The hand-crafted, highly stylized firearms from Jesse James Firearms Unlimited are not only visually striking and unique, but are also in high-demand from firearms collectors.
To learn more, we recently sat down with renowned custom motorcycle manufacturer and television host Jesse James, owner and founder of Jesse James Firearms Unlimited (JJFU), to discuss his unique vision of the AR platform and his custom-crafted creations.
Q: Jesse, with you spending so much time in California, what was it like when you were able to relocate to Texas, from a firearms perspective?
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: I can remember around 15 or 20 years ago, they were going to ban AR-15s in California, and I bought a Bushmaster…but it was one of the top-loading ones. I bought it because at the time a friend of mine was saying “they’re going to be gone soon, so you better buy one.”
So, I bought it, and I don’t think I ever shot it. It’s been sitting in my closet until not too long ago. I recently stuck it in my mill here and milled the bottom of it out and made it into a regular AR (laughs).
“It just wasn’t on my radar”
While I was in California, I had a few guns like the big Armalite AR-50 that I bought. There were also some guns that I got from my dad. I knew Mike Dillon and the Dillon family and I had used some of their stuff on Monster Garage like Dillon mini-guns and .50 calibers, but that was always in a controlled TV setting. So, I knew I couldn’t own any of this stuff so I really didn’t even pay attention to it. I didn’t look at magazines…it just wasn’t on my radar.
“It got to the point I had everything”
When I moved to Texas in 2010 and went to the gun store for the first time it was like “man, am I allowed to be in here?” It felt like I was being so bad, like “oh shit, can I touch this stuff?” (laughs).
From there, I started buying every AR that I could…in full-auto. I got my trust, my tax stamps, and bought machine guns until I got to the point where I had everything. I ran out of stuff that I was interested buying.
“Maybe there’s something to this”
Around that time, I ended up buying a commander sized Kimber from some dude off of Texas Gun Trader and I thought it was pretty cool. It shot awesome and I’d never had a 1911 before.
I took it apart, made some parts on my mill and put it on Instagram and some dude was like “I want three of those.” A friend of the Prince of Kuwait wanted one as well…I started to think, “maybe there’s something to this.”
Q: Was the learning process of building ARs something that came naturally to you or has there been a learning curve?
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: I’ve been CNCing parts and working at a CNC shop since 1993. I learned to be a manual machinist in the late 80s, so I have a good knowledge of tolerances and fitting, and piston/cylinder fit and all that.
Early on, I think I bought 30 different AR uppers, lowers and then a bunch of complete guns and I started spec-ing them out and making a catalog of the tolerances…and I started thinking “hey, what if we tighten up all the tolerances and hand fit all this stuff?” I started thinking things like “what if we angle the mag well like two degrees so it gives the round more of a straight shot into the barrel extension, into the chamber?” Just little things like that…
“Tighten up tolerances and setting things down”
A SCAR-17 is a neat gun, neat engineering, but you shoot it and after like 5 rounds you’re like “man, this thing sucks.” It’s not pleasurable to shoot. You’re more focused on that felt recoil in your face. It’s not fun. (laughs). I want to tighten up tolerances and settle things down where they shoot like a sewing machine.
To do that, It’s been a bit of an evolution we’ve gone through. We’ve been to SHOT Show, made a lot of different connections. We’ve been through it all, but now it’s back to where I’m just back in my corner doing things my way, just the way I want. If people dig it, that’s awesome. If not, well…I think people like what they already have, or what they can afford. If they can’t afford it, they might say “oh, that stuff sucks.”
Q: How did you educate yourself on the AR platform? Did you take classes or were you self-taught?
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: It’s mostly self-taught. Coincidently, I knew a lot of guys and ex-employees of Harvey Aluminum in California and that’s where the first Armalite guns were built. Researching it from a historical standpoint, I bought a bunch of those old guns and really looked at the way they were made.
“I just tried to go my own path”
I notice that if you go on somewhere like AR15.com there’s like a million experts. Any time a guy has a problem like a failure-to-feed, there’s always like “blog authorities.” It’s not just in the gun world, it’s motorcycles, race engines, custom cars…there’s always these internet authorities. Instead of trying to navigate that, I tried to just go my own path. I tried some stuff that was too tight and that didn’t work, and then found the happy medium.
Luckily, there are a lot of good guys in the industry like Fortis…they helped me with the stuff that they make…American Trigger, Elftactical (Elftmann Tactical)…Art from Elftactical sent me his first triggers to try before he sent them to anybody else because he used to make parts for me for the motorcycle industry. Our gun drilling guy used to do gundrilling for us for motorcycle front-ends. I asked him if he could do barrels and he said “dumbass, I’ve been making barrels for twenty years.”
But as far as why I choose a component like the Fortis charging handle for instance, I just like the way that it feels. I think some of these people overthink it and try to make a simple part overly complicated, to me it’s like a 27-piece screwdriver…I’d rather keep it simple.
Q: I’ve heard you mention the idea that you’re making firearms that can be passed down from father to son…what would you say your approach is to building your ARs?
I think it’s a personality flaw, because I’m taking something that you can buy for 500 bucks, and it’s like I’m making a super-expensive version of something like a Nissan Sentra. (laughs)… You know, I just tried to de-plastic the whole gun. Like, the first thing I made was the billet grip that was really form fitting and ergo and thin…so more percentage of your hand can wrap around it.
Well, the first thing that people said was “oh, that doesn’t look comfortable, that’s going to hurt your hand.” Now, look how many different people are making billet aluminum grips.
“Take your time and do your research”
I have a huge collection of guns, Colts, Noveske, LMT…and every kind of different AR. Now, I love many of them and they shoot awesome. I think if you take your time and do your research and don’t go after the stuff that the internet tells you is the coolest, you can make a really nice shooting gun.
Mostly I think it comes down to bolt carrier, barrel quality and recoil system quality. Everything else can be mil-spec parts. If you really take your time and research and make sure those parts are great, then it will make a really nice shooting gun.
Q: Can you talk about the process by which Jesse James Firearms Unlimited guns are all built in-house?
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: We use Haas machines, which are not the fanciest, but I have been using them since 1996. If I have a problem, it’s fixed the next day. That’s why I like them, because I can always keep them going and I can keep making parts with them.
All of our uppers and lowers are done on 4th axis out of 7075, and hand guards are extruded out of 6061 and machined in-house. We do everything – butt stock, hand guards, gas blocks, grips, upper, lower, the bipod, muzzle break, everything is done in-house.
Everything but a barrel, trigger and charging handle we do in-house…I think people think I am just slapping my name on it and charging extra money, but it’s just time and material for me, and the extra machine time and the time spent hand-fitting parts.
Q: You do have some Jesse James Firearms Unlimited builds that seem reasonably priced for the time and effort it takes…
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: If you price up all the parts, and add up the barrel, trigger, all the quality parts…you really can’t beat the price. You could easily spend way more. A couple years ago when they were banning pistols in California, we were doing them left and right.
I don’t do as many pistols now. I’ve been doing more long range guns…a lot of 6.5, .308, and .260 Remington.
I also do some law enforcement guns. Most of those get abused to hell. Some of these departments don’t have a big budget, like Atlanta SWAT, I kind of do a little bit pro bono because some of the guys are old friends and they have really terrible DPMSs that are just totally clapped out (laughs). Usually I will have a a big inventory of parts that are not JJFU parts, so I’ll put those parts in there. They’re not parts I can really sell or put in our guns, but they’re awesome for their stuff. I even did some little pistol grenade launchers so they can use them for barricaded suspects and that type of stuff.
Q: Are there misconceptions about you and what you do at Jesse James Firearms Unlimited?
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: I think a lot of people wanted me to kiss the ring when I came over to this industry. I killed them with quality and now I just try to keep cranking out good stuff…especially pistol-wise. We’re two years behind on pistols.
I don’t know…Hopefully most people will see what I am doing and realize I am not trying to copy anybody. I’ll never do that. Even if someone has a similar idea to mine at the same time, I’ll stop and do something completely different to never appear to be copying anyone.
Especially with things like our suppressor system, which was very different and ruffled a lot of feathers in the suppressor industry. It works awesome…it’s just different looking. I think a lot of people don’t like different. They just want things to be the same. I say that, but then we sell a lot of them (laughs).
Q: Any new projects currently in the works?
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: We have the featureless California-legal rifle that has kind of a Benelli buffer system with a wooden stock and no grip. We’re working on a second version of that one that will be piston-driven. It can still have a 16″ barrel, but it can have a folding wood stock. It’s a really simplified design that we are trying to make even more simple.
Q: Finally, if we or our readers want to learn more about you and Jesse James Firearms Unlimited, where should we go?
Jesse James, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited: Probably the National Enquirer (laughs). Just the Instagram or JJFU.com is the best thing.
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