The Juneau Mercantile & Armory is easy to pick out — a large and rustic but shiny and new building of lodgepole pine with a camouflaged tour bus that reads “Alaska Shooting Adventures.”
The new retail space and range, after three years of construction and controversy, opened to the public on July 4.
Entering through two sets of vault doors, the retail space has a wide-open feel. On the walls and scattered throughout are mounts, from moose to goats and a bear on its hind legs. They are on loan from local residents for display.
Along two walls are rifles and shotguns, while glass cases forming an “L” contain mostly handguns. Some firearms are on display, like a World War II-era machine gun that sits on the glass countertop. It can be rented to fire in the five-lane range on the lower level, but it’s not a practical firearm to own for the average person, said co-owner Sloan Swendsen.
“To buy the machine gun here would be $15- to $20-thousand,” Swendsen said. “And a lot of paperwork and a lot of ammo. The average person isn’t going to go out and buy it.”
Swendsen owns and operates the Juneau Mercantile & Armory with Jason Tarver, a longtime friend and business partner.
Both men moved to Juneau 18 years ago, Swendsen from Idaho and Tarver from Arizona. As the story tends to go, neither intended to stay in Juneau, but here they are — and based on the investment they’ve made, they’re not going anywhere.
Building Juneau’s second indoor gun range was based on a need they saw, Swendsen said.
“We saw a need in the community for something, another indoor range not limited by hours and caliber,” Swendsen said.
The gun range will be open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Sunday, when it is open from noon to 5 p.m. The range of firearms that can be fired there is broad.
“Pretty much any rifle can be shot inside of our range,” Swendsen explained. “People have the ability to bring their own in, or we have firearms to rent. And we have the ability to shoot machine guns.”
Added Tarver: “You can bring your own ammo, but no armor-piercing or (incendiary) rounds.”
The downstairs range has five lanes, with one suitable for up to .50 BMG — for .50 caliber machine guns — and the rest suitable for 30 caliber or less. In one lane is a reproduction Gatling gun, which weighs just shy of 400 pounds and originated in 1862.
“It’s engineered to be a top-of-the-line range. It’s a concrete bunker, reinforced concrete,” Swendsen said. “It’s all about angles. That’s how they engineer it, it goes into the bullet trap, then the decelerator and into the bucket.”
One of their specialties is offering “tours.” The Mercantile & Armory’s website, JuneauGuns.com, lists seven packages, ranging in price from $165 to $1,000. The Ultimate Package allows visitors to shoot a variety of machine guns, including a “Thompson, MP 40, Uzi, Colt M4, AK 47, MP5 SD, FN Bar, MP5, S&W 76” with a bonus choice of the Gatling gun or Browning 1919. Packages include the presence of a Range Safety Officer who prepares the firearms and instructs in their proper usage, plus hearing and eye protection, a target and a t-shirt.
They also list the WWII package, the Alaska Zombie Package (with zombie targets), the Ladies Package, Westerner Package, Alaskan Hunter Package (with moving bear target) and the Bear Cub Package.
With safety in mind, Juneau Mercantile & Armory will also offer National Rifle Association-certified classes, including Basic Pistol, Personal Protection in Your Home, Firearm Safety in Your Home and Refuse to Be a Victim. Some classes will involve shooting, others may not.
An educational tool not otherwise available to the public is a soon-to-be-online firearm simulator, in which users handle real firearms with CO2 and lasers, taking aim at on-screen figures like zombies.
“It’s the X-Box of the future,” Tarver said.
Also with safety in mind, the new range and retail space is secure, with surveillance in the parking lot and everywhere but the bathrooms and changing rooms.
“The front doors are vault doors, and all of the firearms get locked up in the vault inside the vault,” Swendsen said. “It’s a pretty secure environment.”
In a community with many hunters, Swendsen and Tarver see the range as a place for building skills.
“It’s a tool for when I’m going hunting,” Swendsen said. “A guy needs to stay practiced instead of picking up a firearm once a year.”
Tarver said it’s more ethical to be a practiced shooter when hunting.
Swendsen enjoys the mechanics of firearms — his favorite is the MP 40, carried by Nazi German paratroopers during WWII — and said he gains satisfaction from building certain skills, whether it be focus and long-range accuracy, or accuracy while shooting fast and close.
He’s also an “avid reloader,” which, he said, is “a whole other aspect of the shooting sport that not everybody gets into.”
He claims to get no adrenaline rush from shooting, but did admit that “shooting a machine gun is just downright fun.”
For Tarver, satisfaction lies in improvement.
“My enjoyment initially is to see rewards for your effort,” he said. “The more proficient you become with a firearm or tool, the more food you’re able to put on the dinner plate.”
Growing up in a large family of six boys, he said hunting was one way their father fed the family.
Despite the world of shooting being male-dominated, the owners reported seeing “many women” come in to the new store, which they attribute in part to the nice environment — which includes indoor plumbing — but also to their efforts to make women feel comfortable coming in, looking at the guns and participating.
“We’ve had a couple ladies come in and they’ve never shot before,” he Swendsen said. “There’s someone right there who can explain anything.”
It can seem intimidating, he said, because “It’s loud, there’s a bang, and there are a lot of videos that make it seem scary,” but he added that once they try them and get to pick out something that works for them, it’s not a negative experience.
“Over 33 percent of shooters are female, and it’s the fastest growing demographic,” Swendsen said.
About half the staff is female, and they have packages and classes specifically for women and plan to start a women’s shooting league.
“We’re trying to take it up a little more to the next level for Juneau,” Swendsen said of the retail offerings and range.
He also added: “You can take a picture with a real moose instead of a fake stuffed one downtown.”