How Kel-Tec Rose From Obscurity To Controversy

November 3, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Kel-TecGunsRiflesPistolsWeapons

How Kel-Tec Rose From Obscurity To Controversy

What makes a Kel-Tec a Kel-Tec?


Key point: Exotic guns at cheap prices.

Kel-Tec is one of the most polarizing companies in the American gun industry, known for making exotic designs at cheap prices, but also with quality control issues. They are undoubtedly successful though, with an ever-increasing catalog of products and with demand for some of their products often outstripping their supply.


The current corporation, full name Kel-Tec CNC, Inc. was founded by George Kellgren in 1995 after some false starts earlier in the decade. When he founded Kel-Tec, Kellgren was an experienced gun designer, having worked for Husqvarna and Interdynamics in Sweden as well as firms in South Africa and Germany. Later he would move to the US, to work in the American arm of Interdynamics, Intratec, where he would participate in the design of the infamous TEC-9 pistol. The TEC-9 made extensive use of polymer, a trend that Kellgren would continue to utilize at Kel-Tec.

Kellgren has continued to participate in the design of every firearm at Kel-Tec, though the design team has since expanded past just him. Still, his underlying design principles remain the same. Firearms should be affordable, and they should strive to be smaller, lighter, and have more magazine capacity than the competition.

This clearly has been the philosophy behind the PMR-30, KSG, and the P3AT, which fulfill all of the requirements through extensive use of polymer. Another trend is Kel-Tec’s predilection for making bullpups, most of their full size rifles and all of their shotguns are bullpups.

Sometimes it feels as if Kellgren and Kel-Tec want to do takes on other designs to see if he could do it better and cheaper. A common “target” of this seems to be FN Herstal. The PMR-30 seems like a fully civilianized version of FN’s Five-seven pistol, down to the polymer-encased slide and double-feed magazine. The RFB is a weird mixup of the F2000 and the FAL. The KSG can be seen as a more conventional reimagining of the South African Neostead 2000 shotgun.

But Kel-Tec’s cheap, polymer heavy design philosophy has come back to bite it at times. Many of Kel-Tec’s QC and design issues can be traced to the heavy use of polymer in their firearms, which can crack or be molded out of spec. Reports of Kel-Tecs generating polymer shavings while being fired are fairly common, though they have becoming less common recently.

The immense demand for Kel-Tec products may be to blame for some of these issues as well, as firearms may be rushed out the door once they are considered to be safe and proofed without further testing being done for reliable feeding or cycling. However, their QC department is considered to be among one of the best in the business, to presumably placate those complaints and retain customers.

Kel-Tec has made some attempts to break out of the plastic-gun mold, such as the Kel-Tec M43, a variant of the RDB that featured steel replacing most of the plastic and wood replacing the rest, topped off with an AK-74 style flash hider. But unfortunately despite being showcased at SHOT Show 2014, and being “reconfirmed” at SHOW Show 2017, the M43 has yet to reach production, presumably because it would cost significantly more, and that would break the “cheap, light, small” mold Kel-Tec has carved out for itself.

This is kind of a shame, as it’s a common sentiment in some gun communities that a lot of Kel-Tec’s designs are interesting, albeit flawed. But that they could be a lot more interesting if better materials and QC were applied to them.

But in the end, Kel-Tec is very successful with their current formula, so it’s easy to see why company leadership might be skeptical of going outside of it. According to a TTAG article from 2014, the company’s leadership is very fiscally conservative, even refusing to take loans to expand production capacity, so it’s easy to see why they would afraid of branching into a market segment that could be far less profitable.

Some may lament the fact that we won’t be seeing better finished or wood and steel guns from Kel-Tec in the near future. But for some Kel-Tec fans, the plastic furniture and polish-it-yourself internals are part of what makes a Kel-Tec a Kel-Tec.

Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues. This article first appeared last month.

Image: Wikipedia.