ZE­ROED IN

JIM HODGE TURNED HIS OVER­SEAS CON­TRACT­ING EX­PE­RI­ENCE INTO A BUSI­NESS MAK­ING THE MOST PRAC­TI­CAL AR RI­FLES AVAIL­ABLE

Recoil - - Contents - BY JOE NEUROTH PHO­TOS BY JAKE BLICK

Jim Hodge

En­gi­neer. De­signer. Mad sci­en­tist. Jim Hodge has been called a few of those as well as some other de­scrip­tors be­sides. The fact is, there’s no one word that can ac­cu­rately de­scribe Jim Hodge. When asked, he refers to him­self as just a “nor­mal guy.” How­ever, the name Hodge is syn­ony­mous with firearms in­no­va­tion.

As the owner of Hodge De­fense Sys­tems, he’s pushed the edges of the en­ve­lope of an in­dus­try that’s any­thing but in­no­va­tive th­ese days. His con­tri­bu­tion is the Hodge De­fense AU MOD 2 ri­fle. Just when peo­ple thought Eu­gene Stoner’s clas­sic ri­fle de­sign was pushed to its ma­te­rial lim­its, Hodge con­tin­ued to ques­tion in­dus­try stan­dards, ul­ti­mately find­ing a ma­te­rial that had never be­fore been used in mod­ern firearms.

The ma­te­rial, alu­minum lithium, is lighter and stronger than the 7075-T6 alu­minum com­monly used in many AR-15 re­ceivers avail­able to­day. While pre­vi­ously un­used in ri­fle man­u­fac­tur­ing, alu­minum lithium is heav­ily used in the aero­space, space ex­plo­ration, and For­mula 1 auto rac­ing worlds as a re­place­ment for ti­ta­nium parts. With an in­creased mar­ket de­mand for lighter pro­file weapons, it’s no sur­prise that Hodge ri­fles are hard to find. We re­cently had a chance to sit down with the un­der­stated Hodge and talk about life, lib­erty, and his ri­fle.

RE­COIL: Were you into firearms at a young age?

Jim Hodge: Yeah, when I was grow­ing up in the coun­try I rode my bike around a bunch and just about ev­ery­where I went I had a .22 ri­fle slung on my back. I hunted and camped when I was a kid. I can re­mem­ber go­ing to the small-town con­ve­nience store to play ar­cade games and prop­ping the ri­fle up in the cor­ner. I was also into golf, foot­ball, and base­ball. I was re­ally into model build­ing; it sounds dorky and geeky, but I love build­ing

and cre­at­ing. I was also the kid who my par­ents would hide tech­nol­ogy from so I wouldn’t take it apart.

You were a tin­kerer grow­ing up? JH: Yes.

Is that the rea­son you started Hodge De­fense? So you could tinker more? JH: Yes … I’m 50. I have had my real jobs. This is still a real job, and I take it very se­ri­ously. I’m try­ing to build an em­pire not in the way most peo­ple think is a gun com­pany, but in the way that my kids can in­herit one day or leave a legacy. Other than be­ing a good dad, be­ing a good hus­band, and good fol­lower of Christ, I still want to leave my mark in the in­dus­try that I’m pas­sion­ate about. I’ve been around this in­dus­try for a long, long, long time.

What gave you the idea to start

Hodge De­fense Sys­tems?

JH: Ac­tu­ally, it was my wife’s idea, she gets all the credit on that one. Liv­ing the life of a gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor, I was gone for many hol­i­days and birth­days; there­fore, my wife wanted me to stay home more. As an end user, com­pa­nies of­ten sought out my opin­ion on var­i­ous prod­ucts. I would share with them my opin­ion whether they used them or not. With that ex­pe­ri­ence within the in­dus­try I learned quite a bit about how prod­ucts were de­vel­oped and pro­cessed from start to fin­ish. That knowl­edge helped me to­ward my goal of want­ing to build the best com­bat­ive ri­fle in the in­dus­try.

How did you go from be­ing a gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor/con­sul­tant to start­ing your own com­pany? There had to be some kind of learn­ing curve? JH: The re­la­tion­ships I formed were a good barom­e­ter for be­ing in this in­dus­try.

What gave you the in­spi­ra­tion to bring your prod­ucts to mar­ket?

JH: A lot of those ideas came from me think­ing about if I was king for a day, and could im­ple­ment what­ever fea­tures and ma­te­rial spec­i­fi­ca­tions, and I also wanted to make the best com­bat­ive ri­fle I could. That’s where a su­per

sturdy rail, parts made from bar stock tool steel, a very long bar­rel life, and sup­pres­sor ready with no ad­justable gas block came from for the ri­fles.

Not only did I want those fea­tures, but I also wanted tight tol­er­ances on ev­ery­thing that gets put on my prod­ucts. One thing that re­ally both­ers me is when you pick up a gun and it rat­tles. [Picks up a MOD 2 ri­fle]. No­tice this gun doesn’t rat­tle or wob­ble when you move it around. I just wanted to take Hodge De­fense and make the best prod­uct I could pe­riod. I don’t care how much it costs to make, if it’s ex­pen­sive to my con­sumer then hope­fully they’ll un­der­stand and want to buy it.

How did you come to make alu­minum lithium re­ceivers?

JH: I learned about alu­minum lithium from my friend Kel Whe­lan. He told me Al­coa had been work­ing with some new al­loys that were lighter and strong than the con­ven­tional 7075 al­loys in the con­ven­tional re­ceiver groups that are on the mar­ket to­day. I started do- ing re­search and mak­ing phone calls. Be­fore I knew it, I was talk­ing with the VP of Al­coa De­fense, and he pointed me in the right di­rec­tion. I was pretty lucky with how it all turned out. From there, we es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ships with the tech­ni­cal branch and en­gi­neers from Ar­conic.

Your guns aren’t cheap. What do you have to say to peo­ple when they com­plain about the cost of your ri­fle?

JH: I tell them my guns aren’t just parts builds. I am not just an as­sem­bler of parts; ev­ery part that gets put into my guns are care­fully se­lected and spec­i­fied on how I want them to per­form. I also take the time to vet all of my prod­ucts, I take care­ful se­lec­tion of prod­uct se­lec­tion, and prod­uct de­sign. For ex­am­ple, it took me a full year to de­velop my rail. Not only did I pay at­ten­tion to the ma­te­ri­als, but I also took the hu­man en­gi­neer­ing as­pect into ac­count.

I paid at­ten­tion to how peo­ple pick up a ri­fle. They typ­i­cally pick it up close to the bot­tom of the rail near the re­ceiver, so I made it pleas­ant to pick up and took out all of the square and sharp an­gles, to get pos­i­tive tac­tile re­sponse. You’ll no­tice that my guns have a great bal­ance when you pick them up. I knew that some guys were go­ing to put pan­els on the rail, so I didn’t want it to be so big you couldn’t put your hand around it. It’s the lit­tle things; check out the trig­ger guard, I put a bevel there for a rea­son, to help it feel nat­u­ral like a high cut on a 1911. It’s the al­loys, pro­cesses, and the ma­chine time that are used that help to de­fine the cost of the sys­tem.

A lot of peo­ple re­fer to you as a mad sci­en­tist be­cause of the dif­fer­ent kind of ma­te­ri­als, the de­sign process, and mar­ket­ing. What would your re­sponse to that be?

JH: I’m not mad; I’m happy. I’m not a sci­en­tist, heck I didn’t even grad­u­ate col­lege. I’m not afraid to play with stuff that hasn’t been done be­fore. I am def­i­nitely not an en­gi­neer. I am just a nor­mal guy and fam­ily man. Hodge De­fense is more like an ar­chi­tec­tural firm. We do more de­sign work and re­search than we do build work, some of which are not ex­clu­sively for Hodge De­fense. It’s just eas­ier to ex­plain to peo­ple. And I’ll tell you what I’ve learned, though, is peo­ple can be as creative as they want to be, but when it comes to ma­chin­ing that cre­ativ­ity and ef­fi­ciency, hav­ing it work, and still be bombproof, de­vel­ops a whole new train of creative thought. When you ac­tu­ally are try­ing to work around the lim­i­ta­tions of ma­chin­ing, or I think about some­thing, I think about the ma­chin­ing process for it.

You use the slo­gan “if you get it, you get it” on your ad­ver­tis­ing and so­cial me­dia, what does that mean?

JH: It’s a dou­ble-edged sword re­ally. Some peo­ple won’t un­der­stand it, but in the terms of my gun if you buy one and then you love it, then hope­fully you’ll un­der­stand. I could sit here all day and tell you the specs, fea­tures, tol­er­ances, the dif­fer­ent things that I do to my prod­ucts, and you would ei­ther ap­pre­ci­ate it or you wouldn’t.

You have unique ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing in re­la­tion to other man­u­fac­tur­ers in mar­ket­ing and so­cial me­dia? Why are you do­ing it a lit­tle dif­fer­ent? JH: When we first started we didn’t want to be an­other “me too” brand that was wast­ing im­agery of dudes stack­ing up on a door or rap­pelling out of a lit­tle bird with their nun chucks. Folks I know in the in­dus­try and guys I have worked with have all seen and done that, it’s over-played. To me, that doesn’t sell a gun.

As far as the quirk­i­ness and the weird­ness of my so­cial me­dia and my ad­ver­tis­ing, we wanted to do some­thing that was a lit­tle more Amer­i­cana. We have a pretty dark sense of hu­mor here at Hodge De­fense and

“I THINK IT’S TIME TO CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT THE NEXT LEVEL

OF WEAPON DE­VEL­OP­MENT.Ó

we try to ap­peal to our au­di­ence via a sense of fun and a lit­tle bit of lev­ity. I just rather have some fun and en­joy what I do, and whether they buy my prod­uct or not, I’m OK with that. A buddy whose hu­mor is akin to mine helps me with the graph­ics, tone, and spirit with our ads. My friend Kel is the artist be­hind the feel of our so­cial me­dia. It’s se­ri­ous enough build­ing what I’m build­ing. You still need to have a lit­tle bit of a fun out­let.

You have been in­volved in the firearms world for quite some time, have you seen it change that much since you started?

JH: When I first started dab­bling on the AR plat­form, there were less than 10 AR man­u­fac­tur­ers, now there are hun­dreds. There are many man­u­fac­tur­ers in the in­dus­try now that source from the same ven­dors. With that, there are many cus­tomers who choose brands that don’t un­der­stand the parts that are com­mod­ity-based. Tech­nol­ogy has changed so much that qual­ity and ac­cu­racy of ma­chin­ing has im­proved com­pared to the past when it was eas­ier to find dif­fer­ences in brands. I know there is more money tied up in ad­ver­tis­ing now than be­fore due to the use of so­cial me­dia, print, and pseudo-celebri­ties to de­velop brand aware­ness. I know those dif­fer­ent mar­ket­ing ap­proaches are in­flu­enc­ing how con­sumers choose what brand of gun to buy. Do you take a chance and to stop and look around and see what other great ideas have been de­vel­oped?

JH: Ab­so­lutely! I am al­ways learn­ing new things, and I will al­ways have ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the work of oth­ers. I have many ri­fles and a lot of prod­ucts from my di­rect com­peti­tors in which I re­spect. One ex­am­ple of that would be Ki­netic De­vel­op­ment Group. Nate Murr is do­ing some pretty great things over there with some of the con­cepts that he is bring­ing to mar­ket, as well as many other folks. I have al­ways re­spected Marty Bor­don at Badger Or­di­nance as a men­tor and a friend in which I have im­mense re­spect for.

Know­ing what you know now, what would you say is im­por­tant when you started Hodge De­fense?

JH: Re­la­tion­ships, they are very im­por­tant in this in­dus­try. I truly care about what peo­ple think about me and my brand. Do­ing the right

thing in con­junc­tion with my ven­dors, per­sonal, and busi­ness re­la­tion­ships, I feel strength­ens ev­ery­one in­volved. I have learned that I can­not please every­body be­cause that is be­yond my in­flu­ence, though I can con­trol my rep­u­ta­tion with those I do busi­ness with. I think it’s im­por­tant to call peo­ple and chat and see how they are do­ing, not just call them and then ask them for some­thing at the end of the phone call. It’s im­por­tant for me to show them I care about them as peo­ple, as much I care about them as as­so­ci­ates. Based on the re­la­tion­ships I have formed over the years, it has al­lowed me to get hon­est feed­back on prod­uct de­vel­op­ment, busi­ness strat­egy, and an ul­ti­mate san­ity check. Th­ese are all im­por­tant to the suc­cess of any young com­pany.

Hodge worked in more than half a dozen coun­tries with the most time spent in Afghanistan. Right bot­tom: Hodge and fel­low con­trac­tor Clay Richard­son en­joy an evening out at the Gan­damak Lodge in Kabul while work­ing over­seas in 2006.

Above: Hodge came of age in the early ’80s and de­vel­oped a taste for fun and risk be­hind at the han­dle­bars of a Mon­goose BMX bike.Right (clock­wise from top left): Liv­ing with a ri­fle 24/7, Hodge’s ex­pe­ri­ence as an over­seas con­trac­tor from2005 to about 2013 gave him a good idea what a com­bat car­bine should be.

Above: Hodge’s de­sire to ad­vance small arms led him to pi­o­neer the use of Al­coa De­fense’s light­weight alu­minum lithium in AR re­ceivers as he con­tin­ues to look for other top flight ma­te­ri­als.

Above right: Hodge es­chews the darker side of firearm in­dus­try mar­ket­ing as ev­i­denced in this be­hind-thescenes im­age from a cat­a­log shoot with friends. “I want to be the Gary Lar­son of gun mar­ket­ing,” says Hodge.

Above: Hodge took in­spi­ra­tion for his com­pany’s logo from the pe­ri­odic ta­ble. “I’m a nerd that way,” he says.

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