The untold truth of Sons of Guns

It was a story of American triumph—but by the end, it uncovered a legacy of tragedy. Sons of Guns, the Discovery Channel series that ran from 2011 from 2014, centered on a gun store and workshop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and its family staff. 

For three years and 65 episodes, it was a ratings dynamo, drawing celebrity drop-ins and giving its cast an international platform as spokespeople and mascots of American gun culture, gaining fans and critics both for their unapologetic embrace of excess and their enjoyment of the Second Amendment.

But the success of the series masked disturbing truths behind the scenes, and it all came crashing down in 2014 with the show's sudden cancellation following the arrest of Will Hayden, the center of the show and the owner of Red Jacket Firearms. 

How did this show rise so quickly and fall so far, and what are the cast members doing now? Read on to learn the tragic story of Red Jacket Firearms, Will Hayden, and Sons of Guns.

From Baton Rouge to the Marines

It's impossible to separate Sons of Guns from Will Hayden, who over a decade built the business that the show would center on. Born and raised in Louisiana, Hayden was a natural tinkerer and lifelong gun enthusiast who once described making his own zip gun as a kid out of junk from a construction site. This innate ingenuity from a young age didn't exactly correlate with an enthusiasm for school, with Hayden dropping out at 16 to join the Marines, earning his GED in the process. 

He was in boot camp by the age of 17, graduating in 1982 and staying with the Marines until 1987, departing the service as a sergeant and returning to Louisiana. There, he decided to open his first business—Red Jacket Refrigeration, a name he'd later repurpose for his gun store. It was a nod to his Choctaw heritage, a translation of an ancestral family name, Oshkhouma (sometimes written as 'Osguma').

During this period, Hayden started a family with his first wife, Trudy, who'd remain with him for eight years. Together they had three children, while Hayden continued to expand his knowledge of salvage and reconstruction, working toward a future in a different line of work whether he knew it at the time or not.

The beginning of Red Jacket

In 1999, Hayden was renting a warehouse that had a lot of surplus space, and he began to get the idea to turn the extra room into a storefront for selling guns. 

He ran the idea by the building's owner, Scotty Scardina, who had for years been a mentor to Hayden in the refrigeration business. It was an idea he couldn't shake, and Scardina supported it, so Hayden went to work on setting up the business along with his wife and her cousin. 

Quickly, this childhood fixation on firearms and tinkering was becoming a real thing—a little family-owned firearms shop. Hayden put all of his savings into starting the business, an investment of about $40,000 which was supplemented with purchases on credit, bank loans, and personal loans between friends. Everything was going swimmingly—and then, while Hayden was away at a gun show, the business was robbed. 

Thieves in the night

The robbery of Hayden's first gun store was an utter catastrophe, and destroyed the business before it had even had a chance to begin. Hayden returned to find the building stripped of everything valuable, with the thieves disabling the building's alarm and concealing their identities on all security footage. Police initially suspected Hayden of committing the robbery himself to collect a payout from his insurance company, but scuttled this theory when Hayden informed them that he had no insurance—he was on the hook for everything.

It gets worse: most of the stock consisted of weaponry on consignment, meaning that not only had Hayden been robbed of his own inventory, he'd lost the property of the customers selling through his store. Still worse, the man who'd put the most of his own personal property on consignment with the store happened to be dying of cancer, only selling his guns to pay for medicine and treatment. The reversal of fortune left Hayden with less than nothing—now, he was deeply in debt.

Setback and compromise

Following the robbery, Hayden had a building with no stock, and no money to buy more. He owed money to people who'd lost their guns, owed money for rent, and needed money to live. Because so much weaponry and ammunition was now in the wild and unaccounted for, the ATF got involved. 

Adding further injury, the police's theory of an inside job was later proven to be true—only Hayden wasn't the one that did it. Exactly who did is something Hayden has declined to share—but the close-to-home betrayal started a chain of events that, Hayden says, led to the bitter dissolution of his first marriage. With punishing quickness, Hayden was soon broke and homeless, living in the back of his empty store and looking anywhere for a lifeline.

The beginning of Hayden's climb out of ruin came from one of the people with most cause to be angry with him—his mentor Scotty Scardina, whom Hayden was now in debt to. With Hayden's gun store done for, Scardina decided to start his own gun business in the warehouse called Red Stick Firearms, taking the name from the English translation of the French words "baton rouge."

The deal was simple: Hayden would work off his debt by spearheading the creation of Scardina's gun store, getting the privilege of living in the back as he did so. It would take years to pay back his, but since Hayden had no options, he also had no choice.

A grind and a gun battle

Hayden had to work to fulfill his financial obligations, but if he ever wanted to be taken seriously in the business again, he also needed to restore his reputation. Working for Scardina gave him a platform he could use to come back, starting with an order of 20 AK-47s for a distributor in Arizona. In exchange for knocking a little off the price, the distributor listed the guns in advertisements as "Proudly Manufactured by Red Jacket," giving Hayden leverage to attract more work.

Still, the former Marine felt it necessary to take extra work as a security guard for an apartment complex. There were too many debts to repay, the most pressing being the man with cancer whose plight weighed heavily on Hayden's conscience.

Incredibly, while Hayden was living there, the Red Stick Firearms warehouse was almost robbed again. After first attempting to pry the door open, the would-be burglars rammed a car through the front of the building, the intruders only being thwarted by Hayden's presence and a middle-of-the-night gunfight in which Hayden fired back against the unknown intruders' MAC submachine gun fire with the closest firearm at hand.

"Some folks who heard the story but didn't know all the facts figured I was jazzed to the gills to get into a gunfight," Hayden later wrote. "I just shot at the roof to make noise, trying to convince them to leave. I wasn't looking forward to the possibility of shooting anyone."

Red Jacket ascendant

By 2003, there were still years to go before Hayden would be out from under his creditors, but things were finally starting to look up. When his daughter Stephanie turned 18, he brought her into the business—initially, against her will, since she was already working a number of different jobs that she didn't necessarily want to quit. But Hayden got his way, and Stephanie joined the business on a full-time basis.

The work continued. Before long, Scardina let the Haydens buy out essential tools and parts from the company, and when Scardina left the management of the business in the hands of his children, Hayden struck out on his own, renting a new property on Baton Rouge's Florida Boulevard which became the storefront for his own shop: Red Jacket Firearms.

The new store was the final evolution of what Hayden had set out to do when he built that first order of 20 AKs, putting an emphasis on manufacturing weapons rather than simply trading in them. Adopting a motto of "If you can dream it, we can build it," they served clientele ranging from private collectors to members of the military and police departments, creating gear like internal gun silencers for police officers or shotgun-assault rifle hybrids with the ability to easily breach locked doors. They also restored historical weaponry, like flamethrowers and cannons—a specialty that would be emphasized on their upcoming TV show.

Enter Discovery

One lazy morning in 2009, on a whim, Hayden uploaded a video of himself to YouTube having a noontime range session with one of his favorite guns. The video showed him dressed in a tank top and bunny slippers, firing a short-barreled Saiga-12 fully-automatic shotgun with in-your-face defiant glee. Hayden closed the video with a shoutout for his brand, turning to the camera after the crack of the final shot and drawling, "Red Jacket, mother—-er."

Little did Hayden know that on the opposite side of the country, Hollywood was also clicking around on YouTube, looking for material. The network was in the early stages of developing a reality television show that would steep itself in American gun culture by centering on a uniquely telegenic, character-packed mom-and-pop shop—and after the upload of Hayden's video, producers believed they'd found their man.

Once Hayden and Red Jacket were discovered, work progressed quickly on bringing the show's concept to life. They sent an exploratory unit out to Louisiana for footage, and within months, Sons of Guns was greenlighted, spearheaded by an Emmy Award-winning Discovery Channel executive named Dolores Gavin, whose previous successes in reality TV included Alaskan Bush People, Moonshiners, and Ice Road Truckers. 

The years of work paid off all at once—practically overnight, Red Jacket Firearms became one of the most famous firearms shops in the world.

Meet the team

By the time Sons of Guns debuted on January 26, 2011, the staff around Red Jacket had grown to encompass a range of eccentric individuals, some of whom would sign on to form the show's core cast over its five seasons.

While the set pieces of reality shows are obviously staged and produced as a matter of routine, the cast of Sons and Guns had real bonds that predated the arrival of lights and cameras—like Stephanie's husband Kris Ford, whom she met in 2009 and convinced to begin working as an apprentice at Red Jacket.

Two more key members of Red Jacket in the Sons of Guns era were Joe Meaux, the company's chief of operations, a marksman and mechanic who was often the deciding voice on the show when it came to determining the feasibility of a custom firearm job. There was also Charlie Watson, a well-educated forensic scientist, and Glenn Fleming, a shop welder who left the regular cast after a year to start his own store, Acadiana Gunworks. 

Together, the shop employees worked to commission custom gun jobs or restore historical oddities, sometimes bringing in an outside consultant depending on the project. But they always tested their work on TV, which is part of what made the show so watchable—whether they succeeded or failed, you had a pretty high chance of seeing something cool blow up.

Notorious guests and moments

From the very first episodes of Sons of Guns, the staff of Red Jacket made a big impression with their "shoot it and see what happens" approach, firing Civil War cannons and grenade launchers into the sky and otherwise confidently announcing their arrival on the reality TV scene.

Over the three years and five seasons that followed, the show had a number of standout moments where the team was tasked to restore something rare, build something bizarre, or team up with a famous guest to develop weapons for a specific theme.

Hayden highlighted many of his favorite moments in a companion book to the series that was published in 2014. For the second season episode "Will's Floating Fortress," Red Jacket worked with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Department to attach a M240 machine gun and a MK19 grenade launcher to the department's gulf patrol boat, a job Hayden later described as "beyond cool"—especially when it came to testing the equipment.

Another early guest was WWII veteran Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams, a survivor of the Battle of Iwo Jima who wanted to restore an old flamethrower from the war—a risky proposition, considering how fickle a weapon even a modern flamethrower can be.

As far as guests were concerned, an episode where World War Z writer Max Brooks visited the shop to help brainstorm potential weapons for a zombie attack was a standout for fans and the show's cast alike.

Their show got in trouble with the police

Sons of Guns wasn't on the air for long before it stirred up trouble in the news. The production set off a minor incident at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport when, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a member of the crew left a Penske rental truck unattended outside the airport's Terminal B while waiting for another crew member to arrive.

Naturally, this being a show called Sons of Guns, the truck was loaded with firearms and explosives—an extremely bad thing to leave just sitting around an airport anytime, but especially on that particular date. Even worse, that spot of the airport was a known reception area, on a daily basis, for U.S. soldiers on their way back from the Middle East. You couldn't screw up more unless you tried to sneak a hand grenade through a body scanner.

Federal officials shut down roads leading to the terminal for two hours as canine and bomb squad units staged a response area nearby. No one was harmed in the incident—it didn't even result in the delay of any flights—but a production company executive later apologized, calling it "a simple yet colossal error in judgement by a member of our staff."

And they got in trouble with the ATF

The first year of Sons and Guns also saw Red Jacket Firearms come under increased scrutiny by the media, who soon uncovered another incident Hayden had had in the past with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. This one, which occurred in 2009, cost both him and his daughter Stephanie, resulting in the surrender of their Federal Firearm Licenses.

During a routine inspection operation by the bureau, it was discovered that 10 guns registered to Red Jacket Firearms were missing and unaccounted for—major violations for a gun business. This time, there was no robbery to blame for the missing weaponry, so the agency came down hard on the company, revoking their licenses. 

While Will and Stephanie were punished as individuals, the ATF compromised with them when it came to keeping Red Jacket in business. The business was restructured, with a licensed gun dealer taking over the company and Will and Stephanie taking on employee roles—on paper, at least.

The crimes of Will Hayden revealed

On August 11, 2014, Will Hayden was arrested by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Department on charges of child molestation and an aggravated crime against nature. Within weeks, an additional charge of aggravated rape of a child was added. Hayden's victim? His own daughter, whom he began raping, repeatedly, in 2013 when she was 11 years old.

The details of Hayden's crimes are devastating and terrifying, with Hayden's young daughter being threatened with violence should she report his abuse. She would later tell investigators he had once demanded of her, among other things, "Don't tell them nothing, because I'm all you got."

By August 27, Will Hayden had been legally separated from control of Red Jacket, and Discovery announced that the show had been canceled. In the beginning of September, after initially defending Hayden, Stephanie revealed that her father had molested her as a child as well, and Hayden's young daughter was removed from his custody for good.

Ultimately, multiple women both in and outside of the family would come forward to accuse Hayden of unwanted sexual advances and rape. Stephanie appeared on Dr. Phil in mid-September, bravely addressing her father's true nature as a predator who once scared her so much she began to make a habit of carrying knives when she was around him.

"I'm very afraid of him," Stephanie said. "I think that he has spent his life manipulating people and hurting people … He controlled my entire world."

More arrests follow

The moment the criminal accusations against Hayden became public, the show was doomed. But the ground beneath the cast's feet had only just begun to collapse—from those first horrifying charges against Will Hayden, there was still a good distance left for everyone else to fall.

In a tragic twist, Stephanie and her husband Kris were also both arrested in 2014, taken into custody in November for charges completely unrelated to Hayden's sexual felonies. Both of their charges stemmed from one incident, when the father of one of Stephanie's children noticed that his son with her, nine years old at the time, had a large bruise along his side. Allegedly, the wound was a result of being struck with a belt by his stepfather, Kris. The father reported the incident, and Kris was charged with cruelty to juveniles, with Stephanie also being charged with being a principal to cruelty to juveniles—felony offenses, if the charges had stuck.

Perhaps mercifully, this particular episode in a long string of disasters didn't last very long, and the charges were dropped within weeks.

Hayden's dirty business dealings

Five months after his arrest, more criminal acts on Hayden's part came to light as his trial proceedings began. Unbeknownst to Red Jacket Firearms COO Joe Meaux, who was well into running the business by this point, Hayden had entered into secret licensing agreements with a Texas-based car dealership, trading on Red Jacket's name and covertly earning money for himself. 

Hayden was also, it was discovered, misappropriating tens of thousands of dollars' worth of funds from the business charge account to buy inventory for a side business, Red Jacket Muzzleloading, which he'd set up with himself as the sole owner.

All the violations compelled Meaux and his remaining business partners to file a breach of contract lawsuit against the company's founder. Coupled with the gravely serious rape allegations, Hayden's estimation in the eyes of his peers cratered. "I can't think why he thought he would get away with all this," Meaux said. "unless he's a psychopathic megalomaniac."

When penalties and damages had been considered in full, Hayden was ordered by a state judge to reimburse his former business partners for more than $130,000—a pretty hefty hit to take for someone who was preparing to fight rape charges in court.

Will Hayden's decisive sentencing

The official charges against Hayden were as follows: in East Baton Rouge Parish, he was tried for two counts of aggravated rape against one minor, and a count of forcible rape for another person whom Hayden had raped more than 20 years prior, when she was a child. He also faced charges for aggravated rape and aggravated incest in Livingston Parish.

Hayden pled not guilty to all charges in his first trial in January 2015, but the trial would take years to resolve, with Hayden's three attorneys abandoning him after six months for undisclosed reasons. By the time his trial was underway, his first accuser was 15 years old.

Facing her molester in court, she became ill multiple times during her devastating testimony. "He ruined my life," she said, describing how Hayden's actions led her to both self-medicate and self-mutilate. "I'm never going to be the same, but I'm a survivor, not a victim."

On April 7, 2017, Hayden was unanimously found guilty of all charges, sentenced on May 11 to two life sentences plus 40 years. On July 12, he pled no contest to his charges in Livingston Parish, and was sentenced to life again, plus 10 years.

Hayden now resides in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

The cast reacts

Hayden's crimes shook his former partners to their cores, and his misdeeds cast a shadow they're still working to escape.

"You don't want to believe somebody you have known over the last five years had the capability of doing that," said Joe Meaux, shortly after Hayden's initial arrest.

For Hayden's associates, the revelation of his true nature was like a final puzzle piece falling into place. His rough edges weren't charming aspects of an otherwise kind-hearted man. His domineering nature wasn't quaint—it was abusive. He was not a stern-but-loving hero to admire—but he most surely wanted to be seen that way.

"At one time I considered Will a friend, but looking back at it a lot of our interactions had ulterior motives from him—manipulations and things," Meaux said. "Seeing all the people stepping forward now, it really brings to light how much control he was trying to impart on everything around him." 

Stephanie described the experience of going onto Dr. Phil to tell her story, calling it terrifying. She also recanted an earlier statement she had made in support of Hayden which she had only released under pressure, saying, "My dad was hovering over my shoulder when he asked me to write that statement."

After Red Jacket

As Sons of Guns became more successful on TV, Hayden's focus shifted toward the spotlight, while RJF COO Meaux increasingly sought legitimacy in the business of making firearms. "I wanted to have a true firearms manufacturing company. Will wanted to have a drama manufacturing company," Meaux said after Hayden's downfall. "Those two had a conflict."

But with Hayden out of the way, the sons of guns have moved forward with their lives—and their businesses. Meaux changed Red Jacket's name to Meaux Guns & Ammo, also opening up another custom arms company called Aklys Defense. Kris and Stephanie turned their attentions toward other family businesses, including an airsoft range called IAC Wargames and a gun store, Ford Guns, operated by Kris' father Gary. Glenn Fleming, meanwhile, spent years producing his own content on YouTube with a channel called The Gunners Vault

They're off TV and on their own, the show they helped turn into a ratings sensation now buried. Now their lives are truly theirs—no lights, no cameras, no villains in the ranks. Just some good ol' boys and girls down in the bayou with their guns, a lot of ammo, and the rest of their lives ahead of them.