profile of Martin Tuason, Armscor CEO

Nowadays i only write about people or stuff i believe in (yeah that sounds yabang, but tis true), so i pursued and waited for Martin Tuason, CEO of Armscor, to come home to Manila to do a feature on their TCM rounds and his absolute cojones in putting it out on the market and daring the rest of the firearms and ammunitions industry to follow. this kind of ‘buo ang loob’ is what gets the Filipino through our lowest and astounds even the boldest of souls.

"We're no. 1 in the world."

“We’re no. 1 in the world.”

Chutzpah, passion, and steel-eyed determination to bring a Filipino brand onto the global stage—Martin Tuason of Armscor has it all zeroed in, on and off the firing range

photo by Jose Enrique Soriano

With the lifting of the gun ban tomorrow, November 12, and the new Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunitions Act (RA 1059) in effect (see sidebar), the Philippines is poised for a whole new era in firearms manufacturing, handling, education, and ownership.

Leading the show is Arms Corporation of the Philippines or Armscor, the Philippines’ and Southeast Asia’s largest and most successful manufacturer of firearms and ammunition.

CEO and President Martin Tuason, 40, says of this development: “The specific line in the law that I think will show an increase in our (sales) is ‘the right of the Filipino people to defend themselves with the use of a firearm.’

“The key is: the right. It’s no longer a privilege, but a right. Obviously it’s a qualified right, it’s not for everybody. You have to be a non-criminal, not a drug user, and sane.

“Now I think we’ll see the true number of legal firearms. It will be easier for law-abiding citizens to obtain firearms for their protection. I think you’ll see an explosion in gun ownership, and Armscor is in a unique position because we have firearms for everybody. Everything from an inexpensive .22 rifle to a starting point handgun all the way to a Medallion series that costs P80,000.”

In a nutshell, RA 1059 will make gun acquisition harder for criminals, and easier for responsible owners. Individuals will be licensed; guns will be registered.

“The market now is infinite,” adds Tuason, a fast-talking, solidly-built mestizo with gentle eyes and a powerful laugh. If it does happen that each of the 90 million Filipinos will want to own a firearm, “right now there is no company here that can supply the Philippine market if it goes full speed. Not through import, not through anything,” Tuason says.

If Tuason had it his way, the market would go the way of the United States, where 120 million firearms were added in the last 15 years. According to Tuason and Armscor Deputy CEO and Senior Executive Vice President Gina Angangco, crimes in the U.S. actually dipped 38 percent when legal gun ownership increased. As they like to say, “An armed society is a polite society.”

Currently, 65 percent of the goods that come from Armscor’s plant in Marikina are firearms. “But that slowly changes. We try to do a 50-50 mix (of firearms and ammunition). We’ve been trying to work on firearms for the past couple of years, getting our capacities up. And now we’re working on ammo.”

Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammo?

A gun enthusiast cannot talk about Armscor, of course, without mentioning the TCM bullet—an innovation that singularly propelled the company (and Tuason) to celebrity status in the global firearms world.

The TCM bullet, simply put, is a rifle cartridge shorn in the rear, with all its power crammed into a pistol cartridge.

Imagine the force of an M16 bullet—easily three inches long—packed into a bullet meant for a handgun.

“Why did we develop it? Originally, absolutely for pure fun,” Tuason says emphatically. “Because we could. My friend and I wanted something cool to shoot at the range, and after we shot it the first time, I said ‘how soon can we implement that into production? I think we have a winner.’”

This winner was borne out of “some trash brass (spent cartridges)…scattered around the plant, in drums.”

Tuason relates his “wow” moment once he got the production models out and started shooting the rounds with a prototype pistol. The ballistics and speed reports told him that he had something better than the 5.7mm bullet (made by Belgium’s FN Herstal in response to the demand for a more powerful cartridge for personal defense weapons).

“The five-seven doesn’t even come close,” he says, his voice rising in excitement and pride. “We’re 300 feet per second faster. When you equate that to the five-seven bullet on the standard round, the amount of energy that the TCM has is incredible. It really puts the five-seven to shame. Ballistics show that the .22 TCM is actually more powerful—it can turn your handgun into a rifle. You cannot achieve those kinds of speeds with any kind of round. It’s the fastest round out there, unless somebody comes up with something better than mine,” he says with a laugh. “And the TCM bullet is designed to expand quite rapidly, so I like to call it high impact-low penetration.”

At its extreme speed and momentum, the TCM bullet is designed to stop when it hits its target—and once it does, the tremendous energy it carries balloons and dissipates.

“The ballistic gel just rips up into shreds,” Tuason describes. “If you shoot a person, a lot of bullets just go through. They could shoot the person behind or go into the next room. It would take bone density to make the bullet stop; if it’s tissue, it will go clean through.”

With the TCM bullet, the damage to any object (or person) behind the intended target “will be so miniscule if any at all.”

Currently, the TCM also has a bolt action rifle; a semi-automatic and a new pistol (and outside of that, a .380 pistol) are in the works. “We have to take a look at it,” demurs Tuason. “It’s all a matter of physics and how it works together.”

A new TCM round with a higher expansion rate will be out this month.

The TCM was launched late last year to resounding success—despite the fact that it defies convention and needs a brand new pistol with which to shoot it. Since then, everyone’s wanted a piece of Armscor. While fashionistas celebrate a mention of so-and-so designer in “Vogue”, or the inclusion of a beauty queen with Filipino ancestry among the finalist line -up of so-and-so pageant, Armscor has already graced the covers of international publications like “Hand Gunner”, “Western Digital Shooting Magazine,” “Handgun”, “Shooting Times”, and featured in two shows on “The Sportsman’s Channel,” and in “Shooting Gallery”, which came to the Philippines to shoot an hour-long episode. Tuason says they’ll be back for season 15.

Coming Of Age

Armscor traces its history back to 1905, when a couple of Brits named Roy Squires and William Bingham started a printing company in Manila called Squires Bingham, Co. Later, it was bought by American Arthur Hileman who converted it into a general merchandise store. In 1941, Filipino industrialist Don Celso Tuason bought Squires Bingham—at the time popularly known as the Sportsmen’s Headquarters—from Hileman. The outbreak of World War II in the Philippines however, resulted in import and foreign exchange restrictions, prompting Don Celso Tuason to go into the business of manufacturing what was then the most profitable section in the merchandise store: firearms and ammunition.

In 1952, President Elpidio Quirino granted the first license to manufacture firearms to Squires Bingham Manufacturing Company, followed by the first license to manufacture ammunition in 1963. The company was eventually re-organized into Arms Corporation of the Philippines, during which time Don Celso had already turned over the management of the corporation to his three sons: Bolo, Butch, and Severo.

Last year, Bolo Tuason announced his retirement and the passing of the baton to Martin.

Martin acquiesces to being in the background for the past 24 years—many of those years spent at the shooting range as his summer job and “people (pulling me out when they) would want something signed by my dad, they’d give me paperwork so he could sign it.”

He studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, did some mortgage work in the U.S., and honed his selling chops with weight loss products. “I used to go to school in the mornings, work in the office in the afternoons and sold weight loss till 2 a.m. every day. I love working but my wife hates me for that,” Tuason says.

When he took over, there were already two Armscor offices in the U.S.—Armscor Precision International located in Pahrump, Nevada (which imports and distributes Armscor products in the U.S., including the Rock Island Armory brand), and Armscor Cartridge Inc., Montana (which imports ammunition cases and bullets from the Philippines to be loaded in the U.S. facilities for sale under the Armscor USA brand).

Their success is largely due to Martin’s tenacity.

Good Guns And Lifetime Warranties

Bolo Tuason had been trying to export their products since the late 1960s; it took around 40 years till Armscor broke into the American market. The year Martin took over U.S. sales, sales broke $800,000. Within two years, sales were up 2.5 million dollars. “I needed to get my feet wet, and now you see us exporting 80 percent of our products to the U.S. and elsewhere.”

“Getting his feet wet” meant rejection from established gun distributors. “The first time I went introducing myself around, I went into this place. Buy and Sell on Fremont Ave.,” he narrates, telling it like it happened just yesterday. “I walked in, introduced myself. ‘I’m Martin from Armscor. We make 1911s, we’re gonna be setting up an office here in Las Vegas, and if there’s anything you need…’ and he said to me, ‘Filipino guns are s**t.’ This was 1999.”

He pauses, and continues: “Three years later, he came into my office and said he’d like to buy stuff. I looked at him and said ‘You don’t remember me, I went into your store three years ago, and you told me my guns are s**t.’” Flustered, the man apologized. “‘Oh I’m so sorry for saying that, Martin,’” Tuason mimics. “‘No no, take care of me.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you a chance since you’re gonna buy.’”

Another pause. “I didn’t show him my price list, so I marked everything up 15 percent. And I took his cash that day.” He snaps his fingers, reliving and relishing the moment.

Tuason assures that he doesn’t do that to anybody—“It’s just that he told me my guns were s**t”—but concedes that the man was probably right. “Those days, we didn’t make good guns, we didn’t make good guns at all. And that’s why we make a lifetime warranty. (Just) because they bought the guns during our growing years (doesn’t mean) they’re going to be left out. As far as I’m concerned, my lifetime warranty in the United States goes back to anything made by my family, period. So if you bought a Squires Bingham Model 20 in K-Mart in the early 1980s, it’s covered as long as you didn’t mess with the gun. The customer is no. 1, so you have to make them as happy as possible.” Unfortunately, full customer service is difficult to carry out in the Philippines (you can’t mail off your gun to the shop, for example), “but it’ll be fixed—different countries, different situations, but we’re fixing it,” he says optimistically.

His Way

While Tuason gives his father credit for many, many things—among them, leaving him a viable business with no debt (“I could not ask for anything better than to have a good foundation like that”), sound business principles (“my dad is still the old-fashioned handshake and good to go. I’m the same way…I never break my word. It takes an act of God for me to break it”), and the free reign that allowed the company to increase in size (“Gina Angangco took care of local, I took care of export”)—he brings his own management style to Armscor.

First off, he doesn’t micromanage. “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” What needed tweaking were two things: Armscor’s equipment and the Filipino’s “pwede na” culture.

“Modernizing, tooling—that helps a lot,” says Tuason. But more than the machines, he infused rigor and pride in work.

“Proper training, changing the culture of ‘pwede na, bahala na’ (‘that’ll do, so be it’). Get that out, have a culture where people only accept the best. Once that happens, you see a turnaround in the products that you make. That’s basis for it, at least. I think the Filipino worker can be absolutely wonderful as long as you get him out of that culture of ‘bahala na.’”

Tuason has also been unapologetic with manufacturing ammo in their U.S. plants.

Logistics-wise, it is less risky and far less expensive. Since a carrier carrying gunpowder for illegal fireworks exploded in the Indian Ocean six years ago, commercial carriers are only allowed to ship gunpowder for military use. That means manufacturers like Armscor have to charter vessels, and shell out at least $70,000 a container to carry both powder and primers.

In Nevada, Tuason says, “the powder supplier is just driving distance away.”

Besides, he adds, “the U.S. is my biggest market for everything,” Tuason says. “Honestly man, nothing beats the U.S. because of their Second Amendment, ‘The right to bear arms.’ Why not be in their backyard if we can do it profitably?”

It also makes sense to produce something on the soil that its people are so emotionally—sometimes irrationally so—invested in.

Again, Tuason grows passionate—but this time, it’s not about the business. It’s about the Filipino’s attitude towards Pinoy-made products.

“Aren’t you proud to be Filipino? Well Americans are proud to be Americans. Same thing. If you put ‘Made in the USA’ on it, even if it’s more expensive, they’ll pay for it. They will support America.

“I hate to put down the Filipino people,” he says, frustration entering his voice. “Filipinos think we’re export quality,” he scoffs, “export quality? They don’t mind buying something made in the Philippines that’s exported to Japan or the States. But wait a second, man…what’s the diff between export quality and quality? Why does the Filipino have to be regulated (as) to quality and export quality? Why are there two stages? I don’t understand that. Does that mean that the Filipino doesn’t know what a good product is? That they will rip you off and make a few extra cents here and there, and we’ll send the good stuff to the States? No way, man.

“We’re doing something to change that in our industry. You go down there right now,” he says, gesturing towards the Marikina plant, two buildings away from his office, where over 70 variants of pistols are manufactured, the numbers reaching the double-digit thousands every day, “and you look at the guns being made—the only difference is the laser marking. If one day I need to ship 800 guns locally, it’ll say Armscor. If the same day, I need to ship it to the States, it’ll say Rock Island. It’s the same darn pistol going off. I don’t get 3,000 guns from the lot and say ‘Guess what, this is for Manila, because I’m going to give crap to my countrymen.’ I can’t understand why Filipinos do that. It really annoys me.

“You know what annoys me worse?” he continues, “is that I have Americans who love my product more than Filipinos (there). Actually the Filipinos here are more loyal than the ones in the U.S. I cannot get Filipinos in the U.S. sometimes; they cannot even acknowledge that we’re a good gunmaker. Imposible sila. (They’re impossible).”

Another demographic that irritates Tuason are the American old-timers who he shoots with at the range in the States. “They tell me, ‘There’s no way you could be making anything that’s as good as the Americans can.’ It’s terrible. I just can’t understand it.”

And so Martin Tuason, the young CEO who’s been shooting for 35 years—who dares mass produce something like a wildcat round that is the TCM, challenging the rest of the firearms world to follow—provocates: “Hey man, it’s not the 1950s anymore. We’re in the modern, global age. We can produce as good as everybody else. We’re no. 1 in the world.”

The new gun law: good, but lacking—Tuason

Republic Act 10591, or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulations Act, took effect September 29. It “makes it unlawful for any person to engage in the illegal manufacture, importation, sale or disposition of firearms or ammunition or parts thereof…it is expected to help curb down firearms smuggling in the country,” according to its literature.

Under it, only individuals who are licensed will be able to own guns, which, in turn, will be registered.

“You can have a license but no firearm, but you cannot have a firearm without a license,” explains Armscor Deputy CEO and SVP Gina Angangco. “You qualify yourself. Like you can have a driver’s license, but not have a car.”

While it’s a boon for qualified gun owners, Martin Tuason still finds it lacking when it comes to penalties for illicit use of firearms and illegal gun owners. “I think that whoever uses a gun in a crime should get life! No questions asked. It doesn’t affect me or my customers who are law abiding,” he says with a shrug. “So as far as I’m concerned, do it! In fact, maybe we should sponsor another bill to make the penalties even stiffer. People should be taught responsibility and safety (with regards to firearms) at a young age—and that’s education Armscor is heavily involved in. People should learn to respect and be safe with firearms, or use them when it’s necessary for protection for family, home, loved ones and your property, and defense of the nation if need be.”


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