This interview with Bruce Gray, president of Grayguns is the second of a three part series. The final part will be travelogue by me which will be posted later. The first interview, with Rick Holm, can be found here: http://sigforum.com/eve/forums...0601935/m/5010054773
Bruce, why don’t we start with your background in shooting, how did you start, etc?
I started shooting because I failed statistics in college. I wanted to be an oceanographer and, uh, my wife Becki, she jokes that an IQ of 180 is kind of wasted on a guy who can’t balance a checkbook. I just don’t have math installed. I can estimate very well.
I was working part time when I was a freshman in highschool for a guy with a camera shop in Rancho Cordova, California: Art Newman. And Art also had, along with a large camera collection, he had a really extensive gun collection. And one day he gave me a rifle, a 30-40 1899 Krag carbine to make a firing pin for. I spent, I don’t know, about a month at my brother’s lathe with a bunch of barstock. When I finally succeeded, he gave me the rifle out of recognition for being a good kid or something, not sure why. He was a nice guy. [LDD: I asked Bruce if he still had the carbine and the answer was no, regretfully it was sold out of financial necessity]
So I took up shooting when I was about 15, and by the time I was 16 I’d really taken an interest in gunsmithing. I’d gone through his collection and cleaned and repaired things to the degree that I could being a 16 year old kid with no real background. I did the best I could. But I also found myself riding my bicycle all the way out to the gravel pits south of Rancho Cordova, out to the mine tailings, basically out in the middle of nowhere, which now is industrial parks, and shooting. I had a 1911 Remington Rand, and a .38 caliber revolver that I bought at a gunshow when I was 15. Of course that was then and this is now.
I like to say that I learned to shoot accurately, but actually I’ve always had a freakish talent to be able to shoot well. All the other stuff I had to learn from other people and I had to re-learn, sometimes, actually what it meant to shoot well as I started applying those skills in different disciplines, different sports, whether it be tactical or law enforcement, training, or my work as a contractor. The bottom line is that I always had the ability to put the sights on the target, see what I needed to see, press the trigger in a straight line to the rear until the gun went off, and let the gun fire. I just had that ability. I credit that to a couple of the people I was first exposed to.
One of the first people I was friends with, a guy name Don, in Sacramento, shot PPC. He taught me to shoot accurately, helped kind of refine those skills. And then, rather than buying, all the latest books from the mid 70s on Combat Shooting, Point Shooting, Kill or Be Killed, or No Second Place Winner, Cooper on Handguns and such, I gravitated towards target shooting. So the first books I read were technical texts on marksmanship that stripped out all of the application and just boiled things down to the essential nature of seeing the sights and pressing the trigger. And I’ve always been able to go back to that and rely on that, because that was my earliest foundation.
And that’s kind of where I came from. After struggling in college to get through statistics and being really frustrated and realizing a career in oceanography probably wasn’t for me, I kept with the practical trades. ‘Got a degree in welding, metallurgy, worked as a machinist and continued to develop those skills, working in gunsmithing and pretty much never looked back. ‘Done a lot of other things, but my principle trade has been gunsmithing, gunmaking and things aligned with the firearms industry since I was 16.
So from 16 to when where you in California as a gunsmith?
Different periods back and forth. I had my first actual business working for myself since I turned 21 and that was in Citrus Heights California, suburb of Sacramento. I was caring for my late mother, we had just recently lost my dad, and so I was basically staying at home caring for her and started a home-occupational-business in the garage, building guns. ‘Did that until about 1982. I left Sacramento and went to Cleveland Ohio to work for a company called Devel. Devel Incorporated were pioneers in concealable compact and subcompact pistols based on the Smith and Wesson 39s and 59s and all that. And we also built 1911s for competition. I was one of the first people to build a modern “race gun” if you will, comp gun. I just had the distinction having the idea of sticking a muzzle brake on the end of a gun, literally from looking at—reading a book on the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and looking at all kinds of cannon muzzle brakes and thinking “Gosh I could stick one of those on a 1911.” Not an original idea to me, but I was the first person to popularize it, at least in my area.
‘Built one in .38 Super in 1979 and competed with it. People thought I was cheating. Devel hired me because they wanted to build some really high end competition guns, which we ended up doing. They called them the Gammon Series, that are pretty collectable now, I’m proud to say. So, I worked there until 1983, and then went back to California and ultimately ended up working in the Bay Area in a shop in Richmond California until about ’86.
Then I moved to Southern California until 1991, [when] I got an offer to work in Pennsylvania for a company that’s no longer around: Baylor Precision, that was kind of struggling with some management issues. In 1995 my mother fell ill, I returned to California, to care for her and while there met Becki and once again started a home occupational business in Rancho Cordova, where I started. Weird how things kind of come around full circle. ‘Basically stayed there until we bought this property and moved up to Oregon in 2007.
What made you come to Spray? As I will attest, it is as rustic and remote as it is beautiful here.
Thank you, and it is all those things. You and I have talked a lot about our worldview and how our faith informs that worldview. I don’t see myself as a Christian determinist that things are meant to be and that God micromanages our lives. I don’t really see that necessarily, but, to the degree that some things were meant to be as opportunities are presented to us: we took a vacation in July of 2006 with my friend Michael Boyd was a Lieutenant in Prineville [PD]. ‘Great friend, known him since he was 17 and had hair. He and his wife are dear friends of ours, and while he and his wife had just had a newborn and she needed some time to herself, he got us out of the house. We took a drive along the river here, to see this beautiful river gorge, and I realized I had been here before a number of years past when I worked for Oregon Trail Bullet Company as a managing consultant [makers of the Laser Cast bullet line]. I say this with no [monetary] interest in their company, I just love their stuff: they’re excellent bullets.
So I was working for them and we came through here on a drive, many years before that. And I came back and realized “yeah, I’ve been here before.” And we just loved it. There’s a lot of nothing here, but it’s beautiful.
Becki and I have both lived fairly stressful lives. You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot stress just sitting at a bench grinding out guns but I’ve done a lot more than that in my life. And to the degree that I’ve tried to do that, I haven’t always done it well and I’ve brought stress on myself. And I think, by being like all gunsmiths, overcommitting, promising too much, trying too hard in ways that weren’t really productive, and struggling.
The idea of going to a place where I could have more exclusivity of focus and where she could work in a place that was a little more remote, and to kind of get out of the rat race of the city was attractive. So when we saw this property for sale, we called, we met the nice people that owned it, who are still dear friends of ours. And, we just, on the spur of the moment, decided that we would buy the place and try to find a way to make it work.
There was nothing on it at the time, it was just bare land: 70 acres of rimrock, on the John Day River. Becki and I both agreed that maybe it was time for a change and that maybe we were being guided to this place so we thought about it, prayed about it, and decided to come up here.
I greatly expanded our business to bring something to a county that has no industry. We are the largest employer in the county believe it or not, other than the government—which is hard to imagine since we’re a small enough company. And the rest is history: we went from being myself and [Scott] Folk, we working a shop in Sacramento together to, at any given time, having seven or nine employees wandering around full and part time. And still struggling [laughter].
What are the direct appeals of Spray to you?
First and foremost I think it’s lowered my blood pressure and extended my life. I tend to get wrapped around the axle about things a little bit, as a person, and I think that having a lifestyle that requires physical work for everything—you know I have to cut my own firewood, I have to climb my own mountain to service my internet tower, everything involves some level of physical work and having the ability to live in a place that is really beautiful and robust has made me more of a burly man’s man than I was before.
I think the benefits to overall mental health and physical health have been tremendous despite the fact that I’ve had really aggressive heart disease that I’ve struggled with for a long time and everything that kind of comes with that. It’s been a miracle for me to live in a place that’s pushed that back until I finally got to a place where I had to have something done about that. So I kind of credit living here for probably making the three heart attacks I’ve had much less than they would have been and probably later than they would have been. If I wouldn’t have lived here, if I hadn’t made the move, maybe I wouldn’t be alive now.
The other thing is exclusivity of focus. I’m kind of a famously distractible person. For me, being in a place where about the only thing I can do is really focus on my employees and business and work, and getting jobs out the door, to really the exclusion of a lot of other things other than some of my past responsibilities with the sheriff’s office and some of the other volunteer things I do, has been of great benefit to me. In the city, it was harder to not buy into the distractions of everyday life. There were too many things that could take me away. The range I practiced at was an hour away and I would drive there anyway which pretty much kills the day. Whereas here, the range is 318 feet down the road. It’s really made things a lot better from that standpoint.
When did you discover SIGs and what drew you to this platform, and what keeps you interested in it?
My first exposure to the SIG platform, the P-series pistols actually goes back to one of my very first jobs as a teenager when the Browning BDA was first introduced around ’77, something like that. I was working for a company called Sims hardware in downtown Sacramento California. I remember seeing one of these for the first time, having read an article in American Rifleman or Guns and Ammo or something about the gun and being a kid, I might have been eighteen? So I knew everything.
I remember a customer asked about the gun and I went to the new gun counter and pulled this thing out. He asked “how does it work, how do you take it apart?”
So I said “What you do is you lock the slide back, and you rotate this lever and you hit the slide release” and I shot the slide off the frame across the concrete floor of the shop to the feet of my boss. This brand new Browning BDA that was hot off the press that nobody had even seen before. So that didn’t do much for my career as a gunshop guy at that particular business. But that was my first exposure to the gun.
At the time I thought it was really cool, but all of us in the seventies were really 1911 and Hi-power centric. Because everything we did and our entire concept of defensive shooting revolved around and was informed by practical pistol shooting as it existed at the time. And so this idea of shooting a DA/SA pistol was, like “Who wants to take a Model 39 to a match?” That was our worldview.
By the same token all the guns we take for granted now did not exist. There were no polymer-framed striker-fired guns other than, well, there was the HK VP70. Really there was nothing there other than some early proto-DA/SA pistols, the Model 39 family, there were a few others, the new SIG which people looked at and thought “that’s really cool, that’s great, but why? When we have Browing Hi-Powers and 1911s?”
So I continued to focus on those platforms but I revisited the SIG again when a good old friend of mine, Lou Gosnell came to me around 1986 with a P226—brand new, hot off the press. [He] said, “I’m going to carry this thing on duty.” He was a cop in Southern California, and [he said] “I want to compete at nationals with this thing.” I said “You’re crazy.” [He asked] “The double action pull is really stiff, can you do anything with it?” So I worked on the gun, God only knows, in retrospect, what I did with the thing. I did some things to shorten the reset and change the timing and played with some leverages and such trying to get the double action pull down using established techniques that we’d always applied to target pistols. And pretty much did the first “trigger job” that I’d ever done on one and I guess I was successful because he didn’t come back and hit me with it and he went on to nationals and placed 50th that year.
So I took a little bit of interest in the gun. Right about the same time, I was hired by the Department of Energy: Transportation Safeguards to work as an armorer/consultant and also to do firearms instruction for them. They were transitioning from the 2.5” Model 19 to the SIG P220 in the form that it existed at the time. The brand new version with the “American” mag release that had just come out and I had to get a real education on SIGs. So, I took an armorers’ class and learned everting I could about the gun, and being this newly minted expert on the thing, went and taught for DOE for a couple of years.
I started to develop a real respect for what the gun could do when had to learn to actually shoot one, because I had to learn to shoot one in order to be able to teach it. I got to where I could hit a man-sized plate at 150 yards offhand with it, reliably. To me that was a pretty impressive feat given what I saw the gun as being. I saw that they were pretty darn reliable and durable guns. The early ones had some magazine timing issues and recoil spring issues that got resolved, but basically, really, really good guns. So I started to develop some respect for them.
But again, didn’t think about them much, went on to continue shooting HKs and 1911s. At that time I was shooting an H&K squeeze cocker P7M13 longslide that we were doing for HK, and doing really well with it. Between that and going back into 1911s and some excursions into French MABs (that I blew up) and other kinds of stupid stuff that didn’t work, [I] continued to develop what became the modern race gun, high-capacity 1911s, that sort of stuff. Then I got hired by H&K, again to shoot for them, when the USP came out—this is around the end of 1998. For 1999-2002 I shot the USP. Again, had to learn to run a double-action/single-action pistol, which was a bit of a challenge as I have bullet fragments in my right hand and my grip strength is impaired. So for me, running a full-on DA/SA pull is kind of hard. I had to get really good at, frankly, doing action work just so I could compete with the gun. That became a sideline of my business that started to become pretty dominant.
At the end of the 2002-2003 season, my good friend Paul Erhardt went from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (where I worked for him as a media center instructor) to SIG Sauer’s Marketing Director. He brought me [in] with him as SIG’s factory shooter. And I regularly started shooting the 226 in production division and loved it. Absolutely loved it. I went out to the range after my contract with H&K ended in 2002 with a whole stack of production guns, because I wanted to shoot production (I was really intrigued by this new division that Michael Bane had invented) and I’d shot the world championships in production and placed pretty well. I think I placed 7th or something like that with an HK so I felt like I had a talent for it. To make a long story short, I just became really intrigued with the 226. I shot that gun better than the other guns I took to the range including the Glock, the Springfield XD, the Beretta, various different CZs and Tangfolio style guns, I shot those well. But I shot the SIG as well and when Paul suggested that I could come shoot for SIG, that was a no-brainer. The gun was working really well for me, and I shot the 226 platform pretty much up until the beginning of 2005 when health issues forced me to retire from active competition (at the time).
How many SIGs would you say you’ve worked on and how long have you worked on SIGs?
Well, since 1986 since Lou Gosnell brought me that one, they were always a little bit of a sideline. And when I say SIGs, much of what I did was high-grade work on P210s, which we kind of tend to think of as a differentiated thing. The P210 is a SIG and I worked on a lot of those, given that there’s not that many. I would work on probably eight to ten of those a year, doing things like beavertail conversions and trigger work, sight installations, that sort of thing.
But in terms of P-series SIGs, that we’re really known for now—that really started to take off about the time that I was shooting for H&K. There was still kind of a consciousness that there was a guy who actually worked on them. Because there really weren’t a lot of shops that could do the quality of work that we aspire to do. At that time people would cut down sear engagements, clip springs and polish a bunch of stuff and maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t. And honestly, the P-series SIG, much like the USP, but even more so, is a good gun that stands improvement, but is easy to screw up. If you get in there and tool on the wrong things, you can end up with something that won’t be safe, won’t be functional, won’t be durable. So I had to learn all that. I think my background in gunsmithing, metallurgy and machining, welding and such really helped me to understand that gun.
Overall, I think since moving to Oregon, since January 2007 going forward, we’ve probably worked on an average of 5-700 SIGs a year in various different forms. Maybe a little less recently. A lot of that is a reflection of the quality of what SIG is doing now—there’s not as much demand for action work because they are doing such a good job with the factory product, which I’m very happy and proud to be able to say. At our peak the most SIGs we ever did was probably about seven-hundred-and-some out of a total number of invoices that ran around 1100 for that year (the balance being other jobs and HKs). So we are a pretty darn busy shop, given what we do—and that doesn’t include the parts sales and all the other guns we encounter either in law enforcement or private training that we also find ourselves working on in motel rooms at 2 AM to get something up and running for a student the next day.
In that time and number, how many slides have you shot off frames?
[Laughter] Only one more: and it was my own. It was at a match, one of the last that I shot. It was Area 2 Championships in Phoenix/Mesa Arizona in November 2004. I was in the safe area and I wanted to run a brush through my bore. I’m kind of compulsive about doing that since I shot cast bullets for so many years and shot my slide right off the end of the bench and stuck it into the sand in one of the little bunkers they use as a safe area. Actually, I have a picture of it somewhere, it’s pretty funny.
You mentioned bullet fragments, that’s something I have to ask you about: is that something you’re willing to talk about?
Uh, I got injured many years ago. I worked as a contractor—that’s all I really want to say about it.
People know that you’ve done [your own Grayguns conversion] 220 10mms—are you still involved with SIG’s 220 10mm and what can you tell us about your involvement?
Great questions, thank you. Yes, I am still involved. Honestly, when Jeff Creamer, the Director of Product Management [LDD note: Jeff is still with SIG but has since been promoted to General Merchandising Manager] contacted me about this time last year, April of last year. [He] talked to me about the prospect that we could work with SIG more closely on a couple projects, I was flattered and excited with the idea of being able to do more work with SIG. We had not had a lot of really close contact with SIG for a while on that level. So, being invited to come back into the family in a more intimate way and actually work on that project was great.
He told me “We’re going to build a 10mm and that’s going to kind of cut into you because you’re the guy that’s been doing that. We want you to understand that it’s nothing personal but we’d love to have some help with it.”
We’re proud to say that we’ve been able to help them in a fairly material way, in our own small way. But they could have done it themselves. I think it says something for them that they were concerned enough about us, as a small company that is one of their fervent supporters, to bring us in on the project and give us an opportunity to be included and to kind of throw us a little bit of a bone. Quite frankly, we did go through a lot of stuff to get those guns to work, and there are some aspects that we never did make work. For instance we came up with ten-round magazines we could never make function. ‘Found out later that there was a mistake in the way the magazine bodies were formed—that they weren’t made to our specs so we have about 300 of these magazines that we can’t do anything with.
When you say that, you’re talking about the Grayguns version?
Yes, the Grayguns version, exactly. So, anticipating the kind of problems, the challenges that SIG would have: put it this way, historically when companies want to make a 10mm pistol, just about anyone that wants to make a 10mm pistol starts with a .45. A full-length pistol that can accept a magazine loaded out to 1.280. And from there, modifies the breech face, shrinks things down, comes up with a different extractor, sticks the spring from a garage door opener in it and calls it a 10mm. That sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. We know, objectively, that the kind of recoil energy and volume of pressure at unlocking is so much greater than anything else out there—that what sounds like a good idea really hasn’t worked out in practice. Which is why even Delta Elites, early on, were breaking. That’s why Norma down-rated the original 10mm Normal loading a little bit just to bring it a little more within range of what the available guns could handle.
In a microcosm, you can look at the early .40s being the same way. You took a 9[mm] and put a bigger bore diameter in it, and moved the breech face 23-thousandths and you got a .40. ‘Not quite an order of magnitude greater in recoil energy, but in 10mm you are. You’re talking about an order of magnitude greater of stuff going on that wants to break the gun.
So my admonition to SIG based on our experience was: raise the slide mass, increase the lock travel of the barrel to the slide by a significant percentage to lower that unlocking pressure that has to be overcome that tends to want to tear the slide off the top of the frame and tear the locking insert out of the frame. Slow the whole thing down, and spring it appropriately. So you’re looking at several things, proper recoil springing and recoil spring rate, better lockup values to keep the barrel locked up long enough, and more slide mass to slow the whole thing down.
I think SIG has been successful in doing that, they’ve stretched out the locking dwell to the degree that they can given the limitations of the system and I think they’ve done great with that. Their lead engineer on that project has come up with a really nifty recoil spring arrangement that’s actually better than what we came up with, by far. I think that they really thought through a lot of good stuff. I’m flattered to say that they gave credence to our white paper. They read what we put out and listened to us when we were there presenting what our findings were when we built these guns. And I think the results are better than what we were able to do within the limitations of a [220 .45] factory-weight slide. Our guns work, their guns will work better.
I just heard from Jeff Creamer, three days ago [that would be March 24th], he says that as of that day they were up to 7,500 rounds of beyond-SAAMI-spec boutique ammunition. They are running stuff through the gun that is beyond what is normally considered a conventional SAAMI-spec load for 10mm ammo with no breakages, no malfunctions out of the next-generation gun that is beyond the one that we saw at the SHOT show. That gun had some issues, they’ve corrected those issues. They have a magazine that works, they have a recoil spring that controls slide velocity. The brass isn’t going 50 feet. The gun is working. He’s confident that they will get to 10,000 rounds with a couple test guns with no breakages and once they reach that 10,000 round figure they figure they’ve got a gun.
He asked me if I thought that was good and I told him I thought that was acceptable given the nature of the gun and what it’s for. I think a 10,000 round expected service life, without major failure for something that puts out 240 power factor: pretty good.
Something else you’re working on [with SIG] is the 320. Can you talk to us about that?
At the same time that Jeff and I started talking about the 10mm he said “have you seen the new SIG striker gun?” Keeping in mind that I was out of the loop—I had literally just been out of the hospital. I was out of the loop and I’d heard of it but hadn’t seen one. ‘Was mildly interested because I had an idea of what it might be based on some early stuff I’d seen on a computer screen at SIG going back about seven or eight years ago, based on the 250. So I was excited to take a look at one.
I brought them in, and I remember Rick and I took the things apart and the first thing that Rick and Roy and I all said was “It looks like it has parts from a VCR player in it.”
And of course, Rick and I very famously went round and round on Sigforum because the VP9 came out about the same time. Rick is the world’s leading HK gunsmith, I’ll just say it. So, he and I were having a friendly competition to see which gun was better. We’ve determined both guns are good and both guns have their strengths, both have potential weaknesses. But on the whole, I think Rick would agree, the SIG has a definite edge in a lot of ways because it just offers things that no other striker gun does.
I’m really intrigued by the gun and being given the opportunity, which I can talk about now, to finally work with SIG on some R&D with a mind toward developing that gun for competition and helping them put together a shooting team that I’m helping to manage to promote the P320 is really exciting. That’s been, probably the most fun project that I’ve been involved with, that I can remember in my whole career. It’s been, almost, a culmination of a career to be involved in that and to be able to make that happen for them.
Are there any other projects that you are involved with SIG in (besides the 220 10mm, and the 320)?
Yes, in a sense there are. I can’t talk much because things are very proprietary, but as you know we are in the parts business now. Everybody knows I’ve been working on tool steel, bar stock hammers, sears, safety levers and triggers. We got the trigger out last year. It’s taken us all these years, because I’m just not that smart, to get the hammer, the sear, and the safety lever for the P-series worked out to the product-improvement mechanical upgrade standards that we’ve set for the work we do in-house on factory parts and to be able to do the things that factory parts can’t do. And because we are working with very hard, pretty much indestructible tool steel with a really low coefficient of friction, really slippery stuff, we’re able to get a quality of action just with the parts themselves that we can’t get out of factory parts now.
As an example we could take the hammers and sears right out of the heat-treat oven, and we’ve done this, right out of the kiln. Not even bead-blast the scale off them, throw them in a gun and get an improved trigger over what the factory is able to put out now, and the factory stuff is great.
That’s the thing, the factory parts, the S7 tool steel MIM’d hammers and sears are excellent. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s something wrong with SIG’s parts—much of what we’re doing is kind of a reflection or echo of frankly, the issues we were seeing with SIG’s MIM when they first went to the MIM stuff going back a generation ago. Five [to] ten years ago. There’s still a lot of those guns out there, and we’re confident that as good as the factory parts are now, I don’t want to say they’re better, but they do different things. A little less take-up, shorter reset without sacrificing functionality of the firing pin safety lock between shots. Definitely a cleaner, sharper, lighter, smoother double-action and single action pull with absolutely equivalent sear and safety engagement values to the factory standard. And in parts that can be objectively tested that will not fail, they will not break. We guarantee them for life like everything we do.
SIG has agreed with us in principle, that they will be working with us on those parts. You’ll see those parts appearing in certain models of guns in the future. I can’t talk at length about that, I will tell you that there are going to be two primary outlets for our parts going forward: Top Gun Supply, and for another line of parts SIG SAUER will be the other. In principle we have an agreement with them that they’ll be carrying stuff branded under the Graygun[s] brand that their insurance will sign off on. That’s something we’re extremely excited about.
Let’s talk about this transition from being a gunsmith to being a gun parts manufacturer. It would seem natural in some ways, but what is your reasoning behind it?
I’m worn out. I’ve had sixteen operations in my life and half of those had been on my arms and hands. Becki jokes that I should have been a male model rather than a gunsmith because I’m tall, thin, neat, own a poodle, can dance, like show tunes, and not built for manual labor. So, I’ve worn myself out building guns, is the thing, for forty-two years. And I look at Rick, I look at Roy, I look at Brett, and Lyle and the other employees and I see these guys scrapping away doing, in my opinion, the best quality work on the planet, bar none, for the type of work they do, being the best there is at what they do. And it’s a subsistence living, working way more than forty hours a week. A lot of us work, I work close to eighty, building one gun at a time with no real ability to “work smart.”
I haven’t resisted getting into the parts business, it’s just that I haven’t been good at it. I’ve taken a number of different shots at it before when I didn’t have the right shops, when I didn’t have the right understanding, when I didn’t know CAD-CAM well enough, when I didn’t have really the technical ability to take what I know I can do with my hands and with my mind and stick it into a program and have a part come out the other end. Now that we have that, it’s moving along pretty well, but it literally took me, actually, ten years, to get to where we have hammer, sear, safety levers of a quality that are exactly what we want. But it’s worth it.
I don’t want my employees and the people who will wind up inheriting my company finally to have to work as hard as I did.
Again, there’s an ethical point. Right now [LDD] sends a 229 to get worked on, and it costs you probably $80 in UPS each way, we hang on to the thing till god-knows-when, because of course last year this time I was out of the shop for about twenty-four weeks, and you can imagine how backed up we were. We had people that literally waited about nine or ten months to a year for a simple action package. And so, ethically, it’s immoral and then we’re charging them $335 for the privilege of keeping their gun forever plus $100-200 in shipping. It’s crazy, and people are still paying it.
But I gotta be able to sleep at night and it just has never sat well with me that we have to charge as much as we do because we have to do detailed custom work on an individual basis—it’s not systemized in that way. The P320 work is, but the P-Series SIG is one-gun-at-a-time until it’s right, whatever that takes—so we can’t charge less. Still, I just feel like we haven’t been able to provide the true value to our customers that we should be able to, so if I can sell somebody a bag of parts and guarantee it and as long as it’s installed by somebody who knows what they’re doing…that’s so much better. Ethically, if I can get 80-90% of that result out of a bag of parts, and not have to handle the gun and not have to keep their gun for months-on-end, that has to be a better deal.
Anytime there’s this kind of transition in a business, there’s always a concern that this could end Grayguns in two ways: 1) the parts are so good that you don’t have a need for gunsmiths, or 2) your gunsmiths wind up as engineers and are no longer working at the bench. Can you answer either of those two concerns?
No, I really can’t. Not without speculating. I really don’t know what direction it’s going to go and a lot of it will be up to Rick and Roy, and Darla, and Brett, and Lyle because these are the people that are going to end up with my company.
My intention is, they will be Grayguns going forward. There will be succession to the company and a lot of it is going to be up to them and their vision of the company. But I know that economically and practically and ethically, they see the value of being able to offer parts to people that don’t want to be without their gun for months-on-end and who can get benefit of what we’re doing on an individual basis in a much more systematized and mass produced way. ‘Still to a very high quality. Keep in mind each set takes a lot of time in hand-fitting and tooling. We’re basically doing a lot of the same work on high-grade custom parts to provide the same thing. We’re just not having the gun in front of us when we do it. So it’s still an expensive proposition. It’s still a very high-grade thing. We not just spitting some stuff out of a machine and throwing it in a bag and not looking at it again.
To a degree, the parts business will make the company as profitable as it needs to be in order to support these people in a way that they deserve to be supported. These are people who have been with me through thick and thin. Literally a lot of thin. Our company’s successful but not particularly profitable because of the nature of the work we do and the quality standards we hold to, frankly. I know that sounds prideful, but it’s true. We can’t do better and charge more.
The bottom line is that—I’ll give you an example. When I had my first heart attack in 2010, actually going back before that, when I first started having really serious problems with my heart in 2002 to 2004, I kind of crapped out in 2004. Scott Folk was working for me at the time, “Flork.” He literally became my hands and busted his ass to save my career as I went through problems with my heart and operations with my hands and wrists and elbows and shoulders—from being worn out at the bench. And that’s a guy I have immense affection and loyalty to because he was there for me.
Flash forward to 2010, had that first heart attack that put me in the hospital for a while, I was out of business for a while. Roy was working 70-80 hour weeks, he stepped up and managed the company and just filled those shoes and [it] did better than when I was there. That’s the irony: every time I’ve been out, the company does better and that’s kind of a clue as well. Same thing with Rick, when I had that last bought in 2013, he stepped in and he worked like a slave and Roy came back when he wasn’t on duty he was working nights getting guns out. I owe these guys.
Everybody stepped up to the plate and has done way more for me than I’ve ever done for them. To make it profitable, it’s going to be parts. That’s really the way. That will allow them to continue to do gunsmithing because they love it.
You know, first and foremost we’re all gunsmiths at heart. Roy aspires to be a high-grade 1911 gunsmith and he’s fantastic at it—I want him to be able to afford to do it. Rick is the best there is at HK work, he’ll continue to do it there’ll still be demand for it. But for him to be able to have the company and him make a really good living, have a good future, being able to sell HK reduced reset safety levers to people that don’t need the high price spread, don’t need him to spend hours on their gun at great expense is just a wonderful thing. It’s a win for everybody.
Speaking of high-grade 1911s, the phrase “Sistine Pistol” has come up. Can you describe that to us?
[Laughter] I can. It’s just kind of funny, I won a Colt Government model at the Bianci Cup a couple years ago. ‘One of the only door prizes I’ve ever won in my life. In fact I think it may be the only time I’ve won a gun as a door prize in a match. I was astonished, I was amazed. You could have knocked me over with a feather because that never happens to me.
So I go up there, collect my gun, kissed the pretty girl that handed it off and brought it back. ‘Thought: “What am I going to do with it?” Well as you know my background is and has been in pretty much high-grade 1911 builds. Like everybody, I started off in the 70s when all there were were Browing Hi-Powers and 1911s, and if you couldn’t built a Browning Hi-Power or 1911 you were a guy who worked on revolvers or you were a guy that fixed hunting rifles. There wasn’t really anything else. So, going back to that background, I thought it would be nice—and Roy kind of talked me into this, he said “You really ought to take that gun and just build it up as a masterwork, show everybody what you can do.”
So you proceeded to take the only gun that you’ve ever won and destroy it…[smile]
And destroy it, in a manner of speaking. I wouldn’t’ say it’s destroyed, it’s just not finished yet. [laughter]
Some of us go to matches to win guns [as doorprizes] and some of us go matches to win matches, so I guess you have to choose which one you want to be [laughter].
Interesting, well I don’t know. I went to the match thinking that I was going to win the match and almost did that year and came back with the gun. We won’t talk about missing a couple extra plates and losing it. I actually had the Bianchi Cup, in production [class], won two years in a row and lost it each time because of a bad shot here and there. Three years ago I choked on the plates, got into a hole, got behind, jerked the trigger a couple times, that’s all it took. Definitely let my nerves get ahold of me. I knew I had the match won going into it if I cleaned the plates.
But coming back with the gun is really cool. It’s nice to be able to win something, but I didn’t win it on the basis of my skill—strictly luck of the draw. But that particular Colt happens to be an absolutely die-straight example. One of the things that Roy and I marveled at is we took it apart as soon as we got home and we measured the slide, the frame, the barrel bed, all the pin holes. Everything is perfect on it, the polishing contours are straight: the main bore of the slide is in the middle of the slide so the polishing contours end up being where they need to be. The sides of the slide are square to the frame rails and so forth and so on.
So we realized it was a really great basis to build a gun on. It’s just a series 80. A lot of people don’t like the series 80 because it has this extra mechanism. Generally people think of 1911s being a series 70: “I’m not going to bother building a $10,000 gun on a series 80.” But I just decided I’m going to go all-out, all-in and do the absolute best work I can completely by hand—everything on the gun from sight installation to barrel fittings, to slide-to-frame-fitting and all the cosmetic work, completely done by hand. I’ve used the milling machine to straighten out a couple of lines externally, everything else is by hand.
Just as an example of what I can do on a good day, I feature myself as being pretty good at cosmetic work, and really known for metal checkering and sculptural cosmetics and so that’s a chance to show people what a hardtail beavertail is really supposed to look like, what a bar relief front strap is supposed to look like. We’re going to end up finishing the gun in a mix of charcoal and rust blue with some lighter hardcase accents. It’s going to end up looking pretty good. And I hope to get it done—it won’t be this year realistically. Ed Fowler who is on the forum, he has an apprentice that has offered to make a knife for it as a companion and we’re going to get all that together and cased properly and it will be a $10,000 gun and people will see it. But I’m not building it laying on my back painting on the ceiling.
I like to ask this question because a lot of people come to my attention by way of their successes, but their character is dependent on their failures and lessons learned. So are there failures in your business, in gunsmithing that really taught you lessons?
Oh my god yeah, good lord. I was lucky that I had great parents. Mom and Dad were great and they tried really hard to turn out good kids and I think they succeeded. But the thing that I learned from them was that it’s ok to fail and I’ve done a lot of it.
I haven’t been that successful, really. I’m flattered to say that I’m fairly well-know, been around for a long time. A lot of it has been the product of the fact that I’ve been around so long. And I was just kind of in the right place at the right time to influence and help to develop or push things along whether it be the first guy to really popularize and use .38 Super for Practical Pistol Competition, first guy to come up with Comp guns, but then there were other people who came up with better stuff based on that.
And there were a lot of things that I did that absolutely did not work. I was the first person to launch a French satellite into orbit other than the French when I blew up a MAB P-15 when I tried to make a major caliber Open gun out of it. Bad idea. Just a bad idea. Literally blew the top off the gun. So I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff and just done a lot of things where, I think just because of my focus in life at the time, I could have done better.
When I was younger I was literally split. My heart and my ego pushed me toward competition because I liked to win. And I defined winning as beating other people. Competition is a fundamentally narcissistic enterprise. That attitude was not healthy for me and I think it actually pushed me away from what was most important which was taking care of other people, and making sure that guns got out on time— doing a good job as a gunsmith. ‘Really building up my business in a way that could actually benefit more people and accomplish more. So, for much of my earlier life I have to admit I was very narcissistic and very self-involved and very much interested in gunsmithing as a way of bolstering my ego and interested in gunsmithing as a way of making enough money to get to the next match and chase girls (which were the two things I was most interested in, in life at that time).
Then I had some life events that really did change me. Got hurt. Got shot. Started developing some pretty serious illnesses. There’s that saying that “The Lord will get your attention through creative means if you chose to ignore him.” The Lord absolutely got my attention because the path I was on was failing and was not good. It was not a path that was consistent with taking care of other people.
Those are the things, just in terms of overall life lessons that make it possible for me at my fairly advanced age—I’m 58 now, to have the lightbulb come on and have my focus on the right things which is “how do I take care of my customers better? How do I take care of my crew? How do I take care of my family? How do I take care of my community?” Because they’ve all taken care of me. I’ve had people stand by me at times of my life when I was probably not worthy of that support. And they stood by me anyway. And I will never forget them. They were all people of faith—that tells you something right there.
Is there something about Grayguns, your business, or the career of gunsmithing, or the application of gunsmithing that people don’t know but they should know? This is your chance to freestyle a bit.
Yeah, probably a few things. Back in the 80s, when Practical Pistol blew up and became the most popular, fasted growing shooting sport by far and really started eclipsing bullseye and PPC, and all this other kind of stuff, everybody who got into shooting started working on their own guns. There were not really a lot of gunsmiths out there that were up to speed as far as being able to build a kind of gun that could take the abuse that IPSC shooters were putting out. You’re running 175 power factor .38 Supers, with all kind of stuff hung on them, and expecting the guns not to break. And people at that time were shooting 50, 60, 70,000 rounds a year. I had one fourteen month period where I shot 118,000 rounds, and that was not unusual. And then I wonder why I have all these operations on my hands.
What I learned from that was you have to be really good because the guns won’t hold up and without meaning to be critical, there was a period where everybody became a gunsmith. Every shooter started building 1911s of various different grades and qualities. Most of them were not very good. When you talk to people these days, even still, [they say] “1911s don’t work: antiquated design, not reliable enough, not durable enough, they fail, they jam…” And you have really learned people that will tell you that. There’s truth in that, but it’s contextual. A lot of it is the context of who is building them, what parts they’re using, what spec the parts are made to, what spec the original gun was built to, and what the quality is of the execution.
I think this is something that people need to know for today, there was that year, fourteen months, that I put 118,000 rounds down the tube of two different .45 caliber 1911s and a .38 Super that I was experimenting with—this is 1981 into 1982. Make a long story short, I didn’t have any malfunctions, I don’t think I broke anything. I don’t recall having problems at all. It was rare to go to a match and see people have big problems with guns that were well-built. But it became common in the late 80s, early 90s to see people having all kinds of problems once they started pushing guns out of spec, and you had a lot of people building guns, and people coming into the industry building parts for guns that really didn’t know what the hell they were doing.
We see the same thing in microcosm today. There’s still people out there today that see gunsmithing as fun, it is, I love it, I’m still not bored with it after 42 years, but it’s a very challenging business to do well and make a living in. It requires a level of discipline and business acumen that I lacked and that I’m only now as a mature man really trying to learn. And so, anybody that comes into it needs to understand that it is a business but it has to be a professionalized business in order to turn out a quality product that anybody’s going This message has been edited. Last edited by: LDD,
With a 210 on the bench, nice!
I enjoyed the reading... very good read, keep up the great work guys!This message has been edited. Last edited by: Excam_Man,
|A Watchful Guardian|
Good job, LDD.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd really prefer to visit the range."
|Needs more cowbell!|
Awesome interview Guruji! Great job LDD!
|We gonna get some |
oojima in this house!
TCB all the time...
|Fighting the good fight|
Great interview. Thanks LDD.
|SIGforum's Indian |
Off the Reservation
Great interview, thanks LDD and Bruce!
You can run, but you cannot hide.
If you won't stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.
Great interview. Wonderful to hear that things are working out so well. There has definitely been a lot of work and a lot of learning getting to this point. It is nice to see the future looking so bright!
ETA: Thanks LDD for a great interview! Looking forward to the travelogue!
friend to all
These interviews are great as we get to know you and your operation on a more personal level.
You can be proud of what you have achieved and I wish you all the best for your dreams of the future.
Nice to see a P 210 o your bench!
|His Royal Hiney|
"It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, 1946.
|Fire begets Fire|
Thanks for sharing!
"Pacifism is a shifty doctrine under which a man accepts the benefits of the social group without being willing to pay - and claims a halo for his dishonesty." ~Robert A. Heinlein
I enjoyed this very much.
Very good read, Thank you! Looking forward to doing business with Grayguns.
Bruce, it's OK. I didn't get to be an oceanographer either.
Less is more.
This is great, thank you LDD and Bruce Gray.
Hmmmm. Wonder what's under the towel? Secret Volcano Base stuff, no doubt.
Really looking forward to the parts collaboration and seeing GGI parts in factory SIGs.
Overheard at an actual match:
"Tapers! Come on, guys, we need tapers!"
"No, my name's Gonzales."
Great job LDD and thank you both! That was excellent and I look forward to part 3.
Great article LDD! Bruce isn't an easy one to get talking.
|Let's be careful |
Thank you. An excellent interview.
Bruce's porn stash
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