Out on the horizon, halfway to Cuba, jagged streaks of lightning illuminate the still waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Inside a Key West resort, a group of men congregate outside a private dining room. Several have the noticeable bulge of barely concealed firearms. A few are dressed in pastels approximating the look of the 1980s television show Miami Vice.
SilencerCo aims for the younger, tattooed X Games crowd.
But these tools of combat are being target-marketed to an unexpected crowd. Imagine a New York City coffeehouse. The customers are in their 20s and ironically tattooed. They sip fair-trade coffee and stare at a line of silvery MacBooks. Now imagine a large percentage of them armed with concealed weapons. Sure, it’s an unlikely scenario. But if middle-class kids raised on first-person-shooter games such as Call of Duty were to eventually transition from online to actual firearms, it might not be far off. The gun debate tends to be defined by the fringes: bird-sanctuary-occupying “patriots” on one side, angry Birkenstock-wearing vegans on the other. The rest of us…well, we’re probably more in the middle than we might admit. We abhor mass shootings, but we don’t object to a whole lot of gunplay in our movies. We love animals, but we eat tons of meat. So when a company like SilencerCo sets its sights on so-called hipsters and racks up more than 250,000 Instagram followers while indie-rock darling Ryan Adams has fewer than 100,000, all bets are off.
If you think gun silencers are illegal, you’re not alone. Now often referred to as “suppressors,” they’re legal in 41 states. That said, they remain intensely regulated as part of the National Firearms Act of 1934, alongside machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and rifles. Most admit the inclusion of silencers in that list has much to do with a combination of Depression-era poaching fears and a history of bad press that has marked them, according to the American Suppressor Association, as “assassins’ tools.”
Advocates for suppressors, including the folks at SilencerCo, argue that the devices merely protect the hearing of the nearly one in three Americans who legally own and shoot firearms. In addition, SilencerCo’s artfully designed website touts an increase in accuracy due to less noise and recoil. The company has mounted a combined political and marketing campaign called “The Hearing Protection Act” that includes a #FightTheNoise hashtag along with photos of men, women and children with duct tape over their mouths holding suppressed firearms. It calls fellow suppressor advocates “the Suppressed”—a term the company has trademarked. And while the campaign undoubtedly makes some valid points regarding logic and legality, it all evokes a victim mentality not dissimilar from much of the so-called patriot movement.
No matter where you stand on the firearms divide and the role of the federal government, the fact is, even the best silencers are far from silent. A suppressed gun still sounds very much like a gun, just not ear-shattering. The notion that you could shoot someone at a crowded cocktail party and go unnoticed is absurd. Knox Williams, president of the American Suppressor Association, an industry-sponsored pro-silencer advocacy group, is not pleased with this misconception. “It’s guilt by association,” he says. “James Bond has done us no favors. The only times I’ve seen suppressors used in movies and television is by assassins. That’s the only time most people have seen a suppressor, and they think it will sound like that. But the sound effects they use have no basis in reality.”
As a result, purchasing a suppressor, even in states where it is legal, is far from simple. The process involves arduous paperwork, a signature from law enforcement, a hefty $200 federal tax and a waiting period of four months or more. Regardless, suppressors are steadily gaining in popularity, and no one sells more of them than upstart SilencerCo out of Utah. It does so by deliberately ignoring almost every marketing convention of the existing firearms industry.
SilencerCo’s Key West event delivers the requisite product specs, but that’s where similarities to your typical industry presentation end. Each product is introduced with its own state-of-the-art video featuring atmospheric postrock (think the Friday Night Lights soundtrack) and production values rivaling any action-sports company. SilencerCo creative director Michael Shumway explains the tactic: “I think getting a younger demographic involved is something the firearms industry as a whole is ignoring. We hire people from industries that are more progressive. The influences that drive us are not other firearms companies. Action sports are a big one and, as far as technology goes, someone like Apple because of the speed at which they innovate.”
The quest to connect with a younger demographic has benefited from recent high-profile product placements. The company may bristle at the depiction of silencers-suppressors as assassins’ tools, but its popular Osprey model has annihilated zombies on The Walking Dead and figures prominently in the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation. SilencerCo products have also appeared in a number of video games, including the hugely popular Call of Duty. Shumway insists none of it has been pay-to-play. “We work with a lot of the prop houses in Los Angeles,” he says. “A lot of movies contact us directly because they think our products look cool. We also work directly with a lot of video game studios when they’re developing games.”
While most of the firearms industry continues to embrace the aesthetic of “tacticool,” fetishizing military special ops and law enforcement, SilencerCo aims for the decidedly younger, tattooed X Games crowd. A recent video has extreme mountain biker Cam Zink riding through the desert, executing aerial maneuvers and firing a suppressed automatic rifle. The company’s website also features photos of hipster DJ Steve Aoki visiting the Utah facility and shooting an assortment of guns.
That’s all part of a strategy that Christian Lowe, editor of Shooting Sports Retailer magazine and a longtime firearms writer, finds fascinating. “It’s intriguing to me that this company is fully embracing beards and skinny jeans,” he says. “It’s an interesting tactic for them to place themselves as a company in the firearms market. As someone who follows the industry, I don’t see a risk of them alienating anyone. I do wonder if the demographic they’re targeting is actually going to buy suppressors.”
Following the Key West dinner presentation is a lavish party on the beach complete with a retro 1980s band, a sullen alligator posing for pictures, an open bar and complimentary massages. Amid it all, sitting on opposite ends of a large sectional, are Jep Robertson of the TV show Duck Dynasty and Chris Cheng, winner of the History Channel’s shooting show Top Shot. Cheng, who is Asian and openly gay, lives in San Francisco with his husband.
“One of the things I’ve discovered over the past few years is what I call closeted gun owners,” Cheng says. “There are a lot of people exactly like me who are afraid to reveal this part of their lives. For a lot of my tech and foodie friends who enjoy shooting, it’s something I still see them wanting to keep under the table. I would hope that everyone would come out as a gun owner, and I would also hope that everyone would come out as gay. But depending on where you live or where you work, there could be negative consequences.”
The festivities on the beach are abruptly interrupted by a torrential downpour that sends attendees running for shelter. A short time later the rain stops and the party resumes. A chorus of male voices soon echoes throughout the resort, singing along enthusiastically with the band. By morning, multiple reports have the female lead singer and a male backup singer frolicking naked in the pool.
If SilencerCo is charting an unorthodox path in the firearms world, it’s an ethos that ties directly to its founding. While most gun-related companies are at least several decades old and deeply rooted in military culture, SilencerCo was started eight years ago by a musician and a photographer.
Josh Waldron and Jonathon Shults are childhood friends. Waldron worked as a professional photographer, snapping images for publications including Newsweek, Outdoor Life and Forbes. Shults was a bass player and a recording studio engineer. “We both come from the belief that if you’re going to do something in life, you should enjoy it,” Waldron says. “Which is why we got into the creative world. But in Utah it’s hard to make a living doing art, so we were looking for another opportunity. We’ve always been passionate about firearms, and even though we were artists, we’ve always shot guns.”
They say it was originally supposed to be a hobby. They got hold of a silencer one day, and sound engineer Shults became intrigued by the mechanics. “I’ve been a tinkerer since I was a kid,” he explains. “In fact, that’s where the engineering side of music came in. I was fascinated by the silencer. It’s similar. You’re dealing with sound—how to get the explosion to be quiet. We took it apart, and my mind just started clicking.” Waldron offers an additional explanation: “Something about Jonathon that a lot of people might not know is that he’s a genius. Literally.”
Two factors moved the endeavor from hobby to full-fledged business. Along with Shults’s quick mastery of the mechanics was a shared perception that the existing competition was vulnerable. “I thought, you know what, man? These guys suck,” says Shults. “I told Josh, ‘Dude, with your background and my background we can have a real company and not just something we’re gonna do in the garage.’ ” When they started in 2008, they say, approximately 18,000 silencers were sold in the United States that entire year. SilencerCo now ships more than 7,000 silencers a month. “We created that market,” Waldron says.
Although Waldron claims to be a fan of such left-leaning musicians as Ryan Adams and the band Wilco, it’s hard to imagine the admiration is reciprocated. SilencerCo boasts a relationship with the aforementioned Robertson, who has publicly supported his father’s homophobic and anti–civil rights statements. In addition, Waldron’s defense of guns and the Second Amendment echoes perfectly the fervor of the NRA. “Shooting is a culture that is ingrained in America,” Waldron says. “The only reason people are scared of it is because the media has put a twist on what firearms are. I’m a conceal-carry person. It’s empowering to know I can protect my family. And to have some politician think they can take that right away from me puts us in the same position as Nazi Germany.”
The morning after the beach party, the attendees, looking a bit worse for wear, gather for the main attraction—a voyage to a nautical firing range in international waters. As the group assembles on the dock, another sudden downpour sends everyone scrambling for cover. The ensuing search for Dramamine resembles a scene from William S. Burroughs’s Junky. Minutes later a water taxi filled with attendees bobs and rolls toward a large chartered catamaran. Shults promptly vomits over the side and decides to return to land. There are looks of trepidation all around. Only those who are ex-military, including SilencerCo chief revenue officer Jason Schauble, an Iraq war vet with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, seem unfazed. “I was a marine,” Schauble offers with a smile.
The catamaran eventually reaches international waters. Crew members crank techno music and grill burgers while young SilencerCo employees lay out an arsenal of suppressed firearms and shove a pontoon of Osama bin Laden and zombie targets into the churning ocean. Someone asks with a laugh where the Hillary Clinton targets are before being reminded that she has Secret Service protection. In the following few hours, the sound of discreet vomiting is matched only by the sound of (suppressed) gunfire. The biggest attraction by far is the Maxim 9 prototype. The sleek handgun with a built-in suppressor is an anomaly with the potential to revolutionize both the suppressor and the firearms industries. It is also an admittedly risky endeavor for SilencerCo in the traditionally conservative gun world.
“We want customers to eventually go into a gun store and ask, ‘Do I want a loud gun or a quiet gun?” explains Shults. “And the only way for us to start that is to make a quiet gun. No one has really done it before, so we don’t know what the market is. It’s definitely a risk. But like everything else, if we think it’s cool, it usually means it’s going to be pretty awesome. We want to reach for the stars, right?”
And that appears to be exactly what Shults and Waldron are doing, though their particular stars inhabit a galaxy of high-tech weaponry. Beyond suppressors, range finders, affordable night-vision devices and their new hybrid pistol, their end goal is to create and market what they refer to as “weapon systems.” “We want to create the firearms industry 2.0,” Waldron says. “To create a market and an industry that are sexy to a new generation, because there’s nobody out there trying to appeal to them. They’re playing video games with all this fictional technology, and we want to make it happen in real life.”