From humble beginnings crafting durable nylon web gear and packs in a garage back in 1993, BLACKHAWK! has grown into a large corporation offering thousands of products for military, law enforcement, firefighters and EMS, as well as for hunters and self defense. Every product produced by BLACKHAWK! is thoroughly tested under the harshest conditions to ensure that it will hold up and perform when needed the most. In short, for BLACKHAWK! products, failure is not an option.
We spoke with Ty Weaver, Senior Manager of BLACKHAWK!’s Special Operations Division to learn more about the history of the company and what goes into the development of their battle-proven equipment.
Ty Weaver BLACKHAWK! was started in 1993 by a gentleman named Mike Noell., He was actually an active duty SEAL at that time. He was in Northern Iraq on patrol hunting SCUD missiles and one of the straps on his backpack failed, which was bad enough on its own, but they had just found out that they were in the middle of minefield when that happened. So, he decided if he ever got out of that, he’d start making gear that the guys could depend on ’cause he wasn’t impressed with the quality of the issued gear at that time.
He went back, to his East Coast SEAL station in the Norfolk area at Dam Neck. He started designing and building gear out of a 2 car garage in Virginia. He started doing backpacks, load bearing harnesses and things like that.
Cheaper Than Dirt That’s still kind of BLACKHAWK!’s bread and butter isn’t it?
Ty Weaver Yeah, that’s the emphasis. We’re a very diverse company now. We were purchased by ATK in April of 2010—and continue to expand our product offerings. ATK has a number of well-known brands under the umbrella–Federal Premium, Speer, CCI, Weaver, Champion, Alliant Powder and RCBS to name a few. It’s a great fit.
Cheaper Than Dirt Anytime companies can work together under a single umbrella such as ATK, we see so much more product compatibility and so many more innovative products being developed.
Ty Weaver Yup.
We take it so seriously because, all of the guys in the Special Operations Division, we’ve been there. We’ve been in those fights and we know what it’s like when a piece of equipment fails. It’s not all about the money. This is about people’s lives, you know. It really is that important to BLACKHAWK! and that’s why the company has grown substantially since Mike started it. We’ve always had that philosophy of always taking care of the end-user at first.
It doesn’t matter if it’s law enforcement, the military or commercial. We look at the entire market and ask “What do we need? How can we make stuff better, lighter, stronger and faster?” So we work on that.
Cheaper Than Dirt All this gear is designed to be used in areas where failure is really not an option.
Ty Weaver Right, and we take that into account you know. We had crossed over in the last few years into the commercial market and done some packs with Real Tree camouflage, but we don’t really do a separate line. We take existing packs and reconstruct them the same way as we do for a military Special Forces unit. We’ll just change some colors, maybe change a few features on it to get into that specific, what we call “Different Mission Profiles,” whether it be a military mission profile or law enforcement, or commercial. We look at our mindset, asking where is the equipment going to be used, and then we specifically design for that.
Cheaper Than Dirt That’s a really good point because a lot of Cheaper Than Dirt customers are law enforcement and military. We also have a lot of customers who are simply supporters of the Second Amendment. They’re hunters, campers and people who are looking for gear that can survive being abused and being tossed in the closet and hauled out and expected to perform out every couple of years.
Ty Weaver Yeah we design and build our gear to the extremes. You buy one of our BLACKHAWK! three-day backpacks, it’s going to last you for 20 years. Through the years, with the different design changes, we control raw materials very closely and we’re always looking for new products out there to make our stuff lighter, stronger and faster. We’re consistently striving to put the best product out there that we can.
Cheaper Than Dirt What goes into the development process? How are BLACKHAWK! products developed? Do you just have a bunch of guys sitting around a table with a whiteboard and some scraps of paper, scribbling down ideas?
Ty Weaver These days, it’s all end-user driven. Once again it could be in law enforcement, military, civilian commercial, hunters or nearly anybody that we get feedback from. One of the most critical ways we do that now, for the last 6 years, we’ve had a Special Operations Divisions where I work and we have about 12 guys who are all prior law enforcement, military or both, all with an average of 20 years experience in the field.
We go out and do training for law enforcement and military. We do demonstrations, we outfit military units and things like that. Having that interface with the end user, we’re constantly getting feedback.
Teams will tell us “Hey we have this mission profile, can you build us something to accomplish this mission?” or “This holster is great, but we want it to do this: can you modify it this way?”
Cheaper Than Dirt You’ve actually got boots on the ground. You’re directly interfacing with the end-user in order to develop your products.
Ty Weaver Absolutely. For the Special Operations Division, with the team members we have throughout the United States, there are several guys that work at our headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, but the rest of us are in the field all the time. We work out of our house, I mean we work for the factory and obviously are full time employees, but we work in different areas throughout the country as well as all over the world.
Cheaper Than Dirt Let’s talk about one of your new products that you’re coming out with for 2011. You’ve got a new high performance fighting uniform, and one of the features we see on it is an integrated tourniquet system. That’s something that was directly driven by the military, wasn’t it?
Ty Weaver Absolutely, yes. It started off with one of the guys on our Special Operations team, Matt Willette, who was doing a tactical medical course with a guy named Dr. Keith Rose. Keith had done deployments to Afghanistan; he was in a convoy of what are called “technical vehicles” which are basically Toyota pickup trucks. One vehicle in front of them was hit in the front with an RPG, and the driver who was a good friend of his was stuck in that vehicle. They couldn’t get him out and he actually bled out.
Dr. Rose came up with the idea “Hey, if we would have tourniquets on his body in position, we could have saved his life.”
We looked at it, and there are so many ways you could use that. We’re considering, as we expand our apparel line, getting into hunting clothes. If you have a hunter out in the middle of nowhere by himself, and he goes up a tree stand and falls, and somehow a stick goes into his leg and hits an artery, what’s he gonna do? If he has the tourniquet system right there, with one hand he can apply that tourniquet. That’s the thought process, to just incorporate life-saving features in to the actual uniform itself.
Cheaper Than Dirt That same thought process goes into all of your items. You take military application and police applications, and make them into commercially viable products.
Ty Weaver It’s really neat, the way we operate. We have guys in every branch of the military, some guys are canine handlers and on SWAT teams, so when we look at new products it almost always comes through what we call the “SOD” (the Special Operations Division) and we look at it and give inputs on all different aspects.
“How can we make this better?” or “Did you think about this?” just trying to cover as many bases as possible. We strive to get the most use out of every part we build as possible.
Cheaper Than Dirt Let’s talk holsters for a minute. We’ve seen more and more of these holsters come out that accommodate pistol mounted lasers. As lasers become cheaper, less expensive and more readily available, more and more end users, not just police and law enforcement, but regular people carrying concealed handguns are looking for a way to carry that weapon securely concealed in a holster that can accommodate a laser. Can we look forward to seeing more laser holsters coming out from Blackhawk?
Ty Weaver Oh yeah, I mean that simple line that we have now, we already do nylon, leather and the polymer based SERPA holsters, and the SERPA holsters are already designed from the ground up so that when you reholster your weapon, if you have a Crimson Trace laser mounted to your weapon it’ll already accept that.
We also have light bearing holsters. One of the new items we’re coming out within the next 6 to 8 months is our concealed CQC holster light bearing. We did it as a level 3 duty holster for law enforcement. Now we’re taking it a bit farther so that people can carry a concealed weapon with a weapon mounted light as well.
As we go along, we’re developing more and more holsters for different brand weapons, but also incorporating the different accessories that are available out there in the market.
Cheaper Than Dirt Holsters are one those things that you can pretty much chase the long tail of the market forever. There’s almost a never ending possibility of different combinations of lights, lasers, and other accessories. How do you decide where to draw the line and what holster to customize for a specific gun/laser/light combo, and what to go ahead and stick with a universal-style nylon holster for?
Ty Weaver Well, look at holsters like our SERPA line. Obviously it’s expensive to do a mold for every gun, and you have a left and right hand version of each so you have two molds at a minimum, but we look at the industry out there and we have great connections. Within our Special Operations Division we have a guy who worked for SIG for several years. I worked for H&K for seven and a half years, and we have great relationships with people at GLOCK and Springfield, so we get input from them. They let us know what the most popular models are and what’s selling.
A lot of manufacturers will come to us and say “Hey can you do a holster for this weapon we’re going to come out with,” and we get ahead of the curve on that as well. One of the unique things is that we do the traditional leather and nylon, but one of the unique things about the SERPA is it’s a modular system.
For example, if you buy the CQC holster, it comes with both a paddle and a belt mount. But if you want to turn it into a shoulder holster you don’t have to buy another holster, you just buy the shoulder holster mount. If you wanted to buy an adapter to put it onto MOLLE gear or the PALS type of military webbing, we have that mount so that you don’t have to buy a whole new holster to accommodate that mission profile. Now you just buy an accessory and mount that holster on to it.
We’ve also done the quick disconnect system which is an 8 point gear system where you can mount this to any of the platforms and literally, within few seconds, mount and remove the holster and move it from platform to platform.
It actually started when the German military came to us and said “Look, we want to build a holster from our thigh to our chest, because we are out on foot patrol and we have our weapon on a drop leg holster, but once we mount up on a vehicle, we can’t access that when we’re sitting and it’s very difficult with your body arm to access it like that, so we want to be able to transfer to a chest platform.”
So that, even if you’re driving a vehicle, you know you’ll be able to access the weapon. We did that for them and now it works with all the components of the SERPA. I think there is a total of 12 different mounts we do now.
Cheaper Than Dirt With these new quick-disconnect mounts, can you move that setup with the gun still secured in the holster?
Ty Weaver Absolutely, the weapon’s in there, the trigger guard is protected, so it’s safe and law enforcement really liked it when they saw it. There are times when they’ll have to take the bad guy into the prison, and they’re checking into the Sally port and they’ve got to check their weapon. Now, instead of pulling the weapon out, clearing it, and putting it into the lock-up, they could just hit the quick disconnect, take it off, put in the lock-up, come back out and within just a few seconds they’re done.
Cheaper Than Dirt That’s a fantastic safety feature. Everybody knows that the more you handle a weapon, the more chance there is to have an accident. We all follow standard safety practices, but you’ve just eliminated one of the ways of having a negligent discharge.
Ty Weaver That’s what the SERPA holster has been all about. The natural draw of the SERPA, when you physically position your trigger finger in the same place on the slide as you are drawing the weapon, there are no un-ergonomic actions.
Within the Special Operations Division we do a one day SERPA holster instructor class. We teach people that if they are handed a pistol that the way they grab it is the same way you draw it out of that holster. The unique thing about it is, whether it’s a CQC holster, a Level 2 Duty or Level 3 Duty, a tactical drop leg, it’s the same consistent draw, no matter which mission profile you’re in.
Cheaper Than Dirt You’re basically training good muscle memory, and training good habits by doing that.
Ty Weaver Absolutely.
Cheaper Than Dirt You have an entire new line of EMS pouches, many medical pouches, and utility pouches.
Ty Weaver Absolutely. You know, we were surprised. We learn everyday too. You know, we took on the Special Operations Division guys and he has headed up our fire and EMS line. He’s the director of that now, and he got together and brought in a lot of end users from different fire agencies, from volunteer to big city agencies and held focus groups.
We started looking into this and one thing we found is that these agencies will spend millions of dollars on a fire truck, and then use equipment bags that they have their equipment in that are just substandard.
We suggested building and equipping them with better heavy-duty bags, and these guys were just ecstatic. They didn’t even know that the capability was out there to build to that level. If you ever go through a fire station, their individual equipment and their fire trucks are just the best that you can get, but it was just the support equipment that really hadn’t been brought up to a high standard.
We saw a real opportunity in there and that entire division for us is just taking off by leaps and bounds. We’re getting so much good feedback from these people thanking us for building this gear. They’ve told us “We had certain bags that, every year we were replacing them. Now that’s gone away. Now we have more options.”
Cheaper Than Dirt Just like in the military, people’s lives depend on this gear, and that’s an important point to remember. It may not be the user of the medical equipment that has so their life depending on it, but they’re using it to save somebody else’s life.
Ty Weaver Absolutely. That makes all the difference you know. If you’re on a search and rescue mission and you have to carry gear up into the mountains, and that bag falls apart like Mike’s backpack did in Iraq 17 years ago, it’s the same type of situation. It all affects whether that person is going to live or die. If you can’t get there with the equipment you need, it makes all the difference in the world.
Cheaper Than Dirt BLACKHAWK! is making that difference, and I know everybody appreciates it. Having quality gear is important to us all.
I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us and explaining a little bit about the history of BLACKHAWK! as well as what goes into the development of your products.