Every June, Will Hayden has a birthday party. But the party celebrates more than the day of his birth. Hayden, 46, is the owner of Red Jacket Firearms, and at his annual “birthday bash” he celebrates everyone and everything he loves. When the warm weather hits, the Louisiana-born gunsmith, history buff and collector welcomes fellow shooters from around the country to “show up, bring ammo and have fun” shooting the custom firearms Red Jacket creates, along with a few from Hayden’s personal collection.
He runs his booming business out of Baton Rouge, La., every other day of the year, but on this day, he said, there is only celebration. The atmosphere at the birthday bash rings true to what Hayden is all about: his family and friends, his crew of employees, his customers, and the firearms spawned from his hard work.
Anyone who has watched the Discovery Channel has likely caught a glimpse into Hayden’s world. “You know, he’s been doing this stuff you’re seeing on TV now for about 10 years,” said his daughter, Stephanie Hayden. “Y’all are just catching up.”
In January, “Sons of Guns” made its debut on Discovery, and it is a show that gives viewers a one-of-a-kind look into the custom gun manufacturer and the lives of its employees. In its first season, fans flocked to the channel to see what unusual firearm concepts the shop could cook up next.
Hayden’s introduction to guns came at a young age in the wilds of Louisiana with his grandfather. He followed him on trips, “hunting squirrels for the pot” around the family’s farm near Baton Rouge.
“These were country people, farmers,” he said. “[My grandfather] raised a few cattle and planted a garden for the same reasons that he went hunting: because a couple times a day he enjoyed eating. You’ve got a 12-gauge shotgun for the same reason you’ve got a plow, and for the same reason you’ve got a wrench and a hammer in your tool box.”
Hayden’s curiosity about guns soon morphed into a love of military history and firearms. He read and researched as much as he could and found himself working on guns in his spare time. “When I was a teenager I just wanted all the cool stuff I couldn’t afford,” Hayden said. “So I worked with what I had and learned how to create things myself. It was a great way to keep my mind on positive outlets back then.” Ask him today where he learned his gunsmithing skills, and he’ll undoubtedly reply: “completely self-taught.”
Hayden joined the Marine Corps at 17 and, at the end of his enlistment, returned home to start a construction and commercial refrigeration company. But he never strayed far from his roots, and his hiatus from firearms didn’t last long. In 1999, he decided to remodel the front of his building and start an army surplus store and shooting range. Before long it was his full-time occupation, and Red Jacket was officially born.
Soon after Hayden opened the shop he ran into his most heart-wrenching stumbling block. “Within two months of opening the place it was robbed, basically gutted. With no theft insurance, it was a hard hit,” he said. “The lease holder bought me out and we had to start over again. It was hard to deal with, but we got it done.”
With his family supporting him, Hayden persevered with a plan to start over and grow. The doting father was determined to use his business as “a mechanism to keep my kids close to me.”
“[Stephanie] was helping me out a tad in there to be secure while she was wrapping up high school,” he said. “She got out and wasn’t sure she wanted really anything to do with it. I told her, ‘If you can come on hand we’ll restructure the place so that there’s a reason to have you in here full-time.’ So we did.”
“We are making our lives with each other and not just getting pulled away,” Stephanie said. “Most families spend so much time at work and so much time doing their own thing that they don’t get to spend a lot of time with each other. And we kind of fixed that.”
Red Jacket Firearm’s first big order was for 20 semi-automatic AK-47s from a small Western distributor. In exchange for a break in the price of the build, Hayden requested that his guns be accompanied with the phrase “Proudly Manufactured by Red Jacket” wherever sold or advertised. The guns and their tag line drew the attention of Atlantic Firearms, a dealer and distributor known for offering tactical arms. Hayden put together some generic AK build kits for the group, and business began to pick up.
“In the early going we just wanted to make quality guns,” Hayden said. “We needed to make a name for ourselves, and the AK-47 platform was a great way to start. That’s what people wanted. I was sleeping in the back of the shop back then, too. It was just about working hard.” Hayden had always hated the shoddy ergonomics of the AK and the lack of quality control from the bulk of the original Russian manufacturers. “We got away from [kits] as quickly as we could because we were searching for a better AK,” he said. “So we went to the Saigas produced at Izhmash Arsenal, which is the world-standard for the military AK.”
Red Jacket was acquiring a solid reputation, but it still wasn’t enough. Hayden went to gun forums and community websites to help sell products and gain momentum for the shop. With the help of Charles Watson, who often hung around the shop in the early days, Will started posting product reviews, pictures and YouTube videos. The amateur clips offered big guns, fast shooting and down-home charm.
“One of the first videos was me in bunny slippers unloading a 10-round magazine out of an eight-inch-barreled shotgun at 8 a.m.,” Hayden recalled. “We had to show people who we were, okay. ”
Hayden also set out to dispel rumors about suppressors—which he had begun building so he could shoot in his range at night—and the AK platform.
He responded to questions from his core demographic because, he says, he just wanted to help fellow shooters. Through time the inhabitants of the gun talk message boards began to associate Hayden’s name with the answers they needed. He had become a popular figure among gun enthusiasts, and as Red Jacket’s profile grew, so did its bottom line.
In late 2007, Hayden received an intriguing e-mail from Jupiter Entertainment, a production company based in Knoxville, Tenn. The group was looking for a gun shop to take part in a television series for a “major cable network.”
"We had to fill out a form and send in a video describing what went on around here," Hayden said. "We used range videos like the ones we posted on the Internet and some stuff from the birthday bash.”
The short clips sparked the producers’ interest and, as the next step in the audition process, Will was asked to put together a two-minute video further describing the shop and the people who made up his crew.
The video featured 28-year-old Kris Ford, who was brought on as an apprentice after he met Stephanie at a party. Ford swept floors and, under Will’s tutelage, was contributing to gun builds. Next was Michigan native and gunsmith Vince Buckles. The 2004 graduate of the Pennsylvania Gunsmith School added another pair of skilled hands to the Red Jacket team. “When I came on it was just like a family,” Ford said. “I was just excited to have a job and be with these great people.”