STORY AND PHOTOS BY FRANK JARDIM
With the slogan “Stackin’ ’em deep and sellin’ ’em cheap!”, Centerfire
Systems, Inc. in central Kentucky is known as a leading value retailer among enthusiasts of all shooting sports and vintage military firearms. In fact, the company is the go to source for nearly all things AK-47 for
the home-build hobbyist.
Company founder Mike Davis was a bargain hunter extraordinaire and got into selling firearms as a side job after seeing one change hands twice
at a local flea market, netting the middleman a quick $20. In the mid-
1980s, Davis’s buying savvy and hard work put him in a unique position to take advantage of a rapid succession of great opportunities, beginning with the influx of astonishingly inexpensive, and high-quality, Chinese SKS rifles.
He knew from experience that gun show buyers characteristically spent upwards of $500 on a firearm, but rarely bought more than one new gun
a year. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to buy more guns; they just didn’t have enough disposable income.
Davis determined that the imported SKS rifles could be packaged with 100 rounds of ammunition and a few accessories and still sell for around $100 – an offer just about everyone could afford and hardly anyone could
pass up. Customers couldn’t get enough of them and he made $20 on each sale. In 1985, Davis established Centerfire Systems Inc., and soon afterward, a second company, Advanced Technology Inc. (ATI), to make molded plastic sporting and tactical stocks for the SKS rifle.
In those early years, there were a lot of deals to be found on imported
military surplus and firearms:
Norinco AKs, MAK 90s, Russian Makarov and Chinese Tokarev pistols, Mosin Nagants, Egyptian Hakim and Swedish Ljungman rifles, magazines, parts, and what amounted to a mountain of surplus ammunition and accoutrements. By keeping his prices low and margins small, Davis moved volumes of product and the business grew. Davis’s son-in-law, Shane Coe, took over Centerfire Systems’ operations as owner in 2004 and Davis sold his plastics molding company in 2008.
WHEN IT COMES to rooting out bargains and identifying value, Shane Coe was cut from the same cloth as his father-in-law and the business continued to grow. Coe readily admits that he’s actually not much of a shooter or hunter. His thrill comes from the hunt for the deals that let Centerfire Systems deliver real value to their customers. Coe still finds caches of surplus dating back before World War I, stashed away decades ago. His quests have taken him to some surreal places.
Back in the late ’80s, he would make mid-January visits to a towering
brick 19th century locomotive repair shop that Vermont-based Century Arms used as their warehouse. Coe found that he could have the run of
the place at that time of year because no one else wanted to be there in the bitter cold of a Vermont winter.
The largely unlit and completely unheated ancient structure was packed with tons of military surplus just waiting to be rediscovered, but it was so cold that condensation that dripped from the ceiling turned to snowflakes before hitting the floor! For Coe, it doesn’t matter where the deal is or if it’s big or small; if it represents value he can pass
on to the customer, he’ll explore it.
When I visited Centerfire Systems in August, staffers were cleaning,
checking headspace, and grading hundreds of pre-1898 Turkish Army Mauser rifles they had procured when the “Golden Age” importer Springfield Sporters closed their doors for good last year. Reworked in the 1930s to chamber 7.92x57mm at Ankara arsenal, the rifles had been warehoused since the 1960s and are rich with the history of the Ottoman Empire. These Model 1893 Johnny Turks have seen their hundredth birthday and they show their age.
Their once blued or polished bright steel now wears a mellow grey patina. Since these Mausers were originally built before 1898, they can be shipped direct to the customer for $180 with no Federal Firearms License transfer needed. Additionally, for an extra $20, Centerfire will “hand-select” a betterthan-average rifle for you. Older gun collectors will automatically look upon any “hand-select” charge as a scam to get a little extra money out of the customer for shipping just-the-next-one-on-the-pile. Coe understands this, which is why he ensures that the whole lot is inspected and sorted before any are sold. “If you
pay extra,” Coe says, “you’re going to get that extra value knowing that your rifle is headspaced within specified tolerances and was among the prettier belles at the ball.”
Another one of Coe’s amazing recent finds are thousands of Brazilian M1908 Mauser bayonets. Pulled from service in the 1950s, they were
packed in grease and crated up, brass mounted leather scabbards and all. A large wooden surplus crate of them sits on the retail store’s floor, along with a roll of paper towels, so buyers can clean, inspect and select their own for just $50 each. I picked one at random and wiped it off to find a near perfect, untarnished blade. A century old Mauser bayonet in very good shape with its scabbard for only $50 is an outstanding and totally unexpected value in 2019.
ONE OF THE largest product groups where Coe still sees tremendous value for the consumer is the AK-47 parts and accessories market. The earlier importations of hundreds of thousands of AK variant parts kits from Eastern European demilled guns has spawned a rise in domestic AK component manufacturing. Home-build hobbyists can now use these American made parts and accessories to turn those foreign parts kits into USC 922r-compliant semiautomatic sporting arms. Despite the ready availability of American-made compliance parts and build tools, the majority of AK parts kits sold are likely to go unbuilt because the purchaser is intimidated by certain facets of the project.
Populating the barrel (installing rear sight base, gas block and front sight base) and installing and correctly headspacing the barrel in the front trunnion can be particularly alarming to the neophyte home-builder. To address this all-too-common obstacle, Coe offers some AK parts kits where these moderately difficult yet safety-critical processes have already been done.
For example, Centerfire Systems has brand-new-production, semiauto, Romanian PM-63 AK-47 parts kits, with a factory-new Romanian chrome-lined barrel already populated and correctly headspaced for $599.99.With plans to offer their other AK-variant parts kits the same way, there’s no excuse for not building your own semiauto AK rifle or pistol.
Along with a large assortment of AK parts, magazines and accessories, Centerfire also offers a wide range of stamped AK receivers from Kalashnikov USA, DDI, IO, High Standard-Interarms, and Ohio Ordnance Works. All are priced from $29.99 to $69.99. Some even have the trigger guard and magazine release already installed. There are gunsmith special bargains too, starting at only $9.99 (if you can tolerate the fairly easy tasks of cleaning up some rust, hardening the pin holes and installing the center support rivet yourself).
These are the kinds of great buys that make the Centerfire Systems website so much fun to explore. You never know what bargain you’ll find.
Customers who provide an e-mail find out about the newest deals first:
an unissued Russian M40 steel helmet for $39.99, new shotguns for $120
each, Sightmark red-dot sights going for less than cost at $100, Persian
Army Mauser rifles from the 1930s for $399.99, a 2,500-round brick of
Armscor .22 LR ammo for $100, etc.
ORIGINALLY A MAIL-ORDER company, Centerfire Systems went online in 2007 and then opened their retail gun store for the surrounding Lexington, Kentucky, market in 2015.
Five customer service representatives are available six days a week to assist with customers’ orders. You won’t get lost in a frustrating labyrinth of automated phone prompts here. A real person picks up the phone every time to get you the help or answers you need. The retail store is adjacent to the phone bank for additional technical assistance as well. Qualified Glock and AR armorers staff the gun shop. Their
off-site warehouses are stacked floor to ceiling with thousands of different inventory items.
If you find something on their website that you want to check out in person, you’ll want to call 48 hours in advance before you visit the store so they have time to bring samples to the showroom.
“These are great times for the customer,” Coe says. “Gun sales have
slowed dramatically since the election and prices have dropped accordingly, which lets us make great deals on firearms, ammunition, magazines, military surplus and tactical gear.
Centerfire Systems can pass those values and savings on to our customers at prices lower than many of them have ever seen.”
Check out centerfiresystems.com, sign up for their e-mail sale alerts, or call (800) 950-1231.