Interview with Tim LaFrance of LaFrance Specialties

By Matt Smith

Above: Tim LaFrance firing his suppressed M16K in .45 ACP.

SAR: Tim, tell us a little bit about your personal background.

TIM: I grew up in Cleveland and went to Case Institute of Technology there. My father, among other things, was a labor organizer and all the guys that came to my dad’s house carried guns. Growing up, I assumed that every man carried a handgun. I had six uncles that were tool and die makers, and every one of them had a machine shop in their basement. By the time I was eleven, I was working in the shops and was an accomplished machinist by the age of sixteen. Back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, guys had Thompsons. It was before the 1968 Gun Control Act, and a lot of people had machine guns. An FFL cost a dollar back then. I got to go the rifle trials with FN, who was working on the FAL with a friend of my fathers, who worked for the government. A typical summer vacation was to go to the Smith and Wesson plant in New England to see friends of my dad.

I eventually got married and we moved from coast to coast. We were out in California for about 5 years, two years in Los Angeles, 2 years in San Jose, and a year in San Diego, until we moved back east, where my wife got a job and I went to medical school at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. After three years of medical school, I quit and took a job in Pasadena as an engineer.

After a year, I found out from a co-worker, who was a reserve cop, that the Pasadena Police were hiring, and I got on with their department. While I was in training in 1977, I got seriously injured and ruined my knee. I spent the next two years in a wheel chair, and the next five years on crutches. Throughout all of these jobs, I had a machine shop that I ran on my own time. I was able with the help of some friends to continue my machine shop work while in the wheel chair, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

SAR: What kind of machine work did you do?

TIM: I mainly worked on pistols. I would take the Star model B and turn them into .38 Supers. I also did some work for the Agency while at John Hopkins. Early on, I ran into Gordon Ingram and Juan Erquiaga of Police Ordnance and did some traveling with them to South America. That’s where I made some early contacts with the Agency and got my love for traveling.

SAR: When did you get your first FFL?

TIM: In 1973, when I was in Baltimore, I opened La France Specialties because I was manufacturing handguns on my own. I had a little hole in the wall, underground shop. It was in an old Safeway warehouse, and the basement of it had been converted to a range during World War II. We had a permit to train the security guards for their concealed weapons permit. It was one of the most dangerous jobs I’ve ever had because of all the accidental discharges bouncing off the concrete walls. Finally in 1977, after I got hurt, I started working on guns full time. I started doing service work for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and individual officers on LAPD, as well as the guys I worked with on the Pasadena Department. I built up a pretty good business, to the point where I was making enough money to support my family. When we moved to San Diego, we rented a house and put the shop in the garage, and started picking up business from there as well. I continued to do this service work until about 1988 working for up to 100 departments, and built compact pistols into the mid ‘90’s.

SAR: When did you start developing silencers?

TIM: I’ve been interested in silencers since I was a kid. In the early ‘80’s, I developed a high frequency silencer that I now use on the .50 Browning machinegun, the M-4 .223, and the .308. The one silencer that interested me the most growing up was the Jarrett. It was developed by Frank Jarrett, who worked for Springfield Arsenal as an ordnance engineer, and whom I had met when I was younger. His idea was to make a silencer like a dog whistle, where the sound frequency was so high that nobody could hear it. It wouldn’t have to be big and bulky to convert the frequency so that nobody could hear it, and all you would have to live with was the ballistic crack. He had a patent on it, and he used it on a Springfield rifle. The silencer was about four inches long and an inch in diameter. The problem with his design was that it was open and very dependent on atmospheric conditions and the pressure of the cartridge, among other things. Fifteen or twenty years later when I started working on it, I believed that if you did it in a closed container and could drive the pressure constantly it would be more effective. The problem with the earlier version was that it was open and like blowing in a dog whistle, you could hear the sound as you built up pressure, then it would go silent as you held the pressure and the sound went out of your hearing range. It could then be heard again when the pressure dropped off. This is one reason that the suppressor must go back over the barrel and uses the pressure that it builds up in the accumulator to drive the pump assembly. In October of 1983, we went to the Soldier of Fortune Convention and I took my suppressed .308 rifle and fired over one hundred rounds and it didn’t make any noise. This early version was very big, as it contained ten baffles and the pump assembly. I was able to finally get this shortened by five inches using only five baffles. This design will only work with rifle calibers because it requires 45,000 PSI in the chamber area to function. I basically use the same suppressor for each caliber by changing the size of the holes in the baffles. This suppressor shifts the sound frequency up to 40,000 cycles, where it goes unheard by the human ear. Mitch Werbell developed suppressors with Sionics that had pressure relief valves in the back to lower the pressure, keep the parts from failing, and reduce the temperature. Like Jarrett, he was an inspiration to me as he was the first modern silencer manufacturer to make suppressors in a reasonable size and with good performance.

SAR: How much do your suppressors cost?

TIM: The price on the 9 mm, .223, and .308 high power rifle cans are $700 each. We charge $175 to fit the rifle stock, reinforce, and bed it. The .50 caliber can is very expensive because we have almost $2000 in them with parts and machining in each one. The .22 screw on cans for the Ruger pistols are $350 each, plus $165 to install them. Installation includes threading, turning and drilling holes in the barrel.

SAR: How did you get involved with the movie gun business?

TIM: That’s an interesting story! It started with a guy named Joe Swanson, who lived in the San Diego area, and made blank ammunition for the movies since 1974. Joe was a friend of mine and knew I didn’t really want anything to do with the movie people following a negative experience I had from the movie, Day of the Jackal, where I had trouble getting paid for work I had done. One day, in about 1980, Joe dropped by the shop with an Uzi and asked me what was wrong with it. After looking at it, I told him the bolt was crooked and the trigger group wasn’t converted cleanly, but that I could fix it for about $200. He asked if I could have it done by the end of the week. When I found out it was a movie gun, I told him yes, but he had to pay me cash when he came to pick it up. I had it fixed a couple days later and called Joe to come pick it up. He came by and paid me in cash, but then asked me if I could fix seven more also by the end of the week. At the time, I could use the money so I said I would. Joe came back Saturday with a check from Syd Stembridge made out to me. I was sure it wouldn’t cash because it was a movie industry check, not because of Syd- the movie industry had a history of stiffing the gun handlers, but I was pleasantly surprised when it did. I finally started working directly with Syd, but made him go with me to the bank to cash the checks the first few times. Ellis Mercantile, the other big movie gun business at that time got hold of me and offered me half up front to work on their guns. That’s when I started converting the guns to full automatic. We did about 400 MP-5’s, 400 AK’s, all the Desert Eagles, and a bunch more until about 1992, when the bottom fell out and they started filming offshore. I did a lot of specialty guns, like the sleeve derringer and “Pobyrin 9.2 mm” based on the Desert Eagle in Red Heat, and the plumbers’ gun for a Bill Friedken movie, where all the parts came out of the plumbers tool box to make a silenced rifle. We got an order once from Stembridge for eight Micro Uzi’s, but he wanted them two-tone nickel plated with jeweled handles. We also made the Micro’s for Chuck Norris in his action movies. I even picked up Miami Vice, doing all their work. In 1986, just before the machinegun ban, we took in 1200 guns to be converted, started the work by drilling the holes and engraving them, and didn’t finish up some of those until 1989. The first movie set that I delivered to personally was for Arnold Schwarzenegger who was starring in Running Man. I made some full auto .22 Calico’s for the movie and got to take my ten year old son with me. He was thrilled to meet Arnold in person. I also did the guns for Commando, and for some Clint Eastwood movies.

SAR: What new products or services are you currently offering?

TIM: Our new .45 ACP M16-K will be out June 1st. We used to make them from plate, and now we make them from our own forgings. Eventually, I’ll do a run of semi-auto M14-K’s with the M60 gas system on it for reduced recoil. We continue to offer our twin tube gas system for shorty M16’s, which increases reliability and a tungsten buffer which slows the cyclic rate to 650 rounds per minute. You can get both for $250 installed. We also make a tungsten buffer and a heavier spring for the Benelli shotguns and can shorten the barrels to 14 inches.

SAR: Tim, I know our readers will enjoy this interview. Thanks!

TIM: You’re welcome!

La France Specialties
P.O. Box 87933
San Diego, California 92138
Phone: (619) 293-3373

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N11 (August 2002)
and was posted online on January 10, 2014


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