We're Number Gun

Miami's own Taurus International Firearms is taking aim at the competition

Not long ago Taurus was near the bottom of the handgun food chain. Now the two Taurus factories, which feature a computerized, robot-operated metal molding process, win awards for technical excellence. The molding system, though expensive to install, produces high-quality parts cheaply. At the Miami plant, two pistol models are assembled and hundreds of thousands of parts are manufactured for Taurus's and Rossi's Brazilian-made weapons. Mehalik says several competing gunmakers (that demand anonymity) have contracted Taurus to produce parts.

But not everyone is impressed with the company. "Taurus is sort of a middling manufacturer that doesn't attract that much attention," says Kristen Rand, director of federal policy for the Violence Policy Center. "There are the old-line manufacturers whose guns tend to show up in crimes primarily because there are so many out there. Then there are what we call the bottom-feeders who make the junk targeted to the criminal market. Taurus is just in the middle. They're a little less junky than they used to be."

Forjas Taurus has long been a major gun supplier in South America. It ventured into the U.S. market in 1968 (the year Congress banned the import of so-called Saturday night specials) but was not popular, owing mainly to "what must be admitted as mediocre quality," according to the company's Website. Taurus used to produce cheap copies of Berettas and Smith & Wessons; its guns still share many design elements with those makers. For most of the Seventies, Forjas Taurus was owned by the same conglomerate, Bangor Punta, that owned Smith & Wesson. The two gunmakers were independent companies, but they shared technology. Then a group of investors headed by Brazilian businessman and former Smith & Wesson employee Carlos Murgel bought Forjas Taurus. In 1980 Taurus purchased Beretta's operations in Brazil.

Taurus International was incorporated in Miami in 1982 and began aggressive U.S. marketing efforts, offering a lifetime-repair warranty. The Miami manufacturing plant started up in 1990.

In 1997, before the current wave of calls for mandatory gun locks, Taurus introduced a built-in safety lock on some of its pistols. "Our industry is filled with a lot of opinionated people, and some of the more extremist members had a tendency to look at the Taurus lock when it first came out as a bad thing to promote," says Bob Steger, president of RSR Wholesale Guns, a distributor based in Winter Park that represents 100 manufacturers. "But that trigger lock was really ahead of its time." The lock is now available on several Taurus pistols and the new rifle; since this past January the company claims it has shipped a separate locking device with all guns that do not have the built-in safety system.

Soon after Miami-Dade County filed its gun lawsuit, Taurus CEO Robert Morrison wrote to Mayor Alex Penelas. "We are requesting that you ... [dismiss] Taurus from the litigation," the letter concludes.

"Their response," Mehalik recounts, "was to serve us [with court papers]."
Regardless of reactions Taurus appears intent on sticking with its aggressive approach to marketing. "Years ago [Taurus] just about egged us to take on their line," says Steger of RSR Wholesale Guns. "I told the guy, 'No, no,' but they finally improved the quality so much I couldn't say no. Now Taurus is extremely popular with our salespeople. We just finished up a national sales meeting and Taurus put on a presentation. Part of it was to go around the room and ask every salesperson what they wanted to see in the guns or what they thought should be different, and they were real open to the suggestions. It seemed like they've really got their act down."

Taurus now has an entire sales team focused on the profitable American law-enforcement sector, which has so far stuck with well-respected manufacturers like Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Sig-Sauer. Taurus thinks its new lightweight titanium revolvers will help it to win police contracts. The U.S. Navy SEALs, Mehalik notes, are currently "evaluating" the all-titanium line.

Smith & Wesson, the 147-year-old American manufacturer, introduced its own part-titanium revolver shortly before Taurus's product came out. If the gun giant feels threatened, it gives no indication. "In the revolver business [Taurus is] one of the players," spokesman Ken Jorgensen concedes. "But they're not strong in the law-enforcement market."

"I'd prefer other weapons, but some of the stuff Taurus is putting out there is pretty damn good," says one officer in Miami known for his firearm expertise. Since he's speaking for himself and not his agency, he prefers to remain anonymous. "Taurus doesn't spend a lot on research and development. They get already proven models and produce them a lot cheaper. Some of their pistols are very popular among people who don't have a lot of money to invest in an expensive weapon."

kathy_glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

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