ABOVE: Dave Walls posing with the rifles he brought into the precision rifle community. The L96 (top) was Accuracy International’s first major contract and brought them into legitimacy. Although the rifle has substantially evolved since this first model, many of the features that were introduced in it remain the same such as the flat bottomed receiver, shape of the bolt, and thumbhole stock (available as an option on the AICS stocks). If the L96 brought the company legitimacy, then the Arctic Warfare (middle) brought it onto a world stage by winning a contract with the Swedish military. A few changes from the L96 are a lighter chassis, folding stock, contoured butt stock, and an improved bolt. The rifle below the AW (bottom) is the AE, which didn’t fare so well, being a lower cost rifle intended for police forces in the United States.
Over the summer of 2014, Small Arms Defense Journal received the unique opportunity to tour Accuracy International’s production facility in southern England. SADJ also got a chance to sit down and talk with Dave Walls and Tom Irwin about the company’s history and future.
Small Arms Defense Journal: Explain the beginnings of Accuracy International from your perspective.
Dave Walls: I was a qualified toolmaker making various press tools and fixtures along with my work colleague Dave Caig. I was a competitive target shooter and represented my local rifle club, my county, and eventually I qualified to join the national squad and shot for Great Britain in international competitions. Dave Caig was also a club and county shooter and represented Scotland. We both repaired our own guns; our engineering backgrounds enabled us to design better components to replace existing weaknesses in our rifles. It didn’t take long before other club members noticed that we had done modifications to make our guns shoot well. And when they needed work done they would ask if we could do what was necessary to get them up and running again. We worked through lunch breaks and after work to make the parts needed to repair other club member’s rifles. Our payment for this was for them to buy us a beer at the local pub. Before long we were repairing guns for shooters all over Sussex, Hampshire, Essex and other neighboring counties in the UK. We received so many repairs it became impossible to do them all for drinks so we had to start charging. The work demand grew so much that we could no longer continue to operate during our lunch breaks, as the demand was too great, this progressed into us buying our own machinery to install in my garden shed. The demand for repairs continued to grow more and more, taking up most of our time outside of our full time jobs, we had reached a breaking point where we were in it full time or pack it all in and have our lives back. We decided to see how much money we were earning part time to determine whether this would be enough to support one of us at least in a full time job. So over a three-month period we kept a record of our earning, and were surprised to discover that we were making more money part time than in our full time jobs.
SADJ: You made a decision to venture into a new career?
Dave: I wasn’t happy with my full time job because due to staff shortages the company decided to move me from my tool making position to work on form grinding on a surface grinder, which I knew long term, would be bad for my health. My boss at that time told me that he couldn’t find anyone skilled enough at form grinding but he could replace a toolmaker more easily. This gave me the hard shove I needed to persuade me to give in my notice. It was a big decision to make quitting a good job, going into the unknown. I had a mortgage, a wife and two kids, but I have never ever had a reason to look back. On the day I left, my boss said to me, “You’ll never make any money by just selling a few guns.” A statement that has proved to be far from the truth. Dave Caig and I started a business partnership and traded under the name of C&W products, which stands for Caig & Walls. A few years later at a three positional rifle shoot we met up with Malcolm Cooper, at the time he was one of the best shots in the UK, and later became a twice Olympic Gold medalist and world champion. After the match we all went to a barbecue where he was told about the replica Colt pistols that we had made, he was very interested and asked if he could see them. I lived less than a mile from the barbecue so we left and drove to my house. After seeing the pistols he said to me, “You’ve got the potential to design your own rifle.” To which we replied that we already had been designing our own action for a target rifle. Malcolm wanted to see the action and after looking at it he asked us if we would make him one, which we agreed to do. He later shot a new 300 meter world record. Malcolm at that time was the owner of a gun shop in Portsmouth. Dave Caig and I formed a mutual agreement to do repairs and re-barreling for him, as we did for several other gun shops. Trade was building up along with our reputation. Soon we were taking in repairs and tuning of rifles from top international competitors from all over the world. Malcolm was approached by a contact in the British Army about a tender (contract) for a new sniper rifle and he came along to discuss with us the possibility of putting a magazine in one of our target rifles. We had never made a magazine fed rifle before as all my interest was in target shooting which was single shot. Malcolm said, “I’ll get you any gun you want, if you want to have a look and see if you can get any ideas from them.” He produced about 8 rifles and I discarded about 5 of them.
SADJ: What ended up as the design of the magazine?
Dave: Initially I settled for a Springfield magazine, basically because it was easier to fit in my gun than any of the others. I designed the magazine port in the underside of the action body around this magazine and it seemed to work quite well. Then Malcolm submitted this weapon to both the SBS and the SAS who were also interested. After the trails on these weapons were made an order was placed for 42 rifles with aluminum chassis’ with a wood covering this was the predecessor to the later developed L96A1. Then we found a company that would make honeycomb-like stocks with a hard surface on the outside.
SADJ: Where are those 42 original rifles today?
Dave: Well some went to Hereford and some went to Dorset; I don’t know where they went from there. They might even still be there. Following on from this after the Falklands War the British infantry got interested in tendering for a new sniper rifle. This contract was for 1,212 rifles plus spares. We decided to enter the tender, but we didn’t think we’d ever win, but we could use the trail to obtain feedback on our product. At this time we were still working from a garden shed and we didn’t think the British Army would be interested in our rifle. We literally went ahead, submitted our tender for this trial along with 17 other companies, most of them American and European with Remington, Winchester, Walther, Browning, Mauser, Beretta, BSA and Parker Hale among them.
SADJ: Some of these companies had been in existence for a hundred years already.
Dave: Of course, and they make hundreds of guns a week, whereas between us if we were lucky we’d probably get only one rifle every 4 or 5 weeks. We were a very small business in comparison. We submitted our trial rifle and surprisingly enough the army actually quite liked it. From 17 rifle entries it went down to about 8, and we were still in it. Then it went from 8 to 5 and we were still there again. Then we began to have some worries that we might win this. The worry was what would we do if we were to win. The next elimination process took it down to 3 and we were still a contender. BSA was eliminated from the group, leaving Parker Hale and ourselves to take part in a shootout to win the contract which we won with the provision that it would be manufactured by a company with the approved quality standards.
SADJ: They must have found out that all you had was a garden shed operation?
Dave: Yes, they realized that and told us that it would have to be made by a reputable company and overseen by us. So we were sent to a company in Dartford, which was chosen by the Ministry of Defense (MOD) to manufacture the rifles. We would oversee the production for the first batch of rifles helping their production manager with our knowledge. Before Accuracy International Ltd. was formed Malcolm suggested to us that we would stand a better chance of success if we promoted the rifle in his name as he had world recognition for being a world champion. Malcolm then asked if we wanted Fame or Fortune: “If you want fame, we do it in your name. If you want fortune, we do it in mine.” I didn’t have any money at that time and neither did Dave Caig so we settled for fortune. Malcolm promoted the weapon in his name and that’s the way it began. We then started assembling the rifles ourselves in a company in Portsmouth, which was the start of Accuracy International Ltd. The company expanded and we started purchasing machines. I managed the production, programming and running the machines along with my son who had recently done a CNC programming course at college. More machines were purchased along with the increase of employees to six people working on the machine shop floor. After we had completed the MOD contract, we tendered for the Swedish contract and won the trial, which would become the Arctic Warfare System (AW Rifle). This was soon followed by Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Germany and was followed by several other nations that could not afford extensive trials and were happy to follow on the judgment of other countries. In 1999, Accuracy International was sold to a group of investors and Malcolm Cooper retained 10%. Accuracy International now had new people running the business and maintained the normal running of the company until 2001/2002 when they decided to outsource everything made in the machine shop and shut down the manufacturing side of the company. They only kept two machines and these were to make stock sides and sold all the other machinery. Tom Irwin was appointed as sales and marketing manager. In 2005 the company went into receiverships and within the first minute it was announced, I stood up and said, “I want to buy it back.” Tom immediately walked over to me and said I’d like to join you, so we got together and did it. Since we took the company back it’s gone in leaps and bounds. My focus has always been on making the guns shoot well and my target background married up with the military side extremely well. I needed somebody that had a better head for business than me and Tom fulfilled that role. I rely on Tom’s judgment on that side of things.
SADJ: So how does this affect the management of the company?
Tom Irwin: We’re both in charge; we don’t have a present managing director or CEO that runs the company. We share the responsibilities.
Dave: We have a mutual understanding that if we don’t agree on an idea we will not do it, but we will find a solution to the problems that we can both agree on.
SADJ: This has been working since 2005?
Dave: Yes, that’s when we bought the company back.
Tom: Yes, I was mostly in the States but then I got involved over here, always on the selling/sales side. After 2005 then there were four of us originally, Dave Walls, Dave Caig, the original designers and founders of the company, and then there was a finance guy and myself. There were four of us that literally split responsibilities and then Dave Caig retired so we bought back his shares. The other person remains as a shareholder but is no longer involved in the management of the company. It is now Dave and I and we did a further split of responsibilities. It works well.
SADJ: Now that the company has a phenomenal military contract success rate, has there ever been given any thought to a target rifle?
Dave: This whole time I’ve enjoyed hitting small targets at long range. I would think we could go back to our beginnings but this is more of a passion more than a business. We stayed away from assault rifles as we know our expertise is making accurate bolt action rifles. There’s no point of us trying to get into a market that is already saturated with loads and loads of companies making that sort of thing, trying to compete with people who have been making this stuff for years and years. We’ll stick to what we’re best at.
SADJ: Where did you get the idea for the thumbhole?
Dave: Target rifles. I used to shoot with thumbhole stocks and the angle of the hand was better than a traditional cranked wrist sort of thing. It puts the trigger in line so you can pull the trigger back in a direct line. Lots of target technology went into the development of that stock. A competent engineer with a reasonable amount of firearms knowledge could design a rifle but to design one to force someone into a good shooting position by the design of the stock is not that easy. Between Malcolm Cooper, Dave Caig and myself we had a vast experience of shooting and stock design. We’d come up with stocks for all different builds. I was the tallest, so we would modify it to suit me, then Malcolm was the shortest. So we could actually model the stock for the three different builds of shooting.
SADJ: Much has been written about the L96’s “flat bottomed receiver.” Can you shed some light on this?
Dave: There are a lot of articles that have been written about this, explaining the stress factors of the steel are stronger and all the tremendous mechanical advantage. I looked at these articles and thought to myself, “What a brainy guy they think I am!” The actual fact is that when designing the L96, I went to the steel rack and I didn’t have a round bit of metal, I only had a rectangular piece and everybody started copying it. The design turned out to have a lot of advantages, but they were tripped over by accident. One of the advantages is that it lends itself quite nicely to a double row magazine whereas if it was a round action, a double row magazine wouldn’t work as well. Another advantage of a square action body is bonding it on to the chassis. When it comes to machining, it makes life a lot easier because you have a nice flat base to hold on to, and easy to check because of square sides. There are lots of advantages to what we did, but it was tripped over by accident and not as scientific as people think.
SADJ: What do does AI think of the Precision Sniper Rifle (PSR) Contract?
Tom Irwin: The probability of winning it was low; we certainly tried as hard as we could to win and we came up with a product that was good enough to win. But to be realistic about it, I knew when you’re up against Remington in the USA it was always going to be difficult. When we won the British MOD contract, which became the L115A3, we said, “We are going to win this and we are not going to let anyone take this contract.” We’re not going to let some overseas company come into the UK with this. It would look really bad for us. Remington took the same position with the PSR contract in the United States. If Remington had lost that job, it would have been bad for them, with all of their facilities and home grown political support they get. We’ve got 10 people, including myself, and 4,000 square feet in the U.S. When you compare that to Remington’s facilities, we’re small fry. We didn’t expect to win it but what I expected to get out of it was a new product, and that’s what we’ve got. Even before the results came out, we went into production with that and sold over a hundred of them on a special limited edition run of the PSR contract rifle kit. It gave us an opportunity to get the rifle into full production and today we have a complete range of AX rifles directly as a result of the PSR solicitation. There are many features in all of our rifles, including the AX50, which came about because of the PSR contract so it helped us change our product range.
SADJ: With the PSR contract, some of the companies were incorporating powered rails. What does AI think of that?
Dave: This is the trouble with modern weapons; everyone wants to look like Rambo. It makes them feel good when they are carrying this stuff but it doesn’t help the shooter and it doesn’t make the rifle shoot any better. Designs are being changed really considerably by individuals that think for instance a powered rail would be a legitimate thing to have but when you come down to it from a shooting point of view, in some cases it’s not practical at all. For example, I’ve been designing a new bipod and I’ve been told that customers would like the bipod to lock solid, but I would say it’s better to have a certain amount of movement. This would be more favorable on lose ground when you fire a shot, one side of the bipod sinks in the ground. If you have it locked you would have to reach forward and unlock the bipod and lock it again, but with a certain amount of tension. But not locked you can just twisted the gun back to position, unfortunately people are saying it has to be locked.
SADJ: How has the marketing approach changed in the company?
Tom: Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, the marketing approach was completely different than today; they would not have been sitting here, talking to gun writers. There was involvement with movies and TV dramas but not anywhere near the level we are doing today. It was the same with articles, magazines and advertising. The approach was that we make the best: people know that and they’ll just come to us. They didn’t promote themselves as the best sniper rifle in the world. Around the world, with military government contracts, there are contractual requirements, which include penalty clauses, and bonds, which the prior management would not enter into. Upfront payments were a part of doing business back then. The main competitor products were customized hunting rifles. Now, fast forward to today. If you didn’t put bond money up front, if you didn’t sign up for penalty clauses, and if you tried to get upfront money, you would not get any contracts. Those days have gone! If you look at the competition, there are a number of companies using the same concept of an aluminum platform and several of them have flat bottomed receivers. Most of the competitive rifles are designed for tactical use and none of them are customized hunting rifles. There is a lot more competition around today. Our approach is to be the leader, stay ahead of the competition and we make the best sniper rifle in the world. We are not going to be catching up; others will catch up with us. If we were still making only the AW and AE today we would be going downhill rapidly. We invested in facilities, people and products and that is why we are at the point we are today, where we have no qualms at all in saying we make the best sniper rifle in the world because we believe that.
SADJ: How has legal legislation changed the picture of civilian shooting in the UK since you began the company, in both the political and social aspects?
Dave: Politically it’s almost impossible for a company to get into firearms manufacturing today, in the UK, because of all the government red tape. Socially the sport is going away. One of my friends from my competition days recently stepped down from coaching the national team and when I asked him why, he said, “There’s no new people coming into shooting, all the old guys like us are dying out.” and he’s absolutely correct. When I was young and in my teens, I would go down to my rifle club and those old guys on the range would teach me the finer points of rifle shooting. Now that generation is dead and there are no rifle clubs that kids these days can go to because they’ve all been shut down after the government has made it almost impossible to continue operation due to the restrictions.
SADJ: What does the future hold for Accuracy International?
Dave: Old age. (Laughter ensues…)
Tom: Well due to the fact that we literally just changed our product line to the AX and AT, then the immediate future is making sure we can get the product as good as it can be. So for the near term future, which you can say is the next 5 years, that is our focus and right now we’re not planning on anything beyond that. We spent so much getting to this point and we’ve done enough to keep us growing for the short term. That’s where our focus is.
SADJ: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today – a truly amazing story.
AW- Began out of the Swedish trials and stands for Arctic Warfare, 3 lug action. Later made in .338 Lapua.
AE- Entry-level rifle for law enforcement agencies in 2001 as well as being an economically priced rifle.
AS- AS50, semi auto .50 caliber rifle.
AT- Improved AW. 6 lug action and quick release barrel with an AW action.
AX- PSR contract rifle. AX multi caliber, .308 NATO, .300 Win. Mag., .338 Lapua. AX 308 separate.
AICS- Accuracy International Chassis System, AT AICS, AX AICS, AW AICS. Aimed at the civilian market and upgrading existing law enforcement rifles either for the Remington 700 action or the Accuracy International actions.
L96- Original company production rifle designated L96 in British Army and nick named “The Green Meanie.” Later replaced by the .338 Lapua L115A3.