Key Point: This company isn't loved by all, but its firearms are certainly affordable. Here is what you need to know.
Who Is Kel-Tec?:
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.
This article first appeared earlier this year and is being republished due to reader's interest. It originally appeared as multiple articles and is being packaged together for reader's convenience.
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.
Kel Tec RDB:
The Kel-Tec RDB is a very mechanically interesting design, but has poor ergonomic qualities and a questionable ejection mechanism.
The Kel-Tec Rifle Forward-ejecting Bullpup (RFB) is one of the most interesting rifles released in current years. Designed to take common magazines, eject forwards, and be fully ambidextrous, the RDB mirrors the feature set of the earlier FN F2000 and the later Desert Tech MDR. However, unlike those two rifles, the RFB employs an entirely different mode of operation to lock up its chamber when firing. Is it better or worse?
The defining feature of the Kel-Tec RFB is its tilting bolt and extractors. In order to feed empty casings into the ejection chute above the barrel, the extractors are designed to tilt upwards from the bolt face during the rearward portion of the recoil cycle. When the bolt returns forward, the bolt strips a fresh cartridge from the magazine while simultaneously shoving the empty casing into the ejection chute. When the casing is pushed into the chute, the extractors pivot downwards to lock onto the rim of the fresh cartridge. As such, vertically tilting extractors would be hard to design into a rotating locking bolt, the entire bolt locks via tilting, a relatively uncommon feature in modern firearms.
While some firearms in the past used tilting bolts, notably the German Sturmgewehr 44, Soviet SKS, and Belgian FN FAL, most modern firearms use rotating bolts due to their stronger, more consistent lockup and simpler design. Tilting bolts also distribute the pressure of firing unevenly in the rifle, compared to the simple lug to recess contact that rotating locking systems provide.
This represents a potential weakness in the design, however, most RFBs have not been around for long enough or shot hard enough for this weakness to manifest. What has proven to be a consistent weakness is the RFB’s forward ejection chute. While the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine describes the RFB’s forward ejection as “one of the most impressive feats of firearms since FN’s downward ejecting P90,” it ignores that FN made a forward ejecting bullpup nearly seven years before in the FN F2000.
But FN’s F2000 design is arguably better, as it utilizes the same reliable rotating bolt system with a fixed extractor. Casings are simply directed into a chute on the receiver wall during the recoil cycle, and then additional parts eject the casings when a certain point is reached. The RFB is said to be inconsistent when it ejects; sometimes buildup of cartridges in the chute can cause jams. Conversely, the F2000 is designed to store five cartridges in the chute and then eject them all in one go. By most accounts, the FN system is more reliable.
The Desert Tech MDR uses a variation on the FN system, basically deleting the chute. A plate covering the ejection port catches cartridges and pushes them forward. While not as “forward ejecting” as the F2000 or RFB, the MDR’s is far simpler and allows for easier clearance of jams near the chamber, as well as for operation as a conventionally ejecting bullpup.
Ergonomically, the MDR also blows the RFB out of the water. The RFB uses FN FAL magazines, which are designed to rock and lock-in. But the RFB’s design allows them to be inserted straight in. This can lead to magazines being seated too low, causing feeding issues or issues with the bolt stop. They also can need to be kicked free or pulled out when the mag catch is depressed, slowing reloads.
On the other hand, the MDR uses AR-10/SR-25 pattern magazines, which are designed from the outset to be straight insert. This allows for faster reloads and manipulation.
Also, while the RFB is fully ambidextrous, one must choose which side the charging handle is on. The MDR has charging handles on both sides of the rifle, allowing for easy manipulation and reloads from the weak shoulder as well. The RFB charging handle also reciprocates, limiting what the feasible grips one can use on the rifle, while the MDRs folds flat and does not reciprocate.
Finally, the RFB’s bolt catch is a tiny lever near the mag well, that one must flick to release. The MDR’s is a large button, far easier to hit under stress.
While the Kel-Tec RDB is a very mechanically interesting design, its poor ergonomic qualities and questionable ejection mechanism have prevented anyone from adopting the design for serious use. In many ways, it can be seen as a true bullpup modernization of the FAL design, but the boat has sailed on most interest in the FAL for good reason.