PALM BAY, Fla. — Just down the road from a Krispy Krunchy fried chicken store, in a nondescript east coast business park in Florida, a 60,000-square-foot factory produces about 2,500 AK-47 rifles a month.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that Ulrich "Uli" Wiegand, a German immigrant who started the company called Inter Ordnance, sees a bright future for the American-made version of the Kalashnikov, the classic Soviet-bloc weapon with the iconic banana-shaped ammo magazine. It is the world's most popular weapon. There were as many as 150 million Kalashnikovs as of 2012, according to Aaron Karp, senior consultant to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research institute.
But Wiegand wants to put Florida on the map as the place where the best AKs are made, combining modern American manufacturing prowess with the original design by Russian Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov. With the help of a Tampa-registered company called Purple Shovel, he wants to double his capacity and his workforce, and switch the bulk of his business from consumers to governments.
"We are taking the best features of American manufacturing and infusing them into an AK-47, with 100 percent American-made parts," said Wiegand, who moved the company to Florida from North Carolina in 2013.
Purple Shovel is the exclusive government distributor of the company's AK-47s.
To reach his goal, Wiegand has invested about $5 million in the plant and estimates he needs to invest another $3 million to $5 million for new equipment and work stations.
The investments have garnered the attention of the Florida Space Coast Economic Development Commission.
"Their investment further enhances our manufacturing base and provides a positive impact for the region," said Lynda Weatherman, the commission's president and CEO.
It's a move that has some local gun manufacturers scratching their heads.
"I don't see that as a wise investment," said Greg Frazee, owner of the Tampa-based Trident Arms.
Frazee said he prefers to stick with the American-designed civilian line of rifles known as the AR-15 platform, arguing that the AK-47 "is too much of a niche product."
Wiegand and Benjamin Worrell, owner of Purple Shovel, see things differently.
Purple Shovel, named for a child's beach toy, already has more than $110 million dollars worth of contracts with U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, for "small arms, ordnance and ordnance accessories manufacturing," according to federal procurement documents.
Worrell and Wiegand are prohibited by law from talking about those contracts. SOCOM, citing "operational sensitivities," declined to comment on what types of weapons Purple Shovel is providing.
But SOCOM has a strong interest in American-made Soviet-bloc weapons.
A year ago, the command sent out a market research request regarding what it calls "non-standard weapons." This includes Russian-designed guns like the AK-47 and other similar assault rifles, as well as sniper rifles like the Dragunov, light machine guns like the PKM, and heavy machine guns like the DShK and the KPV. They are weapons preferred by U.S. allies and foes alike for their relatively low cost and simplicity of operation.
SOCOM, tasked with training and equipping commandos and synchronizing the war on terror, provides weapons to allies at the behest of commands like U.S. Central Command. CENTCOM, also based at MacDill, has overall control of U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
As with the existing contracts, Worrell and Wiegand can't talk about whether they submitted proposals to SOCOM to sell it American-made AK-47s.
"It is still an ongoing effort," said SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. "No manufacturers have been identified."
Inter Ordnance is not the only Florida company in the market. About 140 miles to the south, in Pompano Beach, Kalashnikov USA has plans to make the AK-47s as well. The company, not connected to the Russian firm prohibited from U.S. sales by sanctions, is making Kalashnikov shotguns but plans to roll out AK-47s later this year, said Laura Burgess, a company spokeswoman.
Like Wiegand, she said there is a strong market for the weapons.