Exclusive factory visit to the Croatian firearms manufacturer HS Produkt

In Part 1 of our portrait of HS Produkt, we will primarily focus on the history and development of the company, as well as the most important long and short guns from Croatian production. It is well known that the Springfield Armory XD (Extreme Duty) and Hellcat pistol series, which are very successful in the USA, come from this manufacturer. Very recently, the HS Produkt VHS-2 bullpup assault rifle in 5.56x45 mm NATO in a new civilian version called "Hellion" has also been very successfully marketed by Springfield Armory in the USA since SHOT Show 2022.

Short retrospective: due to the infamous Yugoslav or Balkan war, the Republic of Croatia, independent since 1991, was cut off from arms supplies. A domestic arms industry did not exist until then. Necessity became a virtue for survival, so that as a result many small backyard productions and short and long weapons manufactured with the simplest means came into being to supply the armed forces. A well-known example of this is the PHP ("Prvi Hrvatski Pištolj" = first Croatian pistol) manufactured by the Croatian company IM Metal.

This was followed by IM Metal's HS 2000, a much more modern, mass-produced polymer-framed service pistol in 9x19. This polymer pistol was the cornerstone of its growing success, as it was marketed in America under the model designation XD (Extreme Duty) by the long-established US company Springfield Armory. With the resulting growing demand, the previous production capacities became too small, so that the company relocated from Ozalj to Karlovac in 2001. In 2001, the company was renamed from IM Metal to HS Produkt. At the new location, the company was able to export over 5 million guns to the USA by 2016. If you add up all the caliber/barrel length and equipment configurations, over 200 model variants were built based on the successful model. As a result, the HS Produkt company is growing at an impressive rate.

Exclusive insight: our factory visit to HS Produkt in Croatia – Number of employees, number of guns produced and turnover

Factory visit at HS Produkt, a renowned firearms manufacturer from Croatia. On site, there are long corridors and spacious production halls. 1,800 employees work there with a great deal of expertise and dedication.

Upon arrival, the red brick building in which HS Produkt is now located catches the eye. We received a friendly welcome and were allowed to enter the company premises as the first EU journalists. 

On the way to the conference rooms, we pass an impressive gallery of awards for the company, which is as commercially successful as it is innovative. After a warm welcome, Managing Director Zeljko Pavlin introduces us to the company history and HS Produkt's road to success. Like almost everyone who works in the development department today, he is also a veteran and knows first-hand what matters in a gun in an emergency. This is where personal experience and technical know-how come together. 

He proudly presents impressive figures. Last year, HS Produkt employed 1,800 people, making it the largest employer in the region. With 500,000 guns exported to the U.S. per year, the Croatian manufacturer ranks second in U.S. gun imports, according to its own figures. To date, over 6 million pistols have been sold and annual sales exceed $130 million. In the early days, the entire profit flowed back into the company to generate the capacity to invest in the latest technologies. This also involved building its own tooling manufacturing facility. 

These efforts culminate in 2019 with the establishment of the "Center of Competence", where more efficient and ecological production methods are being researched in collaboration with other producers. The list of accomplishments is absolutely impressive. The NRA voted the XD, XDM, XDS, XDE models and the Hellcat the best pistols in the U.S. in 2003, 2006, 2009, 2013, 2018 and 2020. For the military market, the NSN (Nato Stock Number) is available, as well as the ISO 9001-2015 and ISO 14001-2015.

Digression: the VHS-1 & 2  bullpup assault rifles from HS Produkt

Already around 2007/2008, the military bullpup assault rifle VHS (Višenamjenska Hrvatska Strojnica = Croatian Multi-Purpose Assault Rifle) in 5.56x45 mm NATO appeared on the market. Thanks to its design with the cartridge chamber and magazine placed behind the trigger, a bullpup rifle is far more compact than a conventional assault rifle with identical barrel length and ballistic performance. 

Available with both a 410 mm and 500 mm barrel, the VHS uses a short-stroke gas operating system with an adjustable gas block. Around 2014/2015, the improved successor model VHS-2 appeared. Probably, the most interesting feature is the tool-free conversion of the case ejection from right to left and vice versa in a matter of seconds. But also the now extendable stock and the hand guard have been redesigned and the upper carrying handle has been replaced by an optics mounting rail for a telescopic sight. The former FAMAS-style fire selector switch in the trigger guard has been relocated with a double-sided control directly above the pistol grip, leaving the trigger guard area clear for more comfortable operation even when wearing gloves. 

The VHS-1/2 assault rifle also shows the practical experience of its developers. The short 370 mm barrel of the standard M4 carbine used by the U.S. armed forces means that the 5.56x45 mm NATO has poor ballistic performance at longer ranges. For this reason, the company opted for a modular bullpup system with compact dimensions, a 500 mm barrel and an operational range of up to 800 meters. Should it be necessary, for example behind a barricade, to change shoulder and shoot with the "weak" hand, then the stock can be moved back by 10 cm to eject the cases in front of the head. As standard, the cheekpiece can be adjusted in height, which is not a matter of course for bullpup rifles.

An early prototype of the VHS bullpup assault rifle with wooden stock parts (above) and the VHS-1 (below) in 5.56x45 illustrate the constant progress in manufacturing technology at HS Produkt.

The basic version for police duties is equipped with a 410-mm barrel. The barrel length is sufficient for the usual operational distances and the compact semi-automatic rifle shows its advantages in confined spaces and emergency vehicles. This has achieved the goal of providing police officers with a weapon with which they can respond to any situation without letting unnecessary time pass until special forces arrive on the scene.

The modular system includes various sight setups from simple iron sights to red dot sights with 1.5x magnification. The VHS-2 comes with translucent plastic magazines that strongly resemble those of the HK G36. They can be coupled to each other on the side to ensure quick magazine changes. Optional equipment also includes a 40 mm grenade launcher. In addition to smoke and gas grenades, rubber bullets can also be fired. Such "Less Lethal" projectiles are primarily intended for riot control. Zeljko Pavlin, in a brief trip down memory lane, also showed us early AK-based bullpup prototypes that never went into serial production.

Briefly on the US civilian Hellion: based on this HS Produkt VHS-2, Springfield Armory now offers the brand new Hellion semi-automatic civilian version. The compact rifle with 16"/406-mm barrel weighs around 3,630 grams empty and reaches an overall length of 71.7 to 75.5 cm, depending on the position of the length-adjustable five-position stock. The Hellion is offered in the USA for $1,999.

HS Produkt manufactures with the help of modern machinery. Robots play an important role in this. The investments in the Croatian site are impressive.

View into the production halls of HS Produkt

At the end of the theoretical introduction, Zeljko Pavlin handed over the tour to his sales manager Kresimir Sentigar to give us an insight into production. Behind the red brick building, a huge industrial complex opens up. Our path leads us to industrial halls in which countless industrial robots and CNC milling machines perform their duties around the clock.

We observe the production of the Hellcat 9mm subcompact pistol, which is very successful in the USA. Every the smallest component, down to springs, is manufactured in-house at HS Produkt. Test stations integrated into the manufacturing process are part of every production step and every single manufacturing station. When we ask what all is produced here, Kresimir Sentigar answers, "When a gun leaves the premises in a case today, everything is made here except for the foam insert." Even the tools for machining the individual gun components are made in-house. During our visit, of course, we didn't miss the opportunity to test the SF19 – one of the newest sport pistols – on site.  You can read the results in the next part of the series...

Soon we will continue with part two of the series on HS Produkt, including the test of the HS Produkt SF19 sport pistol. As usual, we will link the test here.

Text: Stefan Perey, Hansjörg Wohn, Tino Schmidt, Peter Hoffmann
Photos: Dieter Licht, Hansjörg Wohn, Tino Schmidt

This article is also available in this language: