'Coolest Thing Made In Wisconsin' Finalists Include Boating & Hunting Products

Oct 8, 2019

Updated at 2:23 p.m. CT

The Big Boy All-Weather Rifle, made by Henry Repeating Arms in Rice Lake, has been voted winner of this year’s Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin contest. It's the fourth year for the competition, which is run by Johnson Financial Group and the state's largest business organization, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

Three of the four finalists are from the eastern half of the state, so WUWM took a closer look.

Last Friday was a beautiful early fall day on Lake Winnebago. Pretty good for boating — and going fast. 

Chris Jenks was piloting a 34-foot catamaran that was reaching 120 mph. He says the boat costs $400,000. 

But Jenks wasn't really showing off the vessel. He's a development engineering manager with Mercury Racing, a branch of Fond du Lac-based Mercury Marine. Jenks was highlighting the two large outboard engines at the back of the watercraft.   

Mercury calls the recently introduced engine line the 450R — the engines have 450 horsepower. They're made at the company's factory a few miles east of the lake, which employs about 150 people.

Steve Miller, of Mercury Racing, stands next to two of the 450R engines, which are ready for shipment.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Mercury Racing Marketing Director Steve Miller says one of the powerful features of the 450R is the V-8 design. Though he politely deflects comparisons to V-8's in muscle cars like the old Ford Thunderbird.

"Ah, it's a little more sophisticated that that these days. But it's a 4.6 liter V-8. In the marine world, that's fairly high displacement," Miller said.

Displacement has to do with pistons and the engine cylinders.

Here's another example of combustion-speak: the 450R has a supercharger, which compresses the air flowing into the engine, providing another power boost.

Miller says Mercury Racing is proud to have entered the 450R in this year's Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin contest.

The Mercury Racing factory, which is near Fond du Lac.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"You know, I'm not sure what's cooler than putting six supercharged 450 horsepower engines on the back of a $3.5 million center console, and being a part of that adventure and the experience that product can deliver to those customers," Miller said.

A center console is a type of boat. Miller says the 450R starts at about $54,000, and acknowledges you won't find many on Wisconsin inland lakes. More likely they'll be found on the Great Lakes or the oceans.

Another finalist in the Coolest Thing contest is more common in Wisconsin, though you'd typically have to go to a recreational shooting range.

At MEC Outdoors in Mayville, clay targets smashed against a padded wall in the product testing area. They were being fired from the company's 400 Defender, a machine that can hold 400 of the disc-shaped orange targets in a vertical carousel. You can either plug in the 400 Defender or supply power from a 12V battery.

Shawn Wozniak, of MEC Outdoors, with the 400 Defender.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

MEC Outdoors Manager Shawn Wozniak says the newly-introduced 400 Defender goes full circle with another company offering: shotgun shell re-loading.

"We've always had the re-loading side. And going from re-loading your own ammunition to going out and shooting a target off our machine and breaking that target with your own are-load, the self-satisfaction is there," Wozniak said.

He's a UW-Milwaukee grad. Get away from the big city, and he says you'll find range shooting is popular.

"It's almost turning into a social event, as well. A lot of people consider shooting sporting clays as golfing with a gun," Wozniak said.

The MEC Outdoors offices and factory in Mayville, in Dodge County.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The other product from eastern Wisconsin is a custom specialty vehicle made by LDV Inc. in Burlington. The company said late last week that it was busy with its marketing efforts for the contest and didn't have time for a reporter to visit.

Nick Novak, of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, says this year's Coolest Thing competition drew 160 products. He says that shows manufacturing remains vibrant in the state, with nearly one in five workers involved in the sector. In fact, Novak says the biggest problem for many firms is finding enough qualified employees. 

"They might have 10, 15, 20 positions open, that if they could find the people to hire, those would be jobs that would be created tomorrow," Novak said.

The winner of the Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin contest gets a Wisconsin-made trophy. 

Previous winners include Harley-Davidson, Oshkosh Corporation, and kringle from Uncle Mike's Bake Shoppe that's based in DePere.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

Do you have a question about innovation in Wisconsin that you'd like WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach to explore? Submit it below.

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