Gun Digest

Kel-Tec: Beyond Blued Steel And Walnut

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The innovative designs of Kel-Tec go beyond blued steel and walnut and redefine what “made in America” can look like.

I’ve always been impressed by the ingenuity and engineering of the people at Kel-Tec and the products they offer. They’ve always been pushing boundaries, testing limits and making firearms that are more than (or where desired, like weight, less than) other designs.

And the looks? If you’re into “modern industrial,” Kel-Tec is where you go. Now, I grew up in an era when “made in America” was a given, imports were rare, expensive and oftentimes an ergonomic hot mess, and blued steel and walnut were the baseline assumption of “looking good.”

As much as I still respond favorably to blued steel and walnut, there are times when a clearly industrial-look approach is just the ticket.

As an ultra-compact everyday-carry gun, or as a backup to a bigger gun, the Kel-Tec PF9 is just the ticket.

Swedish Roots, American Soil

Thus, we have Kel-Tec. Founded by George Kellgren (a Swede, but the U.S. has a lot of Swedes and those whose parents and grandparents came from Sweden) in 1991, the idea wasn’t to make firearms like everyone else. After all, if you’re a small company—a brand-new upstart—do you really want to be making rifles just like Ruger, Winchester and Remington? (OK, Remington would be a special case, but in 1991, not so much an outlier.) Do you want to go head-to-head with handgun makers like Ruger, Glock, Sig, etc.? Not if you want to stay in business.

And since you’re doing it all right here in the good-old US of A, you’ve got to be cleverer and you have to have a distinct look. It doesn’t hurt to go after specific segments of the market that have heretofore been underserved.

The first Kel-Tec firearm was the P-11, a compact 9mm pistol that held 10 rounds in a flush magazine, but it also cleverly accepted magazines from the S&W 59 series. Magazines are a specialized subset of design and manufacture, and the cleverness of a brand-new company, with a new design, using an existing magazine as the feed mechanism cannot be overstated.

Another, later in the line of 9mm pistols, is the PF-9. We’re now accustomed to super-compact EDC 9mm pistols, but back in 2006, when the PF-9 came out, this wasn’t so much the case. So, from Kel-Tec we have the lightest and flattest 9mm, it being a single-stack DAO pistol, one that’s so light that it can be actual work to shoot with hot defensive ammo.

The PF9 is an ultra-compact 9mm. You can use the standard flush magazine or gain extra rounds by using the extended version.

That very lightness makes it valuable as a sidearm in certain uses. As an ultra-compact backup for those of us who insist on packing heavy, it’s da bomb. If you have a PF-9, you have 12 ounces of made-in-the-USA insurance. I have knives that weigh more than that, and they aren’t as long as the reach of a PF-9.

Made properly … and here? Of course. The slide and barrel are both heat-treated 4140 steel. The chassis is machined from a billet of 7075 aluminum. The frame is high-strength polymer and all the making happens in the Kel-Tec plant in Cocoa, Florida. Why the emphasis on “Made in the USA?” If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that long supply chains can be a problem.

Not long ago, a super cargo container ship was freed after being aground in the Suez Canal. It was so big that it literally wedged across the channel, blocking the canal. Over 300 ships were stuck until it got freed. With ships now commonly transporting 14,000 containers or more, each, that’s more than a half-million containers stuck in traffic. Billions of dollars worth of goods, waiting in the hot sun of the Mideast. Don’t tell me that American made doesn’t matter.

Back to Kel-Tec. One very cool pistol they make (the P11 is no longer in the lineup) is the PMR30. It’s a pistol in .22 Magnum that holds 30 rounds in the magazine. For someone looking for a home-defense pistol that doesn’t have a lot of recoil, there’s your solution. People might sneer at a .22 Magnum round, but 30 of them—and 30 more after a fast reload—is a real emergency-solving handful.

The PMR30 is a pistol chambered in .22 WMR, and it holds—you guessed it—30 rounds in the magazine.

So, making things here in the USA sounds a whole lot better, and it doesn’t rely on the now-constrained (there’s a shortage, apparently) supply of shipping containers. And true to the 21st century, Kel-Tec now does their design and dimensional standards work on computers. That info can be fed directly to CNC-machining centers, and a modified firearm, or an entirely new prototype, can be created right away. Then, once extensive testing shows need, an updated one can be produced that afternoon and fed right into the testing process. Computers are great; you just have to know how to use them, and Kel-Tec sure does.

They Have Long Guns, Too

The design efforts of Kel-Tec are also bent toward rifles and shotguns. And it isn’t enough that they give free rein to the industrial-look polymer and steel design imperative, they also offer practical and usable bullpups. The rifles, the RFB and the RDB, use common-capacity (20 rounds or more) magazines, but provide carbine-length barrels in firearms that are as compact as a rifle can be. The trigger on the RFB they sent me was so good that I simply told them they weren’t getting the gun back.

The RFB is a stout .308 Winchester that’s compact (it’s a bullpup, after all) and ejects the empties forward. You want a compact sledgehammer? You got it.

The shotguns, the KS7 and the KSG, are even more trick. The KS7 looks like it came right off of the set of Aliens, and the KSG, while the same size, has nearly double the capacity. Kel-Tec doesn’t consider the traditional design, look or mechanism when building any of these firearms. And that’s the usual Kel-Tec method.

Kel-Tec’s P50

A case in point, and the current Kel-Tec “gotta have it” firearm is the P50. The P50 uses the 5.7x28mm cartridge, developed by FN back in the late 1990s for a NATO requirement. Now, I love the FN line of firearms, and they’re a first-rate crew, but they also don’t seem interested in responding to price competition. If you want to shoot something made by FN, using 5.7 ammunition, you’re in for spending no less than $1,200. The quality is there, but so is the price.

The P50 is the new kid on the block in 5.7x28mm. It uses the same magazines as the FN carbine, for less money and less bulk.

The Kel-Tec P50 has an MSRP of $995. Some might say that $200 isn’t much of a price difference, but even with today’s inflated ammo prices, that gets you a bunch of ammo. And as far as ammunition capacity goes, the P50 uses the same magazines as the FN PS90, so you have 50 rounds on tap once you’ve loaded up.

The design of the P50 is … not traditional. As in, telling the designers after their first attempt: “We don’t make firearms that look like other people’s firearms. Go back, chug a few Red Bulls and try again.”

There’s the customary Kel-Tec dependence on strong and well-proportioned polymer moldings. There’s the usual (and properly engineered) assembly of sheet-steel stampings and machined aluminum. And there’s a charging handle on the back end that works just like the one on an AR-15, so you know how to get it ready to rock. And true to the Kel-Tec process, it looks like it was designed tomorrow—as a tool that Corporal Hicks would’ve clipped to his body armor—and it was designed and made here in the USA.

The action hinges open at the front, the PS90 magazine rides horizontally inside the action and there’s a thumb safety for your use, convenient to your firing hand. What’s really different is that the top half of the receiver set has a full-length rail, and there’s enough room there to park more accessories, by weight, than the P50 itself weighs.

Ammo of any kind might be hard to get, but the P50 can be fed ammo from several sources, and it works like a champ.

Underneath the location of the magazine, on the lower receiver half, there’s a rail section long enough to let you mount a light, laser or whatever is the en vogue item of the tacti-cool set. Just ahead of the trigger guard is a sculpted hand-hold, one that allows you to get a second hand on the P50, just under the balance point. On the back end is a QD sling socket, so you can use a short sling, à la SAS style, to keep the P50 steady while shooting.

Now, being nontraditional can have some drawbacks. Reloading the P50 is a two-handed affair. You’ve got to unlatch the upper, then swing it open and pluck out the old magazine. Insert the new magazine not into the space in the lower where it looks like it’ll go, but press it into the upper receiver, and then swing the lower up to the upper. Work the charging handle, and you’re good to go.

To load the P50, open the action and stuff the magazine unto the upper. Don’t lay it in the lower; it wasn’t made to work that way.

To shoot, press the safety to Fire (forward until it is vertical), push the P50 out in front of you to either line up the iron sights (nestled in the gutter of the top rail) or get the red-dot on target and press the trigger. Repeat as necessary. It takes a bit of time, but you’ve got 50 rounds at the ready once you do.

’Merica! You get choices, so take advantage of them.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 Made In USA special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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