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Zeroed In: John Hollister

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The Professor of Quiet

Sitting in the dimly lit lobby museum at Sig Sauer Headquarters in Pease, New Hampshire, is John Hollister — one of the best-known faces in the world of suppressors, the unofficial godfather of .300 Blackout, and known to many as the Yoda of silencers. His current home at Sig Sauer affords him the opportunity to travel the country as an educator and product manager, spreading the gospel of a quieter gun world, one suppressor at a time. With a gentle ease and self-confidence that only comes with a lifetime of experience, Hollister sits patiently, absently stroking his long, wizard-like, white beard.

His high-pitched voice has a hint of Southern affect that mixes equal parts self-deprecation and encyclopedic understanding of firearms. There’s a certain sparkle in his light brown eyes as he begins speaking about the technical aspects of suppressors, his life well lived, and the twisty road map that landed him at a company that, like him, shows no signs of slowing down.

RECOIL: Tell us about how you grew up.
John Hollister: My father’s from Texas, and my mother’s from Massachusetts — the original odd couple. My father was in the Air Force. I grew up on military bases around the world. I spent a number of years in the Middle East. I lived in Iran before the Shah abdicated. I lived in Turkey. I lived in Washington DC. I lived in Texas, Colorado, and Florida a couple of times. Just all over the world, all over the country.

The first year silencers were allowed at the NRA Annual Meeting.

So like most military kids, you moved around a lot. What about college?
JH: I went to a college, but it just wasn’t for me. I got into law enforcement and did crime scene investigations for the last 12 years. I specialized in gun crimes in central Florida. And so that was what really formed a lot of my skills coming into the firearms industry, working with rifles and working with every different manufacturer of pistols out there.

Is that how you became such a “gun guy?”
JH: Well we grew up around firearms. I bought my own guns starting around 16 years old. My first handgun was a Colt Agent — a little five-shot .38 revolver. My first rifle, they’re not even in business anymore, was an Italian .22LR copy of an M16 called a Jager. [laughs] I shot that gun so much it went full-auto all the time. I ended up having to get rid of the thing rather than get caught with it and go to jail.

Do you remember your first experience with a silencer?
JH: I was probably 21 or 22 years old. I was invited to a product demo for HK on a Saturday morning, and I had made poor choices the night before. I was out real late, woke up late, rode my motorcycle at 90 miles an hour out to the range, almost crashed getting there. As soon as I got off the bike and walked up to the firing line, I was handed an MP5SD and from the first shot, I fell in love. I was like, “Why are not all guns like this?” That really set me up for my path further in life to where I am today.

Wearing the kilt at Advanced Armament

So how did you transition from law enforcement to this industry?
JH: During that time, I met two dear friends of mine: Derek Russell and Ernest Emerson of Emerson Knives. They brought me on to go to trade shows and training and dealer visits, etc. I did that for about 12 years.
I’d go to Atlanta at least once a year for Blade Show, and in 2001, remembered that I had purchased and not received yet two silencers from a little nearby company named Advanced Armament Corporation.
So I called them and the guy who answered the phone was very nice. I said, “Look, you have no idea who I am, but I bought a couple of your products. I haven’t received them yet. Could I stop by and say hi?” And he said, “Absolutely.” So I went to this little unmarked office and I said, “I’m John Hollister.” And he’s like, “Hey man, I’m Kevin Brittingham.” That’s how I met Kevin. And for the next two and a half hours, talked to him about motorcycles, MMA, knives … all of our mutual interests except guns and silencers.
Every SHOT Show, every Blade Show, we would see each other and we became friends. One day, Kevin called me and said, “What are you doing? When can you retire?” And I said, “Well, right now for the right job.” He said, “OK, you’re hired. I’ve seen you with customers. I want to hire you. I want you to do what you want for my company.” And that’s how it started in the firearms and silencer industry. That was 2008 or 2009.
During my career at Advanced Armament, I had been the sales manager, customer service manager, product manager, marketing manager, you know, pretty much running everything except production.

At Blade Show with Ernest and Mary Emerson

And you saw the silencer industry explode from there?
JH: Between 1934 and 2010, there were 285,000 silencers in individual’s hands. And what we did at AAC was to bring standard distribution to silencers. Now every distributor distributes silencers. Before 2010, there was one or two dealers per state where you could walk in and see a silencer. Now I hardly walk into a store that doesn’t have them, and that is a direct result of AAC. Between 2010 and 2016, the last year we have data for, we added 1.1-million silencers in six years.

So in your opinion, why isn’t the market growing even faster?
JH: It’s the timeframe. A $200 tax is not as big a hurdle as it used to be. The first machine gun that I bought, the dealer gave me a free silencer. I paid a $195 for the machine gun, got a free silencer and had to pay $400 in taxes. And then I had to wait three months for the paperwork to clear. Because of the popularity, the time keeps getting longer. And there was up a point in 2008-ish that I waited over a year for some paperwork. If we could somehow fix the timeframe and make it so the ATF could accomplish their job in a reasonable amount of time, then it would explode.

Shooting the original AAC Honey Badger at Gunsite Academy

Are we reaching the limit design where there’s no more true innovation for silencers?
JH: If we go back to 1895 when Hiram Percy Maxim open the doors of the Maxim Silencer Company, the silencers of today are working off the same principles that they did back then. Our metallurgy has gotten better, our baffle design has gotten better. So we’re getting better at weight and getting better at size. Outside of the silencer industry, there’s some interesting innovations. Boston Acoustics just came up with a video of pushing sound through a tube, and they’ve made a ring that fits inside the tube that cancels the sound without batteries, without electronics. So I think that there still is a future. And I can tell you that a lot of the elements that have gone into silencers today, like 718 Inconel and Stellite materials and different finish coatings, are coming out of other industries. It fits very well in what we do. It’s just a matter of finding those elements and bringing them in.

So it seems like you’re constantly researching and finding things to bring back to the engineers.
JH: My personality is that I can’t just know how to turn the key and drive the car. I’ve got to know how the car works. If I’m interested in it, I have to know every detail about it, and I end up teaching other people about it. Today, the military is driving a lot of the innovation in the industry. One of the watch words is “low backpressure,” and so they are driving the industry to look at how to do what we’re doing, but do it with less backpressure. The problem is that it also means more noise. So how do we reduce the noise while reducing the pressure of the vessel?

Is that why Sig started increasing the diameter of their cans?
JH: We didn’t invent the size of the suppressor, but there is an advantage to going bigger. The advantages are that it heats slower, it cools faster, and there is less pressure inside the vessel.
The average out there for a 5.56 or 7.62 can is 1.5 inches in diameter. Now with Pi, I can make more volume by making the silencer wider, faster than adding a link to it. Our steel cans are 1.625 inches, which is an increase of about 20 percent of volume. When we get into titanium, because titanium is lighter, we could make it 1.75 without making it exponentially heavier. But that 1.75 over 1.5 gives me about 50-percent more internal volume. Science.

Maxim Silencer Company Stafford, Texas

As an educator who is in the middle of the fight for wide adoption of silencers, where do you think things like the NFA, the Hearing Protection Act, and other legislation are going?
JH: When I got into the silencer industry, there were only about 24 states where an individual could own a suppressor. And through the efforts of the ASA, the American Suppressor Association, and the NRA, yes, that NRA, they have gotten us up to 42 states that you can own them in, and in 40 of those states you can hunt with them.
I was a board member for many years with the ASA, and one of the things that they have worked very hard on is the Hearing Protection Act, which was an attempt to deregulate suppressors, and it would take away the $200 tax, the nine-month or one-year waiting period, etc. But it became a political point and we’ve actually put it into legislation three times. There’s efforts to get it through, but it has become political. Even though I’m not a board member of the ASA anymore, I am still in contact with them and neck deep in it to try to better the industry.

Florida boy unhappy about the great white north

For people thinking about getting a can, settle the debate: dedicated smaller caliber or big bore?
JH: Honestly, the .22 is the gateway drug of suppressors because even a bad .22 can is pretty good. You know, when you get into the technology end of it and you pay a little bit more, you get amazing performance, but you immediately see the benefit in rifles.

You’re known as a huge .300 AAC Blackout evangelist. Why?
JH: When people ask, I say, “Well, let me tell you about our lord and savior .300 Blackout that I can be more quiet with, but I can still have at least 23-percent more energy than 5.56 at any given barrel length.” I’m a natural-born teacher, so I like to pass information along. I was a product manager when we were doing the .300 Blackout, and I had some hands on into the development of it. But really my cast in that throw was the education portion to explain it to the consumer and tell them why they needed it. And that’s been my role through silencers into firearms into .300 Blackout — the ability to relate the science to the consumer. I’m not an engineer, but I speak engineer and I can translate it to normal people.

Shooting a Sig MCX in Florida

Do you feel .300 Blackout is the new caliber of choice?
JH: Every month I’m going to do two or three different events at gun stores and someone there will know who I am. I’m mildly famous at gun stores, and they’ll be like, “Oh, we need to keep Bob away from you. He hates 300 Blackout!” So I say, “Get Bob over here,” and in 30 minutes, Bob is over at the .300 Blackout section picking out his next rifle. It’s education, right?

So how does that feel knowing you helped birth a new, widely adopted American caliber?
JH: Well, it extends into silencers too. They’re much more of a household item today than they ever have been in history. This is the golden age of firearm suppressors. It’s one of those things where you go home with this stupid little grin on your face the whole time and you’re like, “yeah, you’re doing it.” What’s the Sally Field line? “They really like me!”

On the range doing internal Sig Sauer employee silencer training

Do you like being known as “the silencer guy?”
JH: I’m known as a silencer guy, but I’m also a tremendous gun guy. In order to get to be a tremendous suppressor guy, you’ve got to be a gun guy, but everybody seems to overlook that portion of it.

So what does your collection look like?
JH: Everybody always says, “You can never have enough guns.” [laughs] Well, I have too many guns. I tend toward unusual. I’ve kind of gotten to that point where I’m the silencer guy who will occasionally buy guns that I don’t put silencers on. I’ve gone that far that I’m on the other side.

Do you keep your guns stock or tricked out?
JH: I keep things pretty stock. When new guns come in, I tear them apart then reassemble them and make sure that it was done correctly, that they’re staked correctly, etc. So I make sure about that, and that drives me crazy about the internet today. I tell people the internet’s really good at two things: pornography and bad gun information.

Orlando, Florida, SWAT Roundup booth

So what’s next for you?
JH: When I came to Sig, I came on as the product manager for silencers and have done that now for about four and a half years. At the end of last year I actually transitioned into one of the two national commercial trainers for everything Sig. I do 60 percent that, 40 percent working in product management for the silencer side. I’m on the road a lot. My job is what people do for vacation. Don’t tell my boss, but I love my job. I love this company. The 320 and the MCX are what brought me here, but this is what keeps me here and the people here are genuinely good, except for me. Sig hires amazing people.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
JH: I knew you were gonna ask that. If I go back before Kevin, if I go back before Ernest Emerson to my true love of what I was doing two decades ago, I’d probably be still a firearms instructor. I can’t lay down, I can’t stop. So I would be working for a gun company or I’d be working for a training facility, Gunsite or something like that. Working as a firearms instructor.

What’s your favorite cussword?
JH: I try to moderate it in front of large groups of people, but I tend to throw the F-bomb around a lot. I grew up in a military family. [smiling]

If you had to sell every gun you own except for one, which one is it?
JH: I love my Springfield TRP 1911 with no rail. I own 1911s with rails, but it’s just kind of sacrilege to me. So I’ve got a non-railed 5-inch TRP in .45 that whenever I would shoot competition I’d bring that gun out and people would be like “Well, might as well go home!”

If Ron Cohen, the CEO of Sig, gave you an unlimited budget and said you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?
JH: I would buy even more engineers. Honestly, I would do a lot of what I’m doing now, but turn up the volume.

John Hollister
Born: 1964
Family: I come from a very small family, one brother
Education: Some college, but went right into 25 years of law enforcement
Comments on 5th grade report card: Extremely intelligent, has ADD and ADHD — everything’s going to be perfect, but just for like two minutes.
Role Models: The teachers I had growing up
Favorite Book: Testament by David Morrell
Favorite Film: Way of the Gun
If I could only have one gun: 11.5-inch 5.56 rifle
Most lusted-after firearm: M3A1 Grease Gun with integral suppressor
Daily driver: Toyota FJ
Near Death experiences: Many
Favorite food? Hamburgers
Broken bones? Very few considering the number of times I almost died
Favorite music album? Honky Château by Elton John

John’s EDC:
Sig Sauer P365 in holster by ANR Design
Omega Seamaster watch
Handkerchief by Hanksbyhank
Emerson Knives Rendezvous

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