Monday, November 26, 2018

Interview with WBP's Piotr Szlenk

by Mishaco and Piotr Szlenk

1) When was WBP founded and any stories about starting the company?

Mr. Jacek (Jack in English) Popinski started the business in the early 1990s. The company was mainly involved in producing swords/sabres (they were sold to collectors (replicas) as well to Polish MoD, as some Polish officers carry a sabre during special occasions like Independence day celebrations and for representational purposes) and historical weaponry from the 1700s and 1800s (muskets from the Napoleonic era for example). Jack Popinski is a big firearms aficionado, he has a large collection of historical weapons, uniforms, helmets, books related to warfare, etc. So this was something he was always into and he always wanted to manufacture firearms, so a hobby turning to a full time occupation.

2) Why did you decide to get into the firearms business?

As the “historical weaponry” workshop got bigger, we began getting contracts for refurbishment and repair of firearms that were purchased as surplus items from the Polish military. A lot of Polish gun traders were mainly “purely” trading companies with no fixed assets and no manpower nor manufacturing base, no storage space, etc. So if someone was doing a deal where they needed to burn through all the crates of equipment, assemble/disassemble something or replace any used up parts, they would bring the equipment to Rogow and we were there to provide such services. As more and more equipment would go through our facility, we needed to get more tooling, more employees, etc. Most of that equipment was AK-47/AKMs, many of which needed refurbishment and new parts. There were also RPKs, PKMs, NSVTs, Goriunov’s, DShKs going through our doors but the AKM was the item we focused on as we felt this was a design that will prevail for many years to come and also FB Radom was dropping the AKM on behalf of the Beryl, so we felt that there was also a perspective in filling this void in caliber 7.62.

 So step by step, part by part we were kind of “forced” to get deeper and deeper into manufacturing. This expansion was just a natural consequence of the market at the time (we are talking early/mid 2000s). Unfortunately tons of Polish military stocks were sold off abroad at that time, but that is how life goes, it was just pure supply and demand. On the other hand, this process allowed our company to grow and now we have the ability to wholly manufacture the AKM.

3) When did WBP first start offering AKM pattern firearms?
We started offering first AKMs around 2008.

4) As of 2018, how many employees does the company have?
90 employees as of end of 2018.

5) When did the partnership with Arms of America begin and any stories about working with Andrew?

The partnership with Arms of America began in 2013. Funny thing is, Atlantic contributed to this happening. At the time we had little knowledge on how the US civilian firearms market works, so we just sent out random emails (SPAM like messages) to basically every AK related company in the US that we could google. It was probably like 60 emails or something, being sent to different companies we found on the internet saying that we are based in Poland and would like to offer our parts and products on the US market. It turned out that Blaine got the message and forwarded it to Andrew. So Andrew responded with the proposal to cooperate and a plan to come to Poland and pay us a visit. Andrew came to Poland, we immediately got along very well and that is how it started. But Blaine was the one who got Andrew’s attention, so after a few years here we are all working together which is great.

6) When were the first AKM parts exported to the USA?

2013 under the V-Project brand name. Once we received valuable feedback, learned about the market, customer preferences etc., we started branding our product lines WBP.

7) What is the relationship between FB-Radom and WBP? What FB parts does WBP use, and does FB use any parts manufactured by WBP?
(I understand you cannot go fully into detail here, but Americans often ask these questions, so anything you might be able to say would be helpful)

We have an NDA with FB, so we cannot disclose which parts are subcontracted to us. Our cooperation has been going on for 10 years now. It is a very fruitful cooperation and FB has always been very open in helping us and mentoring us.  They are kind of like an older brother to us. When we produce parts for FB, we have a Polish military representative doing the quality control acceptance onsite here in Rogow before making the delivery to FB (this is an old Comblock procedure, but the Polish Army has its representatives in all major military factories, their role is to supervise if everything is done as per the military’s standards).

We buy CHF barrels from them, which is widely known.

8) What military and/or law enforcement contracts has WBP obtained and worked on over the years?
(Again, I know this is sensitive information, but anything you might be able to share could go a long way towards credibility with US customers)

For security reasons we cannot disclose this information, as on the international arms market everything is done rather quietly. But what we can say is that nowadays the price is key as well as the time of delivery. With the Russian embargo a lot of countries cannot purchase from Russia due to political reasons. A lot of those big renowned factories are often fully booked for the next few years, so there are also opportunities for smaller players like us who are ok with doing smaller contracts and remain pretty flexible. Our rifles were sold to a Middle Eastern country, to a Central Asian country, to an East African Country, to a West African country, that is all we can disclose. Please also take note that it is not only that armies buy guns to be used as their standard issue weapon. A lot of countries buy smaller quantities for their Police, Border Guard, Internal Security, etc, so that is why you don’t see rifles on TV during military parades, even though they are there being in use. Firearms are also often exported via intermediaries. So for example you try to look at government statistics on how many rifles were imported to country X from country A. So you assume that if country A exported 0, then it didn’t happen? What if A exported to B first and then B exported to X? As per X’s statistics is seems it only imported from B, correct? Just a small remark on the side, I know that you know about this stuff, but I am just touching on what some gentlemen put on AKFiles and what conclusions they tend to draw. This is the same case for all commodities in fact.

9) How was the experience having to design firearms to comply with all of the rules and regulations surrounding export/import with the USA?
(aka how much vodka was consumed due to our ridiculous laws)

It was kind of a hassle as it always takes time and money to launch production of new parts. It is easy to make 1,2,5 pieces but doing something in the thousands and ensuring repeatability is always a lot of money and effort.  It was always a bit of a lottery, trying to figure out what will be accepted by the ATF. In general we decided to play it safe with the FOX, the barrel is not threaded (we had to order a special run of unthreaded barrels), we had to make an injection mold/form to make this thumbhole stock (which nobody else is probably ever going to buy), the bolt carriers have to be a bit different, the grip hole needs to be tackwelded, etc, so it was kind of a new procedure for our guys to learn to assemble something different, but now we go the hang of it, so it is not really a big deal. One sad thing is that we would prefer to keep our original trigger mechanism, at least the Lynx is entitled to this originality  gotta live with it…
We also don’t like the idea of not having the 3rd axis pin, you know a lot about AKs, so you are aware that simulating mag dumps without the 3rd axis pin can be dangerous. The 3rd axis should be there, as it is a safety precaution. That is probably the worst idea when comes to your regulations.
From an American citizen’s point of view, this is probably a good policy, you are protecting your interests. Who knows maybe one day we will be able to set up shop in the US and assemble/manufacture, it is a very long way to go as we just debuted on your market, but you never know what the future will bring. We wish that EU bureaucrats would be at least half as caring about our interests as your government cares about US interests….. but that’s another story.

10) Why did you switch from cast to forged trunnions?

We switched due to pressure from US shooters. Andrew and Blaine also insisted that this will be a better idea if we have serious plans for the future.  Forged trunnions are better, there is no doubt about that, you have full control of all dimensions, everything is machined, nothing is cast. We also prefer forged trunnions that we make over those cast ones. The only downside is the cost of production, people want the best and they want it cheap. Sometimes the customer is just not willing to pay for forged, so that is when we offer cast, they work just as fine. A rifle will rarely be fired over 15K rounds and cast trunnions if machined and assembled properly will work just as well. It is like buying  Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, they’re both fairly decent, one is a bit more expensive and a bit better tasting, but in the end the effects don’t differ much.

11) What is the most popular WBP model in Poland and Europe?
(how is it configured and setup, what do others like and want?)

Based on our sales in Poland the wooden furniture AKM version and AKMS underfolder version are the most popular. The cheapest poly is the worst seller, even though the main idea behind this model was to offer something inexpensive for people who were going to mod their rifle anyways. Most mods probably go into ARs, probably that may be the case. The railed tactical AKM version is somewhere in the middle. Seems people in Poland are mostly interested in versions that were standard issue infantry rifles, most gentlemen who still remember the times of their army draft (when every male had to be a conscript) probably want to have a rifle similar to the one they used during their obligatory training/service. The army draft was lifted not that long ago in 2009, so it seems Polish people consider their AKs as a nice souvenir reminding them of those times. The most popular MiniJack is the wooden underfolder and the Tactical version with the Picatinny rails (so similar case as with the long barrel versions).

 In Europe (outside of Poland) the most popular model is the Jack tactical model, so the one with all the Picatinny rails, enhanced selector, enhanced magazine catch, foregrip and side rail, so in western Europe they are less nostalgic about the standard military issue all wood version but it seems that they are more into getting as much functionality and ergonomics out of the design as they can. This applies to both the Jack and MiniJack.

12) How popular are firearms in Poland?

Honestly, they are not really that popular, we would even say that they are fairly unpopular. We have probably the lowest firearm ownership rate in all of Europe. Most people dealing with firearms in Poland are hunters, so we are not really the preferred supplier for them. That is why our company is mainly export oriented. The trend is positive, more and more people  are getting into firearms but as gun lovers we feel that things in Europe are not going in the right direction as regards to gun ownership rights and liberties.

A lot of people also own black powder guns like revolvers, etc. as these do not require registration.

13) What is the attitude towards firearms in Poland and what is the 'gun culture' like in your nation?

A lot of people would probably associate firearms with criminal activities, not many see it as a passed time, hobby or long term investment. Poland is a very pro-American nation, so most guys are into US made ARs as far as rifles are concerned. When it comes to pistols European offerings are probably more popular, things like Glocks, CZs and SigSauer’s. Most people are not familiar with firearms, it is also a pretty expensive hobby so the attitude towards firearms is in our opinion is so so.

14) What have you done to test your AKM type rifles?
(endurance testing, torture/abuse trials, proof loads, x-ray/MP inspection, etc)

We check all our parts on Zeiss CMM machines, we also use several types of gauges. Every rifle is factory checked with a minimum of 30 rounds, the gun is checked for cycling/functioning and is zeroed. When a new model is introduced we check the chamber pressure the velocity of the bullet and we fire 15000 rnds and do an inspection afterwards. The barrels are FB, so we can be sure that the quality is there, the rest is made as per original Polish blueprints, so the design is pretty well proven.  We get a lot of feedback from our distributors, shooters, contractors and bigger customers. We especially treasure feedback from commercial shooting ranges, as they put the most mileage on guns in the shortest amount of time.

15) What do you hope for out of the US market?

We hope to deliver the best quality product we possibly can and see that shooters in the US are satisfied with what they got and paid for with their hard earned money. It is also a great way of getting feedback and opinions that allow us to draw conclusions and improve the product. People tend to complain a lot about minor things, but on the other hand, these comments are a source of motivation for further improvement (like using forged trunnions or improving the paint finish). So even though it is sometimes a pain replying to emails from guys who for example say that their safety selector is scratching the receiver and what they should do with that, most comments by customers are justified and for a company like ours, which is flexible and can react quickly ( even though “quick“ is not a commonly used word in this business) to market demand this only gives us positive incentives. The military market has lower expectations, it is mainly price, general specs, delivery terms and politics, but nobody checks if the sight are straight or not, the key things they check for during inspection are the groupings and whether the rifle is cycling.

16) What plans do you have for the future?
(speculation only: what would you like to see and any interesting ideas on the drawing board?)

We just want to sustain growth, keep the quality high, buy more machinery and make sure our employees are happy and satisfied with what they do. Bringing a new design into mass production takes a very long time, requires a lot of testing and a lot of money. It is easy to produce 1, 5, 10 units of something, but to do something in the thousands is really a very big effort and very time consuming. For now we will try to build off the AKM design, the first priority (and we are sharing this with you exclusively for the first time, but you don’t have to keep this to yourself) is to make a milled AKM, then we will most probably move to something like a short piston stroke AK rifle, an RPK, a Dragunov, something of that sort, still allowing us to use most of the parts and tooling that we already have. We also have some items on the drawing board that are not strictly AK related but this is something we cannot speak about as of today cause it is too early.

In the long term, who knows, maybe a WBP shop in the US?

17) What is the likely hood for more calibers such as 5.56 NATO,
5.45x39 Russian, and 7.62/.308?
(Again, many Americans keep asking so best just to give them some kind of answer)

5.45 is out of the question, ammo is tough to get and nobody really enquiries about this caliber.
We are looking at different caliber options like the 5.56 but nothing has been finalized yet and we are taking it slow and concentrating on quality not quantity. Too early to make any concrete promises. Plus we have orders for 7,62 so we are mainly focused on supervising and improving our 7.62 offerings.

18) What would you like to say to American customers & others interested in WBP products?

In general terms, we really treasure our friendship with the American people, we are allies and we have close bonds resulting from various types of cooperation on several levels. Some years back a part of the family actually lived in Virginia for a few years, so we consider the US our second home. Therefore we take pride in being able to work with Americans and see our product being used on American soil. We have great friends at Arms of America and Atlantic firearms, who have been mentoring us, supporting us and giving us great tips and feedback, so thanks to their support our company is growing and we can do what we enjoy and feed our families at the same time. The AKFiles has also been really fun, we learned a lot about customer preferences, attitudes etc. Following the developments in the USA, we have also learned a lot about AKs, about our competition from videos like the ones that you post on your YT channel. We really enjoy the way you talk about guns and find your videos very well thought out and informative. Honestly, we only follow your channel and AKOU, those are the two channels where we are always lurking reading comments and trying to do our market/customer research.  We hope that US shooters will give us a shot by trying out our products and will be able to trust us enough to spend their hard earned money on a product supplied by a newcomer to the game. We are aware that we do not have the legendary credentials that renowned manufacturers like Cugir, Zastava, Arsenal have, but we are kindly asking American customers to take their chances and spend their hard earned money on our product, a lot of effort and passion was put into each rifle by the people working here in Rogow, which is a typical Polish rural area, so it is nice to have someone appreciate these guys putting heart into this.  Many years back, Arms of America took a shot when deciding to put their trust in dealing with us and look where we are today.

19) Do you have any questions you would like to ask American shooters?

It would be cool if perhaps you could conduct a survey on what American shooters would like to see as far as AK related products are concerned (aside from 5.45 ;)). Like what rifle type or which accessories we should design and produce next. This would be pretty cool as we could get a nice feeling of what the customers want/are waiting for to be brought to market and then we could try to design and manufacture the item indicated by you guys.

20) Feel free to include any final thoughts, ideas, or fun stories....

The Fox is called the fox because we once had a hunter order a custom Jack with a side rail and a wooden thumbhole stock (like the FB Hunter) and while making the purchase he shared his opinion that for fox hunting there is no better weapon of choice than the AKM ;) So this is why we called this US rifle version the fox as we remembered this guy and his comment from many years back.
This is what is beautiful about the US market, even though we have a ton of work, running the facility managing the people and managing the business, even though there are so many daily tasks, we can still keep in direct contact and deal directly with people standing behind companies and businesses, people who are just cool guys and passionate about what they do. We just enjoy meeting and talking to Andrew and Blaine, hanging out, drinking beers, following what they do in life, etc. We are talking and emailing with you and then we can check out your YT videos, we can probably catch each other and chat at the Shot Show, it is a really nice thing about dealing with the US because businesses are mainly owned by individuals but they are still big, serious businesses. When doing military contract related stuff you deal with institutions, people are mostly serious (which doesn’t mean they are not nice and polite), some of these guys may sometimes be dishonest, it is all about money and haggling. They talk about NDAs, penalties, stuff like that, it is just much more formal. It gets tense at times and the relationships are mainly (not always of course) pure business, not too much space for just pure friendly relations. So that is why it is really nice to deal with you gentlemen and we hope that this will continue.

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