We here at TTAG haven’t always been kind to MasterPiece Arms. Back in our early days Robert had some problems with their Protector handgun and things just went downhill from there. More recently I wrote a piece about one of their newer guns (“From the Deepest Depths of Uselessness” — the title should give away the tone) and as a response MasterPiece’s main man Phil Cashin invited me down to their facility to take a peek behind the curtain and see what’s really going on at MPA. This past weekend I flew to Georgia to do just that, and see for myself if the truth matches their reputation . . .
When I told a couple of my friends where I was going this weekend, the response was immediate and universal: “what did you do wrong?” They thought I was being punished, and their response just about sums up the popular opinion of MPA and their products.
MPA is considered by many to be roughly on par with the likes of Norinco for manufacturing prowess — pumping out cheap copies of old guns and various derivations thereof, with an eye towards quantity and not quality. Naturally they still have their fans, but not so many among the higher level shooters. So when MPA announced that they were going to start producing a $4,000 bolt action rifle at SHOT Show, it really didn’t make sense in that context.
Was this really a case of a quality manufacturer with a bad rep, or a crappy manufacturer trying to squeeze every penny from their customers? I needed to find out.
I rolled into the parking lot of their manufacturing facility a few minutes behind schedule, but not for a lack of trying. Their factory is located in a small and easily overlooked warehouse in Corner, Georgia, making it very easy to drive right past without realizing it. Despite the small and unassuming nature of the place, a quick look at the names on the work orders pinned to the machines was my first glimmer that there might actually be something worthwhile under all the grime.
One person was making drive shaft covers for a company known for their large green tractors. Another CNC machine was turning solid copper stock into some very recognizable hollow point bullets that made a media splash recently. Then there were the magazine wells for a certain quick-change multi-caliber firearm, right alongside parts for MPA’s own firearms. If MPA’s quality really was as low as their reputation led me to believe, I thought, why were so many companies turning to them to make some of their most important parts?
I first met Phil in his office just off the factory floor. It may not have been the tidiest office space I’d been in, but as he said, he preferred to put the money back into the equipment and personnel rather than re-carpeting a visitor’s area that was just going to get dirty again a month later. Phil seemed genuinely happy to see me and share MPA’s story, and I was just as happy to start putting the pieces together in my own head.
The history of MPA really starts in 1973, when the previous owner opened his own machine shop. It wasn’t until some years later that the focus of the company started to shift toward firearms manufacturing. That was after the ATF declared “open bolt” firearms to be verboten and the MAC-10 needed a re-design to stay legal. The previous owner came up with a design for the old girl that worked well, and over the years that design continued to be perfected.
Phil came into the picture around 2008, when he bought MPA from the previous owner. He’d made his money in selling machine tools and associated equipment.
If you ask Phil, what sets his shop apart from others is that they’re machinists first and foremost. MPA started life as a straight machine shop first, then slowly drifted toward making firearms. With most manufacturers firearms designs usually start with the marketing teams and then it’s up to the engineers to make that work somehow in the real world. At MPA engineering comes first.
At the time Phil bought MPA the shop was only devoting 21% of its time to making firearms. Six years later, 90% of what MPA does is make its own guns and Phil plans to phase out that last 10% as quickly as he can. “It’s much easier to make your own finished product than to deal with other companies,” Phil says.
After getting the basics of the story from Phil, we wandered out onto the shop floor and straight into the barrel making section. While FNH USA’s barrel shop is roughly the size of MPA’s factory, this smaller version consisted of four machines squirreled away in the corner of the shop: a gun drill, a reamer, a rifling machine, and an oven for heat treatment. MPA makes all of its barrels on-site, from the short 9mm barrels for handguns to the new precision rifle barrels for their bolt action rifle — something I really wasn’t expecting.
It was while watching one of the employees drilling out a barrel blank that I started to realize that this wasn’t just some no-name shop churning out junk guns — there was real craftsmanship at work here. Instead of simply setting the drilling machine the same way as higher volume operations do, MPA’s operator individually mounts and adjusts each blank to get the straightest bore and then watches the machine like a hawk for any sign that it might not be cutting cleanly and smoothly, varying the speed of the drill as needed. After each barrel he takes a hand file and sharpens the bit. “It makes the drill cut cleaner and last longer,” he says.
This wasn’t a match grade barrel — this one was destined for their smallest 9mm handgun.
Off to the side was a rifling machine. MPA uses button rifling rather than cut rifling for a reason: equal pressure. According to Phil cut rifling might be more precise, but it unevenly stresses the barrel one side at a time and leads to a less accurate gun. Button rifling evenly stresses the barrel, which leads to a more accurate gun. I asked if they had ever considered cold hammer forging, but Phil says they just don’t have the money or space and don’t see a huge benefit over what they do now.
In a room off to the side of the barrel area is the testing equipment with all the same equipment I’d seen at other shops before from a barrel scope to a pneumatic diameter gauge. Phil wanted to illustrate why they made their barrels the way they do, so he popped a Remington barrel on the scope and had me take a look inside. To the naked eye it looked mirror smooth, but with the barrel scope you could see a never-ending line of concentric rings cut into the side of the bore. “Chatter marks,” Phil said, from the drill not being precisely aligned and monitored. He then put one of his own barrels on the machine, and there was nary a stray mark to be found. “It might not impact low volume shooters” Phil says, “but the carbon and copper builds up on those chatter marks and degrades the barrel over time.”
For the handgun barrels this would be the end of the line; they head off to a CNC machine to have the chamber cut into the part and get the proper profiling. Rifle barrels get an extra treatment: hand lapping. Every single rifle barrel is hand-lapped by the master barrel maker himself and worked until he’s happy with the quality. Only the very best pass inspection and even a single tooling mark left in the barrel kicks it out of contention.
There was one product MPA made that I hadn’t seen in their catalog before: silencers. MPA has started making a monocore design 5.56 and rimfire silencer that easily comes apart for user servicing. It looks to be a truly interesting and novel design. They also make a permanently welded version for .30 caliber guns. This was the first glimmer of true innovation and stepping outside their comfort zone that I saw, and it made me want to see what else they could do.
For MPA’s firearms, just about everything is made in-house. There are exceptions like the receivers for their MAC-10 clones and the bolt action rifle (they don’t have the necessary machines), as well as the springs and some small pins. But everything else is made on the premises. The tolerances for those parts are on par if not better than the QC at the other big-name manufacturers I visited, and the level of care that they put into each firearm is clearly visible in the finished product.
But therein lies the problem.
The MAC-10 was an interesting design when it came out in 1970, but time hasn’t been kind to the old girl. Back when the MAC-10 was still new it seemed like every two-bit shop was cranking out their own version of the gun, and as a result the market was flooded with cheap, poorly built guns. It quickly earned a reputation for being a collection of pot-metal scrap not even worth its recycled value, something that falls apart and easily breaks. While the MPA version is solidly built, it still suffers from the same reputation and taints the company as a whole. After all, how good can a company be when they produce a gun with that kind of a track record?
The other problem with the design is that it’s a dated, distinctly 1970’s style. Think Volvo 240. It’s a boxy, utilitarian stamped sheet-metal pistol, a direct blowback design with a massive bolt and a chunky frame. The world of firearms had moved past the direct blowback design about the time bell-bottoms went out of style, but MPA has kept cranking out the exact same design with the exact same appearance all along.
MPA did come out with a new firearm a couple years back in the form of their MPAR, an updated Leader T2 MK5, but in the same way that they haven’t strayed very far from their original MAC design, MPA hasn’t made the design changes needed to really make the MPAR a competitor in the modern sporting rifle arena. All it needs are a few minor changes — a magazine catch release button, thinner handguards, free-floating the barrel, and a rounded mag well — but their desire to have any improvements “backwards compatible” with the rifles already in circulation is keeping them from making those few simple changes.
The problem, as I see it, is that there are two MasterPiece Arms.
The first MPA has a problem common to a lot of businesses: stagnation and target fixation. Their MAC-10 clones and MPAR rifles sell well enough to keep the company afloat. But management seems to be so afraid of losing that market that they’re unwilling to change the appearance other than bolting things to the exterior. In Phil’s opinion people buy his guns because they look like a MAC-10. Unfortunately, that same feature is the reason for the negative perception of their company in the market.
I’m not sure there will always be a market for that gun and MPA seems to be wasting their potential by fixating on a design from the 1970’s instead of innovating and producing something new. Heck, even a MAC-10 derivative using all the same parts in a new form factor would be a welcome step forward.
The second MPA is the one that I’m starting to see peek through in the corners. Quality barrels, precision-machined chassis, brand new designs. Their new bolt action rifle line shows what MPA can do when they really put their minds to something, and it is truly incredible. It’s a functional firearm that holds its own even in the higher price range, and showcases the care and attention to detail that MPA puts into all of its guns.
But even then, it’s an old design with some minor updates — MPA business as usual. The real innovation is coming from MPA’s new silencers, which are a design that AAC should have come out with years ago instead of being suffocated by Freedom Group. They show real innovation and the potential within the company to actually break out of the old designs and make something new and awesome.
When I left, I told Phil exactly what I just told y’all — that MPA is stuck and needs to change to survive. There’s so much potential being wasted on the old designs, and it’s time for them to really spread their wings and show the world what they can do. This rag-tag company of machinists may have survived for decades on one old design, but the time has come for them to part ways with the MAC-10 and finally produce something legitimately “new.”
This company of machinists needs a designer.