Daniel Defense is committed to building products from the ground up on U.S. soil.
By Keith Wood
Photos by Mark Fingar and Tyson Bybee
This article was originally printed in Guns & Ammo Magazine.
What many consumers don’t realize is that the firearm manufacturing industry is ripe with outsourcing. Just because a brand name is engraved on the side of a firearm doesn’t mean that company made the product. This is particularly common in the modern sporting rifle segment of the business, where the modular nature of these firearms lends themselves to such practices. It is not at all uncommon for entire firearms to be manufactured and assembled by third-party contractors. Such a system is efficient and cost effective, maximizing profit margins for the business and providing a desirable price point for the consumer.
This is not the Daniel Defense business model. At Daniel Defense, nearly every step of the manufacturing process is performed in-house in the company’s 300,000 square-foot facility in Black Creek, Georgia.
Georgia is among a group of states that have welcomed firearm manufacturers with open arms, and then-Governor Nathan Deal was onsite to help cut the ribbon on the new plant in 2018. The site was designed from the ground up to be as efficient and productive as possible. Recently, I toured this facility to see these operations firsthand, speaking to individual employees and watching rifles make their way through the entire build process.
"DANIEL DEFENSE BELIEVES THAT BY DOING THINGS THEMSELVES IN-HOUSE, THEY CAN ASSURE QUALITY"
I’ve seen my share of firearm manufacturing facilities, but Daniel Defense is one of the most impressive I’ve witnessed. What sets the company apart from their peers is the extent to which they control the various elements of the manufacturing process. Essentially, raw materials come in at one end of the building, and finished rifles emerge from the other. As I watched, an 18-wheeler drove onto the factory floor and delivered a load of raw barrel steel that would soon become finished components. Daniel Defense believes that by doing things themselves in-house, they can assure quality. Only highly-specialized operations such as aluminum extrusion and phosphate coatings are outsourced. Even among those who produce most products in-house, one thing that sets Daniel Defense apart from other modern sporting rifle manufacturers is their barrel making. Even more unique is the fact that the company’s barrels are produced through the cold-hammer-forging process. Cold-hammer forging requires a massive investment in machines that take up lots of floor space and require significant institutional knowledge. One could say that the process is as much art as it is science, and it was impressive to watch.
I observed barrel making from beginning to end. Cylindrical steel billets of 4150 chrome moly vanadium are lathe turned and deep-hole drilled before being loaded into the forges. There are four carbide steel hammers that hit at opposing angles, forming both the chamber and the rifling in the process. Though some heat is produced by the friction of the hammers impacting the steel, a specialized coolant is used to keep that temperature down. No artificial heat is introduced into the process, hence the “cold” designation. During my tour, I picked up a barrel just as it rolled off one of the forges, and it was cool to the touch.
Excellence in manufacturing and quality control ensure you are getting the best Daniel Defense has to offer.
There are tangible benefits to using cold-hammer-forged barrels. For starters, the process produces a strong, durable barrel that will hold up to extensive use. Another benefit is that by forming the chamber and the bore at the same time, the process ensures perfect alignment between the two. Chamber-to-bore alignment is one of the most critical factors in accuracy.
Dozens of CNC machines line the aisles in the Black Creek facility. Using sophisticated software to ensure that every part is dimensionally correct, these machining centers produce everything from receivers and bolts to charging handles. I watched as one machine spat out railed forends. In another machine, billets of steel were transformed into flash hiders. The nature of these multi-axis machining centers is that parts that would have required dozens of operations over the course of many hours or even days to build on traditional machinery can now be produced in minutes.
As good as the CNC machines are at producing consistent quality, Daniel Defense still inspects parts to ensure that everything is working as it should. These processes include modern technology alongside skilled labor. As I watched, an automated device known as a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) inspected one part while an individual technician used calipers to manually measure another to ensure that it was correct to the dimensional print. Check and recheck.
Automation is becoming an increasingly important aspect of modern manufacturing. Robots don't call in sick, and these robotics ultimately assist their workforce in meeting their goals on time. Daniel Defense is in the early stages of introducing such equipment into its manufacturing processes. These robotic arms are used to load raw materials, extrusions, or partially finished parts into machining centers that cut each component to its final dimensions. Isaac Bielecki, who Daniel Defense brought in thanks to his background in both the automotive and pharmaceutical industries, is the resident expert on automation. Though their automation systems are in their infancy, they are off to a strong start.
Another element of Daniel Defense’s operation that sets them apart is their in-house tool and die making. This capability is the opposite of automation. Though the company embraces the latest technology, it also values skilled individuals who are experts in their craft. These days, a machinist is most likely someone who operates a CNC machine. Making parts on manual lathes and milling machines is unfortunately a dying art, yet Daniel Defense has built a team of these skilled toolmakers who can produce parts, fixtures, and tooling from blocks of steel. When a part or tool is needed that is not commonly available, these talented toolmakers produce it in-house. Instead of producing a drawing and waiting weeks or months for a shop to make the necessary tool, Daniel Defense engineers can turn to the toolmakers for help. These same skilled craftsmen maintain the carbide hammers used in the barrel forging process, as they must be resurfaced at certain intervals.
Once the parts are completed, inspected, and surface treatments have been applied, it is time for assembly. This work is all done at a series of stations manned by skilled individuals. As I watched, well-practiced hands turned parts into sub-assemblies, which eventually became complete firearms. While the rifles are being assembled, each worker checks to ensure that everything functions in the way that it was designed. They are, effectively, another part of the never-ending inspection process.
Finished firearms are subject to yet another inspection before they make it to the indoor range for test firing. Each firearm is tested with live ammunition — 5 rounds for semiautomatics and 10 rounds for full-auto products intended for law enforcement or military use. Samples are also pulled on a consistent basis for more extensive testing. Once they are fired, they are inspected again before being boxed up for shipment. Even the boxing and labeling process was double- and triple-checked by both human and computer eyes. This attention to detail ensures compliance with BATF regulations and also that the right firearm ships to the right customer.
During my tour, three things stood out. The first was consistent commitment to quality, something that I saw at every step in the manufacturing process. Parts in Black Creek aren’t made to be the least expensive; they are made to be the best they can be. “Good enough” was not in the workers’ vocabulary. My second observation was the efficiency of the entire process. The current facility was built from the ground-up with workflow in mind, and the employees constantly look for ways to do things better, faster, and with more consistency. Finally, I witnessed pride. From my perspective, this wasn’t just another job for the workers at Daniel Defense. Their commitment to quality wasn’t merely a part of their duties; it was personal. “Americans build the best manufactured products in the world,” a company engineer told me. From what I witnessed, it was clear that Daniel Defense takes that “American-made” sentiment to the extreme.
A mixture of precise automation and skilled craftsmanship goes into each part of every firearm.