NORTH SMITHFIELD – For Robert Houle, the change in focus came naturally – and was dictated mostly by demand.
Houle, the owner of a long-standing machine shop in town, will soon phase out his parts production business to make way for construction of an indoor gun range. Weapons safety classes and custom engraving will compliment an already popular guns and ammo retail store, now set to double in size.
The 13-lane range will be the only one of its kind in northern Rhode Island, offering space for his customers – gun enthusiasts from all walks of life – to practice the sport.
“When I got into this five or six years ago, I never thought this was going to happen,” Houle told NRI NOW in an interview last week.
Houle first opened MTR Machining Inc., a machine parts manufacturing business named after his three children – Michelle, Tara and Robbie – in 2008. From a quiet, 1.16-acre property on Quaker Highway, Houle worked with metal, cutting and fabricating parts for other industries for several years.
He began using those machines to manufacture ammunition amid a national shortage in 2016, and opened a retail store the following year, while also buying a home in North Smithfield.
Sales exploded soon after, with gun owners from across New England visiting MTR Guns & Ammo to stock up on Houle’s brand.
“People just couldn’t find it anywhere,” he said of the ammo shortage.
As orders for bullets skyrocketed, the small gun shop at the front of the machine business absorbed more and more of his time. Houle remembers a point where he could barely keep up with the sales, and would rush back to the machines between shop hours to restock the shelves.
“It was crazy,” he said.
Houle also started using his machines for another service to compliment the store: custom laser engraving. Customers could personalize their purchase with logos and slogans, or bring in items with the images they hoped to have engraved.
“It doesn’t have to be a gun,” Houle said of the service.
As the business grew, it was another type of shortage that ultimately led to the entrepreneur’s next move.
Rhode Island has only three indoor shooting ranges and all are in the southern part of the state, a frequent complaint heard from Houle’s clientele. While enthusiasts could travel to nearby Massachusetts, the state has different – and more stringent – weapons regulations.
“There’s a lot of guns that aren’t legal in Massachusetts,” Houle explained.
To build a range, the business owner would need planning and zoning approvals for a small expansion of the roughly 8,000-square-foot building, which is mostly surrounded by forest. He began the process last year, drawing up plans and obtaining permits.
“The town was very receptive,” Houle said. “I think it’s a good location for it.”
MTR still produces around seven types of branded ammo, with bullets for 45s, 380s and hollow points, to name a few. While NRI NOW was speaking to the shop owner last week, it was a customer who boasted that Houle’s bullets are the most affordable around – at $23 for a box of 50, 9mm.
But sales have calmed as national production finally caught up with demand.
“That kind of slowed down, so this is taking it to the next level,” Houle said of the range, now expected to open in around nine months to a year.
Construction will soon begin on a 75-foot-long range with a total steel containment trap. Utah-based Action Target will construct the facility, surrounded by 14-foot-high concrete block walls and monitored by cameras. As part of the project, the business will add classroom space for gun safety courses, taught by NRA-certified instructors.
A new second floor at the front of the building will be used to house additional offices as the retail business doubles in size. The store sells both guns and supplies, with everything from targets and eyewear, to cases, storage safes and cleaning kits.
As a licensed FFL dealer, the business also serves customers who purchase weapons online. Online purchasers file out applications and Houle files the needed paperwork, including local and federal background checks. For those who need to start the legal process for gun ownership, the store provides a free study booklet and offers the Blue Card exam.
At the soon-to-launch indoor range, Houle will offer three kinds of memberships, which vary according to when visitors can use the facility, and how often they can bring guests. The most affordable comes with hours from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, while a VIP membership allows members to use the range anytime it’s open for up to an hour and a half.
Time on the range will also be offered by the hour to non-members, space permitting, with gun rentals available.
As the business owner finalizes the plan to start construction, excitement is growing among both MTR’s regular customers, and others who have long needed a place to shoot. Detailed design plans sit behind the counter as the longtime machine shop owner gradually phases out his former career.
“It’s more or less state-of-the-art,” Houle said of the incoming range.
To learn more, or sign up for membership, visit MTR Guns and Ammo at 229 Quaker Highway during normal business hours Monday though Wednesday, or Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.