Interview: SWR Manufacturing
Written by Jason M. Wong Friday, 29 September 2006 00:00
SWR, based in Evans, Georgia manufactures high quality suppressors for the recreational and military use. Small Arms Review recently took an opportunity to sit down with Joe Gaddini and William Ellison of SWR to discuss changes within the company, new products, and developments within the suppressor industry.
Small Arms Review: Tell me about your background.
Joe Gaddini: I was working for a service engineering firm in Atlanta, specializing in online leak repair. I was always on call, and often driving or flying to industrial facilities nationwide. Once on site, I would design ways to seal leaks in high pressure pipes valves, and pressure vessels, without the plants having to cease operations. It was extremely dangerous work, and I wasn’t progressing within the company as I had been promised. After living mostly in Atlanta for six years, I moved to northern Florida and started SWR. The company was initially a title II repair facility, where we’d repair class 3 firearms and perform sear conversions. I did quite a lot of work on Heckler and Koch firearms, including conversions. Not long after starting SWR, I met Joseph Moody at a local gun show. Through him, I was introduced to Reed Knight of Knights Armament and ultimately hired as a design engineer.
While at Knights, I worked on a number of projects, including work for the Navy. I also met Eugene Stoner, and helped a bit with the SR-50 rifle. During the project, I had the chance to go to Mr. Stoner’s house to discuss the design. At one point during the meeting, he asked me for my advice on a couple points. Eugene Stoner was a master of firearms design and he asked me, an unknown designer, for advice. I was floored.
I worked on cool projects, and met cool people. My experience with Knights Armament is irreplaceable; I was able to do things that I otherwise never would have been involved with.
Although it was great working at Knights Armament, being strapped in front of a computer staring at a CAD program took its toll. I realized that I didn’t appreciate the weather in Central Florida. When you went outside, you would either melt due to the heat, or be carried off by mosquitoes. As a result, I moved to Augusta, Georgia to be closer to family. My parents were retiring, and my wife’s family is from the area. SWR was already in existence prior to my working for Reed Knight; I expanded SWR from a title II repair shop into suppressor manufacturing.
SAR: Describe your start in the suppressor industry.
JG: I was a long time friend of John Weaver, of JRW Sports. We became friends because we both did HK repair work. He was a great guy. In the mid-90’s, John was building semi-automatic M60 rifles and suppressors, while working out of a tiny shop. We had a lot in common. John specialized in integral 22 caliber suppressors, and when I started to build suppressors, he gave me help and encouragement.
I got my feet wet making integrally suppressed Ruger and Brownings, both pistols and rifles. There were several people making them at the time. Ceiner was in the market, but eventually moved on to building .22 caliber conversions. AWC had a good hold on the market, but their suppressors were expensive. The suppressed 22 caliber pistol was so popular in the 90’s, that it was easy to break into the suppressor business by making integrally suppressed Rugers. During that same period, Mark Serbu (of Serbu Firearms) came to visit my shop. Mark asked me to make him an integrally suppressed 22 caliber pistol. He liked the pistol so much that he decided to get into the business too. That was probably about late 1996, or early 1997. Back then, our .22 caliber suppressors were made with conically shaped, stamped steel baffles with equal length spacers. There was little technology involved.
Our reputation grew and we started experimenting with different baffle designs. John Weaver moved into a new shop, bought a couple CNC machines, and was making shoulder stocks for use on Glock pistols. Since John had the CNC machines, I showed him a few of our stamped baffles made with coaxial & ported spacers, and asked him to machine a few aluminum baffles for me. A few weeks later, John sent me a Styrofoam cup filled with 22 caliber baffles machined out of aluminum. John and I started experimenting from there. John was the person who came up the name “Omega” for the SWR suppressor line. The "Omega" baffle was the basis of design for all of our suppressors, from .22 through .50 BMG calibers. Many of our early suppressors that used the original style of baffle carried the Omega name; some of our suppressors still do. Tragically, John died in a motorcycle accident in October, 1999. I lost a great friend and the industry lost a true innovator.
SAR: Tell me about your new suppressor mount.
JG: There are many mounting systems available on the market for rifle caliber suppressors. We’ve made both threaded and quick detach type varieties. Our fast threaded mounting system is different in two ways. Jim Ryan and John Weaver, among others, created similar designs. The suppressor threads onto the barrel, directly behind the existing flash hider. Later designs included threads machined into the flash hider. The suppressor would mount over the flash hider, and a compression spring would keep the suppressor in place via tension. The basic design is good, and those types of mounts generally stay tight. The problem is this type of design is the lack of a positive gas seal. High pressure gases created during firing are able to exhaust past the mount, and out the rear of the suppressor. Our new design incorporates two mechanical gas seals within the mount system that prevent gas from leaking around and through the thread mount. In addition, the new design provides additional bearing surfaces for the suppressor to align onto the barrel. There’s nothing bad with the prior or existing designs; we’ve improved upon the mount little further.
Until recently, we were using the Gemtech "Bi-Lock" as a quick detach mounting system. The Bi-Lock is a good mount, but it had some problems. If the user did not clean the Bi-Lock mount, the piston within the mount would become coated with carbon, and seize in place. The user would then run into problems removing the suppressor from the rifle. I asked Greg Latka (of gemtech) to modify the existing Bi-Lock design, and those were better. Even though I like the idea of a true quick attach/detach mount, we don’t want to deal with springs or moving parts in future designs. We are currently looking at updating the design and making improvements for those customers that like the Bi-Lock system. One potential design includes a time able 5-lug system with a locking collar. I understand that Gemtech has an improved quick detach mount for their G-5 suppressor that works very well.
William Ellison: There has been a lot of borrowing within the industry. We often laugh when others in the industry claim to have an entirely new product. Too often, we’re standing on the shoulders of those that came before us. We may improve an existing concept but it’s not really anything truly new, just a clever combination of existing components.
SAR: The community is well aware of your product success; can you share a challenging situation with our readers?
JG: I’ve come straight from the school of hard knocks. The Heckler and Koch Mark 23 pistol had just come out, and we built a new 45 caliber suppressor for it. At the time, we did not fully appreciate the Neilson device and its limitations. We didn’t understand the relationship between the weight of the suppressor versus the recoil effect of the pistol. The suppressor was too heavy and did not provide enough travel with our early Neilson device. Using the suppressor with the Mk 23 pistol would bind the slide. We quickly discovered the problem and delayed that project for a couple years. Our current 45 caliber handgun suppressor (The H.E.M.S.2) has been a great success, and does not have those types of problems.
SAR: Describe customers who purchase SWR suppressors.
WE: There are different markets within the industry comprised of recreational, military and law enforcement users. Each market has distinct needs, and the product line must be adapted to the needs of the customer. It would difficult and expensive to develop specialized products for each segment of the market. The exception is the Federal Government, which may present a large enough purchase order to justify the expense needed to justify a specialized product.
We recognize that the Government has different needs than the recreational shooter. We’re investigating materials that are stronger than the materials we are currently using. We have a very strong baffle core; improvements to our suppressors will come from supporting that core, and providing a better type of mount. There are many different types of customers, with different criteria in making purchase selections.
Fit and finish is very important to the recreational shooter, and may be less so with the government client. The same applies to sound reduction. The recreational shooter demands the highest level of sound reduction; where as sound reduction may not be as important to the Government client. Flash Suppression is extremely important to the military customer, but may be less important to the recreational shooter. SWR is committed to be adaptive to the market and supplying the needs of our customers.
SAR: You’ve mentioned government end users; can you comment on government use of your products?
JG: Shortly after 9/11, we were contracted to build 5.56mm & 9mm caliber suppressors for the war effort. The end users liked the newer Bi-Lock mounting system. We made a few design changes to ensure that the suppressors would mount and release from the weapon reliably. Most of the operators abroad use their weapons in a semi-auto mode and the suppressors are not seeing the same type of abuse that recreational users often place upon our products. The recreational shooter is often the person truly pushing the limits of our products.
There is a movement within the military for increased suppressor use. Currently, the criterion being asked for by the military is somewhat unrealistic. The military is asking for durable suppressors that are short in length, light weight, efficiently hide muzzle flash, and provide good sound reduction. Within the same criteria, the military does not want the suppressor to cause excess blow back, increase the cyclic rate of fire, or produce a noticeable point of impact shift. Some of these attributes are mutually exclusive and seemingly impossible to accomplish in a single product. The "off-the-shelf" attitude is great for some products, but I feel that suppressors should be tailored to operational needs. A single product will not fit all situations and needs.
Quite a few of our products have been procured for use overseas to assist the war effort, and we’re very proud to help. We do not discuss our clients for many reasons, one of which is to respect their security. I am only able to say that our products are used by our government and military both domestically and abroad. I am contacted regularly by our military users, who upon returning home, often buy our products via the ATF Form 4 process.
WE: We have received reports from military units where some individuals within the unit had suppressors, and others did not. The soldiers that were not equipped with suppressors drew all of the hostile fire because they were visible to the enemy. Soldiers with suppressors were able to engage the enemy, almost without fear of being targeted, as the enemy had no means of detecting where the shooter was located. The military has recognized that the suppressor is more than just a sniper’s tool. It has become a force multiplier, because now soldiers can operate almost with impunity on the battle field, due to the significantly reduced chance of being detected.
SAR: You mentioned abuse by recreational shooters. Has SWR conducted any type of endurance or destruction testing on its products?
JG: The weekend recreational shooter will abuse a suppressor far more than any suppressor in military use. One of the only places our suppressors take abuse in the military setting is in a training environment. As a result, we perform destructive and endurance testing on our products. Most recently, we tested the Spec War II 5.56mm suppressor. Our Spec-War II suppressor is very popular – it measures 7.75 inches in length, and weighs 27 ounces. It’s a little on the heavy side, but the first baffle is placed so that it does not dramatically increase the cyclic rate or create blow back. It also provides great flash hiding capability. It’s one of our most popular suppressors, with both our recreational and military customers.
We attempted to destroy a Spec-War II suppressor through sustained full automatic fire, and were very happy with the outcome. The punishment was brutal. The gas tube on the host weapon (an M16 Colt Commando with an 11-inch barrel) had to be replaced twice during the testing. In the end, the only part that failed was the suppressor tube; the baffle core was undamaged and looked great. The mount was fine, and nothing unscrewed within the suppressor. It was very reassuring to learn that the suppressor worked longer than the host weapon. We are in the process of switching to even stronger materials that do not come in tube form, and are willing to incur the expense of making our own tubes from bar stock. In our minds, the additional strength provided will far outweigh the cost incurred.
SAR: What advice do you have for the recreational shooter?
JG: We get a lot of requests to suppress M16 and Krinkov type rifles with barrels under ten inches. We tell customers that when the weapon is fired in full auto, the suppressor can will collect unburnt powder within the suppressor core. While being fired, the suppressor is mostly devoid of oxygen, and because of that, the excess gun powder does not always fully ignite. Once the suppressor has cooled, and when firing continues, the end user is at risk of igniting the unburnt powder that has collected within the suppressor.
If this happens, over-pressure will result within the suppressor tube, and catastrophic failure is possible. In the worst cases, the suppressor will ether split open, or a component may fail, launching the suppressor down range. If the suppressor fails and is launched off the host rifle, recoil can be severe.
We stress to our customers that suppressor use should be taken very serious. Standard gun safety and use of hearing and eye protection is even more important while shooting suppressed firearms. Lastly, don't hold a suppressor while firing a weapon. Remember that common sense goes a long way if used!
SAR: What do you see for the future of the industry?
WE: Manufacturing within the United States as we know it now will cease to exist in the next ten years. There will always be a need for repair facilities, specialty tooling manufacturers. The mom and pop machine shops, and the big machine shops will be extinct within the next ten years due to the vacuum in Asia, South America, and the low cost of labor through out the world.
All of our products are made in the US, including the Grip Pod Systems LLC, Grip Pod. We discussed having the legs for the Grip Pod made in Asia, but dismissed that idea instantly. We weren’t comfortable with selling a product that would be labeled “Made in China.” The customer base is fiercely patriotic, and we’re in the process of redesigning the legs of the aluminum version of the Grip Pod. In addition, Government contracts typically have requirements for domestic U.S. manufacture.
SAR: How is SWR preparing for the future?
JG: Initially, we were using the same machine shop as Gemtech for manufacturing our suppressor parts. We worked together on a few projects that were mutually beneficial to both companies. Eventually, the production orders from SWR and Gemtech became too large for the same shop to build all the parts in a timely manner. I met William Ellison, of Ellison Machine and contracted him to build our parts. We’ve been using Ellison Machine for several years now.
With the success of the Grip Pod, I’m looking to spend more time with my family. SWR recently restructured the company to allow for future growth. We will continue to warrantee our existing products and continue to support the recreational shooter. Three additional members have come on board to SWR – Mathew Pallett, William Ellison, and Henry Graham. Each brings unique attributes to the company that will allow us to expand and grow. In addition, SWR is looking at partnering with other firms outside of the firearm industry as a means of diversification, increase access to new technology, and allow increased research and development.
WE: Joe was ready for a partner in the business. I’ve been in a machine shop since I was 9 years old, helping my dad out in the shop. I am very familiar with running a machine shop, and what it takes to run a shop. I’ve had a long passion for firearms, and it was a natural match for me to work with Joe and SWR. We both have engineering backgrounds, and similar areas of expertise. I was able to help Joe with his manufacturing challenges, and fortunately Joe approached me when he started looking for a partner in the business. The new manufacturing facility offers 15,000 square feet of manufacturing space with modern CNC equipment, allowing increased production. Manufacturing for the company will take place in South Carolina, but the main offices will remain in Georgia.
SAR: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
JG/WE: You’re welcome.