Primary Arms is a relatively new player in the market of affordable optics for firearms, but one that’s been impressing just about everyone who’s used them. Given the track record of cheap optics, I had expected them to eventually disintegrate on my gun, but in reality they have often proven themselves to be just as good as the competition — and at a fraction of the price. I made my way out to the Primary Arms HQ in Houston last week to interview their CEO, Marshall Lerner, to see what makes them tick . . .
[Marshall Lerner] So yeah, we’re just trying to keep up with today’s orders and get the supply of the Primary Arms product more solid for next year, so that we can have a steady supply.
[Foghorn] So, can you walk me through how this got started? What was the genesis of this?
[ML] It literally started up… I also own a chain of barber shops, and I literally started this in the back of one of the barber shops. The history was, I was on the forums, it was Glock Talk probably six years ago, where the guys were buying the counterfeits off eBay, and I said man, don’t buy the counterfeits. You’re not helping the industry, they’re going to get re-sold as the real thing. And the guys came back and said there’s no alternative if you want a red dot and you can’t afford the higher priced ones. One of the guys said that if you give us an alternative, we’ll buy them.
So that’s literally the germ of how we started, and my brother (who is my partner) who at the time was sourcing electronics out of China for the gaming industry. Now, in his case they weren’t going there because it was cheaper, they were going there because that’s where all the factories were. And so he started making some connections there and we kinda went from there.
We imported our first red dots, and I remember the back warehouse of the barber shop was where we set up and that’s where we started. That was probably, what, five years ago now?…
[F] And those are still your biggest sellers? Are those red dots?
[ML] When we can get enough!
So, obviously we’ve branched out from there, with our entry level red dot, so now we have — still have the entry level red dots (most of them are on the third or fourth or higher generation of improvements), we try and do a lot more work with the factories now on how to make them our own versus just something off the shelf with smaller improvements. And we’ve branched into a lot of the name brand products. I mean, the majority of what we sell is made in USA product. So, we carry Aimpoint and EOTech, we just became a Schmidt and Bender dealer, made in Germany but the point is we now carry low to high. But the red dots are still a big part of our business, and will continue to be as long as we get enough of them.
We’ve added some new products recently — flashlights, a few new scopes, there’s already some pictures on the forums of a patent pending reticle that we’ve done, that we’ve partnered with someone to design, and you’ll see that hopefully by the end of the year in the first scope. So, its come a long way and its been fun.
[F] So, I know that you’ve just come out with that riflescope, the 4-14X44 Mil Dot FFP, I know you just came out with that, I’ve been testing it, I love it. What’s the genesis for something like that?
[ML] That’s a new factory for us, so a lot of it what happens now is finding the right factory. That’s really where it all starts. You’ll see a lot of the guys post “well yeah, you can buy those from anyplace, there’s hundreds of factories.” And there are. But its finding a factory that… And you gotta go visit them, and say if they’re real. You know, you can look online, and it looks like a factory, and they’ve got a clean room, but you go over there and its in the back of someone’s garage.
This factory, and we won’t say who else they make for, is very large — probably the largest scope manufacturer in China — and we went to them and took a body they already had. And the reason being its not a real high volume piece like a red dot, so it saves a lot of money not having to make a new design. We had them upgrade the turrets, and upgrade the glass, and that was the result of it. And we had them make it a MIL – MIL scope. So the body is one they’ve made before for some other people, but the turrets are much improved.
So when the guys ask me online, BSA makes one similar (they don’t make the BSA — it looks similar, but they don’t make the BSA) that’s probably the closest one to it. The biggest difference is the turrets.
[F] So, is that how most of the products work? You have a factory, they have an existing product line, and you tell them you want X Y and Z improvements and they go off and make it?
[ML] Typically, the newest products… The new small weapon light was one we designed from the ground up. We’ve had lights for a while, but this was another new factory that makes flashlights — higher quality flashlights — and we worked with them from the ground up to make their first weapon lights. So, they’ve made some really nice handhelds — that’s what caught our attention — and them we worked with them to say this is what needs to be different about a weapon light. Ensure that the batteries don’t bang against the head, the click switch is going to take some more abuse… And that’s ground up design for us.
So, a little bit of both. We are starting to do a new red dot (that I won’t talk a lot about) but its a ground up design that we’re working with another company. And its another new factory. So yeah, its exciting. And then we have what happened right now and we’re just trying to keep up with the current orders.
[F] So, can you talk a little bit about the trends you’re seeing post-Tuesday [presidential re-election]?
[ML] We really haven’t had time to breathe. Obviously, magazines. I mean, magazines went crazy. Some of the big wholesale suppliers, they’ll keep twenty or thirty thousand of a particular Magpul SKU in stock, and they’re gone. So, magazines, ARs… Lowers have been a little tight anyway, you can’t get any lowers right now. I don’t know beyond ARs if everything has picked up, but certainly anything that people think might be part of a ban. Magazines in particular.
[F] So where do you see your product lines going? You’ve got great red dots, you’ve got some great mid-range scopes, you’ve got some great longer range scopes coming online… Do you see yourself focusing on a specific variety of optic?
[ML] We’ve got to fix the supply problem with the red dots. That’s first and foremost. We can have a great red dot, but if they’re never in stock it doesn’t help. So that’s the first priority. Beyond that, there are some new products that I won’t talk about that we’re working on, but a lot of it revolves around scopes.
Scopes are a little more challenging because there are so many different varieties. You can have the same scope with four different reticles. So as we’ve grown and we’re doing more business we’re able to do more scopes. So you’ll probably see more new scopes and red dots because we’re big enough now to justify buying the same scope, putting a couple different reticles in.
I mentioned the new patent pending reticle, that’s an AR bullet drop reticle. It makes sense to have an AK version of that come out next year. You’ll probably see some different variations of that reticle, probably see a .308 version of it.
Most of the new products will be in scopes, like I said red dots there’s no reason to do anything new if we can’t keep the ones we got in stock.
[F] I was about to say, I’ve got a version 2 of your red dot that I’ve been using for years and its fantastic.
[ML] And we want to improve them, you know we want to keep improving them, but we gotta fix the supply problem, and that means bringing a couple other factories online. Its finding the right factories.
[F] So that’s the hardest part, you’re finding? Is finding the legitimate, proper factories in China? Because there’s a lot of FUD out there about Chinese products being terrible and all that stuff, but you’re actually going out and finding the quality ones?
[ML] Yeah, and there’s not as many of them, so that’s a big part of the challenge. It would be easy to get more red dots, but we want to get some that are at least as good and then eventually better than what we’ve got. So that’s the challenge.