related publication in America, and he stars in how-to videos MidwayUSA airs on television’s Outdoor Channel and posts on its Web site.

Larry Potterfield founded the company in 1977.

“Hi, I’m Larry Potterfield from MidwayUSA,” he says at the start of each video the company produces at its in-house studio. The videos, which show how to do everything from installing a scope to rebarreling a rifle, often end with a simple statement of appreciation: “Thanks for the business.”

Larry grew up near Ely in northeast Missouri and studied accounting at the University of Missouri-Columbia before serving in the U.S. Air Force. While in the military, he earned a master’s degree in business management. At Blytheville Air Force Base in Arkansas, Larry’s childhood appreciation for hunting and firearms blossomed into a full-blown obsession.

Larry helped organize a gun club on base, became a licensed firearms dealer and began trading guns at gun shows. He also befriended the base locksmith, an avid reloading enthusiast.

In those days, reloading components were scarce and interstate sales were legal only to licensed gun dealers. Home hobbyists often made their own cartridge cases, converting one caliber to another. Larry’s locksmith friend necked down spent .38-caliber brass cases to work in Japanese Nambu pistols, a popular war relic.

Larry’s exposure to the now-obscure Nambu would prove providential, as he and Brenda left the Air Force and opened their gun shop. The Boone Electric Cooperative member had no idea that he would one day head America’s premier mail-order reloading supply house. He just wanted to work with guns.

“The business then wasn’t any different than the business today,” Larry says. “Here’s what I like to do. I like to shoot, reload and tinker with guns. Guess what? We’re going to open a business for shooting, reloading and tinkering with guns.”

Larry and his brother, Jerry, built a 1,600-square-foot shop and stocked it with their personal gun collections. The Potterfield brothers soon began crafting their own Nambu shells and selling them through advertisements in gun magazines. This endeavor led them to a supplier of brass cartridge cases, and then to a company that offered boxes reloaders could use to package their homemade ammunition.

By 1984, Jerry had gone home to farm and the shop was exclusively in the mail-order business, supplying bullets, brass and other reloading supplies to gun shops across the country.

Part of MidwayUSA’s success is due to federal legislation passed in 1986, which allowed mail-order sales of ammunition directly to consumers. But what keeps MidwayUSA growing is the company’s reputation for selection, fast shipping and excellent customer service. In November, the company was one of four businesses awarded a 2008 Missouri Quality Award by the Excellence in Missouri Foundation.

Brenda Potterfield visits with an operator in Midway's call center.

Aside from his business acumen, Larry continues to bring a love of firearms, reloading and gunsmithing to MidwayUSA. He still hunts and shoots — both he and Brenda travel to Africa each year for big-game hunts — and reloads his own ammunition. Each week, the busy executive finds time to work on guns in MidwayUSA’s gunsmith shop. He’s currently restoring a Remington Rolling Block rifle like the one Gen. George Custer carried at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The project will be featured on “Cowboys,” a program MidwayUSA sponsors on the Outdoor Channel.

MidwayUSA’s 355 employees also are encouraged to enjoy the shooting sports. The company offers gunsmith training for employees, and guns and wildlife mounts are on display in cubicles and workstations throughout the facility.

Larry’s commitment to education is not limited to employees and customers however. Recently, the Potterfield family — daughter Sara and son Russell also are involved — established the Scholastic Shooting Trust Fund to support college and high school shooting teams. Larry hopes the money, which is channeled through FFA or other extra-curricular organizations, will help a new generation of youth discover the shooting sports.

In addition, the Potterfields have created several endowments to further Second Amendment-related causes. MidwayUSA’s NRA Round-up program has raised $4 million for the National Rifle Association since 1992.

MidwayUSA may not attract much attention from motorists passing by on the interstate, but the company and its founder have left their mark on America’s shooting, reloading and gunsmithing hobbyists. Larry pioneered an industry selling reloading supplies direct to consumers, and the tiny gun shop he and Brenda opened 31 years ago is now one of the largest firearms specialty mail-order houses in America. He also had the vision to create innovative endowments to further the interests of sportsmen.

Despite the accomplishments, Larry humbly sees himself as someone who likes guns.
“I have always been a guy who liked to pull the trigger. I have always been a guy who liked to reload and who liked to tinker with guns,” he says. “I’m just a customer.”

To request a MidwayUSA catalog, phone 800-243-3220; or log onto www.midwayusa.com to access the company’s entire product line. For information about the Scholastic Shooting Trust Fund, log onto www.scholasticshootingtrust.org.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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