Iraq War veteran Jamin McCallum started Palmetto State Armory in 2008 as an online ammunition store operating out of his garage. Today the company is a full-fledged weapons manufacturer with brick-and-mortar stores in Columbia, Beaufort, Greenville, and Mt. Pleasant. Another store and gun range is slated to open by the end of September in Summerville's Heritage Square shopping center.
Online and in stores, Palmetto State Armory is best known for its military-style PA-15 rifle, a version of the semi-automatic AR-15 the company assembles at a company warehouse in Lexington County. In a durability test the company uploaded to YouTube, company employees can be seen running the gun over with a truck, tossing it in a pond, burying it underground, and firing it without lubrication.
The AR and all its variants — such as the AR-10, AR-9, and AR-47 — have been runaway success stories for numerous American gunmakers and sellers in recent years. Following the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in 2012, when President Barack Obama and other lawmakers called for tighter restrictions on high-capacity AR-15 magazines, gun sellers across the country reported that they could hardly keep the weapons in stock because they were selling so quickly.
Coincidentally, McCallum started his company the same year Obama was elected president, and the company hasn't exactly steered clear of political controversy. One of Palmetto State Armory's co-owners, Julian Wilson, is a son of Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, and in 2011 the company unveiled a limited-edition AR-15 lower receiver with Wilson's famous outburst, "You Lie," engraved on the side.
But Adam Ruonala, chief marketing officer for Palmetto State Armory, says the company's predilection for the AR platform has more to do with personal preference than politics.
"Jamin had a passion for it. It's what protects our men and women of both the military and law enforcement," Ruonala says. "The AR platform really is the culmination of the firearms industry over the past 500 years. It really is what this country is shaped by. It's the best of every world. It's light, it's sleek, it's dependable, it's accurate." When Palmetto State Armory opened its store in Mt. Pleasant, the company donated three of its AR-10 rifles to the Mt. Pleasant Police Department's SWAT team, Ruonala says.
McCallum doesn't give media interviews — "he's a pretty shy guy," Ruonala says — but Ruonala says his timing in opening the online store certainly didn't hurt sales.
"Whether you were pro- or anti-firearm, it was a very hot topic, and people were buying in large quantities," Ruonala says.
According to Ruonala, McCallum served two Army tours in Iraq, where his duties included clearing roadside bombs. Back home in Blythewood, where he continued to serve in the National Guard, McCallum found that he had a hard time concentrating in his job as a certified public accountant.
"He was working at a successful firm doing well, but he discovered he had TBI, traumatic brain injury, due to the injuries he received overseas," Ruonala says. "It wasn't to the point where it was debilitating and he couldn't function, but it was to the point where it made it miserable to be at work."
As a side job, McCallum started buying ammunition in bulk and re-selling it out of his garage via an online store. One day, Ruonala says, an ammo dealer accidentally shipped McCallum some AR parts and accessories. McCallum tried to return the parts, but the seller told him not to worry about it, so McCallum tried selling them on his website — and they sold out almost instantly.
"So he came home one day, told his wife, 'I think I want to start a gun company,'" Ruonala says. "As you can imagine, as anybody's wife would, it was met with a little bit of resistance."
McCallum kept his day job for a while, but soon his side business was booming. His storage expanded from the garage to the kitchen to the living room to a shed out back. Eventually McCallum bought a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in a Columbia industrial park. Before long, people started showing up at the warehouse looking to buy directly, so he opened his first store in Columbia, then another in the Beaufort area, then a second in Columbia, another in Greenville, and — in November last year — a fifth store in Mt. Pleasant. In 2010, the company started manufacturing its own firearms and accessories.
"The company started with him, his wife, his brother, and a high schooler packaging everything," Ruonala says. "Now we have over 300 employees with over 100 veterans or active-duty."
At the Palmetto State Armory store in Mt. Pleasant, general manager Justin Kijak says he wants customers to know it's more than just a gun store. For that reason, the gun department is at the back of the store, forcing visitors to walk through the well-stocked fishing, archery, and clothing departments before they ever catch sight of a firearm.
"The company was built and known for this entire side of the store," Kijak says, gesturing toward a wall full of rifles and a glass case full of handguns. "But, of course, our slogan now is 'We're more than just a gun store.'"
On the manufacturing side, Palmetto State Armory is also looking to diversify its offerings, with new shotguns and bolt-action rifles in the works. The company's PSAK-47, a rifle built with all-American parts that starts at under $700, made Outdoor Hub's list of the top nine new guns at January's SHOT Show gun expo in Las Vegas. But for now, the ARs are still the centerpiece.
"While sometimes, unfortunately, it's sensationalized in the media as this thing of the scary monster, what it really is is just modern ingenuity at its best," Ruonala says of the company's ARs. "People don't get upset when a Porsche drives down the road, but the fact of the matter is the Porsche and modern cars are just a culmination of people realizing over the years what works, what doesn't work, what people like, what they don't like."