Mark Serbu on the production floor.
By Jason Wong
In the history of modern small arms, the majority of small arms design has come at the hands of individuals working to create something unusual or fulfill a perceived or real need that is unavailable on the commercial or military market. Without individuals designing and building modern small arms, it is unlikely that the current diversity of small arms would be possible. As a small arms manufacturer, Mark Serbu owns and operates Serbu Firearms, Inc., a Class 2 manufacturer located in Tampa, Florida. Small Arms Review has followed the release of new and innovative products created by Serbu Firearms since 1998, and sought to gain insight into the business of designing and engineering small arms. They can be reached at Serbu Firearms, Inc., 6001 Johns Road, #144, Tampa, FL 33643. (813) 243, 8899 or at www.serbu.com.
SAR: What was the first gun you ever bought?
Serbu: It was a Marlin Model 60, a .22 caliber rifle with a tubular magazine. I bought it for sixty dollars when I was 18 years old.
SAR: What was the first gun you made?
Serbu: The first gun I made was a little single shot .22 caliber rifle that I made with a drill press and a welder. It was very light weight, but it worked.
SAR: Tell me briefly about your back ground.
Serbu: Growing up, I always played with mechanical projects, starting with go carts, working my way up to cars, and eventually into guns. As a kid, I would always make “inventions.”
I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of South Florida in 1990. After I graduated from college, I was lucky. The employment situation was bad, but I managed to get a job with a company that built flight simulators. I designed and built control systems – the hydraulic systems that provide feedback to the pedals and the yoke in the flight simulator. I enjoyed designing parts for the simulators, but as I got more seniority with the company, I spent less time in design. I started Serbu Firearms in 1995 and worked part time. In 1999, I quit the flight simulator job to run Serbu Firearms full time. At that time, I had a Bridgeport mill and a Clausing lathe in my garage.
SAR: How did you decide what your first product was going to be?
Serbu: As a new Class Two manufacturer, my first product was an integral .22 suppressor. It took the least amount of engineering and work to design and build. Once I decided to make a .22 suppressor, Joe Gaddini (of SWR) helped me design and build the suppressor baffles. At the time, I thought I’d give it a shot and go with the basic design that Joe and I worked on. I decided to add flutes to the suppressor tube to make it look nice, and started making them.
SAR: How do you decide on the design of the final product?
Serbu: I’m big on Computer Assisted Design (CAD). I’ll model the project in three dimensions within the computer and look at it before I ever cut metal. I like taking time to look at the product for aesthetics before making it, to make sure that it looks good from all angles. With the BFG 50 bolt action rifles, I modeled nine different variations within the computer before I found a barrel contour that I liked. The nice part was that it was modeled in the computer, so I was able to go through nine different variations without ever cutting metal.
SAR: How much does CAD play into your engineering and design?
Serbu: It’s huge. I consider CAD indispensable and use CAD in everything I design. Recently, I’ve starting using CAD and CAM (Computer Aided Machining) so that when I get something that I like, I am able to send the design program directly to the machine and have the part made.
SAR: When you entered the market in 1996, what was it like?
Serbu: It was a lot more laid back. I was still working for the flight simulator company, and working part time out of my house. I had little overhead, and made suppressors when an order would come in. Often I would work long nights building guns, but it wasn’t high pressure. I made just over a hundred suppressors over a two year period.
SAR: How did you make the decision to run Serbu Firearms full time?
Serbu: The business was growing. The Sirus pistols and 10/22 rifles were selling well, in addition to the Super Shorty Shotgun. With those, I was doing well enough to go full time.
SAR: Tell me more about the Super Shorty. How did that come about?
Serbu: I owed some money to a friend after sharing a hotel and car rental during a trip to Knob Creek. Instead of taking the money, he asked for a really short Mossberg shotgun registered as an AOW. I agreed, but I thought it was a dumb project. What he was proposing was so short; it needed a front grip in order to hold it. It seemed absurd.
It took abut a year to get the first one built. Once it was built, they sold like crazy. Since being introduced, I’ve sold them to police departments around the country, and the military. A few were recently purchased by the King of Jordan. Hollywood bought a couple, and the Super Shorty has been used in a few movies and on television.
We recently started making the Super Shorty on Remington 870 actions after fielding requests for the 870 action for years. I didn’t want to make the Super Shorty on an 870 action because it’s difficult. The magazine tube is silver soldered to the receiver and cannot easily be removed. In 2005, a SWAT team requested 870 actions and would not accept the Mossberg, so we started making the Super Shorty on the 870 action. We continue to sell the Super Shorty on Mossberg actions in addition to the Remington 870 actions.
SAR: How did you decide to build a fifty caliber rifle?
Serbu: I wanted a fifty caliber rifle, but was unable to find a rifle that was affordable, yet designed and engineered well. Many of the affordable rifles at the time looked like a piece of pipe. Anything that was engineered well cost in excess of $4,000. I wanted to design a rifle of my own that was built well and was still affordable.
I designed my first fifty caliber rifle on June 9th, 1999. At the time, Congress was discussing a proposed ban on fifty caliber rifles. I stayed up all night designing the BFG 50 so that I could try to get it out on the market before the ban could be passed. I recall the date because the proposed ban on fifty caliber rifles was introduced in Congress the following day. I knew that I had to get the BFG 50 on the market.
SAR: Tell me more about the BFG 50.
Serbu: I wanted to get the BFG 50 on the market for $995. I took deposits on the first 50 BFG rifles for that price and sold all 50 rifles very quickly. I raised the price to $1,250, and continued to get orders. I remember thinking, “Wow! I’m going to be rich! I’ve got $60,000.”
SAR: Recently, California decided to ban the fifty caliber. What happened?
Serbu: It was incredible. We were selling bare receivers, just to get them into California before the deadline. We had hundreds of orders and were limited only by the amount of time needed to build the receivers. In three months, we were able to get several hundred fifty caliber rifles into California to beat the pending ban. It was the hardest I had ever worked. I was working until 3 a.m., trying to finish the receivers in time.
SAR: Now that the California ban on fifty caliber rifles is in effect, what are you doing to get guns into California?
Serbu: We’ve started making rifles chambered in 50 DTC, a caliber designed in Europe that is California legal. The case is a tenth of an inch shorter, and has a slightly different profile. The powder, projectile, and powder charge is the same as the 50 BMG, giving very similar results as the 50 BMG that is disallowed.
SAR: How did you decide to build the carbine version of the BFG 50?
Serbu: It’s a regular BFG 50, but with a shorter hand guard and barrel. Customers requested something more compact and lighter, so we obliged. We reduced the barrel length to 21 inches and reduced the weight to 17 pounds. One customer requested a carbine with a 16 inch barrel, so we made it. I think it weighed about 14 pounds.
SAR: How did your semiautomatic fifty caliber rifle come about?
Serbu: I was never a single shot type of guy. I always wanted to make a semi auto, but with the pending ban in 1999, I didn’t think there was enough time to design a semi auto rifle before a ban could be put into effect. As a result, I designed the single shot version first.
The semi auto rifle is currently designed to use a 10 round box magazine, and utilize a quick change barrel. The rifle is gas operated, and uses a fixed barrel, which should result in sub-MOA accuracy. Because of the modularity, the rifle can be broken down to fit into a three foot gun case. It currently weighs 25 pounds, but when placed into full production, the weight will be reduced to approximately 22 pounds. Best of all, we expect retail price to be about $5,000.
SAR: What kind of advice would you give to individuals interested in firearms manufacturing?
Serbu: Don’t do it! It’s a lot harder than it seems. It’s a huge time commitment. I’ve pulled many all-nighters over the years and have neglected my family. Often, it’s difficult to realize how much money is going to be required. When I first started, I raided my retirement account and withdrew $80,000. I barely made it. I can’t imagine someone starting out today with nothing and relying upon deposit money paid for start up capital. If you are able to buy the equipment to make the parts yourself, you’re spending a lot of money on equipment. If you are forced to rely upon outside contractors to make your parts, you’ll be buying a lot of parts and will have huge inventory costs. It takes a lot more time and money than one would imagine.
Many times, people comment that they’d love to have an MP5 or an M16. I get to work with these all the time. It sounds great, but when you’re doing it daily, it loses the allure. It becomes mundane and gets old.
I’d also tell prospective businesses to expect the worst. When I first started the BFG project, I wasn’t working nearly as hard. When the initial orders came in, I didn’t think the project would be too difficult. We took the first deposits in August 1999, and we were not able to deliver until June 2000. At the time, all of the parts were being made by outside vendors because we didn’t have the CNC equipment to build the parts ourselves. The BFG was a simple gun requiring 37 parts, but the orders were delayed. We were told that the parts would be ready in three weeks, but it ended up taking three months to receive the parts. In the end, it took 9 months to build the first BFG.
I thought it would be much easier. Projects currently being developed by other gun manufacturers require hundred of parts. Managing production and manufacturing of all the parts is difficult. The delays compound each other, making the situation worse.
SAR: What’s the best aspect of your job?
Serbu: I get to do something that I really enjoy as a career. Growing up, I loved to design and build things, and now I get to design and build guns as a living. I get to play with cool guns. It’s fun.
SAR: What’s the worst aspect of your job?
Serbu: Find a job doing something you love, and you’ll grow to hate it, just like any other job. (Laughing)
If I had to do it over again, I think I would have read some business books a lot sooner. I didn’t think I would make a career out of this – I just wanted to make some cool stuff. Before long, other people liked the products, and it grew. Still, I didn’t really plan to build a business at all. I don’t hate my job, but it was a whole lot more fun when it wasn’t a business. Dealing with employees, taxes, and suppliers is not enjoyable.
SAR: What new products do you see coming from Serbu Firearms in the future?
Serbu: Probably more accessories for our existing products. We already make bipods for another manufacturer. I’d like to make a smaller gun; a rifle chambered in .338 Lapua or .308. I’ve got quite a few ideas that I’m working on. We’re building a 6,000 square foot building. Our current space is only about 2,000 square feet, so it will allow us some space to grow.
SAR: I’ve heard rumors that you plan on building a rifle chambered in 20mm Vulcan. True?
Serbu: I’ve wanted to build a 20mm rifle for some time. It’s already designed, but I haven’t had the time to get the project going. I’m not sure about the demand for a 20mm rifle, but I also can’t wait to shoot it.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V9N12 (September 2006)|