TNW Firearms: Heritage, Innovation and Protecting the Troops from IEDs
How Tim Bero went from making floppy disks to manufacturing semiauto .50-caliber machineguns, helping save Humvee crews’ lives in the Second Gulf War and now, Multi-Caliber Survival Rifles, Pistols, and more.Story by Frank Jardim Photos from TNW Firearms
TNW Firearms first made a name for itself among American shooters 20 years ago in a really big way with a really big gun. That gun was a semi-automatic, full-size replica of the military M2 HB .50-caliber heavy machinegun, a weapon that’s seen continuous use in all theaters of war from the 1930s to the present.
That sexy belt-fed beast, known affectionately as the Ma Deuce in military circles, weighs a hefty 83 pounds without the tripod. By the way, even Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t fire one unless it’s on some sort of solid mounting.
The Vernonia, Oregon-based company’s founder and president, Tim Bero, never expected their semiauto Ma Deuce to set industry sales records, and it didn’t. A full-auto M2 HB is a National Firearms Act-controlled machinegun, which puts it out of reach of most shooters in cost and registration requirements.
TNW’s semiauto M2 costs about a quarter of the full-auto gun with no more ownership restrictions than a 20-gauge Mossberg 500 shotgun. TNW put the dream of owning and shooting this historic M2 HB in reach – sort of. If you already had its massive M3 tripod – a thousand-dollar item in itself – you still needed to get a supply of links, a belting tool to load the ammunition in the links, and the ammo itself. Military surplus .50 BMG generally costs $2.50 a round on the low end.
Realistically, the TNW M2 HB was a luxury item. But when has the reality of beer pockets ever stopped anyone from dreaming of indulging their champagne tastes? With the M2 HB, the reputation that TNW rather quickly established was that they were willing and able to make dreams come true for historic military weapons enthusiasts within a relatively new niche of the firearms industry: convenient-to-own, semiautomatic copies of famous machineguns. It wasn’t a big niche, but TNW got into it early and did such a high-quality job in engineering and manufacturing that their German MG34, Finnish Suomi and Russian PPSh-41 semiautos had no rivals.
The company’s focus abruptly shifted during the Second Gulf War, when American losses to IED, or improvised explosive device, ambushes began rising in alarming numbers. Unable to beat our troops in a face-to-face fight, the enemy turned to remote detonated roadside bombs and the U.S. Department of Defense asked private industry for an immediate solution to protect vehicle-mounted troops.
Working with a team of other companies and supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, TNW took on a concept of bolt-together transparent armor with integrated gun mounts. TNW did extensive research and development work to create a field-installed transparent armor kit used to protect Humvees and turn the workhorse 5-ton cargo truck into a formidable convoy escort, bristling with .50-caliber machineguns like a World War II Flying Fortress on wheels.
With that life-saving military project completed, Tim Bero again turned the company back to the civilian market and a new life-saving mission that culminated in 2009, when TNW introduced a completely new firearm of Bero’s own design and inspired by his love of history and aviation. The idea began with the dual-caliber M6 Aircrew Survival Weapon that was standard Air Force issue from the early 1950s to the early 1970s.
Chambered in .22 Hornet and .410 gauge, the M6 was light, compact and adequate for small game foraging, but nearly useless for self-defense or large game Bero set out to take the concept of the go-anywhere, compact, lightweight, multicaliber survival gun to its limit.
In 2013, and with five new patents, TNW introduced their Aero Survival Rifle (ASR) and soon afterward, a pistol version. Small enough to pack behind the car seat, but capable of taking any game animal, including a bear, the versatile ASR was also a formidable self-defense carbine. In my interview with Bero, I found his path to the firearms industry especially relevant to our present times.
Frank Jardim – Prior to becoming a gun maker in 1996, you were a successful Silicon Valley automation engineer, in addition to manufacturing those floppy disks we used to store all our data on back in the day. On the surface, that looks like it might involve a pretty big pay cut. What drew you to the gun industry?
Tim Bero – It was the desire to protect our firearms heritage from Bill Clinton, when you get down to it. I started working in the automation industry for a big private firm manufacturing the machines to make the 5-inch floppy disks when I was a 20-year-old undergraduate majoring in aeronautics at San Jose University. I had my own company on the side and when the place I worked for got bought out, I began designing and building the machines to make the more advanced 3.5-inch floppy disks myself. Since I made the machines, it made sense to make the disks too, so I had two operations going on at once. It was a great business until President Clinton allowed the Chinese to dump dirt-cheap disks on the American market. When your own government is looking to put you out of business, you have to decide whether it’s worth it to fight, or just move on.
I always loved shooting and hunting and enjoyed firearms and firearms history as a hobby. Like most everyone with those interests, I found the Clinton administration’s aggressive efforts to curtail the Second Amendment alarming. Younger shooters may not remember the Clinton “Assault Weapons” ban, which was basically a 10-year attempt to eliminate semiautomatic rifles. In the early 1990s, you could buy a new, imported SKS rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammo for a package-deal price of $150. That deal was how huge numbers of new people discovered the shooting hobby. My first product was a semiauto version of the American M1919A4 machinegun developed by John Browning. I made it for fun when I stumbled into a thousand demilled parts kits. Historically, this weapon played a huge role in World War II and the Korean War. The semiauto was a great success and we did semiauto versions of other historic World War II machineguns as the former Soviet satellite countries unloaded their 50-year-old Cold War small arms stockpiles. This got me into the import business. I would buy the complete vintage machineguns in Europe, import them into a special Customs-controlled foreign-trade zone in Portland, and demilitarize the guns under Customs and ATF supervision. In this way, I was able to minimize the damage done to the parts while planning our semiautomatic manufacturing process. We wanted to preserve as much of the historical gun as we could and tried to save every piece, less the receiver, that we didn’t want to make again from scratch. If you had the guns demilled in Europe, there’s no telling what you would end up with, which can really screw up your production line.
FJ What were you thinking of when you set out to make the perfect survival carbine, the ASR?
TB The crux of the challenge of designing a survival rifle is getting the most important features into as light and small a package as possible so you can pack it with you all the time. When a person finds themselves in a survival situation, be it a plane crash in the wilderness or a violent riot in a major urban area, the “survival” gun they left back home in their gun safe because it was too big is not going to help them stay alive. My plan for the ASR was a multi-caliber, semiautomatic, simple-to-maintain, strong, reliable, aluminum-alloy, takedown, pistol-caliber carbine that you can put together or take apart in less than a minute, but with enough designed-in precision that your zero is consistently repeatable with no need for sighting in. The ASR is a gun you can put together and take apart again and again and not have to worry about your bullet impacts shifting all over the place.
FJ How did you get it to return to zero consistently?
TB That’s actually one of my patents. The steel barrel and barrel nut have mating tapered circumferences that are self-aligning. Imagine a traffic cone inside another traffic cone. The barrel doesn’t need any other alignment than that. During heavy shooting, we noticed the ratchet on the barrel nut can get backed off a bit, especially if it’s halfway between notches, but the design of the bolt-to-barrel interface is such that the recoil spring pushes the barrel and barrel nut surfaces together. You’ll never have a safety or head space issue. In fact, the bolt to chamber interface is purposely over designed for strength. You never know what type of handloads some off-grid type might cook up with a Lee Loader, right? For an extra measure of safety, I designed the breech to completely enclose the cartridge and bolt face in battery. I probably should patent that too, come to think of it.
FJ Why did you design it around pistol calibers?
TB So it would be a more practically versatile gun. The ASR is not a military combat rifle or a long-range hunting rifle. Centerfire rifle cartridges also require more complex locked-action operating systems. The ASR is actually a true blow-back, but the bolt carrier and recoil spring weight are carefully balanced to work with .17 HMR, .22 LR, .22 Magnum, 9mm, .357 Sig, .40 S&W, 10mm, .45 ACP and .460 Rowland. Depending on what caliber you’re converting to and from, you need at least a barrel and sometimes a magazine, bolt head and trigger group. The trigger group is really a complete lower receiver assembly with grip, trigger, hammer, safety, magazine well and ejector. Three different sizes cover all the calibers. The ASR is designed to use Glockpattern magazines and allows for right or left side ejection and safety activation and the mounting of additional accessory rail on the sides and bottom of the receiver tube. Because all the barrels mount on the same receiver unit, you only need one set of sights.We also thread all our muzzles, rifle and pistol, for suppressor use or installation of the muzzle brake or flash hider of your choice.
FJ What motivated you to make the ASR pistol?
TB It was consumer demand, just like all our products. When I started the company, I always intended to let the consumer tell us what they wanted. They haven’t steered us wrong yet. The ASR carbine has 16-inch barrels and an adjustable buttstock. The ASR pistol has 10-inch barrels and a simple SB Tactical brace slid over its plain, round buffer tube. Otherwise, the two products are the same. A word of warning here is in order. It’s OK to put a 16-inch carbine barrel on the ASR pistol, but if you put the pistol’s 10-inch barrel on the ASR carbine, you just made yourself an SBR. It’s not legal to do that unless you first file the NFA paperwork with the government, pay your $200 for the tax stamp, and most importantly, have the approved paperwork in your hand! Likewise, don’t swap out the pistol’s brace for a stock.
FJ Has the consumer-driven product development model taken you to unexpected places?
TB It has, but you don’t get anywhere telling people what they should want. For example, my vision for the ASR was to keep it really lean and light with no front handguard at all. Well, in addition to an adapter to allow you to mount any aftermarket handguard, we now also make an extended M-Lok forend of our own. Consumer request got us working on a 9mm ASR light carbine. The regular ASR is about 6 pounds. The ASR Lite is under 4 pounds and the lightest semiauto 9mm carbine on the market. It comes with a threaded barrel too. The weight reduction came at the price of strength, so you aren’t going to be seeing adapter kits for this model for heavier calibers. The market thought the ASR would be a great ultralight, take-down, 9mm carbine, so we will make it.
FJ In the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army modified5-ton cargo trucks with guns and armor to protect supply convoys from ambush. TNW did R&D work for a revival of this concept during the Second Iraq War. Can you tell me more about it, or is it classified?
TB It is not classified. With the intensity of insurgent attacks, they found out about it right away. In fact, right after our first test truck got to Iraq, the enemy tested it out by sending a suicide bomber in a carload of ball bearings to blow himself up next to it.
FJ How did it do?
TB They blew it up, but the transparent armored parts and the Kevlar panels made by Waco Composites did well and it showed us where we needed to go to enhance performance. Our part of the project was to develop bolt-on, bulletproof glass shields for the windows and guns that could be installed on Army 5-ton trucks and Humvees in the field. Another company worked up the armor for the vehicle bodies. The standard military 5-ton truck is designed to haul cargo and has no armor protection at all. They were easy to knock out with small arms fire, even after they started to armor the bodies. The enemy would wait on highway overpasses until a truck was in sight and start sniping at the crew. We made bulletproof glass frames, as well as enclosed .50-caliber machinegun shields that looked like something you’d see on a World War II bomber. The trucks mounted one on each corner of the armored truck bed. Our transparent armor had to stop Russian 7.62x54mm AP machinegun rounds and be optically correct so it wouldn’t mess up NVGs [night vision goggles] the crew would use at night. The toughest part of the project was designing the supporting frames for the 3-inch-thick bulletproof glass panels. Bullets have a way of finding their way through weak spots and the supporting frames have to be just as tough as the glass. We did it by using thick aluminum frames faced with a thin plate of high hard steel. The steel would upset the trajectory of the armor-piercing bullets on impact, tipping them just slightly, but destabilizing them enough that when they penetrated in the aluminum, it stopped them cold. The surface of the aluminum looked like the bullets splashed down in it. On the glass, the bullet impacts looked like snowball impacts.
FJ Wouldn’t that obscure the gunner’s view of the target?
TB If the glass took enough hits, it could; but realistically, once the enemy drew the attention of a .50-caliber machinegunner, their time in the fight was about to abruptly end. Keep in mind, each truck had four shielded guns. That’s a huge amount of firepower. One .50-caliber machinegun can take apart whatever it shoots at.
FJ The firearms industry isn’t often recognized for their support of our military, is it?
TB The mainstream media isn’t interested in stories about the gun industry unless they can be used to vilify it. People in our industry don’t support the military for good press anyway. They do it because it’s the right thing to do and they have the unique skills to do it well. The gun truck project was so urgent, we completely shut down all commercial manufacturing operations for a year to focus on it. No guns, no parts – nothing for the civilian market until we finished the R&D. Our troops were getting killed and wounded almost every week and the politicians weren’t convinced they even needed armored gun truck escorts. Fortunately, the project had an advocate in Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter from San Diego. He was USMC in Vietnam. In six months we had the first prototype in the field and then we had them on display in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. so he could argue the case for them in Congress.
Small companies like ours worked out all the R&D and testing of the designs so the DOD could have a big contractor mass-produce them. I was amazed at the bureaucratic obstacles the government put in its own way. For example, the ATF did not allow importation of the Russian military armor-piercing ammunition that we needed to test our armor. We had to have this ammunition or we couldn’t do the R&D. You would have thought the DOD could have just had a soldier in Iraq pick up a few boxes off the battlefield and mail them to us. at was apparently impossible to achieve in any meaningfully quick time frame.
To do our testing properly, we had to reverse-engineer the Russian ammunition from its velocity and performance specifications and actually make it in-house. Meanwhile, troops are getting blown up and shot up on the highways. We have never worked on a project with more passion and urgency, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
FJ Have you done any work for the DOD since then?
TB We have, but not to the extent we had to close down civilian manufacturing. Lately we’ve been making weapon training simulators that are exactly the same size and weight as the real firearms, but fully wired with computer-controlled sensors and electro-mechanical devices to recreate real-life operation and malfunctions. The computer monitors and reacts to everything the trainee does, right or wrong. This allows them to get a lot of experience handling the weapons properly so they can make the most of their limited time on the firing range with live ammunition. We make a .50-caliber machinegun and Mark 19 belt-fed 40mm grenade launcher for the military.
For the Department of Homeland Security, we make an MP5 submachinegun, M4 carbine and Beretta M9 pistol that actually fire plastic bullets so they can be used in force-on-force tactical training. These guns take a tremendous beating and we had to make beefed-up receivers for the M4s so they wouldn’t get broken. This is something we can do at TNW to ensure the people that protect us are as well trained as they can be.
All this production and R&D doesn’t happen in a vacuum, either. It takes the help of others in the firearms and defense community, hardworking employees and the support of the family. My two sons, Shawn and Chris, have really stepped up these past years and taken over. They have some new products that they are working on and I’m very excited for the next generation of ideas. Their talents and ideas will bring some technology I never thought possible.
Editor’s note: For more information, visit tnwfirearms.com.
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