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Sniper rifles: British gun company aims high

September 12 2011 at 2:37 PM

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Sniper rifles: British gun company aims high

By John ODoherty

When the toolmaker David Walls went to a barbeque in suburban Sussex in the late 1970s, he had no idea that a friendship he formed over charred hamburgers would see him supplying sniper rifles to the British army.

Thirty years on, the company that he and his friends formed with the barbeque contact is still going strong. Accuracy International is now also making sniper rifles for the Swedish and German armies, as well as the US Special Forces and marksmen teams in UK police forces.

As engineers for a precision toolmaking company in Lancing, West Sussex, Mr Walls and his colleague David Caig had already become incredibly popular in their local gun club, where the two men were amateur target shooters.

We were often approached by fellow members at the club, because if a gun went wrong they might want a small part made, and we used to have it knocked up in our dinner breaks, says Mr Walls.

Soon, word got out and the pair were doing work for other gun clubs in the area.

We used to do work for a drink in those days, says Mr Walls. If you make a new firing pin youd get a beer for it. But it got to the point where we were making so many firing pins and mending so many peoples guns, that we risked being drunk, so we had to start charging!

In addition to fixing guns manufactured by others, the pair began replicating existing pistol models from scratch.

It was these replica revolvers that the men took to a barbeque organised by a fellow gun-club member. The Olympic medallist shooter Malcolm Cooper, who happened to be attending the same event, was impressed by the pistols, and suggested the men make a rifle for him,

Cooper got hold of one of our rifles and he went and shot a world record with the thing, and that more or less kicked it off, says Mr Walls.

The men soon left their day jobs to work on rifle-making, and occasionally repaired guns in Mr Coopers gun shop.

But it wasnt until the end of the Falklands war that their small rifle business had its first major success. In the early 1980s, the British army began a search for a new sniper rifle to replace the Lee Enfield L42A1, a converted version of a 1950s rifle.

The then-Conservative government was eager to tender beyond the existing system of approved defence contractors, and Accuracy International decided to throw their hat into the ring.

There were 17 other major competitors, such as Parker Hale, BSA, Winchester, Remington and Mauser, says Mr Walls. They were all in it, and we never thought at that time that wed win.

However, the rifle won the entire order, supplying 1,200 rifles in total throughout the 1980s. Subsequent contracts saw Accuracy International become the first non-German small-arms company to win a contract for the German military and in the 1990s, the company developed a special cold-weather rifle for the Swedish army.

But in spite of their continued success in winning contracts throughout the 1990s, trouble was brewing. Though still directors of the company, Mr Walls and Mr Caig had sold their stake in the business to Mr Cooper, who in turn sold his stake to 3i, the private equity group, before he died in 2001.

The company basically had a lot of debt associated with the sale, says Tom Irwin, who joined the company 10 years ago and is a director now.

They brought in a new management team, which subcontracted out everything that had been built in-house. It was subcontracted primarily to aerospace machine shops, which gave good quality, but they also gave very high prices.

The group racked up debt of over £3m ($4.2m) by the end of 2003 and was forced into receivership in 2005, having been pushed into a loss the previous year. In May of 2005, Mssrs Walls and Caig along with Mr Irwin, who was then a subcontractor for the group, bought back the company for an undisclosed sum. It is now run by Mr Walls and Mr Irwin who are co-directors of the group, with no official chief executive or managing director position. Mr Caig works for the group as a consultant.

We started with 11 people including the four of us, and we had two machine tools and now weve got 20 machines and 50 employees, says Mr Irwin.

In 2009, the latest year for which the group has released accounts, the company had a pre-tax profit of £1.2m on revenues of £7.4m. There is no sign yet of a slowdown in revenues from defence cutbacks.

The demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to favour the development of rifles with an ever-longer range to protect snipers from retaliatory fire.

Two years ago, the groups AWM rifle was used by a British soldier to record the longest-ever confirmed kill by a sniper, when a single bullet passed through two Afghans from 2,475m, roughly a mile and a half, away.

While the company does not rejoice in grisly records such as this, the groups directors are not morally troubled by the use of their product.

We believe more lives are saved as a result of these products, says Mr Irwin.

Mr Walls agrees: If theres a sniper out there, the enemy does not want to be around. So in actual fact you save lives, because you keep the enemy out.

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