By Joe Kurtenbach, American Rifleman
After spending a couple of days with Marty Daniel and his team at Daniel Defense headquarters in Black Creek, Ga., I was convinced that his pursuit of knowledge pertaining to the manufacture of firearms—as well as his investment in the personnel and equipment needed to act upon that knowledge—was the embodiment of the “Teach a man to fish” maxim. But on further consideration, I don’t believe that Daniel would have been satisfied with a lifetime of fish. Instead, I think, the protagonist of the children’s classic If You Give A Mouse A Cookie may be a more apt comparison for his driven nature. It seems that every technique mastered, every piece of machinery purchased and every employee hired was not only the completion of one objective, but also the jumping-off point for one or a dozen new goals and ambitions.
Daniel Defense is now one of the leading, and fastest-growing, manufacturers of AR-15-style rifles in the United States. In each of its firearms, more than 90 percent of the components are manufactured in-house by Daniel Defense, an unprecedented feat in a market populated by many excellent companies “building” ARs from an assemblage of contracted components. Even more impressive is that if push comes to shove, whether by market forces or other external pressures, Daniel Defense has the knowledge, tools and staff to manufacture 100 percent of the parts necessary to build its guns. But how did it all start? What was the cookie that encouraged a hunter and gun enthusiast, though relative AR-15 novice, to build one of the preeminent brands in the field of modern sporting rifles? In a word, golf.
Prior to his foray in the firearm industry, Marty Daniel was building and installing, of all things, garage doors. The booming housing market of the 1990s proved to be an environment where his background in engineering, his entrepreneurial spirit and his knack for management could develop and flourish. With his company on sound footing, Daniel found time for leisure activities, including hitting the links. Luckily for the gun community, his golf game was, in his own words, horrible. Daniel began shooting recreationally with a friend and was hooked. He quickly traded in the irons and greens for brass and black rifles. He found he most enjoyed tactical-style training with semi-automatics and developed a passion for Eugene Stoner’s AR platform, in particular the 5.56×45 mm NATO Colt-made variants. If you ask Daniel why he became so enamored with those guns, his answer is the same echoed today by life-long enthusiasts and fledgling converts—they are just so fun to shoot.
Developed as a scaled-down version of Stoner’s .30-cal. Armalite Rifle 10 (AR-10), the AR-15—originally licensed to and produced by Colt—has, for more than 50 years, thrived as the M16/M4 family of rifles, the U.S. military’s longest-serving standard longarm. Much of its success can be credited to the platform’s shootability and adaptability, virtues that remain relevant today. The gun’s “fun” factor stems from its low recoil and ease of operation, attributes that have it sharing duties with manually operated rimfires as the rifle of choice for introducing new shooters to the sport. On the other side of the spectrum, the gun’s versatility has kept it on the front lines in the hands of warfighters and law enforcement personnel, often outfitted with decisive tools necessary to take on a given task or terrain. The ease with which the guns can be customized and accessorized to meet a broad spectrum of demands is the basis for an enormous and thriving market of not only firearms, but also component parts and related gear.
It is no wonder that once Daniel caught the AR bug, he soon developed the accessory itch, and a new rail system, especially one capable of mounting even more accessories, soon became the part he most desired. Approaching an established manufacturer of AR components, he ordered several rails for his personal firearms. Although the company was busy filling large contracts, Daniel was surprised when his business was quickly, and bluntly, turned away. The experience drove home the importance of excellent customer service, a hallmark of his own businesses today, and it was the catalyst for Daniel’s first major step toward becoming a firearm manufacturer.
Unable to procure the equipment he wanted, Daniel designed and contracted for the production of an M4-compatible rail system. Besides now having the rail system he wanted as a shooter, Daniel’s creation was well received by the shooting public. So much so, that for the first time Daniel must have thought there may be a little money to be made in building his rails. Confirmation came about a year later when, as a first-time exhibitor at the 2003 SHOT Show, a representative of the U.S. military’s Special Operations community encouraged Daniel to submit his product and bid on an upcoming government contract. Daniel won that contract, even beating out the company whose rail he had tried to purchase.
In an interview, Daniel admitted that starting out his only goal with regards to making and selling gun parts was to fund his recreational shooting and allow him to make and buy more gun parts. It may have started with rails and even tactical sling loops, but with the SOCOM contract for his Rail Interface System (RIS) II, planned or not, Daniel Defense was now well and truly born.
It would still take another couple of years before Daniel Defense would hire its first employee, and it was not until 2008 that machinery, starting with a vertical milling machine, was purchased specifically for Daniel’s firearm business. It was that same year that Daniel bid for and won a United Kingdom Ministry of Defense contract for rails, a contract that continues today with Daniel Defense being the sole provider of its L85 rail system for the UK’s SA80/L85 rifles.
Most will recall that around that time the U.S. housing market was in dire straits. The bubble had burst, home prices were down and new construction was at a virtual standstill. Although such conditions would be devastating for a garage door manufacturer, Daniel was able to compensate by doubling down on building firearms. In fact, in 2009 he brought on more employees with the explicit goal of building a complete rifle. To that end, he also purchased a cold-hammer forge for building barrels. Despite the vast expense, Daniel had reviewed the research and determined that such a machine could sustain his company’s need for barrels and that they would be of the highest quality. Even though he did not have a single employee with experience using such a machine, he knew he had very capable machinists equal to the task. Sure enough, through practice and some experimentation, Daniel Defense refined its barrel-making process. Now, the company is not only self-sufficient in terms of producing this key component for its own rifles, it is in a position to supply some of its competitors, as well. For an outside observer, the research, investment and faith needed to execute Daniel’s barrel-making scheme reveals a broader guiding philosophy which has seen the business flourish.
Daniel Defense accomplished its goal of building a complete rifle, and it has built hundreds of thousands since. This year alone the company is on pace to build another 60,000. In just over a decade, Marty Daniel’s “little” project, run out of a corner in the office suite occupied by his garage door business, has grown into one of the most recognizable brands in the AR market. His one-man band has grown to an orchestra of 170 employees occupying two facilities in the Savannah River valley—one in Georgia, the other in South Carolina—totaling 137,000 sq. ft. Remember that first milling machine? It’s been joined by banks upon banks of modern CNC equipment. And the cold-hammer forge—one of only a few in the country? It has been joined by a second, and Daniel Defense remains one of only a handful of firearm companies producing barrels with the highly prized machines. The success of his company has allowed Daniel to take a step back from the frontline work. He now coaches younger managers and project teams on how to design and innovate on their own, instilling in them a familiar entrepreneurial spirit and harnessing their individual and communal creativity and innovation. Even though the company bears his name, Daniel is adamant that one man’s vision will not stifle its growth, and that the firm’s continued prosperity will be the just reward for his team’s hard work.
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