A sharp increase in consumer demand for firearms during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic enabled Sturm, Ruger & Co. to post Wednesday a 17.7% surge in first-quarter net income to $15.3 million.

Diluted earnings rose 17.6% to 87 cents per share. There were no earnings forecasts from Zacks Investment Research.

Ruger released the report after the stock market closed.

The share price climbed 5.2% in after-market trading to $55.80 after closing up 3.7% to $53.03. After-market trading typically foreshadows early activity the next day.

Sales jumped 8.7% year over year to $122.7 million.

The key industry measuring stick is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System background checks. The checks increased just 1% for all of fiscal 2019.

However, for the first quarter of 2020, checks soared by 42%, or by just more than 1 million to 3.74 million.

As state governors’ stay-at-home executive orders were enacted in mid-March, The Associated Press reported a spike in firearms sales in North Carolina and nationally.

Some purchases were made by people buying their first firearm. Others are existing gun owners adding to their collection or stocking up on ammunition after seeing grocery stores depleted, schools closed and big events canceled.

The surge in demand represented a significant reversal from fiscal 2019, when Ruger’s net income plunged by 36.6% to $32.3 million and sales dropped 17.2% to $406.3 million.

By comparison, sales were at $490,607 in fiscal 2018 and $517,701 in fiscal 2017.

In another sales category, Ruger reported an 18% decrease in sell-through of its guns from independent distributors to retailers in fiscal 2019.

But for the first quarter, Ruger had a 37% year-over-year increase.

There has been an industrywide sales slump since the Trump administration took office in January 2017 with a pro-gun policy that eased fears of heightened restrictions under a potential president Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, gun sales surged in the months after President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories out of some gun owners’ fears that Obama might pursue tighter firearms restrictions.

Christopher Killoy, Ruger’s chief executive, said in a statement that “strong consumer demand, exciting new products and reduced reliance on promotions led to improved earnings and cash flows.”

“Inventories were reduced at both Ruger and at our distributors, as retail demand outstripped available inventories, particularly in the latter weeks of the quarter.”

One ripple effect from the sales decline the past three years has been Ruger eliminating at least 930 jobs, or about 37% of its workforce,

Ruger has a major production plant in Mayodan, with 315 employees at last count. Its headquarters is in Southport, Conn., along with production operations in Earth City, Mo.; Newport, N.H.; and Prescott, Ariz.

Ruger told analysts in October 2018 it had about 1,600 employees. It did not list a workforce count in Wednesday’s report.

“Any adverse financial impact on our business resulting from COVID-19 was negligible in the first quarter,” Killoy said.

“The impact of COVID-19 has increased (in April), but we have been fortunate and have been able to keep all of our facilities safe and open with only limited restrictions on production.”

Ruger’s board of directors declared a quarterly dividend of 35 cents, payable June 1 to shareholders registered as of May 18. The dividend typically represents 40% of the quarterly net income.

rcraver@wsjournal.com

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