The phone in my office rang and when I picked up, the voice on the other end said, “Hi, it’s Jesse, I heard you wanted to talk to me.” Yes, in fact, I did want to speak with Jesse James of JJFU (Jesse James Firearms Unlimited). You might recognize the name from his famous motorcycles (West Coast Choppers TV series) or cars (Monster Garage TV series), but our interest was solely based on his seemingly new passion for guns. If you do not know, James started manufacturing firearms (and why not?), predominantly 1911s and AR-15s, at the end of 2013 in Austin, Texas, and has been going strong ever since. We have been following JJFU since its inception and reached out to our readers to find out what you would want to know, now that James’ shop has been up and running. We took all of your questions and created a great interview.
Talking to James was as easy as talking to an old friend. If I didn’t know any better, I would have pictured a teenager with sun-bleached hair who just walked off of the beach in California. I wasn’t too far off, as James hails from Long Beach, but what I didn’t expect was his easy-going and unpretentious nature (this is not what he is known for on set). He was happy to answer my questions, no matter how technical or routine, and seemed eager to share his thoughts on current and future concepts. This is where you start to see the perfectionist and zero tolerance for error, and somehow, this comes through his boyish demeanor.
Danielle Breteau What prompted you to start building firearms after so many years of custom motorcycles and cars? Jesse James I’ve spent so much time building bikes that sometimes I feel I’ve done everything I had set out to do with them. I feel like the firearms industry found me about three years ago when I moved to Texas. You know, most gun-smithing is simply knowing how to machine, and I have over 25 years of experience in that field, by hand and with CNC (computer numerical control) machines. It was a natural fit.
DB Do you consider firearms to be pieces of art or useful field equipment?
JJ It took a while to consider myself as an artist. I think most people would find firearms to be art or art-like; I certainly think so, and I love the lines. Also, there is art to tailor-making everything by hand, the details of the fit and finish. That is what is important to me.
DB Who are your clients? JJ Anyone from operators to lawyers. It seems to be a pretty wide swath of people who are interested, but when I was at the SHOT (Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade) Show this year, there were a lot of people who told me they didn’t even know I made firearms. We haven’t advertised yet, so far everything has been by word of mouth.
DB Do you compete in any type of shooting competitions? JJ No. All that running around does not look like something I want to do. I shoot at my range (the one at his house) and I think I can shoot pretty well.
DB Do you hunt? JJ No, but I think I could. Not a trophy hunt, but maybe small game, like a turkey, but it would have to be respectful to the animal, like the way the American Indians hunted and took only what they needed. Overall, though, it is not my cup of tea.
DB Any thoughts on creating other guns, like a shotgun or precision rifle? JJ F&N has a great long-range .50 bolt-action rifle, but when I think of building my own, I would have to do something different. It couldn’t just be a rifle that I built; it would have to be something special. I have a revolver design in my mind, but I haven’t actually started creating it. We do have a 12-gauge shotgun coming soon, but I didn’t want to go crazy and build everything out there. I want to do a piece and do it perfectly before I move on to other projects. If you have too many projects going, then you don’t do each one as well as you would if you are focused on just one.
DB What is your favorite firearm? JJ My first favorite would be my dad’s M1 Garand. I used to shoot that when I was a kid. My other favorite is a 1911 Commander, chambered in 9mm, that I built for a customer. I knew this guy was really into firearms and I felt a lot of pressure building the gun for him. I checked it four times before I let it leave the shop, and what is funny, when my customer received it, the first thing he did was take the whole thing apart on his coffee table and looked at every piece. Once he shot it, that was when I got the final thumbs up. I really liked that gun and it is probably my favorite so far.
DB Why would someone buy your firearm over all the other options out there? JJ They are very smooth to shoot. The first time I shot a Colt Commander, it hurt my hand. I used to think that Kimber or Les Baer 1911s were really nice, until I made my own. You also have to remember that the amount of time and attention to detail, where no expense is too high and no amount of time is too long, makes my firearms so precise and smooth. That level of detail costs a lot more.
DB Do you machine all of the parts for your firearms? JJ No, not every part. If I averaged it, I would say about 80 percent of each firearm is actually machined in house. Some parts, like the thumb safety on the 1911, I don’t make those. That just doesn’t seem like an interesting part to make, so I work with STI International. They have an amazing facility and are very close to my shop. I also work with Magpul for some of the furniture on our rifles, but we do make our own lightweight grips and aluminum buttstocks.
DB What do you have to say to people who have expressed negative comments towards your products? JJ I have found that the people making those comments have never held or fired any of my firearms. I would put more value into their comments if I knew it came from first-hand experience.
DB Tell me about your suppressor. It’s beautiful and clearly a designed piece, but why would someone choose yours over another? JJ It seemed natural to make my own because I have so much turbo-manifold exhaust knowledge; it didn’t make any sense not to. Many of the suppressors you see out there are based on the Hiram Maxim theory and that concept is like air hitting a brick wall. In short, my suppressor works similar to an air-brake system, which is more efficient, and in my opinion, simply works better.
DB Your website seems pretty basic and doesn’t necessarily answer many of the questions people might want to know. Is that by design? (Note: the website has been updated since this interview) JJ I haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on the website. I am a shop guy. I had a website as early as 1995, before Honda and Harley Davidson, for my bikes. The problem I had back then was when customers ordered a bike, I never actually met the customer a lot of the time. I guess if you order from Brownells, you may not need to have human contact, but I don’t like that. One thing I absolutely hate is getting a recording when I call anywhere for information and I will probably just hang up, if I do. I think I’m going to go back to hand-written receipts and personal updates. I like the human-to-human interaction, customer to creator, if you will. I like people to send emails and ask questions or call the shop. I’ll answer the phone. ASJ
Dave Wilson is an amazing freelance photographer and was kind enough to work with me during the Jesse James interview. He painstakingly created the images I wanted to portray to the readers; the workshop, the atmosphere, the products. I wanted you to feel like you were actually there and Dave did a great job.
Originally from Scotland, Dave lives near Dripping Springs, Texas. Dave uses new imaging techniques created by digital workflow. Many of these techniques blend multiple exposures to render a single image, which would be impossible to create using conventional, single-exposure methods. This form of processing allows deep shadow and bright detail to be captured while accentuating texture, detail and the play of light over the subject. This results in an appealing yet intangibly different atmosphere to his images. You can visit his website at davewilsonphotography.com.
Here are some 1911s that Jesse makes:
Interview by Danielle Breteau * Photographs by Dave Wilson Photography