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BY DAVE MERRIL
Though the genesis of SureFire came from lasers, the real primordial ooze of the company started with a young, not-yet-then-Dr. John Matthews racing from police in the 1950s. As with many good stories, this one starts with two wheels.
SureFire, originally known as Laser Products, is a name now synonymous with weapon-mounted lights. While assorted illumination methods have been used in conjunction with weapons ever since we’ve had both fire and weapons, Matthews was the first to make a successful commercial venture out of it — to the benefit of us all.
Though a great many of us here at RECOIL have used SureFire handheld and weapon lights across the globe, none of us had spent any considerable time with the man behind the machines. So we paid a visit to SureFire’s Fountain Valley, California, headquarters to get an inside look at Dr. Matthews, his legacy, and the inner workings of everything that is SureFire.
While big businesses are moving operations overseas to increase profit margins and stay in the game, SureFire has managed to keep virtually everything American. That’s for one simple reason: the sheer hardheaded doggedness of Dr. Matthews.
It hasn’t been without cost, however. While supplying the Department of Defense is a shrewd move during times of conflict, when troops get pulled out and the supply chain is no longer needed, you’re going to see some spring-back. Over the years we’ve watched SureFire go both high and low, and reinvent and root themselves into different market sectors.
The second half of 2017 was particularly good as far as new illumination technology. Though many turned to cheaper Chinese wares on eBay, bellowing unproven boasts of high power and durability, SureFire upped their game. Their new series of lights squeeze more juice out than ever before.
Matthews is an engineer to the core. Many employees we questioned danced around the topic when we asked them what it was like to have a boss who wasn’t a businessman. Since no one would tell us directly, we had to break out the context clues: Matthews is highly respected, and sometimes a bit maddening with his idiosyncrasies and his pursuit of perfection. Outright we’ll say that we love this combination, especially when contrasted against the what’s-the-bottom-line-buddy cutthroat businessmen.
At 79 years old, Matthews comes to work every day. Somehow he still manages to find time for his beloved wife, exercising, and tinkering in his garage. His office could be described as old-school organized, with labeled file folders crowding nearly every open surface. His meticulous house could be used to film a James Bond movie, complete with subterranean shooting range. And his motorcycles are racetrack ready. We’re not sure we’d want to work for John Matthews, but we certainly wouldn’t mind growing up to be John Matthews.
You can tell when Matthews gets excited about a topic. He produces grand gesticulations and gets a twinkle in his eye. His intensity is only leveled by his laughter. We witnessed all of this during our time with him.
RECOIL: SureFire still produces lasers, but they aren’t what you’re best known for. When did Laser Products develop into SureFire?
John Matthews: What happened with the lasers, is laser diodes came along. So instead of a big giant tube, the diodes are very small. The problem with laser sights is that you have to see the spot. They were sort of wimpy, and I thought of the new diodes as more of a gimmick than a useful tool. We didn’t push the laser sights at that time, because we only want to do the real thing, the things that work. The flashlights.
Of course since diodes were cheap, companies were flooding the market with them, and they weren’t any good. We now have real laser diodes. When powerful diodes first became available — they really weren’t available commercially, but we convinced one of the manufacturers to sell us the prototypes — we got back into them.
How did you convince the market that lasers on pistols was a good idea?
JM: We didn’t convince the market; it took all these years. Finally now there are people coming to realize, you know, it really is a good tool. If you want to hit something accurately, you’ve got to see where the gun’s pointed. You can do that with open sights; people have been doing it that for 100-plus years. But when there’s a huge time pressure?
With the laser, if you can see the spot on the target … it does everything you want. The problem is you’re limited with how much laser power you can put out for eye safety reasons. If the sun is too bright, it just doesn’t work. What’s really useful for laser sights are the infrared laser sights the military is using.
We’ve heard a lot of stories. Have you ever been in trouble with the law?
JM: Only as a teenager. Two wheels are the best toy going, as long as you have a good place to ride. In the ’50s, there was no law about riding in private property. You could fly through construction sites. You could ditch the cops in a snap. In those days you were riding on a four-stroke motorcycle, almost as good as they are today. And they were driving sh*tty cars. You could lose cops within a matter of blocks. This area was really neat to ride in.
My first bike I bought for $150 from a sailor. It was a ’38 Harley 74 with a suicide clutch. So you have a manual shift, and you have to run the clutch like a car. I had about two hours practice on it before I took it on the coast highway. Thankfully no one killed me, but I woke up in the hospital with a concussion. The bike was fine, and I got back to it.
I did everything but road racing. As a kid I would practice after school. The guys I was racing against had jobs. So after a few years, I was doing pretty good. I won every heat race I was ever in.
Did you entertain the idea that you might be a professional racer at any point? How did you get here?
JM: I actually tried the flat track; that’s interesting. You don’t get to practice on the track, you get a few laps, and then you race. That’s how you learned. You’re out on this track with no brakes, and guys doing it for a living? I was a motorcycle mechanic, that’s how I made money.
I signed up for junior college, so I could use their machine shop to build my motorcycle. Well, I thought maybe I’d take an engineering course too. Then I figured I’d just be an engineer. I went through 10 years of college and ended up with a Ph.D. from Caltech. In that process I learned how to do engineering things.
My first company was Newport Corporation. And we were building equipment that laboratories would use to exploit lasers, which were new at the time. I observed that gee, with a visible laser beam, this should be pretty good for weapons. So we started on that project in 1972. We bought a couple of Armalite AR-180 rifles and thought, yeah, we’re going to build laser systems for them.
The lasers were too big at the time. Eventually we built lasers that were small enough to put on pistols. The first weapon we adopted was the Colt Python pistol. We had Hughes Aircraft Company build these big ruggedized lasers for us; it was a pretty big deal. That was the first laser-aimed handheld weapon.
At that time Newport Corporation was a publicly held company, and the outside investors questioned why we were doing this gun stuff. So basically I bought the division from the company and formed Laser Products.
And then we pursued putting these ruggedized helium-neon lasers on about everything. M-16s, Ruger Mini-14s, and shotguns. It wasn’t successful financially, but we did a good job. You’d have to sell these things for three or four thousand bucks. I put in the resources so we could do it.
Being around and interfacing with the emergence of the SWAT team at the time, they came to us and said, “You know, we really need illumination.” So we put the first lights on shotguns, on the rifles, MP5 submachine guns, Colt 1911s. Now we have lasers and lights. We started out using parts from the Mini Maglite flashlight.
Maglite was using tungsten lamps, and they were getting them from a local manufacturer. They were interfaced with alkaline batteries. The problem with alkaline batteries is that if you pull the voltage out slowly, the voltage stays kinda constant — if you want to pull it out fast, for a lot of power, the voltage collapses. With a tungsten lamp, you have to control that voltage very closely.
You couldn’t make a high output light with alkaline batteries. About that time, Duracell developed the lithium 123 battery for cameras. We couldn’t get them directly, not at first, so we would get small quantities for cameras. It turns out that then we could pull out a lot of current, but there were no lamps available.
So we went to the lamp manufacturer, and they developed a special tungsten lamp that would work with the new batteries. Instead of getting 6 lumens, we got 60. That was a big deal. Factor of 10.
We hear the CR123A battery that exists today is because of you. Any truth to that?
JM: There’s an interesting story. When we built illumination products using those batteries, I went to a media event they had at the Ritz Carlton. I had one of our weapons, I think it was a 1911. It used a single cell, it put out 10 lumens, and they were all walking around the parking lot with it saying how great of a light it was.
I met with these guys and they were excited about it, but then I got a notice from them that they were not going to sell us the product directly. They were concerned for safety, that people would incorrectly stack these single cells up and would have a problem. I’d already invested all this money in tooling, am I supposed to sue Duracell or whatever? Well, I approached them and said, “Hey, if you put this spacer button here …” and I gave them the prints — and that’s what they used. So we designed a modification for their battery to work on our product, and they use that design to this very day. That’s the CR123A.
Of course now you can stack them anyway. Just curious how some things happen.
Prior to the Global War on Terror, did you mostly sell to smaller units and SWAT?
JM: The initial market was basically SWAT and individuals. The military’s involvement was initially SEAL Team 6 when Marcinko was running it. I worked for Litton Industries as a side gig on a top-secret program. And the sponsor of the program was the CIA. That was way back when, but that, that was interesting. So we discovered SEAL Team 6 and they discovered us, and we built things for them.
At that time the Team was using Berettas, and mounting anything to a pistol without a rail was a challenge. We actually had a number of patents on how to do it. On the Beretta pistol, we extended a pin and used it as an attachment. We thought the diameter of the pin would be adequate for that purpose. But SEAL Team 6 did a lot of shooting.
So they called and said, “Hey, these pins are bending,” and, well, we didn’t really believe them. So they got on a plane and flew out here from Virginia Beach with 7,000 rounds of ammo. And we went to the range [laughs]. And I’m loading magazines for them and they’re shooting … and sure enough, yup, it did bend! So we changed our design.
They were really good guys. Use of lights evolved, and the rest of the military realized that hey, it’s really useful to put lights on guns. And then it became the standard, but SEAL Team 6 was the first. Before [Marcinko] got thrown in jail, of course.
Are there things you wish you could’ve made in the ’80s that you can now?
JM: Our basic mission is to provide products that help the guy going into harm’s way. That’s a very broad area, and I think we understand that very well now. There’s no mystery. They have to be able to see; they have to be able to shoot. Which means we have to help them see and help them to shoot.
Actually building the equipment and optimizing it to be the best to get the job done is an ongoing challenge. What makes that area interesting is that you’re using technology. It’s evolving very fast. If you look at lights, it was a big deal to go from 6 lumens to 60. Now we’re pushing 1,000 lumens out of our pistol lights. And it’s running longer, and it’s using the same two lithium batteries. That reflects the evolution of the LED as a light source.
Now that you have more light, the question is what do you do with it. What is the beam pattern, so to speak. And we have the capability to say we want X distribution, and with very fancy computer software we can go back and design the optics to provide it. That’s a very challenging problem, and we have a capability that’s unique in the world to do that. We have a pretty good idea of what you want, and we’ve developed it in some of the optics, like the MaxVision or the TIR [total internal reflection].
We have exceptionally good people working for us, doing the actual engineering now. The software is so good. We can have one or two guys pulling out a really nice design in weeks, whereas before it would have taken teams of people much longer.
You’re a large American company. American founded. American employees, American manufacturing. You’ve maintained control of the company the entire time. How have you resisted external pressure?
JM: We’re the last guy standing. We do have two minority investors who have put in a fair amount of money. They are not always happy with the way I run the company. They don’t necessarily want to see the new stuff, the research, and development; they want to optimize the business to make money.
But it’s easy because I’m the majority shareholder. The focus of Laser Products, and now SureFire is: Let’s build the best gear possible for our military and law enforcement. Period. We have the strength to do that, and of course you hope to make some money in the process. You have to do that eventually or you can’t stay in business.
Good people, good engineers, the best engineers enjoy building the best products. Most companies, to be commercially successful, you’re not building the best product. You’re building the product that you can sell for the lowest price that sorta gets the job done in most cases. In this world, we think what you need to do is build the best product operationally for the user. And you keep the cost down to reasonable, but it’s not about building it to sell it competitively. That’s a difficult situation for a company to do well financially. We’ve had the strength that we continue to build the best.
Of course, there’s a variation of things, and some things cost less than others. There’s less expensive SureFire lights, and more expensive SureFire lights. But basically we do the best, and we build it here. You can get stuff made in China very cost effectively, and you can even tell them, “Hey build this and this will be the very best,” but they will on their own, make changes themselves which diminishes it because it saves them money. It’s really bizarre. We don’t do that — we build everything here. There’s a cost; it costs more money.
There was some pretty dire stuff going on with the influx of Asian-manufactured lights into this part of the industry. How have you managed to weather that?
JM: With difficulty. It hurts. It hurts everybody. About all we could do was build genuinely better products. We seem to have enough customers that appreciate that and buy our products. If they don’t end up buying our products, then we won’t be doing as much in that sector. They’re still buying our silencers; they’re still buying our sighting systems. Being in the weapons arena, maybe we’re a little bit shielded from overseas, but not in the flashlight business obviously. Diversifying.
What’s been a favorite project?
JM: You know what’s interesting? Try riding a mountain bike with night vision. We were working on a helmet-mounted monocle mount where you could partially look through it. My criteria was that I had to be able to ride my mountain bike in the dark. We developed a system — we never brought it to market — where you could mount a single monocular. You could position it just so and you could see around it, but if you looked to the side you could see through it. It worked fine.
The problem was getting it to fit the head just right. If it’s a little off, it’s not right. So we developed that, but then realized we needed to be in the helmet business to make it the way we wanted.
So how old do you feel?
JM: About 30. I’m starting to see that I’m not quite as strong as I was 10 years ago. I didn’t feel that until I hit my 70s.
Where do you see SureFire in 30 years?
JM: Just where it is right now. I probably won’t be here in 30 years because I’m pushing 80. So hopefully someone like Barry Dueck or similar will continue on the legacy. We’re always evolving and changing the business.
How about the near future?
JM: We’re working on more projects now than we ever have. It probably isn’t in our best interest to describe maybe even most of them at this point in time because they compete with everyone in this market. I would be delighted to have this conversation with you —maybe in two months.