Tom Kaye Interview (1994)

Tom Kaye is the founder of Air Gun Designs and the designer of the iconic nineties paintball marker the Automag.

I spoke with Tom at the 1994 NPPL World Cup held in Orlando Florida USA. We were sitting at a table under one of the many umbrellas emblazoned with the Airgun Designs logo. Next to us, was the huge trade show of the’94 Masters paintball tournament. Behind us, the Airgun Designs semi rig loomed, with a huge corporate logo on each side of the trailer.

Earlier I had walked the fields and seen the Airgun Designs service crews in their tents busily fixing guns in the warm Tennessee sun. Opposite me was Tom Kaye, the man behind the AutoMag. I had a thousand questions for him, about his gun, his commitment to his customers and the future of paintball. So read on or watch the video to find out more about this man and his company.

Mike: I guess the first thing I want to talk about is the origins of the company, why you became involved in paintball?

Tom: We were manufacturing an air ioniser for a company back in ’87, this represented a large portion of our business and when we lost that contract, we approached PMI in order to try and fill that capacity. At the time we were doing plastic forming out of our shop and we said that we could make a full face mask for them. I’d played the game a couple of times and seen the need for a larger mask. At the time, only the little green ‘Woodstock’ mask was around. Well, they ordered 500 of those pieces. It was a full face like a hockey mask and it became known as the PMI mask.

Mike: Hm.. I think I had one of those.

Tom: Yeh., one of those old black ones. Darth Vader masks guys called them. We made 40,000 of those masks, and that’s how we got into paintball. Back then we weren’t Air Gun Designs, we were the parent company, Technacore Industries. We used to manufacture air operated feed systems, which were things like turntables to feed parts into a machine, do some operation on them and then kick the parts out. We would go into a situation, find a problem and design a whole system around it. For instance, we designed and built a machine that fed 25,000 gumballs per hour through a printing press, so it would print your name on the gumball. It had never been done before, and we did that. Well a paintball gun is a hand held air operated feed system. So whereas most other people had some sort of a gun background and they tried to make what they knew about guns apply to paintball, which is a compressed air system. We took what we knew about compressed air systems and applied it to a gun. So that’s how it all got started.

Mike: And your first gun was actually a blowback design?

Tom: Yeh, in ’87 when we were making the mask, we saw the need right away for a semi-automatic. At the time the SMG-60 had just come out. That was a tremendously revolutionary gun. The only problem with that gun was that it had a clip – 15 shots in a clip and we recognised right away that a gravity feed system would be the way to go. So we hacked up a few pump guns and we made a firing semi auto in the end of ’87, it was a very crude prototype, but it proved the concept of a gravity feed semi-auto, which was fantastic at that time. From that point we further refined it into what we called ‘The Panther’, which had the designation P1, for the first one. We ended up selling that design to Direct Connect and Daisy was going to manufacture it. But Daisy ended up screwing up and the whole deal went south. We were under a contract not to produce any other guns based on the sale of that gun. We ended up buying the design back. But by then the design was already obsolete, because field strip screws and quick release barrels had all come into vogue whilst Daisy was trying to produce it. So we designed another gun, another blowback gun and we called that one P2, for Panther 2. That gun was very innovative, but it never made it out of prototype stage. It worked, but it had problems with the blowback not re-cocking the system under all conditions. This was a problem that we had continuously on all of our blowback guns. So, after two designs and two years of working with this, we said, blowback’s not really the way to go. But, the second gun that we built did have all the quick strip features and quick barrel release that we were used to. Then, we started working on Panther 3 which became the first AutoMag.

Tom Kaye Receiving Sponsors Award At The 1994 NPPL Masters

Mike: Did the concept for that gun come from previous experience with the pneumatics industry?

Tom: Previous experience with the Pneumatics industry and building two prototype blowback guns. We knew from the blowback guns that we didn’t want a trigger mechanism that was difficult to latch up. We did not want impact on any of the parts in the trigger mechanism because that creates a lot of problems and we wanted a gun that would re-cock at any pressure. The only way to meet those qualifications was to turn the system around and have a spring re-cock the gun. Because a spring will always have the energy necessary to re-cock the system. By doing that you also relieve all the pressure on the trigger mechanism.

Maintenance of velocity was another problem that we had with the blowback gun. So, we set the functioning pressure below what the normal variation would be and those parameters dictated how the gun would look; blow forward, pressure regulator, air chamber etc.

Mike: Is the blow forward concept used in any other application, or did you develop it just for the AutoMag?

Tom: We developed it just for paintball. Given the requirements set forth generically, it was really the only way to go. Given our previous history I think we were one of the few company’s that could actually go forward and come up with a brand new design. There are actually fairly few brand new designs in paintball. Most of them are derivatives of old Pellet guns or BeeBee guns. Denny Tippmann produced an innovative brand new design with his SMG-60. So he’s one of the few guys who actually did produce something completely new.

Mike: The first AutoMag was released to the general public in what year?

Tom: 1990 was the first year. We had the first prototypes here at the Masters and our team ‘Swarm’, won the Masters that year. It was the first semi-auto to win a major tournament and it was one of our sponsored teams using it. It was quite exciting.

Mike: The first AutoMags did have problems, but most of your customers seemed to stick by you. Why was that?

Tom: Well, we had a lot of problems on the way out. Everybody wanted a semi-auto so badly that they would stick with it, as long as the company had the right attitude. And being a player myself, I said that if I’d spent $450 on a gun I would want the company to make it right. So, we told everybody, “Yes we have problemsÓ. That’s the first thing, we admitted we had a problem. We told them that we were working desperately on the problem and that hang in there, we would fix everything for free. Which at that time, was a major bold statement. So we started working on it, we solved a few of the problems right away and we then went about upgrading everybody’s guns. In the process we had also developed the power feed, which people had the option of buying, when they got their free gun upgrade. Most took the power feed upgrade, which kind of kept us in business. Back then we were just on the edge. We were dollars away from bankruptcy for a long time. Well, we finally solved the problems and got most of the guns updated. Today, there are probably only a dozen of the level 5 (which were the first guns to come out) guns out there. When a level 5 gun does come in these days, we just switch them for a new gun, because there’s virtually nothing that’s the same between a level 5 and a level 7.

Everybody still has confidence in us, they knew we had problems, we admitted it and we fixed them one by one. They stuck with us through the hard times and they’ve been sticking with us ever since.

Automag In Action

Mike: Well, it certainly seems to have achieved popularity as one of the favoured tournament guns. Obviously that’s due in part to the functioning of the product, but it must also be because you actually come out to these major tournaments and support it?

Tom: Yep, part of the the original support programme was to come here, we knew we would have problems here. So we said, ‘How can we solve that?’ Well, the only way we could do that was to have the people right here, to fix the gun when it broke down. It could be said, that it was an admission that our gun was no good. But I said no, we’re here for the player and that’s all we really care about. Not if everyone else looks at us funny. So we came out with a big support crew in 91 and that was a big big hit, everyone really loved it.

Mike: Do you charge for that service?

Tom: No, it’s rare that we charge for any service. The only time we would ever charge, is if you abuse the gun. We don’t upgrade guns out here because we don’t have the proper equipment, but if an O-ring or a seat goes bad, we replace it free of charge.

Automag Service Team

Mike: Where are you going to go from here?

Tom: Well, I get asked that all the time. The current technological state-of-the-art is limited by CO2. We are not going to be able to proceed any further down the technology road, until we get rid of one of the few major stumbling blocks, namely CO2. We’re about at the limit of accuracy. We’re not going to see an improvement in accuracy much beyond where we’re at. We’re at the limit of efficiency. In the late 80’s there was a big efficiency increase. We were also part of that, in development of the turbo valve for Sheridan guns. Volume of paint coming out of the end of the barrel? We’re pretty much at the limit there also, with the double trigger that we developed. We licensed that product, but the tournament scene has said that they don’t want it. So you’re not going to see more than 8 or 9 balls a second coming out the end of the barrel. So what we’re left with now is reliability and part of the big reliability problem is CO2. We developed Nitrogen 3 years ago and introduced it in 92 at a Music City tournament that was in this neighbourhood. At the time there was such a flak against it and we were in back order for the guns, that we decided to say you know, forget it, we’ll let someone else do it. Nobody else did it for a long time, now the industry’s progressed to the point where customers are asking for something new and nitrogen’s taking off in a big way.

Once nitrogen comes out, we have a valve called the P5, which is the next generation AutoMag valve. This valve can only function on nitrogen. It is different in the fact that when you shoot it fast, the velocity climbs instead of dropping off. So when you really start jumping on the gun, it’ll climb about 6 feet/sec, which maintains range. Also, this gun has a trigger that when you pull it, it has a 6 lb trigger pull,when it fires, the pressure on the trigger doubles to 12 lb to push your finger back. Once it recharges the gun, it drops back down to 6lb and helps you to fire faster.

Mike: So, that’s sort of like a power trigger?

Tom: Right, that might be a good name for it actually. So, that trigger, we’ve got that out right now. Some of our factory teams are running nitrogen and have been running it very successfully for many months now. It fires so fast, it’s causing some concern in the NPPL. We’ve actually had it for quite some time, but it will only run on nitrogen. So we had to hold off introducing it. It is I think, one of our more innovative designs.

Mike: I guess we’ve talked about nitrogen. So what do think the actual limits of paintball are? I suppose we’re limited to the 68 calibre ball at the moment aren’t we?

Tom: We’ve experimented with heavier balls, lighter balls, bigger balls and smaller balls, a larger ball would help accuracy. But it would have to be of the order of about an inch. The problem is, when you go to a larger ball like that, you know, the size of your hopper increases, there’s a lot of problems. You go to a smaller ball, you get more in a hopper, smaller gun size, but you get less range and less accuracy. We are at the point now, where I would like to see teams stop thinking about technology and start thinking about strategy. Because strategy, is one thing that is really overlooked. I mean, a lot of people spend many many hours looking for the technology advantage, which would be minuscule even if you could find it at this point. But, they completely ignore the strategic advantage, which is half of what’s going on. There’s been a big myth going around, that there’s no more strategy these days That in the days of the pump guns, there was a lot of strategy. Well my feeling is, that that is not the case. The difference is that when you had a pump gun, it was only one person’s strategy, you could individually decide how you were going to play the game and how you were going to walk around and take somebody out. Now the semi-auto game is very much a team strategy, where you have to be a team player, you can’t be a lone wolf. A lone wolf is worthless in today’s game. And that’s the difference. I think a lot of the lone wolves are upset about that fact.

Mike: Well, I’ve noticed myself, just watching teams like the Ironmen and the All Americans, they’re team players. The fact that they work as a team and they don’t just sit there and fire volumes of paint, they try and get someone further up the field no matter how, even if it’s open space.

Tom: Yeh and the teams that we work with, they have an opening move, they know what’s going on in mid game and they have a closing scenario. In that first 15-20 seconds, these guys are following a very precisely outlined and timed scenario, to try and gain an immediate advantage. A lot of teams don’t think like that, a lot of teams think, if I buy a better gun I’ll win the games more often. And that’s just not the case these days. Coming from someone who designs guns, I’m not the first person who’ll want to say something like that, but it’s just the truth.

Mike: There’s a lot of myths regarding the way that paintballs travel down a barrel and how guns work. I believe you’ve done a bit of research in this area.

Tom: Well, we’ve done a lot of research on that. There are a lot of products out there today that have more perceived value than actual value. People ask me all the time, what’s the best barrel? I tell them that if there was one particular barrel that was fundamentally better than all the rest of them, then everyone would use that barrel. But, given the variations of paint, barrel ID’s and things like that, the best barrel changes everyday. There’s some barrels like the SmartParts barrels, which have a definitive advantage in that they are quieter, because of the spiral drilled holes. Whether the spiral drilled holes affect the accuracy or not of the barrel, is overshadowed by the fact that it has a strategic advantage in it’s quietness. Does a ball deform when it’s going down the barrel? Definitely, it does not. We have rented $125,000 video cameras that are capable of shooting 1000 frames a second. Those cameras, with a clear barrel, I can show you the video tapes, you can see the ball go all the way down the barrel and out the end and it is not deformed. They don’t bounce around, they don’t ride on an air bearing, they ride on the two widest points of the ball. If you powder the inside of the barrel and shoot one ball out, you’ll see the two tracks it leaves as it goes out the end. Another thing that people believe, is that there is a column of air that gets pushed out of a barrel in front of the ball. We ran smoke streams up in front of the barrel. I’ve got pictures of balls leaving the end of the barrel at 280 ft/sec and that smoke stream is right there. Balls here, smoke stream there. If there was a column of air being pushed out, you would see it, it’s just not happening. What we do know today, is that we’re throwing a knuckle ball when we shoot a paintball. When you throw a knuckleball, that ball just wanders through the air and just hits randomly inside the target area. And that’s what’s happening in paintball. So no matter how perfect the paintball comes out of the barrel, it’s going to do what it wants, as it starts flying down range. You’re just going to get random accuracy, some will be right on, some will be off near the edges, it’s just random. And that changes day to day too, depending on different things.

Mike: Do you think there’s going to be any advantage or usage of spin stabilisation in paintball?

Tom: We’ve tried that. We have a barrel that we put a ball in and rev it up to 30,000 rpm., we can fire the ball out of it while it’s rotating. We saw no improvement. High speed photographs in flight show that below about 6 or 7,000 rpms, the spin has no affect on the accuracy of the paintball. When you get above 9 or 10,000 rpms, then it starts imparting a curve, like you get when you have a wet barrel. So, until you get enough spin on a ball, you don’t get a curve. Whether we will be able to control that curve and use it to our advantage, I’m not sure of at this point. We also tried putting dimples in paintballs. We machined a little nylon ball in 68 calibre, that had perfect little dimples in it, it looked just like a miniature golf ball. It shot worse. So I’m here to tell you, if dimples made everything go straighter, faster and further, then every jet would have dimples on it.

We’re basically shooting a ping pong ball, when we shoot a 68 calibre paintball. If it was made of lead, we’d see a tremendous improvement in accuracy. But even double the weight does not help, we’ve tried double weight balls. It’s kind of disappointing, because we thought that once the Perfect Circle paintball (a ball with a moulded plastic shell) which we’ve developed was finished, we would see an improvement in accuracy, we didn’t.

Mike: It’s a pity after all the development.

Tom: Fortunately, the Forestry Services are buying them, so we’re OK.

Mike: What about the actual shape of the paintball? Do you think anyone’s going to bother changing that?

Tom: You could.

Mike: Or is the projectile just too light to do much with.

Tom: No, if you got a bullet shaped projectile it would help tremendously. You could get a much better drag coefficient. You could get something that you could spin, it could be much more stable. But the minute you go away from that round ball, you lose all the advantages of gravity feed. If you were to try and go to a clip, you’re going to be limited by how many balls you want to stick in a clip and it’s just not going to be the same game. You can’t shoot 800 rounds out of clips every day. It’d be too difficult. So..

Mike: It would have to have a dramatic improvement in accuracy and range, wouldn’t it?

Tom: Yeh, it could. But I don’t think the world’s ready to go to that, I mean, shooting is fun, it’s easy to pour a bunch of balls in a hopper and start shooting.

Mike: Are you bringing out a new gun in the near future?

Tom: No, because there is very little more we can do with the current technology. The only way we could make a better gun, would be to make it more reliable. Once nitrogen hits the market, our gun will be more reliable. We have a lot of people who are shooting nitrogen on a continuous basis and it’s not unusual for them not to change their velocity for 6 months. We are going to be coming out with a pump adapter though, so that the gun can be made into a pump gun..

Mike: I’ll certainly be interested in seeing that when it’s available. It sounds like an interesting product. Do you replace most of the internals?

Tom: No, as a matter of fact it’s very simple. There’s a piece that bolts on underneath the rail, under where the front bottle adapter goes. You’ll slide a pump handle with a rod sticking out underneath into this adapter. You take out your valve and you put a spring underneath the bolt, so the bolt can’t come back all the way. So in effect, what you’re doing is, you’re creating bolt stick. So as the bolt fires, it doesn’t come back all the way and the pump is used to kick it back against the spring to cock and recharge the gun. So, in a matter of 5 minutes you could have your semi-auto or your pump.

Mike: What about a Stock Class gun?

Tom: Well, what you can do is this, you could fit the pump to our Sydarm (a police training pistol with a horizontal magazine). Once you take the spring loaded feed off the Sydarm, which is very easy to do and put the pump gun adapter on, you have yourself a Stock Class AutoMag. So we’ve addressed all the various areas, pump, semi-auto and stock class all in one shot.

Mike: You’re not afraid that people are going to get bored with your product because it is so simple and they’re just born tinkerers?

Tom: That’s already happened. We share the market with the Autococker and Bud is a very good friend of ours. We find that most people own both guns in their lifetime. So it really doesn’t matter to us if you buy an Autococker first, or you buy an AutoMag first, you’ll likely, eventually to buy the other one too. So if you want to tinker and play around, by all means, you know, get our gun and do whatever you want to it, but you can get the Autococker too and there’s a wealth of things you can do to that.

Mike: Yes, I’ve noticed that with Bud’s gun.There’s just so much you can actually do to it, because there’s just so many parts in it. And there’s a host of accessory manufacturers making bits for it.

Tom: Exactly.

Mike: Whereas with your gun, most of the accessories are cosmetic.

Tom: Exactly. There’s a lot of products on the market that have limited usefulness. When we produce something, we want it to have a real function and a noticeable difference, not just a perceived difference. So, because we’re near the end of the technology road, most of the things you’ll see coming from us in the future, besides the P5, will be things like coloured rails and things like that. Even if we don’t have the most modified gun in history, I want to go down knowing I gave real value.

Mike: Well, it’s certainly going to be one of the most memorable guns, along with guns like the SMG-60 and the Bushmaster.

Tom: The Bushmaster was a legend, the 68 special, 68 magnum from Sheridan, classic guns and those guns are becoming collectible now. I have a whole bunch of those guns, from the bygone era. The future will probably be all semi, with the drop in prices, they’ll probably eventually push out the pump gun entirely. There is a resurgence of the stock-class gun, but that’s on a fairly limited basis. It doesn’t seem to be spreading nationwide. I’d like to see the formation of an open class in semi-auto’s that’d allow you to use anything you could bring, a sort of Formula One with sponsored teams using the latest and greatest. Then, some type of a limited class, where semi-autos are used, but they are limited to what they can use and a pump class would also be very nice.

Mike: New guns seem to be having a tough time making it alongside the established brands nowadays. Why do you think that is?

Tom: Customers are now buying on brand loyalty. In the early days they just wanted anything. There was such a demand out there and nobody had an established reputation. So one thing was as good as another if it did something better. Those days are changing now. There are some very good guns out there that are having an awful hard time. Just because they don’t have the momentum.

Mike: Certainly, the novelty is no longer there. You can’t bring out a new concept and a new way of doing it easily now.

Tom: Most of the things have been covered. There are very few things that have not been worked on. There’s nothing overlooked in this industry right now. If you could bring out a gun that would work perfectly all the time, shoot the same velocity all the time, you’d make a killing, but designing that animal seems to be a bit elusive.

Mike: Yes. It is amazing how much trouble it is, to actually get a gun such as a blowback design into the marketplace. There’s so much physics involved that people are unaware of.

Tom: Yep, We’ve been there. We tried two of them. Our hat’s off to the people who can make them work.

Mike: Thanks Tom, It was a pleasure talking to you.

Tom: Sure Mike, appreciate it.