Issue 36 Zeroed In: C. Reed Knight, II Rob Curtis Join the Conversation C. Reed Knight, Jr. grew up with one major advantage. It wasn’t wealth, though his family provided him with love and comfort. It wasn’t a towering physique, though the 73-year-old moves as confidently as any man his age, even sporting a full head of hair. It wasn’t the gift of book smarts — in fact, Knight will tell you he barely graduated high school and still hasn’t read an entire book in his life.So what helped guide Knight to a path that would see him become one of the most respected figures in the worldwide, small-arms industry? It was the fact he knew his shortcomings and refused to be defined by them. Knight tells a story of riding with his father one day when he said, “Son, you can work 40 hours a week, and you may be able to make a living. Work 50 hours a week, and you’ll do better. But you’re so stupid that you’ll probably have to work about 80 hours a week to make a good living.”Knight could’ve been offended by his father’s assessment of his providence. Instead, he re cognized good advice and took it to heart. His father told him he’d better figure out something he really liked to do, because he’d be married to that job for the rest of his life. “I told him I really like guns,” says Knight, “and he said, ‘Well then you better make that your living.’” And that’s what he did, eventually. After serving six years in the National Guard, enjoying a decent run racing cars, even making it to the national Stock Car circuit, running a garbage company, and starting his own police supply store, Knight eventually founded Knight’s Armament Company in Vero Beach, Florida, in 1982. Knight’s run would continue, as he invented and produced seminal components of the small-arms world. Alone, and with help from his mentor and friend Eugene Stoner, Knight would produce the first Rail Interface System for the AR platform, bring the first purpose-built semi-auto sniper rifle system into the world, and arguably help Stoner refine, and perhaps perfect, the AR-15 platform with the introduction of the KAC SR15. He’d later leverage his successes to launch Knight Vision, the largest producer of clip-on night vision devices in the world. America was attacked as Knight’s Armament Company continued to grow. After September 2001 KAC outgrew their Vero Beach factory, and moved to their current location in Titusville, on Florida’s space coast. KAC moved into a Tomahawk missile factory that was no longer needed following the merger of its occupant, McDonnell Douglas, with defense conglomerate, Boeing. The 454 acres of land surrounds a 625,000 square-foot building that’s home to all of Knight’s ventures, including the Institute of Military Technology, perhaps the largest privately held collection of small arms in the world. Knight traces his family back to the Jamestown settlement in 1617. He was raised as a fifth-generation citrus farmer before breaking away from his family’s farming dynasty to start his own in the firearms industry. RECOIL: How did you end up in the Titusville location? C. Reed Knight, Jr.: Funny story. Right after September 11th, USSOCOM came along and said “You have to double your capacity because we’re going to be buying a lot of stuff.” So, I went to the county commission in Vero Beach and said, “I need to double my size.” They said, “Great, we’ll fix you up. No problem.” So a year later, I was there with the building sitting on the ground. No permits and nobody will talk to me — it was just a screwed up mess. So I went to Georgia and found a building up there that they agreed to give me if I’d bring my hundred employees up there. So I was ready to move to Georgia, and the lady here knew about this building that’d been vacated for seven years. She had then Governor Jeb Bush call Boeing. This was when McDonnell Douglas and Boeing merged and this became a surplus piece of property for Boeing, so they agreed to sell it to me. Two weeks later I owned it. It’s perfect for us. Do you hunt? RKj: Not really. But I’ll hunt pigs when they’re loose on the property. I’ll drive around and shoot armadillos and rabbits in an electric golf cart. I’ll ride the property at night with a suppressor and night vision and hunt pigs. I’ve gotten about 22 of them. What about gators? RKj: Yeah. Lotta gators. We had to haul quite a few of them away. Some employees would feed them, and when you feed them they get very aggressive, because they have no fear. They’ll walk right into the factory. It doesn’t happen very often, but it has happened. Do you have a hobby? RKj: I raced cars. It was a lot of fun. Knight spent his twenties racing cars, reaching the national level during the early days of the NASCAR circuit. But not motorcycles? RKj: No. You can really hurt yourself doing that. [Laughs] Has the internet changed the landscape for firearm collectors? RKj: Yes, everybody is much better educated so you lose your knowledge base advantage because everybody’s now an expert. When did you realize you have an aptitude for business? RKj: I’m extremely focused. I’m not well-rounded. I’m not knowledgeable about very much. What I know about, though, I know a lot about. I study things to death. Did you have trouble in school? RKj: Well, my third-grade teacher wasn’t going to a pass me to the fourth grade. I’m not sure what she said or did, but my mother persuaded my third-grade teacher to graduate me to the fourth grade. Knight was no slouch with a pistol. He was one of the top shooters in the Florida Police Combat League in his day. You must be kidding? RKj: My mother was the only one that really believed in me. She was a saint. She died at 93. She had me tutored for four years while I was in high school. She paid $25 dollars an hour to have me tutored everyday after school. Every day. That was huge money in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. Do you have any idols? RKj: Gene Stoner was an idol of mine. Smokey Yunick was an idol; he was a race car driver. I really don’t know anything about sports. But I know all the race car drivers. Oh, you know, Tiger Woods bought a gun from me … How’d you meet Eugene Stoner? RKj: I called him up on the phone one day and said, “Eugene Stoner?” He said, “Yes?” I said, “I’m a guy, a gun nut. I live up in Vero. Would you like to have lunch?” So we went to lunch and started talking back and forth. We were 23 years apart. Gene was a neat guy. He was a genius in his own right. He taught me about heat-treating and metallurgy. He was a little jaded. He felt like the industry had somewhat given him a raw deal. Are you familiar with the Objective Individual Combat Weapon program? The grenade launcher program? The 20mm launcher on the XM8 — that was the OICW. When he first heard about it, [the Army was] basically developing a rifle and grenade launcher. The grenade launcher would fire from defilade and burst when it passed over the target. Stoner said, “Why don’t we spend our first $50 million on the fuse instead of scaling the 40mm grenade down to 20mm? Let’s leave it a 40mm system and put it in the M203 and Mk19. Let’s get the fuse perfected and then determine how much better performance we can get when firing out of defilade. And then we can scale down the grenade to whatever size we need to maintain performance.” They spent $250 million, and Picatinny still didn’t have anything that worked. It was a total disaster. His idea was to focus on what you know and make incremental changes as you go along instead of trying to do the whole thing at once. In front of the citrus orchards at the old Knight’s facility in Vero Beach, Knight with Gene Stoner and an early SR-25 7.62x51mm caliber rifle. Did KAC enter in the Army’s Individual Carbine program back in 2011? RKj: We had plenty to offer, but I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere. Was I right? Yes. Did I save myself $2 million? Yes. What about current government programs? Anything interesting on the horizon? RKj: There’s so much going on right now … the government wants a gun right now to replace the M249 that fires full auto with a group size of less than one minute of angle. They also believe that you can load ammo to 90,000 psi. That’s huge. That’s like a proof load or something? RKj: Did you know that if I don’t proof test an M110, I can get twice the bolt life out of it? One proof round shortens the life of the bolt — and every rifle gets proof tested. I tested and plotted the difference. I know that if I do not proof an M110, I can get twice the bolt life out of it. That’s something that even the government doesn’t know. And the first proof round you shoot isn’t going to cause a catastrophic failure. The only thing it does is start the cracks. So if I wanted to buy an SR-25 that wasn’t proof tested, would you sell me one? And would you charge me more for it? RKj: I’d probably have to. Because I have to track that gun down and make sure it wasn’t tested. [Laughs] But don’t print that. I don’t want a bunch of people calling us about it. OK. [Crosses fingers] We’d never do that. RKj: Anyway, we’ve been proofing guns and receivers since 1903. It’s a practice brought over from Europe. The reason we proofed everything over here is because they were heat-treating parts out of 8620 steel in the 1903 Springfields, and sometimes they forgot to heat-treat them. And when they didn’t get heat-treated they would blow up. Or they’d heat-treat them through and through, and the guns became brittle and would shatter like a piece of glass. Knight’s firearm collection is unparalleled. Here’s an Armalite AR-15, serial number 000001, rescued from a storage closet at Fairchild Corporation. It was a prototype of the 5.56mm rifle that would become the U.S. Army M-16. So, why are we still proof testing every gun? Don’t we have process controls that prevent these kinds of mistakes now? RKj: I showed them my test results, but I couldn’t get the government to change anything. I guess nobody has big enough balls to go against the system. How’s the firearm industry changed over the years? RKj: At the SHOT Show in the ’80s, you couldn’t even have a picture of a soldier. You couldn’t have anything at the SHOT Show like machine guns until I got there, and I said I wanted our own separate section and wall us and our offensive camouflage and helmets and whatever off from the rest of the show. They said, “OK, we’ll do that.” And then you know what happened? The military section of the SHOT Show became so popular that the hunting guys asked how come everybody is over on our side of the building? They weren’t getting anybody on their side of building. So, the organizers spaced out the military sections and set them up so people had to cross through the [non-tactical] sections of the show. And now SHOT’s 75 percent of the stuff I’m talking about. So yeah, I was among the first five booths they allowed to have military-type stuff in, and I was a maverick back then and nobody wanted to hook themselves to my wagon … You think that I could even think about getting one of my AR-15s on the cover of a magazine back then? That was like putting tits on the cover of a magazine back then. Knight with a display of AR-10 series rifles in the Knight Collection, the precursor to The Institute of Military Technology, which now houses Knight’s impressive collection in Titusville, Florida. Knight’s isn’t really known as a commercial firearms company; is that changing? RKj: I don’t know enough about the commercial market. I’m just naïve. I don’t know the dynamics … I really do have my head down a gun barrel. That’s really just all I do. But I do see the commercial market helping us keep the machines busy when there’s slack time. And there’s definitely some slack time now. The military isn’t buying much. So, what’s going to fill that gap? RKj: Sooner or later the military’s going to have to gear back up. We’re building rifles everyday, silencers everyday. We have some new products. We’re doing a lot of R&D. But night vision and foreign markets are real strong. They see this is an opportunity to get products they wouldn’t normally be able to get because when we’re working for the domestic market there’s just no time to fill their needs. Any thoughts on military procurement or the requirements process? RKj: A while back, I was asked to go to Washington to speak to a bunch of government contracting officers and contractors to explain how industry and government can work better together. I said, “I see that you government people are like a lot of Democrats, and you’re socialists. And you want industry to give you our ideas, and you want to hand them out to all these other contractors. And you want us all to chip in and build you something. And that’s your concept.” “Us contractors,” I said, “we’re like capitalists and Republicans. We’re gonna build you a widget, it’s gonna be our widget, we’re going to build it for you, you’re going to pay us for it, and we’re going to move on down the road. If I’m going to build it, I’m going to compete with these other companies, and this is my widget, and I own it.” So one of my government friends stands up and says, “Reed, I probably am a socialist. I’m pretty close to what you say. And I do believe in taking your ideas and giving them to everybody, because they’re the best ideas out there. But, more importantly, I have real heartburn that you called me a Democrat.” You must be proud at some level, though. There’s patriotism there. RKj: We’re passionate about what we build. Why are they paying me for what they’re buying? Because I’m the low bidder. I’m the best deal they can get! It’s not like I’m just naming a price and they’re paying me. I’m competing against people who don’t even know what they don’t know. I’m bidding against people who don’t even know how much they’re going to spend to build a product. Did you know the flash hiders for the M-16 rifle went to bid about 10 years ago? I researched all the companies that won the previous five bids. Out of the five companies that bid them, four of those companies have since gone bankrupt. They were thinking they’d be able to sell more once people find out the Army chose them, and make it up in volume? RKj: And that’s what U.S. SOCOM was trying to tell me. “Hey, sell us your rail system, and Big Army is going to buy it, and that’s where you make your money. You’ll lose money on us, but that’s the gamble. And I gamble every day. But I didn’t know that I was going to sell 1.8-million rails. I didn’t know that was going to be a 15-year contract. Wow. How did you hang on the M4 rail contract for 15 years? RKj: I kept winning it with the low bid. Nobody could do the volume. Even after some other people won the contract, it took them more than two years before they could build a good product. The first prototype of the Knight and Stoner designed All American 2000 pistol. It used a single stack P7 mag before Colt started giving input. Let’s talk handguns. We almost bought an All American 2000 about a month ago. RKj: Did somebody try to give it to you? [LAUGHS] No. It was mainly just for the history that was associated with it. It was sitting in the cabinet of a local gun store. There were two handguns there. One of them was a Steyr GB, the other was the Colt. RKj: So, was the Colt a plastic frame or an aluminum frame? Aluminum frame. RKj: So, the aluminum frame that all have the “RK” prefix on the serial number — they’re all OK. The plastic frames had problems. There were only 3,000 of them built with the aluminum frames. To me, you could go back and put the springs in it like I designed it, and the gun’s a pretty nice gun if it has the right springs in it and the right finish inside the parts. How many had stainless slides? RKj: To my knowledge, I don’t think any had stainless slides. Or if there are, there are very few. But some of them had electroless nickel, and some of them had nickel. OK, the one we saw had a silver slide, but it was tough to tell for sure looking through a glass case. RKj: I bet there wasn’t two dozen of those made. I think I paid $2,000 a piece for these that I got, only because it’s my initials. I bought one for each one of my kids. There was a guy out in Texas who had quite a few of them. I don’t know where he got them, but Colt sold a bunch of them. From a collector standpoint, I think the history part of it is worth more than the gun. There were 60,000 plastic ones built, and 3,000 aluminum frames, and probably not more than two dozen nickel ones. Damn, that was a mistake. When you designed that gun were you on a contract to Colt, were you an employee or …? RKj: Nope. Stoner and I designed it. I was going to build it. We just had a wild hair up our ass one day, started playing with some ideas, built a few iterations, and we came along and sold it to Colt. Colt needed it right then. We sold it, and it worked out for us. Where it really worked out … you’ll love this story. So Stoner was there, and we were negotiating what we were going to sell the American 2000 pistol to Colt for. He said, “Look, you’re going to give us X number of dollars for the TDP and then you’re going to pay us royalties.” So, Stoner gets there in the room with me, and he says Colt’s never going to pay us because they haven’t paid him yet for the M16. So I said, “OK, let’s just make a really high down payment” … because he only got $50K for the TDP on the M16. “We’ll go in with a pretty high number hoping we’ll get that.” And they agreed to that. In the middle of the thing, I get in there and say, “Besides this, we’re going to hold your feet to the fire, because you haven’t paid for the M16s.” They say, “What do you mean we haven’t paid for the M16s?” “You haven’t paid for the M16s.” “OK, we can fix that.” They call on the phone and talk to someone and say it’s fixed. So, we did the deal. Knight is no figurehead; he spends his days working in the factory. Here he’s checking on a Pratt and Whitney 1/2 B hydraulic barrel rifling machine that came from the Springfield Armory. Then, two or three months later Stoner call me up and says, “You’re not going to believe, this, but I just got a big check from Fairchild from our meeting that we had up there.” Colt went ahead and paid him all the royalties they owed him. Part of it went to Fairchild, part went to Stoner, and part went to his ex-wife. Then Stoner says, “You know something? I have a gun that I designed when I was there. It was my gun. I want that gun back.” I said, “Well, let’s talk to them.” So, he gets the attorney on the phone and he says, “Hey while you’re paying out, I want my gun back.” The attorney on the other end of the phone says, “I don’t know what it is that you want. What does the gun look like?” Stoner says “I’m going to send Reed, my partner, up there, and he’s going to look at it.” So I go up there to Fairchild Corporation at the Dulles Airport. They got a great big old five-story building. I go in and say, “I’m Reed Knight, and I’m here to look at some guns that you’ve got for Eugene Stoner.” They said, “OK.” I go into this big conference room and over in the corner is a closet. The guy opens up the closet, and there’s all these guns laying there, about 80 of them. AR-10s, prototype AR-15s, even AR-15 gun #1 — all that stuff. I’m looking at it and my heart stops. Just stops. Slowly, I say, “Well what are you going to do with all this junk?” The guy says, “Let me talk to the attorney, but I think we’ve got to keep this stuff. If we expect to get paid royalties, we’ll have to prove that we had this.” I say, “I’m your expert witness. I’ve been at Colt; I’ve got the guns from Colt; I’ve got the stuff. I’ll tell you what — I promise to keep this stuff for 10 to 20 years and not sell it if you’ll sell it to me.” So I make him an offer. I leave him with a deposit, a check for $50,000. Reed Knight, Jr. running the Light Assault Machine Gun on the KAC test range in Titusville, Florida. I call him up three weeks later and ask if they’ve thought any more about selling me those guns. “Well,” he says, “We talked to the attorney and maybe gun #1 is worth $50K.” I said, “It might be, but it’s not worth that to me. So why don’t you keep gun #1 one and sell me the rest?” He says, “So you don’t think gun #1 is worth $50K?” And I said, “Nah.” And they said, “OK, well we have a problem.” I said “What’s the problem?” “We don’t have your $50K. We spent it.” “Well, that’s no problem,” I said, “you just sign the paperwork.” “We’ll think about it…” I said, “Look, I have a meeting downtown at the NFA Branch. I either need my $50K or I need you to sign the paperwork.” They said, “OK, we’ll sign the paperwork.” That was two years after we were getting progress payments from Colt. They gave me a bunch of money down, and every six months they had a payment due. They weren’t shipping any guns. They owed me money. I said, “Well, do you have any guns or anything to trade?” “Well, that might work,” they say. So I went up there, and they had these old shopping carts like you see at Publix with the wheels all messed up. So here we are, wheeling these shopping carts on the wooden floors all through the Colt factory, loading old machine guns into the carts — 300 of them. Every kind, every manufacturer … an original 1919 Thompson, FG42s, MG42s … everything in the world that you could ever imagine. They had a room with the stuff just piled in it. Here I am, and they agree to it; we get the paperwork going, and Stoner gets there and says, “Let me tell you something, if you think I’m going to take those damn guns, you’re out of your mind. You’re going to have to take those guns.” “No problem,” I said. His deal with me was — he didn’t want any money, he just wanted me to pay for the jet fuel, and pay for his plane and the stuff he played with. Because I could expense it and he couldn’t. So, I was using the jet; he had three jets and five helicopters … all this stuff that I was busy managing for him. And that was what I brought to the table. So little does he know that those guns ended up being worth 10 times what we ever got paid for the deal …. Figure, 300 machine guns. This is after 1986, but I knew enough to pick the pre-ban guns … So I gave $200 a piece for M16s, and today they’re worth, what, $25,000 each? Right time, right place. In-f@$king-deed, sir. C. Reed Knight, II Born: 1945, Woodbridge, NJ Family: Married with 3 boys, 1 daughter, and 2 grandkids College: Florida Southern College Military Service: National Guard Comments on 5th grade report card: “Fail” Role Models: My father and Eugene Stoner Favorite Book: Never read one Favorite Film: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels If I could only have one gun: M4 Most lusted-after firearm: Model SS41 Czech Bullpup Anti-Tank Rifle Daily driver: 2013 Lexus LS460 Near-death experiences: ’65 Corvette, guide wire, and a telephone pole. Favorite food: Steak Who’d win in a Vickers/Lamb Running Man-style death match? “Never heard of her.” Broken bones: “Wrist. In a motorcycle accident. And never had another motorcycle after that.” What do you say to the people who think your products are too expensive? “When my customers come to me, performance is the expectation, not the price.” Explore RECOILweb:B.E. Meyers Releases Civvy Version of MAWL Laser Aiming DeviceA-TACS SITREP #5Unusual Suspects - Tanto BladesThe Ashley Update: M2 Machine Gun History and Simulator at the Cody Firearms Museum NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOILFor years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included). Get your pack of 50 Print-at-Home targets when you subscribe to the RECOIL email newsletter. 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