May 31, 2016
When I had to pass on a dream luxury volume dove hunt to Argentina with a high-end Italian shotgun manufacturer because Guns & Ammo editor Eric Poole had already given me an assignment to field test TriStar shotguns, I was slightly deflated. It worsened when he went in my stead and sent back photos of waist-high piles of doves and a grin that said it all.
I was unfamiliar with the Viper G2 semi-auto we would be testing, and knew little of TriStar other than it was an affordable Turkish gun.
But it is amazing what a smooth-shooting weapon, a few feathers and gunsmoke in the air and a sunrise over the Canadian prairie can do. That, and making the acquaintance of a single dynamic individual. Lebanon-born mechanical engineer and avid wingshooter Gus Bader worked for refrigeration giant Carrier for years before launching American Arms in the 1980s. He sold AA in '96, "because I got a little greedy," he said, when someone made him an offer he could not refuse.
He thought it a smart time to exit the firearms business during the Clinton era of gun bans and states suing firearm companies. But the passionate shotgunner quickly realized he'd underestimated his love of the game."I was bored," he chuckled, sitting up in his layout blind on an October goose hunt in Saskatchewan.
"I love the industry, and having been born in Lebanon where individual rights are not well respected, I've always been a big believer in carrying the torch for individual liberties and freedoms, and nowhere is it more illustrated than the right to bear arms."
He jumped at the chance when two of his top former AA employees, who had started TriStar Arms, asked for his help running the company when Bader's non-compete clause ran out in 2003. Through a third-party agreement and a transitional ownership plan, Bader took over in May 2005 as part owner and set out to improve focus and surround himself with trustworthy people.
TriStar Arms had some success since launching when AA sold, but it was a company "with too many products at too many stages that was trying to be all things to all people and lacked focus. The quality was not there," he says.
His mantra is simply "build it and they will come," and he focused on creating a quality, affordable firearm that will draw a following. By 2007, Gus launched the all-new G2 Viper, and the brand has soared since "Photocopy Gus" took over.
The nickname came because he insists each gun off the assembly line be a stone-cold duplicate of the one stamped before it.
Timing the Shot
The TriStar Arms website touts the brand as "The Value Experts" — not exactly sexy. But these guns have become a pleasant surprise. I'd handled a few but never used one on a hunt at the moment of truth when you play for keeps; when the birds are feet-down.
Part of me was excited at the possibility of a really affordable semi-auto that worked, but the Italian-shotgun-loving cynic inside was rolling its eyes, believing A) it would not really go bang every time at that price ($600 to $800) and B) the workmanship would be rough, to be kind.
Gus explained his process of how he makes sure guns will run from a production facility during the development process, and it's pure old-school savvy.
He visits the manufacturer, politely admires the gun handed to him to inspect and shoot, knowing any manufacturer in his right mind would be sure to give him a prototype that has been worked on and will run.
Then he takes a half-dozen other guns of the same model from different production runs. He disassembles them, and swaps all the interchangeable parts back-and-forth. Then he shoots and shoots and shoots them.
"If you can do that, and the gun will run, then you know you have your tolerances right," he says. "The only thing that test doesn't tell you is endurance, how long the gun will last, and you have to do your endurance test, your ten-thousand-shot runs with different kind of shells and lengths mixed, and you track them. With the semi-auto, the timing has to be right for the gun to work."
No simple task, especially to build guns that will run on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Europeans use single powder loads, which are dirtier but have higher pressures, and you have to translate the pressure standards and technical details because a 1-ounce load there might not work with a 1-ounce load here in the U.S.," he said.
But the most fun way to test endurance is to just hit the field, and get it dirty in the grit, chaff, mud and blood over a few days of fast-action waterfowling. So off we went to Saskatchewan for ducks and geese. But it is hunting, and there are no guarantees. I've had plenty of slow days in Canada, especially with "iffy" guides. Our first morning had the markings of a real goat rope. We stayed at an old house right in the city, not a lodge, and set out at dawn with an obese, ancient Lab and a rookie substitute "guide" who didn't own a call, struggled to find the field, and, we found out, had never fired a shotgun in his life.
A veteran 'fowler, I knew right away the decoy spread was terrible, too clumped together, in the wrong spot on the side of a hill not the top, and, of course, the electronic snow goose calls weren't functioning. I had so little confidence, I quickly announced Gus would call our shots as birds finished to the decoys, knowing an amateur guide could make a huge mess of things.
Aptly named Winchester Blind Side loads of BBs and No. 2s chewed through the flocks and clobbered birds that were way too high for comfort, but snows don't ever get a pass and we wrecked even those tall birds.
I was delighted to be dead wrong about both TriStar shotguns and the kind of day we would have. And rookie guide Dryden Burke was clearly headed for a great career.
Next morning, we received a classic Canada greeting, with ducks landing at our feet, followed by naÃ¯ve flocks of Canada geese. The evening witnessed a crazy snow goose shoot over what should have been a real dud. Still, windless hot weather, the very worst for waterfowl, yet we scratched down 54 snows and 12 more ducks.
It was no Argentina dove shoot, but we kept the barrels hot most of the time, never cleaned the guns, and nobody had a jam. So the Vipers, they have endurance. Bader knows a thing or two about endurance. The earlier TriStar guns were inconsistent.
"We were not getting the same gun from every production run. And today I don't care what year, week or month it is, it is consistent. That's what I want from gun one to two, to gun 500 in a run this week, next month or next year."
"That's what you work for,"Bader says. "That's when you can say if you will build it they will come. The product has to work."
The guns lack a traditional magazine cutoff, but you can lift on the carrier slightly while manually cycling the bolt handle and it will prevent a new shell from coming in from the mag, a handy feature that becomes easy with little practice. Removing the plug is as easy as it gets. It's a soft-kicking gun for it's light weight, under 7 pounds, and pointy as a Franchi.
The wood on the Bronze model we tested is such that you would have to pay for the upgrade to get it with most brands. Hunters obsess over camo but we shot the glossy Bronze gun the whole trip from open, stark layouts only partially covered and never flared birds. I mostly shot the camo model, and all the guns ran the Winchester Blind Side flawlessly.
A chrome-lined chamber and barrel create the slickness inside that allows the guns to run, and the shotguns come with three chokes. A rubber recoil pad and shim kits to tweak for cast are standard. A pretty formidable package at the price point. It's sure nice for field testers when a product just works, and this one did. You used to have to pay a hell of a lot to get a lightweight SA 12-bore of any type, much less one that would truly function.
Pretty Budget Guns
Value and reliability make sense. But I had to ask Bader, why the Viper G2 Bronze? Why are you trying to make pretty budget guns? Blame Bader's experience with Franchi. American Arms imported Franchi prior to Beretta buying them.
"You see the Italians are very good at what they do and they make beautiful guns. So when we went to factories in Turkey, we said we have to make a functioning shotgun but we have to make it pretty. Shotguns need a little sexiness, I am a little old fashioned, but I look at them that way," he said.
"I fought a battle, but we curved the forearm and did a few things emulating the Italians' style. Function is number one but if it looks nice that's an added feature. When Beretta bought Stoeger that upped the level of everyone€¦they forced everyone to raise their game. They came in and said, 'you can produce a good gun here, and we are going to show you how.'"
So I now know Gus as a savvy, intuitive businessman, a fellow fluent in five languages (French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Lebanese) with an engineer's smarts for detail. But that's not the guy I will remember.
The man I look forward to hunting with again has a mild, amusing accent and the mischievous smile of that uncle who pinches your ear before he stuffs a dollar in your pocket. A guy who loves to hunt and is a hell of a shot. I watched him repeatedly stroke birds escaping wide and to the far right, a tough shot to make for right-handed shooters sitting on the ground.
On our last hunt, Gus didn't shoot much at all. He mostly sat and smiled, content, batting clean up if we gave any birds a pass.
And if God ever retires to a home in the countryside, I am pretty damned sure I know what his back yard will look like. Golden fields of wheat stubble glowed in the sun against rolling stands of aspen aflame in fall colors, and crisp air filled with the sounds of wild fowl.
A few flocks did it right away, but then group after group started flaring. Snows spun above us in huge tornado-ing flocks but would never quite finish, breaking hearts as they turned away.
We were on the 'Y', perhaps, or the 'Z', but we did not seem to be on the 'X.' Then the sands simply shifted, as they so often do in hunting.
"Are those geese?" I asked guide Mike Holman, a veteran. Black specks on the horizon so far away you could not tell. Sure enough, they pumped our way, he hit the call and lit 'em up. Huge greater Canadas in small groups bit the dirt one after the other, closing to 20 yards as we breathlessly snicked off safeties and bolted upright to let the guns roar.
Yes, this is what it means to be an outdoorsman, and by God is there anything better?
Bader, whose wife is from Alberta, has hunted Canada for years and now calls Kansas City base camp, with an office on the Missouri side. He seems to be striking gold with the G2 Vipers (generation 2 is the reference), and freely admits the preceding guns (pre-2007) were "nowhere near the quality for longevity and ammo sensitivity.
The G2 is vastly different from that first generation. I have one from 2007 I have put 8,000 rounds through. There have been few changes since then.
"You build a good product, at a competitive price, people will find it. People are at the point now where they will pay a little more for a TriStar gun," he said, speaking of the Bronze edition, with it's finer finishes. "Five years ago they were not."
The Turkish factories and partners have really bought into the quality philosophy.
"The U.S. market being the largest, they were very cautious and conscientious about anything they do that might affect the U.S. market. It's a trust factor, to share technical ideas, like the easy-loading feature for the guns. Always an interaction of ideas, what can we do to be better," he said. "And we keep an independent inspection agency in Turkey to keep honest people honest."
The red sporting version of the Viper has done phenomenally well, too, since premiering in 2014 with a 30-inch sporting barrel and extended chokes. A red youth model came out in 2015 as well. After un-retiring, it seems Bader is backing another winner in TriStar. Where does the Midas Touch come from?
"I'm a passionate shotgun shooter, so it has to be the right product, whether it's balance, the mount or how it shoots, it's not just being the businessman behind it for me," he said. "You have to have the right product and it has to work, especially when you are talking about an entry-level product.
"The guy who buys a TriStar gun, that may be his only shotgun. He can't be out of a gun in season. It has to work and work well.
"It is because it's less expensive that it has to work."