Dead Air Interview With Mike Pappas
Dead Air Interview With Mike Pappas
We had an opportunity to meet with the Man, the Myth, the Legend: Mike Pappas. Whether celebrating Pappas day is a milestone in your family, or you only know a little bit about him, read on to discover everything from the innovative marks he’s forged in this industry to what it’s like to own a tank (no, literally, a tank)*.
You got into the NFA world because of your MAC-11... but what got you into the suppressor world, and what was your first suppressor?
That same MAC [got me into the suppressor world]. At the time, in the mid to late 80's, military style firearms were very much a sub-culture... I ended up getting a Sonic's can for it. I did a ton of super fun stuff with that. But that lead me to get an M-16. I bought an AWC can for that. And then the third can I got was a Gemtech Outback. Right about that time, I switched from being an auto mechanic to managing a gun store in Salt Lake. We got an SOT, so we did a lot of can slinging. That's about the time that Advanced Armament just barely started to come into the scene. We carried a lot of Advanced [Armament], Gemtech, and Yankee Hill [Machine].
Really what got me into it was that I was far enough ahead of the curve of the military style stuff, the machine gun stuff, the can stuff, that I kind of ran out of people to speak with. So, when I started managing the gun store, I became the local NFA guy. Jonathan Shults was a customer of mine and we kind of got to know each other over a little period of time. He came in one day saying, ‘I want to start a silencer company, and I'm gonna do if you do it with me. Otherwise, I'm not going to do it; I'll do something else.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, I want to do it.’ So, boom, that was the start of SilencerCo for me.
Later I was introduced to Waldron, and we went and got a loan, and we bought a machine, we rented a building, and put it in there, and put an FFL in there. Then Shults was like, 'I'm going to make a monocore rimfire can.’ That kind of freaked me out because I thought to myself, as a consumer of NFA, 'Why? Why would I buy that? Sell me on it.' I really stressed over that and then I came up with the clam shell idea for the original Sparrow.
So how did you come up with the Sparrow idea?
I called Shults on the phone and I was still managing the gun store. I said, ‘dude, I woke up this morning, and I got it. This is what I want to do.’ And he said, ‘yeah, yeah’ to me; I was angry. I hung up the phone. I got off work and I drove down to SilencerCo and it was Taco Tuesday. Shults would buy these Tacos on Tuesday, and it was Wednesday, and he's got this pile of Taco Bell napkins in a big bin and I sketch this out and he was like, ‘dude, that's genius’ and I was like, ‘right?’
I just kept thinking for days. I was stressed. We'd gotten into a ton of debt. Like, right off the bat, and we hadn't made anything. If this didn't work out, I'm going to have to pay like, 80 grand or whatever to bail out from under this thing. I thought if we were going to take over the market for rimfire, and start with rimfire, our selling point would be you can shoot it until it's completely clogged and then take it apart with your fingers. Like, it will come apart dirty. And no other product would do that. And that's the premise that we sold the original Sparrow on. Shoot it all you want, when it's totally clogged, then take it apart, clean it, and put it back together. So, that was the way that I got into the NFA.
You were an auto mechanic.
I always worked at independent shops. I never worked at a dealership. I'd do whatever - horse trailer, boat, Mercedes, Nissan, Chevy, just whatever anyone would bring in, I’d work on.
Do you think that assisted you in your endeavors?
Oh man, by some multiplier, maybe 7? Yes, greatly. Just the understanding, because this would be a constant thing at SilencerCo in the start. There was just a few of us. They'd all be trying to figure something out, and I'd just be like, ‘you know they make a fitting for that.’ and everyone would be like, ‘No?’ And I'd be like, ‘yeah, let me go get one.’ It's just crazy how, just understanding the threads, and after taking so many things apart my entire life and putting them back together and seeing how all sorts of different systems and different types of things worked. And I also went back to school and got my Air Frame and Powerplant Mechanics (A&P) license. That also helped me greatly.
What was the process of purchasing the BMP?
A friend of mine does some importing of different things. Like, he got some military paint imported from Europe for a guy that was restoring something. He imported the BMP that Oakley has. I was having a conversation with him, and I told him, ‘I'll tell you what I'm missing in my life. I’ve figured out I need some kind of tracked armor. That fits small and light but will hold some people.’ There's a lot of cool things you can get out there, and I decided a BMP would be kind of the best suited thing for me. And then I started looking at variants of it. Like the Czechoslovakian converted OT-90 would be the easiest thing - I can't support a 70mm cannon, it's just too much. But it was retrofitted to take a KBB 14.5 belt-fed, so I was like, I could switch that to an M2, put a little USGI in there, get ammo at Walmart. BOOM, I'm in! So, we looked for about a year or so, and then found this one. And then he did all of the ag inspection and transporting from Ireland to England and through the Panama Canal and on a ship over to L.A. and from L.A. on to a truck to Utah. He took care of all of that.
How long did that take?
It took about 8 months. From buying it to getting it to Utah at my house.
That's it? Takes longer to get a silencer right now.
Yeah, a silencer is easier to store. But I thought it would be kind of a fun mechanical outlet. I guess most people get a Jeep or a 4-wheeler. But I thought it would be just a riot to drive something that'll run off road and I've taken it out for a few days at a time for a few times and it's super fun to take it out and shoot it and manage it a little bit.
And by manage it, you actually work on it?
Oh yeah. It's been solid though. And I've done very little. General maintenance, you know? And I look over it. It's starting to seep a little bit of oil out of the right front drive, so I think I'll pop the track off and tear that apart a little bit and see if I can match up the seal and put a seal in it, but it's just pretty solid.
Did you grow up tinkering with stuff?
Oh yeah. All the time. I never threw anything away without a full disassembly as a small child. Like, I took everything apart and tried to figure out how it worked. And then when I got a little older, maybe pre-teen, I could take a can opener apart, see what was going on, and then put it back together without getting caught. I'd just really want to see what was inside something. And I kind of half figured out simple electrical and mechanical stuff on my own. And then, when I started driving, I started working on all my friends’ cars. So, when I went through A&P school, making a living as a mechanic was easy.
I'm sure you've built a ton of firearms in your day. What's your favorite rifle build you've done?
I purchased - they came in for a very short time - a commercial Yugoslavian - kind of like an M-77, but sportified. I got my hands on this rifle, and cut it up, and then folded a receiver for 7.62x39 and fitted the mag well to take 7.62x51 NATO mags, shortened the barrel down to 16 inches, and assembled this carbine, chambered in 7.62NATO. It's pretty awesome. But that took a lot of work. Some of the things I just couldn't get. Like, I had to pull the center support out and weld it into the receiver that I folded cause there was no receiver for it, and I couldn't find a center support. I harvested the left rail with the ejector. I drilled and cut all the spot welds out and then re-welded it onto my folded one because the ejector was moved back and couldn't get one. So, it was really nice, all said and done. I'd say that's the coolest thing I've ever built. It's just a big, hard-hitting AK.
What's to be said about the "Jack of all trades" silencers in terms of compatibility on various host firearms?
I think there's a place in the market for that. I'd like to put it more like this: you can do a great amount of things with a product like that, but somewhere it has to shine. Some kind of .45-70, or 458 SOCOM- they seem to shine on the larger diameter medium to small capacity cases. So, I would look to broach that to say it shines on that, and it's semi-adequate on 9mm. I'd like to get one and test it and let people know where it shines and where it sucks. The boat that gets missed on those is when you tell a person that it's awesome and it does all these calibers, well, it doesn't do them all well. ‘And I bought it because you said it did this and I expected it to be in the same room as far as performance with other products that do this caliber as well but it's a joke.’
But I think we also need it for economic purposes. I mean, we have to stay in business.
A lot of companies start out with a .22 can, but a lot of consumers start out with a .30 cal can to have that one size fits most suppressor. What're your thoughts on that?
The reason that most of the time most companies start out with rimfires is that it's the easiest to make competitive. It's the easiest and the least expensive to manufacture for tooling. There's no wire cutting, there's no welding. You can pretty much do it on a mil center, a lathe mil combo. It's super easy. It's harder to make it end up with poor performance. You can make a marketable product. For me, that was a logical place to start because you don't realize how much you don't know about it. So, I think a natural progression is you're learning rimfire, centerfire handgun, centerfire rifle.
At Dead Air, Todd McGee and myself, didn't feel like we needed to start at rimfire, so we started at centerfire rifle. And I think that gave us a great leg up. It's a more competitive arena. It's easier to make a living in than rimfire stuff.
It used to be that most people would start with rimfire cans, but you're right; it has changed with the popularity of centerfire rifles as suppressors have gotten more mainstream. And I've said this for years, that the only reason rimfire is the number one selling in the market is because the market is immature. If you're more likely to get a rimfire or two, then you're very much more likely to get five centerfire rifle cans. So when we see centerfire rifle cans far exceeding rimfire sales, we'll know that that market is a little bit more mature. And then I think we'll also be able to kind of gauge growth from that.
Speaking of evolution and headed that way, modular silencers are becoming more and more popular. We all know the pros, but what are some cons of modularity?
I think when you introduce any kind of complexity into anything, it's going to have a higher percentage of problems and cause more confusion. All those things, I think, get amplified. For me, when I think of a more modular product. I think of it generally being less robust or less suited to military and LE and hard use. In other words, I don't see making a modular Sandman, per say. Or making it even take screw in mounts in the back. I mean, that product is super tough, and we wanted it to be super tough. So, I feel like, you need a more widget-y person. It depends on the person and what they want to do with it. For a more civilian, hunter, type of guy, I think it'll grow in that aspect. I don't know; hard to say.
You're seen in this industry as a hot commodity. But who inspires you?
I'd say the customers, mainly, for me. I like people, and I like to talk to people. And when customers start asking for stuff, then you want to build stuff for them. There's really not a lot of people to draw much from in the realm that we're in. I really do think that it's customer end users and the other driving force is economics. I mean, it is a business. So, we also think, ‘what do I think other people want?’ And it's also a lot of what we want. Like, I'm really excited for us to make a .33 cal can. I know it's not a big seller. I know it doesn't make a ton of economic sense. But I do think that there are people that want it, and I'm excited about it, and I want it.
What goes into your R&D?
Usually it works generally as a 2 or 3 cycle of actual metal cutting and changing until you get a pre-production sample. First, it gets white-boarded. Everyone chimes in - what do we want to do? What do we want to make it out of? What are the goals that it needs to do? How's it going to work? And then we schedule and decide who's going to cut what, and is it going to get welded, threaded, wire cut finished. And then we just kind of play it from there. Then we shoot a ton of ammo and do that as many times as we need to until we're comfortable and then put it out [on the market to sell].
How big does a blast chamber need to be? And is there a sliding scale for the first baffle being closer or further away?
I'd tell you in a nut shell that the bigger the blast chamber, the more first round pop you're going to have because you're going to allow your flame propagation to go further and further into the can and you're going to have hotter and hotter exit gas, which is going to give you more noise. The smaller you make your blast chamber, in essence, you're going to stop your flame propagation. You're going to end up with cooler exit gases, and you're going to end up with less first round pop, but you're also going to increase your back pressure. So, you've got to decide and toy with that volume and it's dependent on your muzzle device and the specific caliber or calibers you've chosen to optimize with. Of course, baffle design, angles, type. I would tell you that that's a question you'd have to answer by trying several different things.
Let's talk about Key-Mo mounts. Why come out with a set of mounts that work on other silencers besides Dead Air's?
Mainly to help the end user. The silencer industry, as a rule, has settled on a mount spec for the back, which I think we have at this point. It's super frustrating for me, I'm sitting on a really cherry M4-1000; it takes 18 tooth mounts, which, I might as well be looking for model T parts... sorry, you're done.... there's nothing wrong with the can. Actually, it's pretty awesome. But the can is antiquated and it's completely useless for a mount. Same with every can at some point. You know, its useful life has come and gone. Now, if you could change the mount... a guy may be really vested in a certain company's mounts, and we could talk about the reasons why ours is better, but that is irrelevant. This dude already has these mounts and they work fine and he's totally happy, but I want to sell him a can. So now I can, and he doesn't have to spend another thousand dollars. And then what does he do with that other can from that company that he still wants to use? I don't expect the guy to swap around mounts, so the Key-Mo is so you can convert someone else's can over to our team, and the reason our can, Nomad, takes other people's mounts so it can be converted to another team. I'd rather have, from a business standpoint, half a sale than no sale. And from an end user standpoint, I don't really care about that. I just want to be able to do what I want. And if your shi* does that, then I'm into it.
It's not like I'm going to go out and take a bunch of selfies with competitor's products, but I do enjoy me some competitor product. I do really like the Mk-9K Gemtech can. I think that's a great can, I think it's a cool looking can. I just like that can. So, I like to MP5K that a little bit. I do some black through that can. I can become a great fan of rimfire cans where they shine. I did a funny video where we did just first round pop only. A Mask was number 2 in first round pop on a rifle and was beat out by a Gemtech G-Core. Which will blow your eardrums out on a handgun, and [the Gemtech] lost on a handgun. It's brutal on a handgun. But it's phenomenal on a rifle. So, you could take this G-Core, which is very geared toward a rifle and very amazing and put it on a rifle. It's amazing. So, I find myself finding these really sweet spots in competitor product. I've got a Goliath from Liberty which is outstanding on SOCOM. It's huge and beautiful and lovely to run. I've got a Thunderbeast 338 BA I do on a Barrett mRad. It's beautiful. Tons of power, comfortable to shoot, I really like that.
What void do you think needs to be filled in your line?
I just tell people the obvious. I don't want to get pinned down. I was talking to a dude that was angry because someone at another company said they were going to have this and this and this out by this date, and I'm like, I'm working on a bunch of stuff, but I'm not going to tell you when. I don't want you to get angry when it comes and goes. 5.56, 33, and a 45 rifle are the things that I'm most excited about that we need to come out with and are coming out with. I would say maybe 2 this year and one next year. I mean, we're fairly along in a couple of areas.
Along with the Key-Mo mounts and you trying to be more compatible with other companies, who came up with the SwitchSight? And how did that come to fruition?
Eric and I were talking on the phone. he was like, ‘we should make some kind of sights that snap on so you can put them on and shoot them with your can.’ We were just talking and I was like, ‘why don't we make miniaturized flip up sights? And you don't have to have them, or you can.’ And then we were like, we should call KNS. They're the masters of that micro machining, so we called KNS and we partnered with KNS on it.
What do you think of the sound standards that are out now? And do you think there's a way to improve them, or is this as good as it gets right now?
I think it should be measured at the distal end of the can. The can's exit. The muzzle of the can, if you will. I don't think you should ever measure at the muzzle of a rifle that has a can on it so the can is sticking out past the mic. I think that's a bullshi* way to do it. And I think we need to either stick with or change the shooter ear thing. But that is tough. I'd like to put the microphone on glasses and put it near my ear and then measure it, but I get with head shapes, and what not, you do your 12 inches back and 6 to the right. That's fine. I think we need those two numbers for me. I know that once you start getting into the multiple, and down range microphones, I think that becomes an exercise in detection and for me, shooter experience is all I care about.
I wouldn't care if we didn't even do muzzle numbers. If I had to pick one, I'd be like, dude, let's set up a standards for shooter ear and go for it. I don't really care what it does at the muzzle because I'm not over there, and I don't really care if you can hear me. If my ear number's good, it's probably pretty solid over there, let's do it! But that's just me. But I know everybody wants to make a bigger deal out of the numbers than they are, and sorry, we don't even do freakin' tone. So we have impact noise, period. A weighted, but if we don't even do tone, then what the hell are we doing in front of the muzzle anyway? That's just some shi* somebody made up so they had some way of doing it to start with anyway and we've just kept doing it that way. But you get little cheaters. I can make little bits of movement and you can film me the whole time. And I'll totally screw the test up. I can make someone's sound like shit or ours sound awesome and you won't even notice. So it's harder to fool with the one by the ear though, I think. But that's just me.
Look, these people go on and on on about the numbers and sit down and calculate and I'm just like, but what do you think it sounds like? You're taking that. You've got a transducer in the ear that's going to switch it from a physical input up to an electrical impulse and put it onto your brain for conversion to feeling and then tell you what it sounded like. I don't even know if you and I can hear the same thing. Like, I'm not even sure if you and I see the same shade of blue. I'm sure it's really close, but I don't think it's exact. I think it'd help if we started to do tone. I think that would give you two points of reference. Then you can see how the impact noise was against the frequency of the noise. but then I think that they'd be confused too. But that's why I love a live fire demo. Just come over here, tell me what you think, and if you're into that, you should get one, and if not, shop on brotha.
It's difficult because people are trying to shop for something that they can’t even try out. Or they're doing it based on someone else's recommendation. Do you think that's a deterrent for potential buyers?
The only way you and I can get to common ground is if you have a couple of things and you tell me what they are and you tell me what you put them on, and I could give you an up or down from that. I think you've got to be a little bit of a pioneer if you're going to get into this market. I look at all the things I've done - the first time I ever shot a 50, I owned it. The first trigger I ever eased the machine gun back on, owned it. The first can I ever heard with my own ears, owned it. You've also got to realize that if you're that wound up on making the right choice, this probably isn't the right game for you to play then. Because you're going to end up with some product you don't do much with and it sucks, but we all have it.
We felt pretty lucky to sit down with Mike and grill him on as much as we could. If you got to spend some time in a room with Mike, what would you have asked him? Let us know in the comments below!
*Editor’s Note: Mike Pappas owns a Russian BMP. While the author of this article uses the phrase “literally a tank;" the BMP is a generally accepted as an Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) though some argument can be made for its classification as an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) and even an Anti-Air Gun in certain configurations. In no known universe, however, is a BMP of any variation considered a Main Battle Tank (MBT). I know a few of you Anti Armor Operations graduates cringed when the word “tank” was used. Please forgive us a little creative liberty for the sake of a good read.