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Mike Pappas: From Demolition Derby to Dead Air Silencers And A Lot Between



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The firearms community has always been home to a broad cast of characters, but they broke the mold after they made Mike Pappas. It’s not the way he looks, either; Pappas could be used as the archetype for an American dad. 

He’s not a business magnate, but he’s been a founder of two separate successful silencer companies. Pappas isn’t a professionally trained engineer, but he’s designed and patented some of the best suppressors in the world. His sense of humor is so dry that it can make the unaccustomed uncomfortable, and occasionally something equally true and bombastic bursts from his mouth. 

If you’re familiar with Dead Air or SilencerCo at all, then you’re at least familiar with his work. And if for some reason you’re here from the heavy military equipment community, you know Pappas for his OT-90 (basically a Czechoslovakian BMP-1 — featured in RECOIL Issue 26).

While firearms are now so common and ubiquitous even the Wall Street types are involved — and silencers are getting there — Pappas was here back when suppressors were considered only for spies and murderers. He didn’t just jump on this train; Pappas is a conductor. 

Today, we'll learn a little more about him. We’ll talk about silencers, of course. But also guns, demolition derby, and a bit about life. 

EARLY YEARS & HEAVY EQUIPMENT

In some ways, Pappas represents an older, more traditional way of doing things. He hates to travel, to be away from his family. In a world where the major lesson of popular culture is that you have to move far from home in order to “make it,” Pappas has never lived more than 30 miles from where he was born. 

“Just a small town on the other side of the mountains,” he says.

The original plan, at least after learning how to use a stick shift, was to be a mechanic. “When I started to drive probably back in 1982, I started to do a lot of work on cars. I did that until I graduated from high school. I was a total gearhead. Was just totally into cars.”

How Pappas worked on cars, at least when he had a problem he didn’t know how to solve, seems to have informed his work on everything else that came later.

“My cousin used to do a bunch of demolition derbies and whatnot, so we’d work on a lot of vehicles. Once, we had a problem with a transmission. I didn’t know what the part was, so I took the transmission out and took it apart until I found the broken part. I didn’t know how or why it worked, but I went to the wrecking yard until I found the part and put it all back together, and it worked.

“I like the challenge and the satisfaction of doing it. And after I legitimately read a bunch of repair manuals. I built hundreds of 350s and 400s. Went through dozens of these 727s. When I look back on it now, I can see that I didn’t know enough to know better. I wish we had the internet.”

This experience led Pappas to pursue being an A&P (airframe and powerplant) mechanic. And while he never transitioned into aviation as a career, he’s always had a hankering for large vehicles that continues to this day. 

For a moment, consider being into large miliary vehicles, pre-internet. You had to do some real research and not just memorize Wikipedia. And if you think about a young Pappas chewing through old manuals, his personality begins to make sense.

Learning about heavy equipment and owning it are two different things, too. And Pappas owns it. 

“Bought the BMP when I still had the M35. Now I have a 1083A1. But not everyone can do that because you have a couple problems there. You can’t park a truck with three axles in a city where there are residences. You can’t take it to a local shop because they don’t know, and they don’t care. 

“You have to be able to be a driver, owner, crew chief — everything. Although that’s not totally true — because I’ve fixed a number of military vehicles for other people. Now I’m into military and surplus generators because I have the room for it and know-how.”

Pappas says that he always wanted to be the mechanic whom other mechanics call when they have a problem — he can check off that boyhood dream as complete.  

GUNS

Not unusual for a boy growing up in Utah, firearms were simply a part of Pappas’ life. But just because they’re around doesn’t mean one will catch the gun bug — and the gun bug Pappas certainly has. “As a young man I was always interested in firearms. They had always been around, and I had them. As I got a little bit older, about the time I turned 18 or so, it shifted. I got into the so-called ‘paramilitary’ stuff.”

We’re not sure what’s considered “paramilitary” in 2024, but what we can say for sure is that what was considered “paramilitary” back in the early Clinton years is simply normal now — much of what you see here in this magazine falls into that category. 

The Wolverine, seen here above topping off an RPK, is Pappas' favorite silencer. But below you'll see the first two designs from SilencerCo: the Sparrow on a .22LR rifle and the asymmetric Osprey on a pistol.

There are gun folks who romanticize this period, the late 1980s, who think it as a mil-surp heyday and that Ronnie Reagan was pro-gun. But if they could travel back a few decades and remove those rose-tinted lenses, they’d see it pales in comparison to what we have access to now. There has never been a time with more or better options for someone with a grand or two burning in their pocket. 

“It was considered weird, being into guns and the kind of gun stuff I like,” Pappas says. “You know, machine guns, silencers, and the like. Back then there were limited options. It was Gemtech and AWC.”

It’s only natural that it was around then that Pappas got his first taste of NFA items. “Way back in the very early 1990s I got my first registered machine gun. That Form 4 was for a MAC-11/9. I also bought my first silencer for it, a matching Sionics SWD.”

Next up was a Colt SP1 with a registered sear. Then an AWC suppressor for that. And on. The collection would only be added to over the following decades. A few years back during a visit to Utah, we played a game with Pappas: we’d name a mil-surp gun, and then after a couple minutes Pappas would appear with one, usually complete with a silencer. 

You can think of Pappas as an early adopter, or someone who was into the stuff that a lot of people are into now, but back when it was fringe. A pre-hipster gun hipster, but with silencers. Back then Pappas was making his living as a mechanic, performing repairs at a full-service gas station. 

While he would always have at least one foot in the automotive world, one fateful day he heard a gun store ad playing on the radio. “It was for Get Some, a little tiny store where maybe four people could be inside, but if there were five or six people then no one could move. It was very small.

“I happened to be there one day when they were trying to put a buttstock on an AR-15 or a free float tube or something of that nature. They couldn’t do it, so I got my range bag and fixed that rifle for them.” What might have been a one-time event turned into a regular gig. “I used to stop by every Friday, and there would be a stack of rifles for me to switch up and fix. I’d do these repairs and trade for ammo, and then one day they wanted me to work every other Saturday.”

It wasn’t too long before the-little-gun-store-that-could wanted Pappas to work full-time. They couldn’t pay him as much as he was making as a mechanic, and it’s really hard to pay your bills solely with ammo, so a deal was struck for a percentage of the profits. They didn’t carry any NFA items at the time (once again, this is very common now but was an aberration then). Perhaps it was Pappas’ enthusiasm that pushed them over the edge, but soon they got an SOT and were doing brisk business. 

“The first few months we were doing $40,000. And it took a while, but soon we were doing $150,000 a month, every month.”

And that’s when Pappas met Jonathon Shults.

SILENCERCO

 “[Shults] approached me about starting a silencer company named SilencerCo. This was somewhere around 2007.” And to be sure, Pappas’ interest was piqued. The proprietor of the store caught wind, and not wanting to lose him, “the owner of the gun store offered me a raise, told me to buy a car, and he’d pay for the car insurance, the fuel, the whole thing. I told my wife that. It was very tempting.”

But continuing at the shop just wasn’t meant to be. “One day I was driving home, and I wouldn’t suggest this to everyone, but I’ve always found something passionate I liked and then made a career out of it.” The decision was made to take the leap. 

In order to start a successful company, you need funding, and you need a product. For the former, Shults and Pappas had their own money but needed more initial investors. Pappas tells us, “I brought five of the original seven investors in. I also took a substantial amount of money and put it in. We officially started SilencerCo in 2008.”

Pappas has always been a fan of NFA weapons

While basically anyone can put up a shingle and copy an old Phil Dater design (see RECOIL Issue 42), Pappas knew they’d need something that stood out and sold well. “A silencer you can pay the bills with” is how he described it. For SilencerCo, it would be a rimfire.

Pappas explains, “The Sparrow. That was the first product that we made. It was kind of the box that was drawn in order to make a commercially viable rimfire can to start the company. We bought a mill, and we’d already decided to make a rimfire can with a monocore. But what’s going to make it stand out? What I wanted to do was to make it come apart to be cleaned.”

Rimfire silencers are notoriously dirty, and in the days before the Sparrow, most of them weren’t user-serviceable. People would either have to deal with an increasingly heavy and increasingly loud silencer, or they’d have to figure out a way to break it open in a way the manufacturer never intended. There was a small cottage industry dedicated to cracking Gemtech Outback silencers, but with the Sparrow, you could “shoot it all you want, take it apart, clean it out, and shoot it all you want again.”

“I came up with the clamshell half pipe idea.” Pappas says. “At first, he was like ‘meh.’ I was still at the gun store at the time. So, then I left the gun store and drove over there. This was on a Wednesday, and it was taco Tuesday the day before. I took this napkin from the taco shop and a BIC pen, and I drew out what I was thinking of in my mind. Maybe it was easier to see than to explain, when I drew that out with the pen, it was ‘that’s genius, that’s what we’ll do,’ and we started to build a company on it.”

“The Osprey was next. Shults showed me what he’d gotten to at that point, the basic design. We had a layover for a flight, and we took it to the first Advanced Armament shoot in Georgia. During that, I came up with the cam throw lever and locking mechanism. And then we had two products.”

For all the budding engineers and industry tycoons out there, in a lamenting refrain we’ve heard from similar people, Pappas suggests keeping your napkins and some of your prototypes. “The original [Sparrow] was all aluminum. We switched it to stainless, and I kick myself for not keeping one of the original aluminums. But you never know what something is going to turn into.”

This tracked and armored amphibious vehicle is the OT-90, a Czechoslovakian variant of the Russian BMP-1. Pappas wears many hats as the owner, driver, crew chief, and mechanic all-in-one.

But staying at SilencerCo was not to be. Pappas details the end of his tenure at SilencerCo without malice, something that we’re not sure would’ve been possible a few years ago. Time may not heal all wounds, but maturity and perspective definitely help. “I came home and told my wife I got fired. She asked how I could get fired from the company I started. I said I wasn’t exactly sure, but that it definitely happened.”

With some reflection, Pappas says, “I don’t begrudge them for kicking me out there. I wanted to be way more conservative and not be in debt.” Pappas resigned as a manager, sold his shares, and then wasn’t sure what he was going to do. 

Or maybe he did. Maybe there’s something in the water in Utah. There seem to be suppressors in the mountains or something, because Dead Air was about to shake some things up. 

DEAD AIR

In 2014, Pappas, along with another SilencerCo alum, Todd Magee, founded Dead Air Silencers. When they showed up at SHOT Show in January 2015, the whispers were that we had to go see them specifically because of their mounting system. 

And indeed, the KeyMo mounting system, in particular, quickly surged through the world of suppressors. 

Dead Air has gone through a great many changes in production over the years and has both enjoyed and bemoaned the sine wave of internet popularity. Describing their operation now, Pappas says:

“We’ve recently changed the way that we do business. I’ll tell you that we’re moving to a kind of Toyota-esque manufacturing in general. It’s a more common way of manufacturing now. 

“We used to be a skunkworks; now we have several different people that we variance, and multiple different vendors. All of those parts streams and cans come into the warehouse and get fulfilled from the warehouse. Everything comes into one place for QC, for assembly, for distribution, where we can get eyes-on. We get to pore over everything and then we package and fulfill the e-store and distribution.” 

SILENCERS

We always like to ask people from silencer companies what their favorite suppressor is, with the caveat that it can’t be one that they make. While we couldn’t get Pappas to say too much bad about a rifle-mounted Gemtech GM-22, he waxed poetic enough about one of his own that we may actually believe him.

“I hesitate, I want to very clear, I hesitate to answer the question. If it weren’t the truth, I’d tell you because I’d rather be honest. It’s the Wolverine,” Pappas admits. The Wolverine is a silencer that’s emblematic of what Dead Air does. It looks like an old Soviet PBS-1, but it performs like a modern can on an AK. The Russians were never really known for precision, and Dead Air hid all of the excellent engineering and modularity inside a Lenin-looking shell. We covered it back in RECOIL Issue 26, and the Wolverine we used in that article is still riding an AK that sees regular use today. Maybe Pappas knew we’d accept this answer due to our own proclivity for it, but he continued.

The many faces of Mike.

“The reason I say this is that in my life, for me, when I look at the firearms I possess, the Wolverine fits almost all of them. And it’s easy for me to work with. We make a Wolverine HUB adapter. I love the Wolverine plus a Xeno [muzzle device]. I’m not going to weld something on a barrel, and I don’t have to. I don’t care about the weight and all that. I just want it to work for me. It’s the easiest, smoothest, way for me to do what I want to do.

“Heck, we went to the Thunder Beast Arms metering event. Took a Wolverine with a KeyMo on it. I know it sounds good, but I don’t know how it was going to do — ended up right in the middle of the pack of dedicated 5.56 cans. Not bad for something made for an AK.

“We never thought the Wolverine would be the product that pays the bills. We made that because we wanted it. I know companies like to say they make things just for themselves, but it’s true in this case. This is not like the Sparrow where you make the company from it — sometimes you get some oddball stuff out there.”

LIFE

When asked about how he “made it” or what advice he’d have for people looking to do the same, Pappas paused and considered for a moment. “I think life is based rightly on risk and reward. I think a few things need to line up for you. 

“Happenstance is how your life is set up. I’ve met some very smart, successful people. People who will stop and tell you how smart and successful they are, who say their success is all their own making. But they leave out chance, timing, and luck. 

“Any success I have, I always credit at least half of it to friggin’ luck. But really, it’s the people you meet and who you come into contact with. Whenever I stop and talk to a person, they’re the only person on the planet. I engage. I think people appreciate that. My odd sense of humor also makes me say funny things. These are the things that they remember, these interactions. I can’t count the number of times human interactions have come back to help me in so many ways. 

That, I think, helps a person. Some kind of uniqueness and some way to stand out.”

 Words to live by: Give attention. Don’t be a dick. Be kinda weird. 

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