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