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A Visit to Vltor - Pt 1 - Factory Tour

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12/25/06 - Back in November, I spent a weekend at Vltor Weapon Systems/Abrams Airborne Manufacturing Inc., in Tucson, Arizona. I've known Eric Kincel, general manager for Vltor, ever since Vltor introduced their modstocks to the market a few years ago when I became one of their first customers. Vltor was started by Eric and investors in Idaho, and Vltor was bought by Abrams Airborne in 2005 and moved operations to Tucson, AZ. Abrams is a designer, manufacturer and fabricator of all kinds of commercial, military and aerospace products, with almost every manufacturing process available in-house, including CNC machining, sheet metal bending and stamping, welding, dip brazing, bonding, metal finishing...the list goes on. With all these resources available to Vltor, Vltor has been able to greatly expand its product line and capabilites.

Eric's a genuine 'good guy' and in my personal opinion, currently one of the most innovative and knowledgeable weapons designers in the industry. He draws from his passion for the study of firearms technology and history, and years in the firearms industry, some of them spent as a writer for Gun World magazine, and assembly/service manager and weapons museum curator servicing KAC and Stoner's gun collections at Knight's Manufacturing Company and has worked with Reed Knight and Eugene Stoner. Vltor's designs are ones that I can get genuinely excited about, and I'm always bugging Eric to let me in on what's new on the drawing board. Ever since Vltor moved to Tucson, Eric has extended an open invitation to me to 'come on out and shoot', and I finally had the time to take him up on his offer in November.

I arrived on a Friday morning, and Eric started out with the tour of Abrams. I discovered that Abrams Airborne (founded in 1965) and the Abrams family are fixtures in Tucson. Visit the Abrams website for more information on the company's history and capabilities. The Abrams/Vltor facility is so vast, it took most of the afternoon. Here's a list of the machines and equipment Vltor/Abrams has, and the available processes.

First on the tour were the rows of Haas CNC machines, where the machining is done. We stopped off at a couple of stations to chat with the operators where I saw Vltor buffer tubes being machined, and rifle VIS's in the white, ready for some final machining operations.


CNC machines


Buffer tubes being machined

Buffer tubes

Rifle VIS in the white

Midlength VIS's nearing completion

As we strolled along the aisleways, Eric would point out various parts on the tables. Like a row of nearly completed midlength VIS's, rifle length VIS's in the white, and minigun rotor housings. Yep, Vltor/Abrams is making minigun parts. The rotor housing casts cost $15,000 alone, before machining. The tour led us through different buildings and sections of buildings, filled with all sorts of machines, equipment, raw stock, assembled components. Welding, stamping, bending, deburring, sanding, painting...all that was going on. Abrams also does final assembly work, not just manufacturing. I saw boxes of electronics, ready to be installed in metal boxes and chassis that Abrams had manufactured. The Humvee electronic equipment rack shown below is built from start to finish at the facility. Even the painting. Eric also went over dip/salt brazing process, which is used on other items besides the VIS receivers. They also do anoziding in-house, as shown in the photo below, of CAS-V and M14 cluster rail sheet metal components on the dipping racks. One thing I noticed is the apparent pride the workers have in their products. I saw a lot of Vltor t-shirts and pictures of products. I was of course pleased to see some of the photography I've done for Vltor adorn the walls.
They have a new section of the building dedicated just to shipping, and it's filled to the gills with all of Vltor's finished products, ready to be carefully wrapped and sent out to awaiting customers. There's always something unusual or cool, sitting on a bench or table, as a section of the room also doubles as a gun cleaning station.


Minigun rotor housing

Humvee equipment rack

Metal stamping machines

Parts ready for anodizing

Anodized Cluster rails

Shipping dept

Modstocks ready to ship

A couple of those cool things sitting around are shown below - an FN F2000 (select fire version), and a PKM. The F2000 is a futuristic-looking 5.56mm bullpup which ejects the spent cases to the front, making it lefty-friendly. Kind of a bulky and bulbous weapon, I prefer the lines and feel of an M4 to it. More on that later. Vltor also manufactures PKM receivers, and sells complete weapons and parts kits. The PKM (Pulemyot Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy) is a Soviet-designed GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) chambered in 7.62 x 54mm rimmed.


FN F2000


PKM receiver

PKM

We stopped by Gary L. Abrams office, the president of Abrams, Vltor and Milkor USA, who I had met a couple of years earlier before he had bought Vltor. Gary's a down to earth individual, who dresses more like he's ready to go on a Harley ride or go for a spin in his A-26 Invader WWII bomber. The pro-gun culture is evident everywhere at Abrams, which I found completely refreshing, and walked around with a permanent grin on my face. The next day - off to the range.


Vltor Visit Part 2 - At The Range

12/28/06 - During the factory tour, I took a look at some of the weapons we'd be shooting the next day at the range. Vltor has an extensive weapons library/collection, both for the fun of shooting, and also for research and product development. Recently, they purchased pretty much the entire line of FN weapons, so it was good timing for me to visit. I got the chance to shoot weapons that most civilians would never have the chance to.

On Saturday morning, Eric and I met the fellows at Vltor, and loaded up a large enclosed trailer (complete with tables inside), with all sorts of machine guns, spare barrels, and can upon can of ammunition. Vltor doesn't have gun safes - they have walk-in gun vaults/rooms. I don't think I've ever had as much fun loading up weapons for a shoot. I was thinking to myself, "Wow, I'm carrying a Mk46 in my left hand and a Mk48 in the right. This is SO cool."

Note: I'm not going to go deep into the technical details and descriptions of each weapon featured here simply because I'm not intimately familiar with them; I'd only be parroting what information I found. I'll provide additional links that I find relevant, for further reading and information. I'm writing from a weapons enthusiast/layman's point of view with limited (or no) experience with some of these weapons when I share my impressions of shooting these weapons.

FN F2000 and FN P90

We brought along the FN F2000 that I took pictures of the day before disassembled on the cleaning table. It's a bullpup configuration 5.56x45mm NATO caliber rifle. The F2000 shown here is the full-auto version, not the civilian FS2000 semi-auto version with the slightly longer barrel. The F2000 is fully ambidextrous, as the spent casings eject from the front of the weapon, instead of to either side. The charging handle and safety/selector switch are also ambidextrous, which are nice features to have for a lefty like me.
My first impression upon picking up the F2000 was that it was bulbous, and plastic. It looked more like a space gun from Aliens than a real gun. The configuration takes a bit of getting used to if you're not used to bullpup; it's not front-heavy like a conventional rifle. Since much of the barrel is enclosed in the weapon, making the overall length shorter, there's much less extending in front of the shooter. The F2000 takes standard M4 30-round magazines, and mag changes are relatively quick to get used to. The mag release is just forward of the mag well, and the magazines insert and extract smoothly. The F2000 we had here had an EoTech 553 mounted on it. Much of the bulbous feel comes from the front removable handguard which felt very wide. I'd much prefer some kind of vertical grip instead. The front handguard can be exchanged for an even fatter version with rails, or a 40mm grenade launcher.
I didn't find the F2000 to be as easy to control as an M4 or AR15. Probably because I wasn't used to the configuration, but I'm also guessing that it's because of the lack of forward barrel weight. It felt like it had a bit more muzzle jump than an M4. I didn't shoot full-auto through it because it kept jamming. But the few bursts that went through weren't as easy to hold on target as an M4 for me. Kinda cool looking and interesting mechanism, but I prefer the ergonomics of an M4.
Further reading on the F2000: Link 1, link 2.

The FN P90 uses the 5.7x28mm round and was introduced more than a decade ago. Designed as a PDW, its role (and those of similar PDWs) have been mainly as a very compact weapon that provides more firepower than a pistol for vehicle crewmen and support personnel who don't carry rifles but need protection, or special circumstances where a rifle would be too large to conceal . The P90 is smaller in person than it looks in photos, and you really 'choke up' on it, with both hands very close together, instead of more spread out, like when firing a HK MP5 PDW. Like the F2000, it's a fully ambidextrous bullpup with the 50-round magazine located horizontally on top of the receiver rather than vertically like most other bullpups. It has that same feeling that it's a toy instead of a deadly weapon, due to the lack of exposed metal components. The trend towards synthetics and polymers is changing the 'feel' of what we think weapons should feel like. All contours are rounded, with very little snag potential. The MC-10-80 1X magnification sight has a similar reticle to the EOTech, but you can't adjust the intensity as it depends on ambient lighting.
The recoil impluse if the 5.7 round is very quick, and about half that of a 5.56mm and 2/3 that of a 9mm. Like the F2000, the lack of forward barrel weight to steady your aim takes some getting used to, but the plus side is that the P90 feels lightning-quick to maneuver. One thing I find hard to get used to is the vicinity of the fire selector/safety to the trigger, same as on the F2000. On both weapons, the selector is located right below the trigger, and rotated by the trigger finger to select the firing mode - safe, semi and auto. With the P90, not only is your trigger finger close to the trigger, but you also have the thumb of the support hand in the same trigger guard, providing the forward hold. I've always been taught to keep my trigger finger away from the trigger until ready to shoot, so it's a bit disconcerting. But that's a matter of training, and familiarity with the P90, to be safe with it. Hell, I even feel a bit weird shooting the M1A/M14 as flipping off the safety requires your trigger finger to be inside the trigger guard.
After getting used to it, the P90 is a really fun gun to fire. Rate of fire is high, and without the forward weight of a barrel to dampen your movements, you really have to keep from twitching or transmitting all your body movements to it. Once you establish a stable firing platform and stance, full auto bursts are relatively easy to keep on target at CQB distances due to the lack of recoil and muzzle jump.
Further reading: FN P90, 5.7x28 round.


FN F2000


FN P90

M4 Midlength VIS with M203

Another one of the items sitting on the cleaning bench was an M4 with Vltor Midlength VIS with M203 A1 (9" barrel instead of 12" M203 barrel) attached. The VIS is designed with a removable bottom rail for attachment of an M203 40mm grenade launcher. The receiver shown here is a Stag Arms full-auto receiver, with Vltor markings. This particular M203A1 is made by Bushmaster. Other components are the Troy Ind flip-up sights, Knight's Manufacturing M203 leaf/ladder sight, and Vltor Clubfoot Modstock. Also shown is the prototype Vltor bipod. The M203 just turns the M4 into a weapon with so much more destructive power, and still within a pretty compact envelope. This particular midlength VIS upper had an M4 carbine barrel and carbine-length gas system, so the low-profile gas block was concealed within the midlength handguard. The midlength handguard put the Troy front BUIS at the same position as a standard sight tower would.The KAC leaf sight can be moved up and down and zeroed to the specific weapon by loosening the slotted screw in the middle. The leaf sight has markings every 50m up to 250m.



Closeup of VIS/M203

VIS/M203

VIS/M203


Vltor prototype bipod

KAC leaf sight

The M4 is the weapon I'm most familiar with, but the addition of the M203 took my excitement level up a few notches. It was also a good opportunity to test out Vltor's rail-mounted bipod legs on the midlength VIS. Mounted at the rear of the rail, and folding forward, the bipod legs remain out of the way and line of sight until needed. Note that mounting them in this manner precludes the mounting of accessories on the side rails. Mounting them at the rear, rather than further forward on the rail made it much easier to traverse and shoot horizontally spaced out targets, as the pivot point was much closer to me. The bipod has no cant nor traverse mechanism built in, and depends on the moving of the feet in the dirt traverse back and forth. It works well, and provides a very solid platform for shooting for both semi and full auto fire.

The M203 is easy to load - the lever is depressed on the left side and the barrel slid forward. A round is inserted into the chamber and the whole assembly is slid back where it locks in place. The M203 has its own separate trigger, and a safety inside the trigger guard that looks like a backwards trigger. The 30 round magazine of the M4 is used as the pistol grip when firing the M203. The weapon is shouldered with the butt kind of low, and aimed by aligning the front sight post with the correct notch on the leaf sight for that range. For greater distances, the angle of the weapon is such that it's difficult to get any kind of cheek weld, so you can place your chin on top of the stock instead of beside it. I was only shooting practice rounds through it - that would hit with a puff of orange smoke/powder. Recoil was a slow impulse, and no worse than shooting birdshot through a shotgun, maybe even lighter.
Further reading on the M203: Link1, Link2.


Firing offhand

Using the bipod


Loading the M203

Loading practice round

 

On to part 3


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