By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Toli’s Arms, the new gun shop on Main Street in Colfax, offers full service to its customers, including the buying, selling, trading, and repair of rifles, shotguns and handguns.
The gun shop officially opened for business on April 20, but the concept had been under development since at least last fall, if not earlier.
Dr. L.R. Phillips of Colfax owns the gun shop that is operated by Terry Nelson and George Richards.
Richards is the gunsmith.
“Doc talked to me, I guess it was before deer season (2012) and said he was thinking about opening a gun shop and wanted to know if I would come and work for him. I was retired. I have an interest in firearms and hunting, and I said I’d be glad to give it a try,” Nelson said.
“I got to know Doc four or five years ago. I worked on a few of his guns. I’ve been in the gun business for a lot of years. It was November or December, and he asked if I’d be a gunsmith, and I said, ‘sure,’” Richards said.
Richards was born and raised in the Tomah area, and after getting out of dairy farming in the 1980s, he has been in the gun business for more than a quarter of a century.
Richards also is the president of the Colfax Sportsmen’s Club.
“I’ve been in the gun business for 25 years. I started out as a dealer. Then I got a manufacturer’s license and held that for ten years. I got out in 1998. But now I’m considering getting a manufacturer’s license for here,” Richards said.
Although there are subtle differences, a manufacturer’s license and a dealer’s license are quite similar.
“You can do the same thing, basically, with a manufacturer’s license and dealer’s license. But a manufacturer’s license gives you more coverage. There are a couple of gray areas. What we do here, the normal dealer’s license will cover it. But if we get into (making) kits, if we get into rebarreling something like a rifle, that’s another gray area. It depends on what you do, but this covers all of it,” Richards said.
In the past, Richards operated as a full-blown manufacturer and owned a corporation. “We built custom rifles from the ground up,” he said.
Rebarreling involves taking the factory barrel off and applying a good-quality barrel to the firing action. The new barrel can be manufactured or a custom barrel.
“It’s kind of a technical process. I am hoping that maybe someday down the road we will get to that point,” Richards said.
From the enthusiasm in Richards’ voice, it’s easy to see that he truly enjoys working as a gunsmith, which covers anything from cleaning a firearm to fixing problems to changing a safety from right to left or left to right to repairing firing pins to mounting scopes — and restoring old guns that do not operate any more.
“There’s a lot of old guns sitting around in closets that their dad had or their great-granddad. And they bring it in here, and it shows its age. It’s dirty and dusty and rusty. We can clean it up and restore it so it is functional,” Richards said.
“There are lots of old military guns out there. They are good guns, but they are in various states of disrepair,” he said.
Richards, a tool and dye maker by trade, has worked with a number of well-known ammunition and gun manufacturers, including H-S Precision, out of Rapid City, South Dakota, where he worked as a barrel maker.
He also has worked with Corbon ammunition and Dakota Arms and has worked with a firearms designer for Dakota.
Richards has worked, too, with a man in Wyoming who operates the Small Arms Training Academy.
“He trained SWAT teams, Navy SEAL teams, Marine Corps teams,” he said.
Richards also built custom rifles for the Thousand Yard competition and has made reloading equipment.
“I’ve got products in Germany and Australia. They’re probably still using them … I know a lot. But I don’t know it all. I take each day as it comes, and if I can learn something and figure it out, I feel good about it,” Richards said.
New and used
The bulk of the inventory at Toli’s Arms is new.
“We do take trades. Buy, sell and trade … As we sell the new, we hope to get more trades … we can get people anything they want. Rifles. Shotguns. Handguns. We’ve got a nice selection of handguns, both revolvers and pistols. Gun cleaning equipment. Ammo. We’re a full-service gun shop. It’s a solid gun shop. Anything you need to go out hunting for the day,” Nelson said.
“We’re happy to help out first-time gun buyers, too. The first thing (to consider) is why do you need that gun. What are you going to use it for. What kind of experience you’ve had with guns. We like to see people practice with the gun,” he said.
Nelson and Richards recommend concealed carry classes and can provide a contact for someone who teaches the classes.
They recommend practicing as well.
“We strongly recommend that people come out to the range and shoot and learn how to use the gun properly. Every Thursday night we have a shoot (at the Colfax Sportsmen’s Club range south of Colfax) that helps people really learn how to handle a pistol,” Richard said.
“We highly recommend general pistol classes and concealed carry classes. We strongly recommend that anyone take those classes,” he said.
Hunter safety is required in Wisconsin, but hunter safety does not cover the safety requirements for a handgun, Nelson noted.
“The big thing about concealed carry is you have to know the consequences. If you shoot someone, whether you are in the right or in the wrong, that’s when the trouble starts,” Richard said.
Toli’s Arm is covered by an audible alarm system that — as some might say — could wake the dead.
“If anyone attempts a break-in, it’s going to go off. There are motion detectors in here, and the doors and windows are wired. It’s an audible alarm. And the police department is notified right away. Doc is notified first, and if they can’t reach Doc, then they get a hold of me,” Nelson said.
A few weeks ago, the gun shop’s alarm did go off.
Mike Madrid of the Colfax Police Department said the alarm could be heard quite a ways down the street and that people started coming outside and coming closer because they were curious about the alarm.
At that point, Madrid said he did not know if someone had broken into the gun shop or if it was a false alarm. And he was worried by the number of children who came to see what was going on — especially when he was not sure if there was someone in the gun shop who did not belong there.
“Usually, if that alarm goes off, it’s because someone has broken (into the gun shop). Most of the time, someone is not going to break into a gun shop in broad daylight. At night, the kids won’t be around. But if the alarm does go off, (people) in the area should go away from it and not toward it … it’s a warning to the surrounding population as well as to any criminals. It’s not going to go unnoticed. We’re well wired. Plus we’ve got cameras,” Nelson said.
As for the false alarm, “no one knows why the alarm went off that evening. Could have been a mouse running through the shop. Or a book falling over. We looked all around. We couldn’t find anything,” Nelson said.
“The guy who put this system in was telling me about a shop where someone had brought in helium balloons. They had put the balloons in another room, and because of the air conditioning, the balloons walked themselves out into the room, and the alarm went off,” he said.
“It’s quite a system, really. I’m glad we’ve got it. But I hope we don’t have any more false alarms. Eight o’clock at night isn’t too bad. Three o’clock in the morning would be a different story,” Nelson said.
What’s in a name?
Nelson and Richards say they get a lot of questions about the gun shop’s name.
“I could tell you that Toli is a mythical great hunter. But of course, it’s not true. Toli is actually a nickname for Grant (Phillips). We get a lot of questions about the name. It’s more fun to make something up,” Nelson said.
Grant Phillips is Dr. Phillips’ son.
“Grant would be the type of person who has an interest in guns that I could teach to gunsmith. I could teach anyone to do the technical aspects, but if that person is not truly interested, it wouldn’t work out very well,” Richards said.
Richards expects that business will pick up substantially toward fall when duck hunting starts and that the business will really pick up several weeks before deer hunting.
“Normally I can turn something around in a couple of days. If someone comes in with a dinged up scope, things like that. Some parts are hard to get. But I’ve got a couple of really good companies I work with, so I can usually have things fixed in a couple of days. I like having a couple of day turnaround. Some things you just can’t help, but most things I can get parts right away if I need them,” Richards said.
“If someone has something they need fixed, it helps if they plan ahead. Don’t wait until the week before deer season starts. Every year that I’ve been in the business, the two weeks before deer season is really busy. I’ve had people come by Friday night an hour before dark and want to know if they can get a scope put on their gun (for the opening of deer season the next morning). It’s been more than once that I’ve test-fired guns after dark. There’s been times when I’ve been test-firing guns after dark, and then the game warden flies over to see what I’m up to,” Richards said.
“We get a lot of regulars who come in now. We’ve gotten to know a lot of people we didn’t know before who are avid gun (owners), whether they are hunters or target shooters,” Nelson said.
“As fall gets closer, the hand gun sales will slack off but the rifle sales will pick up,” he said.
Nelson was born and raised near Elk Mound and lives about halfway between Colfax and Elk Mound.
Richards lives between Colfax and Menomonie.
“I’ve always been quite familiar with Colfax. One way or another, I’ve always been around here. I went to school in Elk Mound, and I’ve been around here most of my life, except for about eight years when I lived by Chippewa,” Nelson said.
“I live west of Colfax between Colfax and Menomonie. We’ve lived here seven years. I was born and raised in Tomah. I lived there and farmed until the mid-80s when we sold out (of dairy farming),” Richards said.
After Richards got out of dairy farming, he lived in Iowa and went to tech school to learn to be a tool and dye maker. He lived in South Dakota for about 20 years.
“We moved back here and came to the Colfax area because we’ve got a daughter in Tomah and a daughter in Duluth. We wanted to be close to both of them. And I like a little farm town. I don’t like the big city,” Richards said.
The gun shop is a “destination” type of business. People come because they want to do business with the gun shop, he noted.
“The guys come here, and the ladies go across the street to the antiques or to get a cup of coffee,” Nelson said.
“It’s important for the businesses to work together to (promote) each other,” Richards said.
“We’ve had several people come in from out of town, and they ask where there’s a good place to eat, and we tell them what there is in town,” Nelson said.
Toli’s Arms is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.