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Kansas City man starts rubber band gun business

Saturday, August 2, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Four years ago, Bob Coulston's 6-year-old son, Bobby, asked him to make a rubber band gun. But not just any rubber band gun.

It had to be the "awesomest rubber band gun" in the world.

It took several dozen attempts before the Sheriff Shotgun — a wooden, semi-automatic rubber band gun — was born, The Kansas City Star reported.

And now, since it opened as a business in 2012, Bandit Guns has sold more than 10,000 of the shotguns in 36 countries, with more models on the way.

No more firing rubber bands at office mates one at a time, aiming with an index finger.

The Sheriff Shotgun can shoot 10 rubber bands at a time. Or it can fire single rubber bands, or rapid fire.

"The only rules are you load from the bottom up," Coulston said.

Coulston sells his guns online and at several local stores. Bandit Guns has two models on the way: the palm-sized $10 Daisy Derringer and the hand-sized $15 Pistol Pete.

Coulston is also working on a sniper gun model, at Bobby's request. Coulston calls Bobby his research and development team: If Bobby doesn't like a model, Coulston won't sell it.

"Machine gun, I would say, is the grand finale," Bobby said.

Coulston said a lot of customers are adults and office workers.

Take, for example, Megan Lee-Gurera of Blue Springs. She said she bought the shotguns to spend quality time with her four teenage sons. They line up empty Coke cans and see who can shoot the most cans down. The rubber band guns bring out the competitiveness in her boys, but not so much for her.

"I'd like to say I use the rubber band guns to get my kids out of bed in the morning," said Lee-Gurera, business development director at Southeast Enterprises, which assembles the guns.

"I haven't yet. It could happen."

Making thousands of rubber band guns a week is lot bigger operation than cutting out models in Coulston's wood workshop.

Coulston orders 500 pounds of rubber bands at one time, which makes 8,000 boxes of ammunition. Once, Coulston and his kids piled all the rubber bands from an order onto the dining room table. One of the legs broke and Coulston's wife, Tammy, was not amused.

To make 2,000 guns, Coulston orders 100 to 130 sheets of plywood, usually per week.

The increased demand for Bandit Guns allowed Coulston to move production out of his house, which he jokes saved his marriage.

Every box of Bandit Guns sports the "Made in Kansas City" label, certified by localstart.org, a nonprofit organization that promotes local businesses working together in Kansas City.

"It would be cheaper in China. But help your local fellows," Coulston said.

Almost every part of the toy is Kansas City-made. Wood for the guns? Liberty Hardwoods in Kansas City. Rubber washers? Metro Industries in Grandview. Laser cutting? High Tech Laser in Lee's Summit. Plastic bolts? LeVic Plastics in Grandview. Toy boxes? Service Pak Group in Lenexa. Brand management? HINGE in Kansas City. The list goes on.

Everything is within 30 miles of Southeast Enterprises in Kansas City, a sheltered workshop that does assembling and packing, Coulston said.

Southeast employs people with disabilities. One of James Strother's responsibilities at Southeast is to count 100 rubber bands for each ammo box and then tape the box shut. He's methodical and said his mind is always on his work.

"If I stayed at home, I would be crazy doing the same thing every day, seeing the same people," Strother said. "I love my job."

Not only does the workshop produce high-quality work, Coulston said, but it is also a way to help an often-forgotten part of the community.

"They kind of live in their own world, and we get to be a part of that. It becomes almost a family," Coulston said.

The only business that's not from Kansas City is his rubber band provider, Alliance Rubber Co. Coulston stressed that the rubber bands are still made in America, however.

Coulston's business plan has been pretty smart so far, said Steve Velte, president of Global Toy Experts, a consulting business in New York.

In making more models, Coulston has avoided becoming a "one-trick pony." And in having a flexible contract with Kansas City businesses, Coulston has limited his overhead costs.

Velte said that for a toy company, the idea is often the easiest part. Making an idea into a toy is a whole different reality.

Coulston's inspiration for the Sheriff Shotgun came from a Japanese rubber band gun guru, OGG Craft, which he first heard of during a four-year military stint in Okinawa. He got the idea for the rolling motion that sets up the next rubber band while he and Bobby watched a "How It's Made" episode about ink pens. The ink pen factory used the same motion to move pens down an assembly line.

"It's borrowed brilliance," Coulston said.

He showed the gun at Kansas City's Maker Faire in 2012, where he ended up selling 120 rubber band guns.

That is when the light bulb turned on — Coulston thought, "I have something."

Coulston asked for $5,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in November 2012. If he received the money in 30 days, he promised he would ship Sheriff Shotguns to his donors by Christmas. With two weeks to go until the delivery deadline, Coulston received a whopping $54,000.

Coulston's daughter, Kelsey, 16, recalled having "Walking Dead" or Adam Sandler movie marathons with the whole family while they painted gun tips red or packed the boxes.

The second time Coulston went to Maker Faire, he sold about 400 rubber band guns. By then, he had already opened Bandit Guns and was formally the owner of a rubber band gun business.

Coulston said he hasn't quit his day job quite yet. His main work is his construction company, Coulston Construction.

Although most of the production of the toys has moved out of his house, there are orders stacked in his garage. Rubber bands hang out in the corners of the Coulston house — on the ceiling fan, on top of the TV stand, in the front lawn.

Velte said Coulston's biggest challenge is that traditional retailers allow very little shelf space for toy guns. So far, Coulston has his guns in about 100 smaller stores nationwide.

He knows he needs more hype. One effort: He made one Sheriff Shotgun that is about 500 percent larger and uses a foot-long rubber band. Coulston props it against his chest in order to aim it. He said he hoped to enter the gun into the Guinness Book of Records.

"The kids don't shoot this one in the house," Coulston said.


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