By David Louis
RAWLINS, Wyo. — The host of successful companies that began in a garage is impressive: Amazon, Apple, Disney, Harley Davidson and Mattel to name a few. Add one more to the list, RMA Armament, Inc., one of only a few companies manufacturing lightweight body armor.
Now based in Rock Island, Ill., with manufacturing facilities in Monticello Iowa, it all began in 2011 in the garage of a former Rawlins Police officer Blake Waldrop.
Waldrop had been on the Rawlins force for four years, leaving to take a job with the Gillette Police Department. However, that opportunity fell through leaving Waldrop scrambling to pay bills.
“I had a secret recipe for gun oil, which I started making in my garage,” he said. “I would bottle it up and drive to different gun stores in Wyoming and South Dakota to sell. I was just trying to survive.”
One night, serendipity struck. Waldrop came across an article on body armor. As a former police officer, and former U.S. Marine, he knew all to well how important protection was to law enforcement and the nation’s military.
“I had a friend that was killed in Iraq on New Year’s Day 2004,” he said. “I wasn’t there at the time, but we served together. When I heard about it definitely pulled a heartstring.”
Even though it had been years since the death of his friend, Lance Cpl. Brian Parnello, reading about body armor brought up memories of the incident.
The day Parnello was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device), witnesses later told Waldrop the blast penetrated the body armor “annihilating it.”
“I was told it looked like spaghetti,” he said. “I started looking at different ceramics and seeing what I could do to make armor better and stronger. I ended coming up with a unique design.”
Typically, body armor is made with a solid piece of ceramic plate and polyethylene or Kevlar backing. Waldrop’s approach looks at providing protection differently.
“Instead of being one piece we broke it down into 22 sections,” he said. “When a round hits it, it will take out only the section, not the entire plate.”
Waldrop and his manufacturing team struggled with the bond agent to seal the seams together, but eventually solved the problem and came up with an “extremely good and high quality product.”
“We made an accidental discovery. The substance we developed was good for bonding tiles, and that’s what we were going after, but it also forms a protective layer of the top of the tiles as well,” Waldrop said. “You can literately take the plates when it’s dried, and smash it on the ground and it won’t affect the tiles at all.”
When first tested at a shooting range in Casper, Waldrop knew he had something very special.
“It was a lot stronger than I first though,” he said, “That’s when the light bulb when off. I knew what I had was a lot better than the industry standard.”
There are not many manufactures of body armor, probably only seven, Waldrop added. There are a lot of distributors and resellers, but very few actual producers.
“Nobody goes into manufacturing. Nobody does this, so we have a huge upper hand and we are seeing that pay off,” he said.
Recently, during a four-day trade show RMA Armament generated between $2-3 million in sales. Currently, company officials are demonstrating the new body armor to Special Forces at Fort Bragg.
What started with a dream in his garage has grown into a 100 percent all-American made manufacturing company with eight full-time employees.
Though only producing body armor, Waldrop said the company will turn its attention to vehicle applications in March, and may consider providing armor to helicopter seats in the future.
“It’s a great success story for a former Wyomingite and Rawlins police officer to be elevated to the position I am today,” he said.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, more than 2,500 service members have been killed by IEDs during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Reprinted with permission from Rawlins Times