In August of 2008 experienced CNC machinist Phil Cashin acquired MasterPiece Arms from founder Gary Poole. With his extensive experience in precision metalworking, Phil set about to take the high quality firearms already produced by MasterPiece Arms and improve them even further by upgrading the manufacturing process.
Beginning with MPA’s existing line of MAC based Defender pistols, Phil expanded into the defensive carry pistol market when the Protector .380 was introduced. We sat down with Phil to talk about how MasterPiece has grown into the company that it is today, and to learn a bit about what goes into the design and production of high quality pistols like the Protector .380.
Cheaper Than Dirt: How did you get started in the firearms industry?
Phil Cashin: Well, I became involved in the firearms industry through an acquisition of MasterPiece Arms from the original owner, a gentleman by the name of Gary Poole back in August of 2008.
I had known Gary for years and he contacted me regarding some of his capital equipment, which is the business I used to be in. I used to buy and sell capital equipment earlier in my career and then I got out of selling equipment and got into manufacturing. That’s actually my background, precision machining and manufacturing.
Cheaper Than Dirt: MasterPiece Arms manufactured all of their firearms in the United States prior to your acquisition of the company, and that’s a tradition you’ve been proud to carry on.
Phil Cashin: Yes, MPA products have always been one hundred percent US made.
Cheaper Than Dirt: After your purchase of MPA, you updated the production facilities to an ISO 9002 certified facility, correct?
Phil Cashin: Well, when I purchased MPA I also owned, and still run, a very large, very sophisticated machining and metal work company that is located just outside of Athens Georgia.
When the acquisition took place there was a transition from the previous facility where MPA was located in Carlson. The manufacturing and assembly was moved over here to our location, so we basically just absorbed the manufacturing of the components. We brought online our quality system and some of our manufacturing techniques and continued with the design enhancements. Gary had developed a very good sound design into MPA’s products. Our equipment and manufacturing techniques are faster and newer and/or efficient and more capable. We just kind of added the best of both companies together.
Cheaper Than Dirt: So MasterPiece has always created very high quality firearms, all you did was bring them into the 21st century and upgraded everything?
Phil Cashin: Exactly, that’s right.
Cheaper Than Dirt: When you came on board they were already manufacturing the MPA 30 and the MPA 10 is that right?
Phil Cashin: The products that MPA was producing at the time of the acquisition was the Defender line, which included the 930 series, what we call the Mini-9. The original has the charging handle on the top of the upper receiver, more in line with the original MAC design. Gary developed the side charging version that puts the charging handle on the left side of the upper receiver, thereby allowing a Picatinny rail to be mounted to the top of the receiver, which lets the shooter attach any number of aiming devices such as holographic sights or a laser on top. But primarily, holographic sights are what seemed to work best with all of those weapons. The Defender is based on the original MAC design and, of course, that was manufactured initially as a full-auto weapon. The original sights on the weapon are not what most people would consider sophisticated.
Cheaper Than Dirt: MPA developed a similar MAC version that fires with a closed bolt.
Phil Cashin: I wouldn’t say we developed it, I would say we perfected it.
The problem with many of the other companies in the past that have manufactured MACs in a closed bolt design is the gun worked wonderfully in an open bolt. When the ATF required us to go to a closed bolt design, there had to be some engineering changes to any number of instrumental components throughout the entire gun to allow it to function more effectively with a different design than what it was originally designed for.
Cheaper Than Dirt: That was because, for those of our readers who may not be aware, the ATF declared that any open bolt gun, whether or not it actually functions as such, is in fact fully automatic impact machine gun.
Phil Cashin: What had happened was that they allowed the semi-automatic open bolts production of these weapons for a period of time until it became very apparent that anyone could, without even looking on the internet since it didn’t exist back then, with a file and about fifteen minutes spent modifying certain internal components you could convert the gun back to full auto.
Cheaper Than Dirt: You went in and made some other very specific changes to the pistol, for example creating a model that allows the use of Sten magazines so that you have got increased parts availability and magazine availability.
Phil Cashin: Well how the change took place on the nine millimeter version, which includes both the Mini-9. The Mini 9 being the 930 series and the full sized 9mm being the 30 series. It was produced with the Zytel mag, which is a polymer magazine and the reliability was okay.
One of the things that Gary did when he got these going with Masterpiece Arms was he changed the design to accept Sten mags because they were pre-ban and were of a very good quality and very reliable. It was a better, more reliable design, and the same thing goes for the Grease Gun magazines and the .45.
That same design still carries on today. Even in our current production models we use new and reproduced Grease Gun designed magazines. They are just an exact copy of the Grease Gun mag, but they are newly manufactured.
For the 9mm, due to how scarce Sten mags have become, and the volumes in which we were selling these guns, we worked with Tapco in Kennesaw Georgia and we developed a polymer version of the Sten magazine. It’s a polymer magazine that fits right into our weapon, and works extremely well. Of course it’s much lighter than the Sten mag and it’s a very attractive product. All of our weapons on the nine millimeter side are shipped with the Tapco version of the Sten magazine.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Now you have expanded into the Protector line. What prompted the expansion into concealable pistols from the tactical Defender line of pistols and rifles. Where did that jump come from?
The reason that we decided to start manufacturing the Protectors was the fact that we wanted to get into more of a mainstream product line into the firearms market as well as to bring an increased awareness of the Defender line. Not everybody who sees a MAC immediately thinks of Masterpiece Arms. They may think of MAC, RPB, SWD or some of the other more poorly designed weapons.
The design principle of a weapon being a fully machined, both the lower receiver and the upper slide out of solid 4140, is a more expensive technique in manufacturing the weapon, but it’s one that we are extraordinarily good at. The Protector line was our effort to continue to bring high quality weapons at a low cost into the defensive handgun market.
Cheaper Than Dirt: You have mentioned in the past that there are no cast or injection molded parts on this gun.
Phil Cashin: That’s correct, there is no forging, there are no castings, there are no metal injection molded parts (MIM) parts. Everything is, with the exception of obvious items like springs and a couple of other laser sheet metal parts like the shield on the trigger bar, everything is fully machined out of solid billet steel.
Cheaper Than Dirt: That’s a more expensive process, and yet we have various models of the Protector for sale for less than three hundred dollars, which is quite affordable compared to most of the pocket pistols.
Phil Cashin: Absolutely. It’s a fully machined premium design in a moderate price range. The pricing strategy that we used took an enormous amount of consideration, and I will get to that in a second.
Getting back to that the reason why we did it: We talked about the design getting our products into a more mainstream market. The manufacturing technique that we are using is one of our core competencies. Performing high tech, very high precision, CNC production machining where you can hold the tolerances down, when you can get cycle time down, you can significantly reduce your manufacturing costs.
On top of that, we do everything in house, with the exception of springs and magazines. All of the critical components we manufacture ourselves. We do our own heat treating, we rifle the barrels, we machine all the internal components of machining centers and CNC Swiss. For us, being able to control the manufacturing of you know all the critical components is very important.
One of the reasons why we try to do everything that we can ourselves because ultimately you are in the control of your own destiny. You are not having to rely on the manufacturing challenges of another supplier. Without a part to the gun, you can’t ship the products. If you’re missing the firing pin, a trigger, or a hammer, the product is not going out the door.
My predecessor Gary Poole had a pretty significant role in the development and manufacturing of the old Autauga pistol. That was a very small subcompact concealed carry .32 ACP pistol that very much resembles the Protector. We have made some design changes externally to make the gun more attractive.
There have also been an enormous number of changes internally to the weapon. The Autauga was a gun that Gary had developed for a company called Autauga Arms over in Alabama that is no longer in business. The lower receiver was a casting, the upper slide was a casting, all the internal parts was castings, and the gun did pretty well in .32 caliber, but because of the size of the weapon they were never able to even consider going to the 380 because of the increased strength of the round.
Phil Cashin: Yes, now they are the same.
Cheaper Than Dirt: It’s not like this pistol has just kind of arrived on the out of the blue. You’ve kinda had your finger on the pulse of the concealed carry market for some time. Recently we have seen an enormous increase in the number of .380 pistols that have been released onto the market along with the increased availability of concealed handgun licenses to lawful gun owners.
Phil Cashin: Oh absolutely and, I think, rightfully so. I use my own personal experience, which is another part of the reason why we designed this Protector. The ability to carry in a concealed manner and not advertise the fact that you are carrying, having the right by the Second Amendment to protect myself, and especially with way that the world is today, I have felt personally that it is necessary to carry a weapon the majority of the time. I had a lot of problems finding a weapon that I could carry comfortably because I didn’t want to carry a holster on my belt or in the back of my pants or on my side, because it was just uncomfortable. You know it just didn’t really provide the level of concealability that I was looking for.
In the summer weather, whatever the situation is, I am able to exercise my right to carry a weapon and not advertise the fact that I am doing so. Some of the polymer weapons are very nice products and they are quite reliable. They make good pistols. They are not as small as ours, but they still have a fair amount of concealability to them. Ours is just smaller and, the accuracy and performance is consistent with some of these other pistols that are quite a bit larger.
Ours is more of a premium design. I like to hold metal in my hand. It’s more of a traditional design. Making the decisions to get into that crowded .380 market, we didn’t want to create just another polymer .380.
Cheaper Than Dirt: It’s important to point out that, with the all metal design, you do have a little bit heavier gun. It’s a little bit more controllable with that extra weight there.
Phil Cashin: Absolutely. Do you want to shoot a .380 with a feather or do you want to have something a little bit more, delivering more substance, to absorb the recoil. There is an absolute relationship between weight and recoil. The heavier the gun, the less recoil. It reduces muzzle flip and with that little recoil you get to the point where it’s quite manageable.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Some of those other lightweight polymer .380s really do beat you up. I don’t think anybody wants to fire more than one or two magazines at the range, and as everybody knows, you have to practice with what you carry in order to be effective with it.
Phil Cashin: Absolutely yes, that’s absolutely correct. In that aspect, controllability and comfort in shooting really went into the design of the weapon. If you look at the profile, the grip design, the radius on the front of the grip where your finger sits below the trigger guard, the gun is really engaged in your hand when you grab the weapon.
Compared to some of the other versions that are out there that have a straight grip, or just don’t have that comfortable of a design, the Protector is very comfortable. Without going into some of the other specific names, some of the other ones that I have owned in the past, some of which I still do own, they always feel like they are going to jump out of your hand when you shoot them.
Cheaper Than Dirt: You have also made some recent changes and upgrades to the Protector to make it even more controllable, tell us a little bit about those.
Phil Cashin: Well, with any manufactured product, as time goes by and you get feedback from customers you improve on techniques. You find new and better ways of making a product more enjoyable to utilize You want to be able to submit improvements to the design, and that’s what we have done here recently with a couple of primary items, one being the grip extension, and the second being the new profiled trigger.
Specifically to talk about the grip extension having that additional basically seven hundred and fifty thousandths, three quarters of an inch, sticking out of the grip on the front of the weapon in the form of that extension gives the shooter basically more leverage to control recoil.
Cheaper Than Dirt: And just one more finger is sometimes all you need to have a more effective grip.
Tell us about the trigger design because I have seen, especially some female shooters shooting these little double action pistols, that it can be difficult with that really long trigger pull to actually be able to pull the trigger. What is the trigger change that you have made, how does it help reduce the trigger pull?
Phil Cashin: It just made the shooting experience more comfortable on the trigger finger. What we did is change some of the radiuses on the bottom of the trigger. We are able to extend the length of the trigger to eliminate the amount of gap between the bottom of the trigger and the trigger guard. It’s now measured in the thousandths. When the gun is being fired, what it does is keep the trigger finger on the trigger and off of the trigger guard.
Phil Cashin: That’s exactly right, yes.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Your design makes this a little bit more comfortable?
Phil Cashin: On these double action only pistols, the trigger is positioned on a hinge or on a pin at the top of the trigger. Basically it swings as a pendulum. When the trigger is moved back towards the rear of the receiver then the finger naturally is going to slide down towards the bottom. The path of least resistance is moving the finger towards the bottom of the trigger.
With the new design, what we have done is we have changed the radius on the bottom of the trigger and we actually were able to lengthen to the trigger to keep the finger on the trigger during the shooting sequence rather than sliding off or making some contact with the trigger guard.
With the return of the slide forward and then the return of the trigger forward, it basically eliminates that friction that would occur between the bottom of the trigger finger and the top of the trigger guard.
Cheaper Than Dirt: We have seen some reviews already come out about the .380 Protector, and one thing that I have seen people complain about is the magazine and dry firing the pistol. Your design is very unique. Tell us about the magazine design and how it interacts with the trigger spring.
Phil Cashin: The way the gun is designed, you have the trigger and you have a boss on the trigger. How the trigger interacts with the hammer is that you have a trigger bar, which basically is a CNC laser cut piece of spring steel, that really attaches the two to each other, and then you have a torsion spring that returns the trigger back forward at the end of the shooting cycle.
You then have a shield that goes on the top of the trigger bar and the torsion spring, and then basically sandwiches that end of the mechanism together below the grip.
On the underside, that trigger bar is right inside of the magwell. Because of the size of the weapon you have limited amount of space to accomplish you know the design principle of the weapon. When the magazine is in the weapon it somewhat acts as the retaining feature for the trigger bar and holds the trigger bar in place on the trigger and the hammer.
When someone is dry firing the weapon without the magazine in place, then the correction is quite simple. You take the flat head screw or the fastener out of the grip, you take the grip off and take the shield off and basically reattach the trigger bar onto the hammer and the trigger. It takes about thirty seconds to do it.
Cheaper Than Dirt: To be clear, it’s not that people cannot dry fire the pistol, and it’s not that if you do dry fire the pistol with the magazine removed that it will break, it’s simply that the parts won’t be in the correct configuration, at which point you have disassemble and reassemble in the correct order right?
Phil Cashin: That’s correct. What it really gets down to is the intended use of the weapon and functionality. Obviously if this had any negative effect whatsoever on the function of the weapon under its intended use, then the design would have been changed. Under normal shooting experiences you are always going to have the magazine in place when you are pulling the trigger. When you are firing the weapon you are going to have the magazine and the magwell, and there is typically going to be ammo in the magazine when you are going to be shooting the weapon.
If you look at an abnormal situation, let’s say for whatever reason the shooter removes the magazine from the weapon and there is still a round left in the chamber. That’s worst case scenario if for some reason that the shooter takes the magazine out prematurely or it’s the last shot or whatever the case may be, it will absolutely still fire.
After that there is a chance that the trigger bar will come off, but then at that point in time you know the intended function of the weapon is done. In 100% of all normal shooting techniques and usages of the weapon, that condition cannot and will not happen. It has never happened.
Cheaper Than Dirt: It’s important to point out that unlike some other firearms that intentionally are rendered inoperable with the magazine removed, the Protector can still fire with the magazine removed.
Phil Cashin: The Protector can still fire the last round. That’s right.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Which has rendered your lifesaving tool useless. Now the Protector is not really designed for combat reloads though?
Phil Cashin: That is correct. The basic thing behind the mag design is, this is not a combat pistol. If a person is carrying a weapon and they feel it is necessary to carry extra magazines, it’s important to remember that ours is a backup gun. It’s a close quarters gun. It’s not a gun that the policeman is going to take into a fire fight or a soldier is going to use in combat. It’s a gun that you are going to use when you are in very close quarters and you know typically you are going to fire one full magazine of ammo. One design that seems to be prevalent on a lot of these .380 is the mag release mechanism. It is a very simple and very inexpensive way of designing it, and one that we actually did consider, but the downside that it presents is the problem of premature mag release.
Cheaper Than Dirt: If I am carrying one of those polymer ones in my pocket, one thing that can happen is that when it is pressed against your body the magazine catch can be depressed. When you go to pull the gun, the magazine just pops out.
Phil Cashin: Yes, and if you really think about that, that is going to happen in that scenario in all weapons nearly ninety nine percent of the time. However, when you get into its intended use in protecting your life in a close quarters situation, the last thing in the world you want to have to worry about is whether or not the magazine is going to be in the weapon when you pull it out.
There are two situations where the magazine can cause a problem. One, like you say that, if you sit on the weapon. The other situation can occur when you are grabbing the weapon to pull it out of your pocket holster or, depending on your state laws, if you are just pulling the weapon out of your pocket and you are doing so in a quick manner because of the situation that you are in. Even if you are just practicing for that potential situation that could occur, your thumb, if you are a right handed shooter, is going to be right where the mag catch is located. On a button type system when you grab the weapon and you are squeezing the weapon to get a good grip on it, and you have adrenaline going through your body and your thumb is right at the location of the mag release button, if you push the button in then you have got either a no shot or, at best, a one shot pistol.
Cheaper Than Dirt: With your design then you are officially basically reducing the number of points of failure.
Phil Cashin: Yes, because ours is not a push button type, it’s a rear slide type. You basically have to slide the mag catch button backwards towards the rear of the receiver. What that does is it pull the notch free so that the magazine could come out. You cannot push down on our mag release button to get the magazine to come out. You actually have to have to take your finger and slide it back.
Cheaper Than Dirt: Did you include a slide lock on the Protector?
Phil Cashin: No there is no slide lock.
Cheaper Than Dirt: And that’s just because of space requirements I assume?
Phil Cashin: For this type of weapon we just didn’t see that it was necessary to have a slide lock or a last round hold-open design.
Cheaper Than Dirt: There is really only one control on the weapon then, and that’s the trigger.
Phil Cashin: That’s correct.
Cheaper Than Dirt: What other new products here we look forward to seeing from Masterpiece Arms?
Phil Cashin: We have our Defender line, and one of the things that we just came out with recently is the Mini 9 Tactical Carbine, which is based on what is probably our most popular Defender, the Mini 9. It has a limited quadrail and it has a low profile fully machined buttstock and comes with a holographic sight and a vertical foregrip. It’s like a tactical package and we introduced that right here at the beginning of the year in the SHOT show.
With the Protector series we are in the process of developing a 9mm version of the .380 Protector.
Cheaper Than Dirt: A big brother to that little 380?
Phil Cashin: That’s correct; yeah it will be slightly larger in size but still have the same in design methods, principles and the look of our Protector series.
Cheaper Than Dirt: We didn’t really talk about it that much, but you also have the Protector available in .32 ACP
Phil Cashin: That’s correct, yeas.
That’s a very small percentage of our sales, and probably not rightfully so. For a female shooter, unless she is quite experienced, the .32 is a more easily controlled round. It has less recoil, and with the new ammunition technology that is out there the .32 can do some damage. I want to be able get one.
Cheaper Than Dirt: As they say, the gun you have is always better than the gun you don’t?
Phil Cashin: That’s absolutely correct.
Cheaper Than Dirt: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about Masterpiece and some of your new products and explaining a little bit about the Protector line.
Phil Cashin: It’s my pleasure. The basic theme of what we do at Masterpiece is really just the accuracy and the reliability that goes into the manufacturing techniques and the engineering of the products. It really has enhanced the enjoyment of shooting the weapon, especially in our Defender line, and of course there is the reliability of the Protectors.
Cheaper Than Dirt: You have really proven that you know you don’t have to pay you know a whole lot of money to get a really high quality, fully machined, reliable pistol.
Phil Cashin: Our ability to get our manufacturing costs down, to manufacture everything internally, has allowed us to focus on that particular price range. It’s a good price point, and one that we feel comfortable with. We feel we have a slight advantage over a polymer design when it comes to the price, quality, and reliability we can offer.
Cheaper Than Dirt: You know, sometimes people see a gun that’s priced fairly low, and they see that price and think to themselves “That can’t be a high quality firearm.”
How do you deal with that, what do we tell customers when they ask us how MasterPiece Arms can afford to produce a quality arm at such a low price?
Phil Cashin: That’s a great observation. Really how overcome that stigma is just to continue to produce a quality product. By doing that we continue to bolster the good reputation of the weapon. People are going to find problems no matter what, whether it is in that trigger bar issue, or something else. We really have spent an enormous amount of time evaluating the weapon to create practical defensive handgun. If there was anything that had a negative effect on the function of weapon in a defensive situation, we would have changed it.
Outside of that it is just a matter of getting the weapons into the hands of the dealers, distributors, the gun blogs that are out there, and the various gun writers.
Cheaper Than Dirt: We have got our own model of the Protector in .380 and we are going to reviewing it soon as well as posting some videos on it.
Listen, I think that’s about all I have got for you, and I want to thank you again for your time and the insights you’ve given us into MasterPiece Arms and your development of this wonderful little pocket pistol.
Phil Cashin: It’s been a pleasure.
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