A Visit with Sandy Chisholm:
the North American Arms "Guardian"

By Randy Wakeman


Sandy Chisholm is the affable President of North American Arms, manufacturers of a very popular line of reliable, convenient, intimate self-protection semi-automatic pistols and revolvers. Sandy has graciously consented to talk a bit about his company, NAA, their products, and what the future might hold. With that, I'm delighted to welcome Mr. Chisholm to Guns and Shooting Online for a little discussion.

RW: Sandy, how did North American Firearms originate, and where did you originate from?

SC: Randy, North American Arms was a Phoenix-like reincarnation of the short-lived Rocky Mountain Arms, which was begun in the fall of 1971. NAA was created a couple of years later to continue the development and manufacture of several firearms designed originally for RMA by the legendary Dick Casull. Dick's pieces stretched the single-action revolver handgun envelope in both directions ("world's largest and smallest") and included a diminutive 3.5" revolver chambered in .22 short and a hand cannon chambered in 450 Magnum Express. In the early 80s, NAA became a subsidiary of Talley Manufacturing, an aerospace manufacturing company.

In the late 80s, Talley was acquired by Teleflex Inc. Shortly after the acquisition, Teleflex chose to sell the non-strategic and somewhat threatening (liability) small gun business and that's when I became involved.

I was a 10-year employee of Philadelphia-based Teleflex serving in an M&A role on the corporate staff and had been closely involved in the Talley acquisition. Similarly, after the dust settled, I was charged with the NAA divestiture. It turned out to be a difficult sale; NAA was profitable and not requiring any time, attention or other resources from the parent, who was rather stubborn on both price and terms. During the two-year period I attempted to market this business on behalf of Teleflex, I saw first-hand the capabilities of the management team and the opportunities available to the business, given just a modest investment of time, "love" and money. So, in a "Victor Kiam/Remington moment," I chose to leave the corporate world and become a small business owner, which occurred in November of 1991.

Shortly after the purchase, I built a new home for the business just up the street in Provo, where it has remained ever since, while I have remained in suburban Philadelphia for the past 25 years. During my two year marketing exercise, I gained a great amount of respect for and confidence in Ken Friel and his team and their ability to responsibly and successfully make almost all the operational decisions regarding the business. I felt that I could add my value of focusing on the professional (legal and accounting) and strategic planning issues while I remained remote from the facility. 15 years later, I'm satisfied that things have worked (uncharacteristically) exactly as planned. It's interesting to note that with remarkably few exceptions, both the management team and work force are exactly as they were 15 years ago.

RW: After a perfunctory perusal of the NAA line, I see the focus on convenience without the bulk, usability based on simplicity of design and function, and a lot of effort expended into giving your customers a firearm essentially customized to their personal preferences of size, looks, and an ever-expanding line of accessories that allows your clients to easy obtain what fits them perfectly. Anytime an intimate, self-defense firearm is discussed "intuitiveness," instinctively good feel and fit in the hand seems paramount. Is that the track on which you are continuing to focus?

SC: Randy, ours is a very niche-oriented business whose entire reason for being is personal protection. These firearms are not designed to be target-grade, although some people have managed to achieve some extraordinary results. Nor are they intended for hunting, although there are plenty of snakes and varmints who wish they were still around to attest to that. (Actually, I hear many stories of hunters who carry them to dispatch wounded or trapped animals). No, our firearms are deliberately designed to be small, light, and concealable ("Convenient, Reliable, Effective"), enough so that you will carry them where and whenever it is legal and appropriate to do so.

We cater to a wide variety of interests, be it recreational (stick one in a backpack or tackle box), law enforcement (as a 2nd or 3rd weapon or for deep concealment), or collectable (because of the bird's head styling or family of unique accessories, like our holster grip or belt buckle "holster"). Primarily, however, our market is the man or woman who simply wants something easy to carry and conceal, something that can be comfortably dropped into a purse or pocket.

So many of my customers refer to the mini revolver's "American Express" characteristic ("I never leave home without it!"), which speaks to its great utility. I'll admit I get annoyed by the comments of ignorant people who make disparaging remarks about the small frame size and caliber of the weapon. "I only carry a .45", they boast. "Where is it?" I inquire. "Back at home," they admit. Point made: we would never suggest that our .22 caliber mini is better than a .45; it is unarguably, however, better than nothing, which is the void our product is designed to fill.

Another ignorant remark questions the effectiveness of such a small weapon/round, to which I reply, "I don't care about the frame size or caliber of any gun; if it's pointed at me, it will absolutely change my behavior." There are reams of evidence that show that simply brandishing a gun will avert a potentially threatening situation.

RW: To briefly touch on your line, I see two basic approaches. One, as presented by your Guardian Series, a line of double-action only blow-black semi-autos that range in caliber and corresponding frame size from the 4.4 inch OAL .25 ACP at under 14 ounces to the .380 Guardian which is still under 5 inches in length and under 19 ounces. These remind me a bit of the Seecamp. Yet, the 32 NAA round seems to have at least a 33% increase in muzzle velocity over the old .32 ACP, quite a jump. When was the .32 NAA developed?

The revolver line runs from the diminutive 4 ounce .22 short revolver through .17 Hornady, .17 Hornady Mach 2, .22 Long Rifle, and .22 Winchester Magnum models. Most remain breathtakingly light, the .22 WMR Mini-Revolver at just 5.9 ounces, and even your Black Widow 17 HMR and .22 WMR revolvers aren't much more than a half pound. Why would one select one series over the other?

SC: Randy, our Guardian pistols are built on two different-sized frames. The smaller one is chambered in 32 ACP (or .25 NAA), and the slightly larger one is chambered in 380 ACP (or .32 NAA). The inspiration for these pistols was, indeed, the venerable Seecamp pistol, which seemed to enjoy its own size niche, a rabid following, and a lengthy backlog. When we designed the better mousetrap, we made several modifications, which included:

  • a 1911-style magazine release (in comparison to the more snag-worthy and clumsy heel clip)
  • the absence of a magazine-disconnect safety (I strongly disagree with the incorporation of one)
  • an external button to allow super-simple takedown of the weapon for cleaning (as opposed to the use of pins or nails to trip an internal release)
  • an admittedly modest set of integral sights (which can be enhanced by a wide selection from our Custom Shop)
  • the ability to reliably feed and digest ANY commercial ammunition labeled 32 ACP (as compared to one style from one brand), and, most importantly
  • availability; our pistols are infinitely easier to come by

The market has told us that our strategy was a good one. Any licensed dealer, even one who might not typically carry our line (shame on him/her!) can get one from his favorite distributor, typically within 48 hours (that applies to any of our firearms). Admittedly, many of our dealers don't carry a full line of our accessories, but we're happy to fill those orders straight from the factory.

You may have noticed the two specialty calibers (.25 and .32 NAA) that I mentioned. These are bottlenecked cartridges, like the 357 SIG. They were developed for us by our ammunition partner, Cor-Bon, under the direction of Ed Sanow (of Sanow & Marshall's "Stopping Power" fame, the seminal book on handgun ballistics). These rounds were designed for the performance fanatics who opt for the lighter/faster bullet strategy. Even from a short 2 inch barrel, the bullets scream out of the muzzle at better than 1200 fps.

As far as the mini-revolver line goes, I'd be hard-pressed to recommend one model over another. The 17 caliber rounds are mostly a novelty in handguns (ours or anyone else's). They don't stabilize very well in short barrels, nor do they generate the velocities they're intended to. Frankly, the same can be said of the 22 WMR; the bullet has already left the barrel before the powder's fully burned. The report and muzzle blast, particularly of the Magnum, are VERY impressive.

While I don't have a favorite mini-revolver, my all-time favorite accessory is the collapsing holster grip. When it's closed, it affords a whole variety of carry options and when it's opened, it greatly improves the handling of the piece.

RW: My impression is that your pistols are a long way from the often maligned "zinc alloy" specimens that most have seen at one time or another; they seem built like "real guns." Also, in the case of your .22 Win. Mag. revolvers, I was surprise to see several combinations exceeding 1100 fps from such a compact firearm. Are a lot of people surprised?

SC: Randy, I would confidently compare the materials, fit and finish of our firearms with any products from any other manufacturer. I must also add that at least as important as the product and the processes are the people at NAA who stand behind them. The market tells us that we excel there as well.

The Internet has increased the volume and the immediacy of the feedback that customers can offer both the factory as well as their fellow shooters. We closely canvas online forums, discussion groups, and web sites such as Guns and Shooting Online and rec.guns and the like. We also host a bulletin board ourselves, which entries are left entirely unedited, rants as well as raves. What I say about our products and service is not nearly as important to a person considering our line as what our customers say. I'm happy to leave those judgments in their hands. And it is from that feedback that we make our product development decisions, like the soon-to-be-introduced .32 H&R Magnum midi-revolver.

RW: Sandy, I'd like to hone in on an individual's selection of a NAA mini-revolver or semi-auto. What are the pros and cons of the caliber offerings, and why would one model be a more likely candidate than another?

SC: Randy, in general terms, as is so often the case in life, firearms selection involves compromise. We suggest that for enhanced personal protection, an individual choose the largest caliber available in whatever firearm they can comfortably and appropriately carry. We would never argue that smaller is better than bigger, which is contrary to several irrefutable laws of physics. The stopping power of a 45ACP cartridge is unarguably greater than that of a 22WMR round. (I hasten to add that I also believe that shot placement is of greater importance than caliber.)

What we DO argue, with great enthusiasm, is that a 22WMR is infinitely better than an angry voice and/or short legs, e.g. better than being unarmed, which may be the case if your only other alternative is to carry a 1911. Our customers typically equate "ease of carry" with "likely to carry". Our goal has always been to make the smallest and most reliable platforms for the cartridges for which they're chambered.

In terms specific to the NAA line, we notice a typical correlation where people with small hands, (relatively) weak grips and/or less familiarity with firearms tend to select one of our revolvers. Revolvers enjoy a reputation for both simplicity and reliability. With our patented safety notch, our single action revolvers can safely be carried fully loaded. As the smallest functioning revolvers on the market, these can easily and unobtrusively be carried in a purse, shirt pocket or cigarette case, for example. Semi-autos tend to require greater hand strength, both to initially rack the slid and to pull the trigger. Because there are no external safeties associated with most double-action-only semiautomatics like ours, the trigger pull is deliberately both long and firm. In our line, the offset is the larger caliber and higher capacity of the Guardian family. Our pistols also offer interesting choices to those who have ammunition preferences. Our .380ACP Guardian can also be chambered for the Cor-Bon designed .32NAA round, which is simply a smaller bullet in a bottlenecked case, for those who favor the "smaller but faster" school of ballistics (1200 fps from a 3 inch barrel). Similarly, the .25NAA is designed for the slightly smaller .32ACP frame.

RW: When it comes to ammo, are there any general recommendations that can be made?

SC: Our Message Board is littered with rants and raves for and against a great variety of individual cartridges. Our site also includes specific ballistic results for most of those cartridges when fired from our guns. Because of frequently unreliable performance, we recommend against the use of PMC rimfire.

I will add that one popular choice made by owners of our magnum-chambered mini-revolvers is to purchase the "Conversion model," which includes a second cylinder chambered for 22LR, which is cheaper to fire for practice and plinking.

RW: What type of training should we consider before using a small, deep concealment type of semi-auto pistol or revolver?

SC: I don't think the general training requirements for these types of guns are much different from others. The most important aspects of safe handling, e.g. always assume every gun is loaded, don't point one at an object you don't intend to destroy, keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to fire, etc. etc. are constant, regardless of the firearm, as are some of the tactical issues.

What's very important for any firearm is that the user be very familiar with and well-practiced in the use of whatever he or she is carrying. Because of their generally small size, deep concealment firearms tend to have some idiosyncratic handling issues, particularly in terms of grip and trigger length/pull. Again, familiarity and practice are the keys.

RW: It there are trend toward smaller, lighter yet, more firepower, or larger calibers in smaller frames that you've seen?

SC: Yes, there does seem to be a trend in that direction. It's what I call "Specs-manship," a term I first heard used in the stereo market, where any incremental "improvement" in the physical characteristics of the firearm (width, length, weight, etc.) is determined to be "better." The continued incremental improvements in engineering and design, along with more frequent use of polymers and exotic metal alloys, have enabled this trend. There are too many examples, however, of where the handling characteristics of the firearm have been overly compromised in this rush towards "more from less."

"Small" has always been the end of the market that we've occupied and will continue to focus on. Our soon-to-be produced .32 H&R Midi-revolver is designed to fill another niche with a uniquely designed piece, but that story is not yet ready to be told.

RW: With that, I'd like to thank Sandy Chisholm for a look at the story of today's North American Arms. Reviews of NAA products appear on the Product Review Page of Guns and Shooting Online, with more to come in the near future. I'm always glad when a company's owner is actively engaged in the industry, obviously proud of his people and products, and busy listening to what his customers want. Sandy Chisholm qualifies on all counts.




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Copyright 2006, 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.


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