Right, Wrong, and What’s Still Broken: Life Goes On in the U.S. Firearms Industry

George Kontis has worked in the firearms industry for over 40 years as a weapon designer, Engineering Manager and Sales Manager. He is presently Vice President of New Business Development at Knight’s Armament Company in Titusville, Florida.

It’s been a wild ride being a part of the U.S. firearms industry over the last forty years.  I have worked at more than a few firearms producers, from the largest to the smallest, and from the best to the worst.  It has given me a special insight into the business.  I’ve seen a lot of great designs evolve and I have been lucky enough to have not only met but spent quality time with all the greats: Chinn, Stoner, Uzi, Knight, Galili, Colby, Marquardt, Kalashnikov, Chiabrandy, Patenaude, Wetzel, Ruger, and Barrett.  These were some of the most innovative and productive and sometimes wildly successful weapon designers and developers of the latter half of the last century.

Some Plans Really Came Together
Some of what I saw and worked on were well-executed design efforts.  Take for example the development of the 30mm A10 aircraft weapon system.  At GE Burlington, the design team worked closely with the Air Force in defining the mission and figuring out what size projectile, traveling at what speed, would be required to defeat the target.  Based on the number of targets to be engaged per sortie, the ammunition and weapon system were designed and the aircraft fuselage was sized around the gun system to precisely meet the requirements.  The success of that system is legendary!  Leveraging on that success, Lew Wetzel and I followed their act by designing the GPU5/A, a 30mm Gun Pod designed to give other fixed wing aircraft the same anti-tank killing capability.

Later in my career working at FN Manufacturing as Product Engineering Manager I was responsible for putting the coaxial MAG58 (M240) into U.S. production.  The problem was that the U.S. Army wanted it made to their drawings and the Belgians insisted it could only be made to theirs.  It was a huge misunderstanding that stemmed from the difference between a product drawing and a production drawing.  My team was able to figure out how to adapt the Army’s drawings so that the Belgian production engineers could use them.  What were the results?  The Belgian coaxial MAG in the competitive trials had a failure rate of over 6,000 mean rounds between failure (MRBF) – highest of any weapon they ever tested.  The U.S. M240 coax produced in South Carolina turned out an impressive MRBF of more than 17,000.  What was the magic?  Nothing special.  We just made the parts conform to the drawings and the excellence of the design came through.

While working for FN Herstal, I tried for several years to introduce an infantry model of the M240 to the Army but without success.  The Infantry School finally asked me to stop coming there “pestering” them.  Top management at FN was beginning to lose faith in my marketing plan – one that I was sure would eventually succeed.  I knew that the Army had bought a lot of excess coax M240’s for their tanks and figured it would be a win-win situation for us both: a low cost kit to convert highly reliable tank weapons into highly reliable ground machine guns.

I finally gave up with the Army and started courting the Marine Corps, but they had already placed a large contract with Saco for a product improvement program (PIP) of the M60.  Undaunted, I left a sample ground conversion kit with them at Quantico and hoped for the best.  Within one month I got the call I was waiting for.  The Saco PIP was failing miserably while the M240 loaner kit was shooting great.  The only problem was that the Marines didn’t have enough money for the 6,000 guns they needed: they only had just enough for that number of conversion kits.

Where to get free machine guns for the USMC?  That one was too easy.  The rule says that any service that wants an excess asset from another service only has to pay the freight to move it.  My “Marine Corps deal of the century” program came together and the M240G was born.  A number of people in the Army said they were irritated at me for orchestrating what they considered the “theft” of their excess M240s.  They had no idea what was coming next.  As soon as the Army got a look at the Marine’s new M240G, their number one priority program became the new medium machine gun for the Army.  Now the Infantry School began “pestering” me.  The Army adopted a variant they designated as the M240B.  Since the Marine Corps had already staked claim to the excess M240 coax weapons for conversion, the Army had to cough up over $20 million to buy complete weapons.  It was a beautiful thing.

Sometimes Nothing Went Right
At the other end of the spectrum was the M73/M219 7.62mm tank weapon.  I found myself working on this dog after it was already in production.  My role was the same as a number of engineers before and after me; just trying to get it to work like it was supposed to.  The M73/M219 was a conglomeration of some very clever and in some ways gutsy designs that were never adequately proven out in the initial development phases.  Sadly, there was no initial production engineering effort and the sins of this omission coupled with a marginal design made the achievement of accepted monthly production lots only possible with divine intervention.  Over the years, millions were spent building it and many more millions trying to fix it.  In the end it was an embarrassment to the government and industry.

Sometimes none of it made sense.  Take for example the time I worked on the GE team that developed a 27mm cannon in competition with Gene Stoner’s 25mm weapon.  Gene’s TRW team won a role on the new Bradley IFV because their gun met the requirements better than ours did.  But the victory celebration at TRW was short when the military demanded that a “much-too-late” arrival, the 25mm Hughes Chain Gun, also be considered.  The highly-reliable externally powered chain gun beat out the gas operated TRW weapon in a shoot-off and was selected.  But very soon after the chain gun was adopted, a particular lot of 25mm ammo prone to hangfire resulted in rounds exploding as they were ejected from the weapon.  This was something that would not ever happen in a self-powered weapon like the TRW.  In the chain gun, this dangerous condition could only be solved one way.  The Army had to change the weapon specification and lower the firing rate so a hastily designed anti-hangfire device could work.  At the end of the day, the gun that met the specs had lost while the one that didn’t won.  Go figure.

The worst of all worlds occurs when the U.S. Congress gets into small arms decisions.  Take for example the M9 pistol competition.  When the U.S. decided it needed a new 9mm pistol, Beretta won the competition.  Since Congress didn’t like the results, Beretta had to win two more competitions before Congress finally gave up.  There were other notable Congressional missteps like the infamous ban of what they termed an “assault rifle.”  They have yet to figure out what an “assault rifle” is and chase their tails banning flash suppressors and bayonet lugs.  If it wasn’t so frightening, it would be funny.

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