Interview With YHM
Interview With YHM
Sitting down with Chris Graham, one of the co-owners of Yankee Hill Machine, was like catching up with an old friend, which is a true homage to the integrity and values of a third-generation-run business. With the company having such rich history, Chris’ knowledge extends well beyond merely running it. His passion for his company bleeds into his passion for not only the firearm and suppressor industry, but also into the employees who work there. Read below to get to know more about their suppressor addition, the Turbo K, as well as a more detailed account of the genesis of Yankee Hill Machine and the intricacies of what makes the machine tick.
Why Turbo K? What space were you trying to fill by launching it?
The Turbo K actually fills a couple of different roles. We saw a trend in the market going to a more adaptable mounting system through the 1 3/8 x 24 unofficial industry standard thread*, so that allowed us the opportunity to test the waters with that as well as the “K” portion of it was to make a shorter, lighter 5.56 can that's still hearing safe. So basically, we were able to take our Turbo system, make it shorter, lighter, keep it quiet, and make it modular all at the same time…. For someone who is looking for a do-all 5.56 can, who may already be married to another company's mounting system, they can still hop on with the turbo and get a really great can without having to change over however many rifle's worth of mounts they have, which can easily add up to the cost of a can.
Note: Like the Dead Air Nomad, Q Plan B, or SilencerCo Omega.
What changed with the Turbo K? The Build materials, design, geometry of the baffles/tube/blast chamber?
Pretty much the only change to the suppression system was the number of baffles to it. It uses the same baffles that're made out of the same 17-4 stainless, it uses the same 718 Inconel for the blast baffle. The blast chamber has been modified, so instead of only accepting our quick disconnect mounts, it has that interchangeability from direct thread to QD to other people's mounts.
How did you come up with that? Was that something in the making, or did that progress into happening to where you were like, we need to do this?
It kind of progressed into happening while we were developing the Turbo K because we were seeing more and more guys in the industry accepting this thread style in order to accept other companies’ mounts. And we kind of said, ‘this is the perfect time to jump into this.’ We've got a can in development and we can test the waters, which, they haven't even shipped yet and people's reaction has been really great.
What platform recommendations do you have on your 5.56 cans? Do you recommend one style over another?
It's really not platform specific. Obviously, we're AR guys by trade, so we like it on the AR-15. That's what we do all of our testing on, and I think that's what the majority of the population is putting it on. But it works just as well on a bolt gun, or a 5.56 pistol. Pretty much, you name it - it works with the cartridge not necessarily the host firearm.
YHM has run the same spring-loaded ratchet mount for years. Why did you go with that?
That's kind of a love it or hate it part of the YHM line up… The way that our mount works is that we don't have any moving components inside the suppressor; the suppressor is a fixed unit. There’re several benefits to that. One is you're moving those moving components and springs out of the suppressor, out of the blast chamber, which has got the most heat and abrasion going on in the can itself, so it increases the life of those springs and the ratchet collar. And, two, if and when those things do wear out, your suppressor is still fully functional. If you have another rifle to shoot it on, you can throw it on that and keep shooting and we can send you a new mount, a new spring or a new flash hider. [Those items aren’t] NFA controlled, so we can just ship you a new one. Whereas, if a spring wears out and it's built in the suppressor, you have to send it back to us for us to replace it or repair it and we have to send it back to you, during which time you can't shoot using that suppressor. The other benefit to it is that it's very simple and very robust and has the ratcheting toothed washer, that's what we call the collar at the rear of the mount, which is a secondary locking system to our suppressor.
In 2005, when we developed the mounting system, we developed it as a taper locking system, so there's a taper in front of the coarse threads on the mount. Then there's a taper in the can that matches the mount. When those two tapers come together, that's what physically locks the can together and aligns it to the bore and holds it in place. The ratcheting that you hear is the secondary locking system. So, even on that taper mount, which is very secure, as you shoot, things heat up, metals change at different rates, and there's vibration in shooting. That ratcheting collar keeps tension on those teeth so that it doesn't loosen up unintentionally. So the likelihood of it ever backing off is slim to none. There's a little bit of play to the actual washer on the mount, and that's intentional. When you tighten the can down, those two tapers come together, and the can locks down in the same position every time. So the point of impact is 100% repeatable just due to that fact. From time to time, the teeth don't end up lining up perfectly, but we can't have an infinite number of teeth on the can and on that washer. But because there is a little bit of wobble allowable in that washer, you can click it to the next tooth and grab it at that point.
Are you looking at replacing the spring-loaded ratchet mount (does it even need to be replaced)?
Since 2005, the taper location and size, the coarse thread position, and that ratcheting system has remained 100% the same. We're very happy and proud of how the mount works so I don't see any of that changing any time soon. If you hit a home run the first time, why get up and swing again when you might only hit a double? We have adapted the front end, and the forward portion: flash hider, muzzle brake, over the years for aesthetics and performance issues. [We’re] just continually making a better product.
Can we talk a little bit about your new muzzle device? Why go shorter?
I feel like that was just a derivative of the Turbo K. We were starting to look at how we can make things as short and compact as possible while still having their function and performance still be very good. And the new QD brake does just that. It retains the Q.D. mounting system that we've had for close to 20 years now and it also helps control recoil with that single chamber brake when the suppressor is not on, it's still serves a function.
You have an impressive line of AR's and AR accessories. What are some of your heavy hitters?
Most of our heavy hitters are our handguards, our sights, and our flash hiders. And that's sort of traditionally what we've been known for in this industry. It's been really interesting seeing the public perception of YHM change over the years as we've moved from just doing parts to doing parts and rifles to doing parts and rifles and suppressors. We used to go to the shows, and we'd have our suppressor display up and folks would go, ‘oh jeez, I didn't know you guys made cans. I knew you made handguards and sights and things like that.’ And it's funny, within the last five years, we get a lot of people now who say, ‘I know you for your suppressors, I didn't know you made AR parts and guns and all of that stuff.’ It's been interesting to see that perception shift.
Has that weighed in on how you've marketed? What has made that switch happen?
Probably four or five years ago, we separated the suppressor brand away from the parts brand. So the suppressor components are all branded in that black and gold logo and the advertising is a little bit edgier. And the parts and rifles, we've kept with the blue and gray logo that we've had forever. We kind of market that as a traditional family values, Average Joe kind of brand. I don't know if that has directly affected that shift, but I think probably the biggest change is that suppressors are becoming more and more popular. That market is constantly growing as people find out that (a) you can own them (b) it's not that much of a hassle to own them and (c) that once you start shooting with them, they become kind of addictive and you don't really want to shoot unsuppressed any longer.
Do you feel like the customers who bought your AR parts and accessories from you, you've converted into silencer owners, or do you feel like you've touched in to a new pool of purchasers?
I think it's been a little bit of both. Obviously, when we started [making] silencers, part of the way we’re marketing them was to our existing customers and letting them know that they could own them. Because in 2005, when we started doing this, it wasn't really a main stream thing. It's not really a mainstream thing now, but it's certainly grown a lot from where it was then. We worked really hard to try and grow people's awareness of the fact that they could buy them and educate them on the process of buying them. So I think some of that was converting our existing customers and then just as the market as a whole grew, attracting new customers too. I think that taking our brand values of making a quality product that didn't have any compromises but pricing it at a point where the average person could afford it helped attract people to our brand as well.
That's probably the number one question we get. Basically, what it comes down to was the company was started back in 1951 with our grandfather and his partner Red. And, at that time, it wasn't a gun company. They made machine parts. Somebody would bring them a widget and say, ‘how much would it cost for you to make me 5000 of these,’ and if their price was right, they'd make them. In the 60's, our grandfather wanted to start working with the government doing contract work because he had served a tour in Korea, and he wanted to help the folks he had served with by working in firearms and he saw an opportunity there through Springfield Armory. The original Springfield Armory in Springfield, Mass., so he went down and got his cage code, got all that sorted out and started doing government contract work. One of the first things he did was, my grandfather and an army engineer developed the M16 cleaning rod kit that up until when we moved in 2017, we were still making on the same equipment that he had designed to make that part in the early 60's. At that point, we started to transition into more firearms products, but still if somebody brought us an electrical connector, we would make those too. It wasn't until the late 90's, early 2000's where we started to push our own brand of firearms components. Prior to that, we had been developing firearms components, mainly for the AR15 and selling directly to OEMs. Your Bushmasters, your Rock River [Arms], your DPMS’, the B.M.A.S. line of accessories in the early 90's was pretty much all YHM part numbers. We would develop the product, price it out and we would try to get the OEMs to pick it up. And, in 99/2000, we said ‘we've got 15 or 20 products that we've developed, and no one's picked up.’
Obviously, we feel strongly about them because we went through the time to develop them and everything. We've been making these things for so long for everybody else, let's try to push YHM as its own brand. Our first catalog was two sheets of 11x17, printed on both sides, folded in half and stapled together in house. Our general manager and myself put that together in photoshop version 4; I think, it was before CS was even a thing. That's really where we got started. We picked up the phone and called everybody in Shotgun News, which is now called Firearm News, [and] anybody who looked like they were even related to AR stuff and just hammered through that magazine every month and tried to grow our customer base. Now we've gone from that to a world recognized brand of AR-15 components, the rifles, and now suppressors.
Between your cleaning rod kit in 1960 and now, what's the thing that you're most proud of?
Definitely making a name for ourselves. Obviously being a profitable machine shop is nice, but to say that I design, build and ship my own parts across the country, and in some cases across the world for people who export, it's really a phenomenal thing to step back and say, wow, my family has a worldwide legacy now. There's no face to some of the bigger companies; it's just the name. Me and my brother and sometimes my father, we're right out in front. This is who we are; this is who YHM is. it's not a board of directors somewhere that're just looking at the numbers and deciding where to make cuts, and what's working… Obviously part of it is that we started there, and Massachusetts wasn't a terrible place to do business and it wasn't anti-gun back in the 50's. That's been a relatively recent shift. And we've kind of dealt with it as the blows have landed, I'm certainly not going to deny that there are other places to do business. If it was as easy as just packing up the equipment and moving, we would've done it years ago. But we've got families who have invested their entire working careers with us. It just wouldn't be fair to them to say, "move to Tennessee or tough luck". And we've got family in the area too. YHM is third generation family so we've got branches of our family tree all over western Massachusetts. And to just pack everything up and leave for the sake of saying that we're in a more pro-gun area… From an advertising standpoint, it looks good, like we're giving the middle finger to Massachusetts, but from a business standpoint and from an ethics standpoint, it just really doesn't make sense for us.
Is there any prospective moving in the future?
I would say not short term… Like I said, it's about the people, who, if we didn't have them, we wouldn't be around. To just pack up and leave and leave them all empty handed, I couldn't look at myself in the mirror after doing something like that. I know the names of every person in my shop and their kids and their wives and what's going on in their lives. We've said this internally forever, when you join YHM, you're joining the YHM family. And we really do try our best to treat our YHM employees like family. Get to know them and treat them the way that we would expect to be treated. And, like I said, as a marketing move, it's probably great to say, ‘hey, these guys moved out of Massachusetts and said to heck with you!’ but we've seen so many other companies do similar things – move out of anti-gun states to more pro-gun states, lose their work force – and now where are they? They're either struggling or gone. It was an advertising move, but it wasn't a very smart long-term decision.
It goes back to what you were saying about your spring-loaded ratchet mount, right? Don't fix what ain't broke.
Obviously, there would be benefits to moving. It'd be really nice to be able to actually own the products that I produce, or my employees could own them too, but at the same time, they're not going to tear up their roots and move for the company; I wouldn't expect them to. Family always comes first; whether it's us or our employees.
Being a third-generation company, which is rare, what else sets YHM apart from other manufacturers?
One of the big things that sets us apart is the fact that we conceptualize, we design, we machine, we prototype, we test, we evaluate, and we ship all under one roof. We don't rely on suppliers or middle men or other people in between. We do it all, start to finish. So we have control over every step of that process. If we get to a point anywhere along the line where we say we don't like where this is going or we think we can do it better, we can make those changes on the fly, so we're constantly improving the products and you don't have other people marking stuff up because somebody else is making our baffles or somebody else is marking our tubes or something like that. By keeping everything under one roof, we control not only the cost, but the product itself.
Is that how you've been able to keep your prices so low?
Yes. Definitely. We're a machine shop. We've got 70 years, almost, of experience of how to make things efficiently and therefore inexpensively without compromising the product in any way. That's what we're good at - make a lot of something efficiently and pass that savings along to the consumer.
You were literally born into this. Do you feel like that gives you a leg up or do you feel like that almost puts pressure on you to rise to the occasion of what your family has built for you?
There's definitely some pressure there because we're trying to avoid that third-generation family-owned curse. Typically, the first generation starts the business; they do ok. The second-generation steps in and really makes the business profitable. Because the business is profitable and doing well, the third generation goes, ‘oh, well this place just makes money and I just collect the check and I don't have to really do anything.’ First of all, we weren't really brought up that way. My brother and I both started as janitors and then painters and we packaged parts, we oiled parts, we dried parts, we shipped parts, we machined parts, we inspected parts. We pretty much have done everything from the ground up in there. My brother and I can run any machine in there, use any of the inspection equipment, take orders, take phone calls, process orders. We've done it all at some point, so we know what can and can't be done, which I think also gives us an advantage because if we design something and somebody comes up to us and says, ‘I can't cut this part,’ then we can look at it and go, ‘well sure you can, do it this way.’ Because we've done it; we've got that experience. And yeah, the pressure is definitely there to not only avoid that third-generation curse, but to keep the company growing too. Enough is never enough.
What happened in 2005 for you to debut your first can, the Phantom?
Suppressors were kind of a happy accident for us. We were really well known for our AR parts at the time, particularly our flash hider series, the Phantom series, and Mark White from sound technologies had a really good patented baffle system for a 5.56 suppressor… there was a government bid out they were looking for a suppressor system that had a quick disconnect flash hider as part of the system. So [Mark White] approached us, having that very well-known Phantom flash hider system that you see on our QD brakes today and said I'd like to combine these two components, partner up with you and go in for the bid on this. So we basically took his suppressor that he was making one at a time in his garage, and our Phantom Flash Hider. Came up with the taper system, came up with the coarse thread that we use and came up with the ratcheting secondary lock all for this government bid, and that basically has transferred down the line.
We didn't end up winning that bid. I don't remember who it went to, but I just remember it wasn't us. That was really our education on suppressors. We really knew nothing about them before that. So that was when we learned that these things exist, it's not just military; there's a civilian market. And at that time, the most inexpensive suppressor was probably $1200. So we looked at the suppressor that Mark was making and our QD mount and we said, ‘Mark, we'd really like to produce this whole thing for you and see if we can market it under our brand,’ because by then we'd had five years under our belt of marketing our brand and we really thought it'd be a good fit for the product line and to get us into kind of a gun-related product, but not directly AR-15 related. And he said, ‘yeah, let's work up some kind of agreement.’ And we started mass producing his suppressors under his patented baffle design and it's just grown from there. We started with a 5.56, which, as anyone in the suppressor industry knows that's not where you start. Everybody knows you start with a 22. But, like I said, we weren't really looking to get into the suppressor market, it really just fell into our laps. And we saw the opportunity to make something great of it… and we ran with it. So yeah, we did 5.56 first, and then .22 and then .308. We did things a little bit out of order, but it worked.
What happened subsequently for you to expand on your suppressor line?
I was the suppressor department when it first started. I did the design, I did the prototyping, I did all the inventory management. Which, at that time was, two filing cabinets with all my ATF paperwork as well as my staging area for the suppressors. We weren't talking big volumes back then, but the suppressor bug really just bit us hard and we kind of fell in love with it and said this was really neat; let's play around with this and see what else we can do. So, we worked primarily with Mark's baffle system in different calibers. His baffle system was great because it was very versatile. It wasn't like it was great on 5.56, but terrible on .308. we were able to adapt it to many different calibers, and honestly it was just fun to make guns quiet and test stuff. We kind of fell into the same way a lot of the consumers do; kind of a happy accident, a friend or somebody tells you about it and it's really neat and you just can't stop. And since then, we've changed some of our baffle systems. The .22 integral still uses Mark's patented design, but as we found more efficient baffle systems we've created and adapted to those but it's fun.
I think the most important thing about it is you have a measurable metric when you go out and test something to say, ‘Did I do a good job?’ You can design a new handguard, or a new sight and you think it's great and you're just kind of left to the will of the market to see if people like it. But when you take a suppressor out and you go, ‘ok, this is measurably three decibels quieter than our previous model’ you know you've progressed and it's a really good feeling to have that immediate feedback.
For about 10 years, every silencer you made was a "Phantom" of one kind or another. Where did that name come from and why did you end up getting away from it?
We're still using the name ‘Phantom.’ We've gotten away from it in the sound suppressors themselves. To be perfectly honest, Phantom was before me. I was involved in the business during summers during school, but phantom was under my dad's reign. So, to say where it came from, I don't really have a good answer for you. Where it came from in the suppressor world, I can tell you. It's because we had the phantom flash hider. That was our number one product. It was on everyone's gun who was making AR-15's in the 90's, and like I said, that's the reason Mark from Sound Technologies came to us and I don't think he had a name for the suppressor; I think he just had a patent number and his business name and he said, ‘well we've got the phantom flash hider going into it, let's call it the phantom suppressor; that just makes sense, it's a system.’ We kept on using that phantom mounting system on different calibers, so the name kept transferring over until we had 6 or 8 different phantoms and then we took a look and said, this is more confusing than it needs to be. We started paring things down, like the Phantom M2 or the Phantom LT, to differentiate them a little bit. Everyone knew YHM for the phantom in both worlds now - the AR flash hider world and the suppressor world. So, I think we were a little bit afraid almost to drop the phantom because it's so synonymous with YHM. But it's definitely a good thing we got away from it now because people can [distinguish better between the suppressors].
Why ‘Yankee Hill Machine?’
Way before my time. So, when the business was originally started, it was in Red Judd's garage. In an area that was locally known as Yankee Hill. I don't know exactly where that name came from but that's what all the locals knew it as. You won't find it on a map or anything like that, but if you ask people up in Mass, they'll say, ‘oh yeah! Yankee Hill is this section from this street to that street’ and if you ask them why it's called that, they probably won't be able to give you an answer either. What started out as a one-machine garage machine shop transitioned over down the street to the Northampton facility where we worked for several years, and the name just made sense because it's what it started as.
When did using the acronym ‘YHM’ come into play and why?
That came in shortly after we had debuted our own product line. That was in direct response to a customer who we were soliciting at the time, who was basically all set to make their initial order, and the buyer's boss literally said, ‘I'm not dealing with you Yankees’ and slammed the phone. And we were like, ‘that was interesting.’ There's still kind of a stigma of Yankees and northerners and southerners going on, so we wanted to distance ourselves from that a little bit. Obviously, we weren't going to change the whole name; there's a whole legacy behind that, but at the same time, that was when everything was getting abbreviated. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC and acronyms became huge in the military and nothing has a word; it's all 3 or 4 letter acronyms. So, we just shortened it to YHM. It was a shorter domain name, and it was just easier to say… YHM is just a little simpler, I guess.
All in all, it was a pleasure to have Chris out to speak with him and learn more about Yankee Hill Machine. Their downhome feel and family values bleed in to their business, and it shows through such quality products.
Is there anything else you’d like to know? Comment below!