LEXINGTON, Ky. — Feature articles about locally owned businesses are often feel-good pieces a creative cupcake maker, a charming vintage-radio repairman that exist in a world far from the stories that are making front-page news and dividing the nation. But this one, about Lexingtonian Keith Pitts' small but growing business, is a little different.
Pitts, 55, is a Kentucky craftsman who does precise, painstaking work, though you'd never find it at Kentucky Crafted or a juried art fair in Berea. Over the past few years, he's built a reputation for quality that he guards vigilantly, even when people are beating down his website in their eagerness to purchase what he makes.
And what he makes are semiautomatic "assault-style" rifles, specifically the AR-15 that's adored by gun enthusiasts but abhorred by advocates of stricter gun regulations.
Access to these kinds of weapons has become one of the most hotly debated issues in the nation since December's Newtown, Conn., school massacre, when an AR-15 with 30-round magazines was used to kill 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The AR-15 AR refers not to "assault rifle" but to ArmaLite, the company that developed the first one in the 1950s has always been popular with gun collectors. Built as the civilian equivalent of the military's M-16, the AR-15 is sometimes called a Barbie doll for men. Critics might say that's because they both damage the psyche, but law-abiding fans of the "modern sporting rifle" will tell you it's just fun to play with. And there are so many accessories.
Quite a few companies manufacture AR-15s in the United States, but the quality varies. Pitts builds his models to meet or exceed military specifications, or "mil spec" in gun talk. He has standing contracts with the military to build parts, which must meet military standards for materials, dimensions, durability and accuracy.
"We got so good that the government inspectors were told they didn't need to make origin inspections in the shop," Pitts said. Now there's just an inspection upon delivery. "We cannot be late," he said. It's all about keeping up the past-performance record.
For civilians, the fact that his parts have the Department of Defense seal of approval is a strong selling point. And that has brought him to his current predicament.
"They blew my website up," Pitts said, referring to what happened the day after the slaughter at Newtown. Gun enthusiasts, fearing new restrictions, bombarded stores nationwide. They hit Pitts' Accurate Armory website at Accuratearmory.com in such high numbers at least 8,000 at once, he says that he was forced to shut down the store, which sells his Accurate Tool guns.
A sign on the home page reads: "Due to the overwhelming demand for AR-15 rifles in the current political climate, we are so back ordered that we have taken our online store offline, temporarily."
Despite the spike in demand, he vows to "not artificially inflate" his prices. Anyone wishing to buy one of his guns is encouraged to join a waiting list. (Sign up now if you want one for Christmas.)
The décor inside Pitts' South Broadway shop is tactically minimalist, you might say. His rifles are displayed on one wall, parts and accessories are on another Armageddon Gear carbine slings, Harris bipods made in Barlow, Ky., bottles of sportsman's oil.
One personal touch is a photograph of his two daughters, ages 11 and 12; the older one holds an AR-15, the younger one has a Contender pistol.
A poster and banner advertise "Accurate Armory The New Kentucky Rifle." (That's in contrast to the old Kentucky rifle, which was a muzzleloader that helped America win its independence.)
On a table next to some pistol cases, he's laid out a before-and-after set of lower receivers, the part of the rifle that's technically considered the firearm. One is heavy and rough around the edges, the way it comes from the foundry; the other, much lighter and refined, is the finished firearm after it's been exposed to the 60 different cutting tools required to meet or exceed mil spec.
No signs on the exterior indicate what's manufactured inside. Word of mouth drives his business, says Pitts. And customers who come by appointment only already have a good idea of what they want.
"Customers are so tactically trained that they know these guns. Soldiers come back and they're looking for guns like what they're accustomed to using," Pitts said.
So they're drawn to rifles with the sand matte finish. Five colors are standard, and custom colors are available. Pitts has made an AR-15 with pink "furniture," as the grip, plastic butt stock and fore end are called. In other words, a Barbie for men, made for a woman.
Pitts said his business is split evenly between private citizens on the one hand and military contracts and law enforcement on the other. The state police and local sheriff's departments are among his customers.
He works closely with retired Lexington police officer Pike Spraggins, who used to be involved with the department's patrol rifle course, a 40-hour training that's required for any officer who wants to carry an AR-15. And they have to want it enough to pay for it themselves. Once they qualify, many Lexington officers come to Accurate Tool, where rifles start at about $1,100. For local customers, Pitts says, "a lot of the appeal is that the gun has 'Lexington, Ky.' engraved on it."
Tool and die
Pitts' love of guns dates to his days in the cradle, his mother has told him. But his business is Accurate Tool because the tool-and-die trade is where he earned his living for years.
A Lafayette grad who studied engineering at the University of Kentucky, Pitts started working for other shops in the early '80s. In 1992, he opened Accurate Tool on Spring Street. Toyota gave him a lot of work for a while, making ergonomic equipment for assembly-line workers.
But by 2006 things had slowed down. It seemed the right time to do something different. Since he had already begun supplying parts to the military a few years earlier, he decided to step it up a notch. The next two years went into developing his own weapons line, "building fixtures, building equipment, building the assembly line."
Pitts has been at his current location about three years. In the large work area, there are finished parts upper receivers hanging on one wall; on a table, a rifle sits boxed up, ready for shipment. Above one work bench hangs a picture his daughter drew of a squirrel that's out to try to even the score, rifle in hand. Pitts keeps his voice low; some machine setups are off-limits for photographs.
Pitts usually has between four to six employees depending on work and is hoping to add more. Finding reliable people is one thing that stands in the way of rapid expansion. As it happens, all his employees have law enforcement on their résumé.
Another problem at the moment is a shortage of parts. "A carrier (part of the firing mechanism) used to be $100 before Newtown. Now they're $500," he says.
But maybe the biggest impediment to increased production is that it requires some letting go. Retired officer Spraggins says of Pitts: "You're looking at the man who's built each rifle one at a time, who knows every part."
'The new American rifle'
Jay Evans of Evans Firearms, now on Regency Road, carries Accurate Tool rifles.
"In our opinion, it's one of the best available guns on the market," he said.
"The fit and finish is superior to most guns. He takes the time to make sure everything fits right," Evans said, demonstrating how there's no rattle between the upper and lower receivers.
On the wall is Pitts' banner for the "New Kentucky Rifle."
"The AR-15 has almost become the new American rifle," Evans said. It's a comment that captures the divisive nature of the issue as well as any. To illustrate his point, he describes a Thanksgiving weekend of target shooting with family members, not all of them big gun people. After using the AR-15, "You should have seen the smiles on their faces. People just like the way the gun works."
Pitts is producing about 50 rifles a month. He hopes to raise that number to 200 or even 500. Eventually he'd like to open to the public a couple of afternoons a week.
Pitts personally supports stricter background checks and closing the gun-show loophole. But he isn't too worried about the possibility of stricter gun laws targeting the AR-15. "I can develop other platforms," he says. He already has a new 1911 pistol, a version of the classic semiautomatic Colt .45 that was standard issue for U.S. forces during most of the 20th century.
And Pitts says his customers hunters, collectors, target shooters will adapt if high-capacity magazines are outlawed. "A boy came in with his father. He was going hunting and asked how many bullets the rifles hold. I told him 30. And he said, 'That's OK. I don't need more than one.' "
And what about the likelihood that many readers will respond negatively to his business?
"I've got a thick skin," Pitts said.