Northwest Business Magazine

Success Stories: Smokin’ Gun Worx

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Step inside this successful gun shop and find out why its owners believe running a gun business is similar to being a dentist.

Karen and Keith Ruter have been running Smokin’ Gun Worx, in Forreston, Ill, for six years. Keith, better known as “Doc” to customers and loved ones, has also spent the past 35 years as a dentist.

Some people have a passion for dentistry; others enjoy using firearms. Dr. Keith Ruter has an affection for both. He’s been a dentist for 35 years, but has spent the past six running Smokin’ Gun Worx, in Forreston, Ill., with his wife, Karen.

The store specializes in selling guns, knives and related accessories, but Smokin’ Gun Worx also maintains a top-of-the-line shooting range, along with a shooting simulator, a training area and gunsmith services. The company buys and sells firearms new and on consignment. The gun shop also gives appraisals and accepts trades.

“I really enjoy the gun profession, I truly do,” Ruter says. “I really want to make sure our customers are well taken care of and they get the firearms that they’re looking for.”

Known affectionately as “Doc” to customers and loved ones, Ruter believes owning a gun business isn’t so dissimilar from being a dentist.

“In dealing with the dental-medical field and all of the regulations, it wasn’t that difficult for me to get into the firearms industry and abide by all of the laws and regulations,” says Ruter. “Medicine and firearms paperwork are very similar, along with the amount of details you have to follow and abide by.”

Ruter practices dentistry three days a week and spends his time in the gun shop the remainder of the time. So, no days off, he chuckles. But since he’s passionate about what he does, it’s no big deal to him.

While he may seem relaxed about his two jobs, Ruter places no shortage of emphasis on the way he maintains safety at his shop.

“We provide our customers with a safe environment to shoot in, and we always make sure we have the best retail products in our store. That’ll help us survive and continue to do quite well,” Ruter says.

To purchase a firearm or ammunition, you’ll need a firearm owners identification (FOID) card, which Ruter can help you to obtain. He’ll also help you to apply for or renew your concealed carry license.

“You can’t just come in, buy a firearm and walk out with it,” Ruter says. “You can’t touch a firearm in my facility unless you have and display a valid FOID card.”

Ruter believes part of his company’s success is due to its expert customer service and knowledgeable staff of 12.

“They each bring something to the table,” Ruter says. “I have a full-time gunsmith, I have people who’ve worked in shooting range facilities, and they have formal firearm training backgrounds. I also have an employee who’s a firearms historian. That man knows more about the history of firearms than I think I’ll ever know, because all he does is research firearms. He’s like a walking encyclopedia.”

The firearms industry is constantly changing, especially given the ever-changing laws relating to the industry. Ruter says he does his best to roll with the punches, especially when it comes to online sales – a major source of competition and challenge.

“The big thing we’re dealing with now is our battle with online firearms sales and maintaining legal firearms transfers in the state,” he says. “The online dealers want to sell firearms as cheap as they can.”

Ruter says gun enthusiasts need to be careful when purchasing firearms from a retailer online or out of state.

“A firearm that comes from out of state has to come from a firearms dealer to a firearms dealer in Illinois,” he says. “So, when someone buys a gun online, they transfer it from that dealership to our store, and we have to charge a transfer fee and make sure the Illinois taxation has been paid before a customer can get that firearm. A lot of online retailers don’t do everything properly, so we have to correct them and make sure it’s done correctly.”

For gun owners who want to improve their skills, Smokin’ Gun Worx also maintains two full-service indoor ranges that accommodate rifles, slug guns and handguns. There’s an upper and lower range for target shooting. The lower range has 29 programs with targets that can twist and turn. It varies from easy to difficult, depending on your shooting skills.

The range also has a laser video shooting simulator. Using a plastic gun that has an embedded laser for shooting, the simulator has roughly 100 scenarios to test your skills.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade association for the firearms industry, has awarded Smokin’ Gun Worx the coveted five-star stamp of approval because of its management, operations, appearance and amenities.

It’s a recognition Ruter doesn’t take lightly.

“When people look for a local gun range to shoot at and have fun in this area, they’ll see we have a five-star range,” Ruter says. “In order to get a five-star rating, you have to establish various protocols and regulations, and the NSSF comes in and does an inspection to make sure you’re doing what you say you’re doing.”

That a store and range of this size can earn the top rating convinces Ruter he has one of the best facilities in the nation.

“It’s an incredible position to attain,” he says. “The NSSF won’t even rate a shooting range if they don’t feel your facility is safe, clean, well-organized and abiding by regulations on a state and federal level. That distinction is a very neat thing to attain.”

As Ruter continues looking for ways to engage with firearms owners, Smokin’ Gun Worx has begun contributing to youth shooting sports that engage future hunters.

“About four years ago, we started funding local high school trap shooting leagues, and we have 12 that we work with,” Ruter says. “We also work with area Boy Scouts and 4-H groups as well.”

Experimenting with various firearms and interacting with customers is what makes Smokin’ Gun Worx special, Ruter says. It’s a place to have fun – certainly more fun than a root canal – but also a place where people respect the law.

“When I started this business, I wanted firearms sales and the gun range to be created correctly and safely,” he says. “We have to be aware of the laws in Illinois, and we have to make sure our paperwork is correct as far as firearms transfer goes. We have to make sure that we comply with all of the regulations to operate a safe gun range and facility.”

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