Kel-Tec: An Unconventional Company

Story & Photography by Oleg Volk

My interest in Kel-Tec began in 2000 with then-restrictive Minnesota laws and the need to acquire a hideout pistol. All options on the market seemed to be either dense and heavy, chambered for the inadequate .22 rimfire or possessed of painful recoil. That’s when I came across the Kel-Tec P-32, a diminutive pistol that was a true breakthrough in self-defense technology. It was the first gun to combine a very light weight of 8 ounces with excellent accuracy and minimal recoil thanks to its locked breech. The pistol was available for around $200, in itself an impressive feat by comparison with the heavier, more primitive Seecamp, which was ammo-sensitive to boot. I was sufficiently impressed by that gun and started an fn web page:Kel-Tec P32

Over time, I started paying attention to the origin of that design, and George Kellgren came to my attention. By then, I also bought Kel-Tec’s first product, the P-11 pistol, which worked out less well for me. Kel-Tec tried to fix haphazard ejection direction and eventually refunded my money, a move that impressed me. Few gun makers were as helpful to the customers when they couldn’t effect a repair. When the SU-16 series of rifles came out, I bought one of those as well. Following in the footsteps of the metal clamshell Sub9 folding carbine, SU-16 used the same assembly method with lightweight plastic parts. Kel-Tec wasn’t the first company to use clamshells, but they made it mainstream and successful.

In 2009, I got to meet George Kellgren at SHOT show, and we talked. Later that year, I started working with the unique RFB 7.62mm bullpup, a battle rifle that ejected empties forward like the Maxim machine gun. Having had that rifle before its official release, I got to see the iterative process of refinement that made it ready for consumers. In 2010, I went to the Kel-Tec factory in Cocoa, FL, to see it for myself. Since then, I’ve become an even greater fan of the company and the people who run it.

Today, Kel-Tec is one of the largest US gun makers with nearly 200 employees. They produce over 150,000 guns annually. From the humble origins as makers of budget carry pistols, Kel-Tec moved to making mostly precision semi-auto rifles and high capacity, twin magazine pump shotguns. Even the inexpensive polymer-framed handguns were widely emulated, including some nearly direct rip-offs of the P3AT, the 380ACP variant of P-32. As the complexity of the designs increases, so does the share of CNC and robotic tools in the manufacturing process. The names Kel-Tec CNC and Brevard County Robotics, the two companies comprising Kel-Tec industrial campus, speak for themselves. Although sometimes faulted for insufficient production of hot sellers, Kel-Tec is gradually expanding the employee head count and the facilities as much as the space, the electrical grid and the plumbing permit. Over time, the owner and chief designer George Kellgren added two firearm designers to the staff, Tobias Obermeit and Ryan Williams. Unlike most firearm makers, Kel-Tec has always been privately held, with neither debt nor outstanding stocks influencing its financial health in lean years.

George Kellgren came to the United States from Sweden in 1979, after serving in the Air Force awhile and then working for Husqvarna and Swedish Interdynamics as a gun designer. Once here, he and Carlos Garcia started a US subsidiary of Interdynamic AB. Best known for the KG-9 pistol, Interdynamic relied heavily on injection-molded plastics and was able to produce a high volume of economically priced weapons. Eventually, George and Carlos parted company, with George moving on to found Grendel Firearms and Carlos running Intratec. Grendel designs, while similar technologically, were more imaginative in the mechanics and the interface. One of them was a stripper-clip fed .380ACP pocket pistol, the P10. Grendel’s most popular products, 30-shot 22WMR pistol and rifles, were made illegal to produce by the decade-long ban on useful firearms features started in 1994. “The ATF were at the factory the same day that bill was signed into law,” said George. With Grendel brand ceasing to exist, George concentrated on Kel-Tec CNC, the current company founded in 1991.

Kel-Tec is a very unusual company. It has possibly the best corporate culture I’ve ever seen. Everyone is friendly and helpful, there’s no perceptible hierarchy, and many stay at work overtime to tinker with inventions and improvements. Many of the accessories carried by the company web store were designed by employees other than the designers. George Kellgren is a hero to many of his employees because he looks out for them as he would for family. Several times, I have seen people beaming on the job and explaining the smiles with: “I just love working here!” The degree of trust is high: carry of firearms and keeping them at the workplace is encouraged, making the factory rather secure against criminal intrusion. Needless to say, the turnover is low, and the less enlightened local competitors lose some of their better staff to Kel-Tec. Most of their advertising features employees and actual customers rather than professional actors or models.

A typical employee is a shooting enthusiast. Ryan Williams, the rifle and shotgun engineer, is a long-time veteran of law enforcement. He also wears extra hats in quality control, vendor relations, company policy development and helping with advertising. Tobias Obermeit is a fan of submachine gun competitions, among others. The SU-22 rimfire rifle came from his desire for a lightweight competition carbine. He designed most of the PMR30 and CMR30 successors to the classic Grendel models and assisted George with the RFB, KSG and the RDB bullpups. Derek Kellgren, one of George’s three children, developed marketing and advertising over George’s initial reluctance to promote products that he believed would get popular purely on merit. On the other end of the same process, Derek also handles QC and ISO9001 compliance. Like Ryan, he has appeared in Kel-Tec ads. The number of interesting characters on staff is too many to list individually. More than once, model calls for commercial photo shoots were handled by picking interesting faces from the offices or the factory floor, sometimes together with their custom Kel-Tec guns and their pet dogs.

The company is in the constant state of innovation. They have numerous directions of product development with releases planned as far as three years ahead. The evolution of design between the impressive but labor-intensive RFB and the far simpler, almost AK-like but equally highly performing RDB is very typical of the drive for efficiency. Besides the reduction in the parts count and the technological steps, the newer design also cuts weight and simplifies maintenance. The same is true of the updated Sub-2000 carbine, in itself a lighter weight simplification of the original Sub9: it is far more accurate, has better ergonomics and converts to work with a wider variety of pistol magazines. Amusingly, a Russian company is only now trying to clone the original Sub9 carbine at the projected price of $1750, while the far superior Sub-2000mk2 is available in the US at a little over $400. While Canada and Europe are growing markets for Kel-Tec guns, I was most impressed by seeing just how many P-32 pistols were carried as backups by the Swiss military—that also practiced with them out to 100 meters. Kel-Tec brand has a well-deserved following, and I am ever-curious about wild and unconventional designs they will bring out next.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N2 (February 2018)
and was posted online on December 22, 2017


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