You probably know Jesse James from his popular 2000s reality show, Monster Garage, in which he and a team of intrepid mechanics transformed ordinary cars and motorcycles into freakishly souped-up street machines. His West Coast Choppers shop sold countless custom bikes and became a global brand whose ubiquitous t-shirts and hoodies flooded Hot Topics and Wal-Marts during the show's heyday.
James wasn’t just a bad boy welder-turned-reality star; he was arguably the biggest name on two wheels. Then came his unlikely marriage to Sandra Bullock, and their lurid tabloid breakup in 2010. James left Los Angeles, remarried, wrote a bestselling memoir, American Outlaw, and set up shop with his wife and three kids on a country estate 20 minutes outside of Austin.
While he still makes custom cars and motorcycles, James has largely reinvented himself as a luxury gunsmith who handcrafts gorgeous bespoke pistols and rifles for a clientele that spans from SWAT teams to A-list celebrities, and now, maybe even the President of the United States. That’s because his latest creation is a custom .45-caliber handgun designed for Donald Trump, who James befriended after appearing on The Celebrity Apprentice.
James gave Maxim the exclusive first look at his Trump gun, seen above in all its appropriately gilded glory. He also talked about his company, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited (that’s JJFU for short), designing firearms for the military, guns versus motorcycles, and, somewhat unexpectedly, his affection for the 1971 cult movie Harold and Maude.
Why did you decide to make this gun for Trump?
Besides us being friends and me building guns for a living, as soon as I knew he was gonna win, I was like, "Oh, I’m gonna build him a gun." I wanted to really do something special. Even without the presidency, I wanted to do something that was a little on the flamboyant side. Something that looks kinda badass, like a “Dirty Harry” gun. Dirty Harry always had that long .44 Magnum. So it seemed kinda obvious that we should do a .45 caliber since he’s the 45th president, right?
Tell me about the actual construction of it, and what makes it unique.
It says “Donald J. Trump” on one side, “45th President of the United States Of America” on the other. It’s all relief engraved and 24-karat gold plate. The model is a JJFU Grand Master X. The handmade case is local Texas Pecan and Walnut. The box uses wood from one of George Washington’s original 13 Chestnut trees to inlay “DJT” and “45th” inside. It’s got a longer than normal 1911 frame and a two piece Slide & Compensator. When you cock it, the slide splits apart and goes back together in perfect alignment.
And how are you planning on giving it to him?
I could sell it to him so he could own it. A couple friends of mine that are governors want me to take it to the White House and present it to him as like, a formal thing. I mean, I guess that would be cool, but then it becomes property of the people and it’ll go to the [Presidential] Library when he’s not president anymore, which I guess is cool for the gun because it’ll be on display, but I kinda think he should keep it and shoot it, because it’s an awesome gun.
Which governors want you to take it to the White House?
I’m not telling you.
Fair enough. How much is it worth?
We can’t really talk about that because there’s a limit to what the president can accept. I’m sure there are some Democrats who hate him and would like, sue him if he got a free gun from me.
You do make some pretty pricey guns.
They start about five grand. We have some forged Damascus ones, they’re close to a hundred grand.
What other famous customers have you made pistols for?
Well, I’m doing a pair for Kid Rock right now that are pretty bitchin’. A right and left set of 1911 pistols, mirror image. You guys did a thing on me where I did a pair for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. I just did a really nice pair for Eric Clapton. Some guns for Jimmy Vaughn. For Alex Jones, who’s my neighbor, I’m restoring a really nice WWII gun that was in the wildfires up in Marin County. It was like the only thing that survived—I probably won’t charge that guy.
What about a dream client, someone you’d really be honored to make a gun for?
Shit, I don’t know. Ernest Hemingway? If I could do a dream set of guns, I don’t even know if you know what this is, but I would do a Harold and Maude set of pistols.
The movie? Of course I know it.
Yeah, I would do like with the Jaguar on it, and one with Maude’s face and one with Harold’s face. Do it all with like, funeral symbols and stuff. Probably you, me and twelve other people would get it.
That’s definitely an interesting subset of gun owners—people who are equally into Harold and Maude and really powerful handguns.
It’s such a personal thing. I did a set for guy who owns a Toyota dealership here in Texas. His daughter died of cancer like four years ago, and so we did a gun that was a tribute to her. It was really hard to do something for someone that you know is gonna make them cry when they see it. But I told him, "Hey it’s a great thing because she’s always gonna protect you, you know?" That stuff is so personalized. I still build bikes for people. But that’s kinda like a boat or an ATV or something like that, it’s in that category. Whereas guns are just on a whole different level, so much more personal.
It’s like, important to do a gun for the president. It’s pretty cool. But a bike for the president wouldn’t be as cool, you know what i mean? Roosevelt didn’t have a bike, Eisenhower didn’t have a bike, and all these presidents had bitchin’, famous, legendary guns. It’s pretty special for me to build something for him. Even if we weren’t friends, it’s special for me because I wanna make something badass.
How did you go from building bikes to making guns?
It just kinda found me. I moved to Texas like eight years ago, I started messing around with guns, and I built one. I bought a $600 gun and I cut it all apart and re-welded it, machined the parts, and had the guy who engraved our bike stuff engrave it. And I posted it online and people like, flipped out. And this Prince from Qatar contacted me and was like “I want one." And I was like, "Shit, they’ll be like, 25 grand." And he was like, “I don’t care, I’ll take it." And I was like, "Ohhh, I guess I’m in the gun business now.” I think it’s a bigger audience, too. Way more people like guns than ride bikes.
Did you have to take an apprenticeship with a gunmaker to really learn how to do it?
Yeah, I went and got my pistolsmith apprenticeship with a guy named Jim Garthwaite in Pennsylvania. That was like a month-long course, but half of the month I skipped. Because it was like, “Here’s how you use a mill,” “Here’s how to sand metal,” and I taught him how to weld better when I was there. He has a great way of teaching, and I just got it really fast. I had this light bulb go off like, “Oh man, I see how this works.” It wasn’t any kind of secret scientific method.
There’s got to be a different sense of importance when you’re making a gun, as opposed to cars and bikes.
We’re working on some military stuff right now, and that’s like on a whole different level. You can send tier-one operators and Special Forces and SEALS guns and put in their hands stuff that I know is way better than anything anybody else has, and will make them safer and more protected and silent and invisible at night. That gets me charged to think about that kinda stuff. It’s on a way different importance level. You can actually save someone’s life. We’re working on some stuff right now.
We’ve doing stuff for Atlanta SWAT. So many law enforcement agencies are on such a tight budget that their guns are pretty clapped out. So I have SWAT guys send me their guns and I go through and make them work. I weld them up, and re-machine them and make them fit and just make them a super badass gun. I usually just tell them to buy me dinner when they see me. Those guys are out there putting it on the line. A couple hundred dollars worth of labor isn’t gonna make or break me, but it’s gonna make their day way better, you know?
Your most popular guns are the 1911s, right? Those are kind of your signature.
Yeah the 1911s and our AR15s and our Nomad rifles are pretty popular.
JJFU is a pretty small operation compared to West Coast Choppers, when you were overseeing 200 people.
It’s me and twelve guys. I work 10 times as much now and I’m 100 times more happy. Before it got so big and became such a huge operation with so many buildings, that I was just like a mid-level manager. I was worried about who was stealing toilet paper and shit like that. Now all I do is work. My shop’s at my house, so I spend time with my wife and kids and work more. The machine shop where we make everything is at the property next door.
What’s the biggest difference between living in L.A. and Texas?
When I was a kid in the ‘70s, my dad moved to Riverside. And that was the country, that was like dairyland out there, so I could ride dirt bikes and shoot guns and have fun. Well, Texas is like that, when I was a kid. You can just do whatever you want out here: shoot machine guns, ride dirt bikes, the roads aren’t crowded, you can get great property, there’s no state income tax. But I don’t want anybody else to move here.
So you started out building bikes, and now you’re making guns. Are you planning on branching out again anytime soon?
I think I kinda streaked out ahead of everybody with bikes, and it took a while for people to catch up. I kinda got burnt out on it. I don’t see that happening with guns for a while. There’s too many opportunities. We’re doing stuff now with the 1911 and AR-15 formats, and we’re taking them to the limit. But within a year from now, we’ll probably have our own formats. Our own type of weapons, our own guns. That’s kinda where it’s all heading.
Check out more of Jesse James Firearms Unlimited’s luxury bespoke guns on Instagram.