Will Hayden, expert gunmaker and owner of Red Jacket Firearms in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, talked with Field & Stream‘s Dave Maccar, about how he got into guns, his passion for custom builds, why his favorite tool for hunting deer is a suppressed AK-47, and some exciting news about upcoming releases from Red Jacket.
F&S: How did you get started as a gunmaker?
Will Hayden: I couldn’t afford a local gunsmith–as well as having an incredible impatience for their turnaround time and a deep dissatisfaction with what I was getting back from them as it related to the instructions that I gave them. It never came back the way I asked for it. It took too long and cost too much.
Hell, man, I’m a working guy. In the end I just kind of fell back on that “if you want it done right, do it yourself” thing.
I started tinkering with weaponry when I was, lord, 11 or 12 years old and you just stick with it. Just shade-tree, just like all country boys are shade-tree mechanics–same thing. I had a desire for better work which meant that I had to teach myself to do better work. I wanted things that didn’t exist. I wanted versions of weapons or modifications to them that were not available from the factory, so in the end, you become the factory.
F&S: What was the first significant gun build you did that you were proud of on a philosophical level?
WH: In the early to mid 90s I built up a French Fusil de Chasse which is a 1740s, 1750s period flintlock hunting (gun) .62 caliber smooth bore barrel–half octagon, half round. I spent about three months carving the wood, finished out all the metal, the brass, did all the inleading. I used strictly period tools. I used a piece of obsidian that I picked up out West to do the final finish on the wood. And when I was finally able to take it out and shoot it, it was just…one of those moments.
I’m walking out there, stepping up with what, to me, was a five-foot-long piece of art, a weapon that was just utterly beautiful and just nailed everything I pointed it at. The feel of it, the balance, all of that…I had never felt such a sense of deep, personal satisfaction. I did this.
F&S: Where does your love of firearms come from?
WH: My earliest memory to do with firearms comes from following my grandfather out [hunting]. He was just a real small farmer, I’m talking fed the family on an eight-acre stretch up in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, and hunting wasn’t a sport. Literally these were poor people. I was 16 when we finally were able to pull a wire in to get a light bulb in the house. It was that type of environment. I was probably 14 or so when we got a line that let them have water into the house–I mean real deep rural, if you would.
It was an old 16 gauge single-shot and in the evening time, once or twice a week, we’d go out and come back with a couple rabbits or a couple of squirrels and that was that. It was just a tool that I used when I needed meat. And between pig butchering and what not, it was just a tool that worked. It did what you needed it to do and it was the same as hand tools, a plow, any other tools out there.
F&S: Is that a philosophy you still adhere to, keeping the purpose of a given weapon as a tool in mind?
WH: To me it’s all about the application. When they first came to us and started talking about doing a show (Sons of Guns), I got kind of nervous and was thinking, a gun show–well, if you’re just doing a gun show you could do that in any pawn shop or what not, but the problem you’re going to have is there are only so many types of guns. And luckily, Jupiter Productions has some really far-sighted, great people and they got that immediately.
Whereas you’re going to run out of guns pretty quick, the applications are practically endless. From the get-go when we were doing just strictly custom orders the conversation with the customer always starts with, “OK, well what do you want to use this for?” And what you want to use this for is what drives the entirety of the build.
F&S: When you figure out the application, is the resulting weapon often different from what the customer had originally envisioned?
WH: A lot of times it can be. A lot of your customers, they’ll come in–and it’s a fairly esoteric field, I suppose, with a lot of great guys–the majority of what they know, or think they know, they’re getting from boot camp or police training or from the movies or the magazines and that’s all great, but now you’re you, you’re an individual, not one of how many million servicemen we have… That whole one-gun theory thing never really clicked for me. That’s fine when you are, in fact, one out of a million and have F-18s to back you up.
When it’s just you, then you actually have to think about that for a moment. You don’t want to have to build too much, there’s no one solution to every problem. I know if you ask a baker every answer is bread, but sometimes the answer really is steak.
So, it often gives people pause. What are you really wanting to do with it? Sometimes, after they think about it a minute, the answer will be, “Well, when you get down to it, I want to be able to go out to the range and spend six hours and come back with a huge smile and still have my shoulder attached to my torso.” Ah-hah, OK then. Then it’s, “But I would also like to be able to use it as a defensive or offensive tactical weapon,” or, completely different, “Be able to go large-game hunting or small-game hunting with it if the occasion arises.” Ah-hah.
Both of those answers are 100 percent valid, both shade it, but you want to lean the build toward the primary purpose and then have the capabilities within it of doing the backup desire. You want it to fit the individual and their individual needs.
F&S: Does that personal level of customization make the weapon more important to the customer once it’s finished?
WH: That’s what it is. When I built that flintlock, I stayed within the form of the Fusil de Chasse, but I set the drop of the buttstock, the length of the pull…all of that was built around my shooting position, my stance and my body. It fit me to a T because, what the hell, it was built 100 percent for me.
We like to try to bring that into all of our weapons so that when someone’s ordering one, they’re not getting one of 10,000 or 50,000, they’re getting their gun that was built exactly, specifically for them.
People will email in for a status check, how it’s coming or whatever. When that call is going out across the isle to production or over to NFA or to shipping or whatever, we’re not screaming out, “Where’s Model 18?” or “Where’s the Model XY.” No, no, no. We’re looking for Chad Smith’s gun. We want an update for Chad. We’re looking for Brian’s weapon. We want to know when that’s shipping. It’s a different approach, a different attitude. We’re dealing with people.
F&S: _You’ve worked with and fired more guns than most people will in their lifetime. What excites you most about a new project that comes through Red Jacket?
WH: It’s the same as always: the process. You have to remember, Red Jacket is not just me. It’s my name, but it’s this incredible group of people who are here. When we can take something from a sheet of paper or even just a really vague, casual conversation and then take it a few steps further to maybe sketching it out and a few steps further to fine-tuning that and then pick up that block of steel and start milling it, get a barrel in there–it’s that process of, “Hey, do you know what would be really cool?” or “Hey you know what could really work?” “Hey I was shooting a such and such yesterday and it occurred to me that…” OK, that’s your starting place, when you go from that starting place and then you’re at the range with it in your hands and it works. It worked. It’s just–“Wow.”
It’s not always, “Wow.” Every now and then it’s a, “Wow, what an incredible waste of two weeks and $8,000. I feel like the biggest idiot in the world right now.”
Normally it works out pretty good.
I gotta tell you, over the last 20 years or so we’ve probably collected–we’ll say it like this, if you ever wondered where spare parts for some of these rifles come from, well there you go, from the ones that went awry.
But a lot of times you have to put the metal to the meat to find out if it’s going to work or not and if you’re not willing to roll those dice and put yourself out there, then how the hell will you ever know?
You have to build it to find out if it works. Somebody’s got to make that decision of how much are we willing to throw out on the floor to find out whether this is a valid project or idea. Normally it’s way more than you’re really comfortable with but in the end you have to do it to know. It’s like going to the moon, man. How are you going to find out if you can walk on the moon if you’re too damn scared to push a button with a rocket strapped to your ass?
F&S: How often does a customer come in with an idea that’s just too out there?
WH: That’s pretty darn common. Some of the things we’ll get sent across our bow, honestly, if we did build it, if it didn’t kill the guy that was actually trying to use, it would probably kill everyone within 10 meters of him or they’re just utterly impossible from a mechanical standpoint.
Yeah, ok we could do that, but do you really have a screaming need for a $50,000 revolver because that’s about what your version would cost with all the hand-machining and programming and all that.
And some of them can get irate. “Well, you said if we can dream it you can build it.” Yeah, well, OK you know what? We’re not doing lunar landing modules or intercontinental ballistic missiles either, so work with me here…
F&S: _Is there a current gun maker/designer that you would call an inspiration?
WH: Tony Romore from the Tromix Corporation. Tony started it, man, with the Saigas. He was an incredible innovator. He came out of the AR-15 world. This is the guy that made the .458 caliber AR-15. I mean, he’s just an incredible individual.
F&S: Wasn’t the Saiga the shotgun platform you attached a suppressor to to create a version of the silenced shotgun from No Country For Old Men for a customer on an episode of Sons of Guns?
WH: Actually the very first one we did we made as an integrally suppressed shotgun. We moved the gas system all the way back, like we do with the short barrels, but we retained the full-length of the barrel. The problem was suppressing a shotgun. How do you keep the shot cup from spreading out and just wasting your baffles? So, you either A. have very few baffles or B. you port out the barrel. And we just did the math and figured out a way we could do porting along the length of the barrel, still allow the customer to use the factory choke. And then, with high-speed photography, we were able to watch the shot cup expanding as it came out of the barrel and that let us plot to the millimeter our baffle size, how far out we could have baffles past the bore, and you end up with an actual working shotgun suppressor that was still a field-usable weapon.
There’s a bill in the Louisiana legislature right now to allow suppressed shotguns for hunting feral hogs and nutria rats at night…and since we’re the only people who make a suppressed shotgun, I thought that was kind of cool.
So you can put a full choke on the end of the barrel and you’re hunting squirrels, rabbit, nutria, hogs, whatever at the same range you would with any other shotgun, take the choke off, shoot slugs, do all of that.
Now we did the integral first because I couldn’t figure out a way to make it so it would be a detachable unit, but then we did. A couple of weeks after that one came on line, I was drinking a Slurpee or something and it just hit me how you could do the same thing with a detachable unit and it was like, “Oh s***, slice the bread, why didn’t I think of that up front?” It was so obvious. Come hauling ass back to the shop and said, “Hey, let’s do this and this,” and damn, it worked.
F&S: _Is there a hunting firearm you’ve built that stands out in your mind?
WH: Our suppressed 9mm, it’s a 9-mil [Rock River Arms AR-15] carbine. I’ve used that thing for everything for years. Also, the suppressed AK rifle that we do. I hunt a lot in states where suppressors are allowed, and what I find is that when you shoot an animal, hit a deer or whatnot, they don’t know they’re shot because they don’t have that huge booming noise. It doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of them. They just know, “Ow. Damn that hurts.” So instead of running off into the next parish, they’ll go to the first brier patch and lay down.
Since I started doing that, I’ve never lost a deer. And it doesn’t blow my ears out either, because you’re sitting in a tree stand or you’re walking along your trail, you need to hear everything around you so you’re not wearing hearing protection. Then you go blasting a 12 gauge or a .308 or something and, man, that will ring your bell.
I don’t do much hostage rescue and whatnot (laugh)…but when I started putting that together, that was actually what I had in mind. And it worked and it ended up having a whole different market, but for my personal use, that’s what I prefer to use [to hunt].
For close range deer I’ll use the [AK in] 7.62 x 39mm, but we also do one in .308 for the longer-range stuff, but the same thing. I normally do hunt with a suppressor on it in states where I can, because it just works great.
It lets me do my job out there discretely. I don’t scare off every damn deer within a half a mile just because I’m getting mine. I’m not blowing my eardrums out and even the deer that I hit, he’s right there within 20 feet of where I hit him. I make my shot, give them about five minutes, follow their trail to the first brier patch they hit. It’s never failed, they’re right there.
F&S: What advice would you give to someone who watches Sons of Guns and says, “That’s what I want to do for a living.”
WH: Let me tell you what I look for when we hire people. We look for a work ethic and a level of integrity and a level of initiative. That’s what we look for. All the rest of it–aw, hell if you’re competent enough to get your ass out of bed, get dressed and get here without dying or killing a bystander you can probably be taught. Skills aren’t in short supply, but finding somebody with that right combination of can-do attitude and just a bit of mechanical aptitude, that’s not that easy.
Do you’re best, no matter what you’re doing. Frankly, a degree in mechanical engineering and a few years in a good machine shop would be damn handy as well (laugh).
Some news on upcoming releases from Red Jacket:
WH: Probably within two weeks, maybe three at the tops, you’re going to see all over the Internet the Red Jacket Firearms 1911.
I told you, application drives everything around here, so you have to understand my personal deal with the 1911. I got in a shooting match with a robber at my range probably 5 or 8 years ago. I fired three rounds and the last round stovepiped in the gun. Luckily, I only found this out by seeing it, not because I needed another round fired. But this was a gun that we had done all the little stuff to to make it reliable and still.
You know, I was kind of upside down and rolling because he was trying to run over me, so maybe it was me, maybe [my hand] was loose on the grip safety, who knows, but it really stuck in my craw and I went away from the 1911 after that.
We had the conversation last year, we were talking about this and the guys wanted to build up a 1911 and I said, that’s fine, but if we’re going to do it, I want a 1911 that’s out-of-the-box ready. Every time somebody says 1911 it’s, “Yeah, you get it in and then you do this and you do that and it’s ready to go.”
No, no, it ain’t right. I want it out of the box. Customer opens the box, picks up his case of ammunition, goes straight to the range and there you go. That’s it. That’s all I want them to have to do, load the gun and pull the trigger.
We think we’ve got that. I’ve been playing with the pre-production prototype for about two months now and Vince pulled it off. He built the 1911.
We have another thing that will be [coming out] later, more like November. But there is a Red Jacket AR-15, it’s a piston-drive, monolithic upper receiver. We’ll have a carbine and the rifle length for it. We’ve been working with MagPul industries. We’re going to be using strictly MagPul furniture on the rifle.
That’s rolling forward full steam ahead.