New ownership has taken over an Oceanside-based gun component and accessories manufacturer — the target of a 2014 raid by federal agents over allegedly improper sales — aiming to attract less negative attention and concentrate on management fundamentals.
American Weapons Components Inc., formerly known as Ares Armor, became notorious for its sale of firearm parts that allow consumers to make their own unserialized guns.
Bryce Stirlen bought Ares last March, after more than a decade working in financial services, restructuring and distressed mergers and acquisitions. Stirlen, AWCs’ CEO, said he saw potential in the company that could be realized through a less antagonistic relationship with law enforcement and investment in more automated manufacturing equipment, including CNC sewing machines and computerized cutting tables.
“I saw a lot of chaos going on,” Stirlen said. “But this is an opportunity.”
An AR-15’s lower receiver is the core of the semi-automatic rifle and the part that its stock, grip and magazine attach to. Lower receivers contain a gun’s serial number and finished versions of the part are considered a firearm by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But Ares, and other parts makers, grew quickly over the past few years selling 80 percent lowers, or versions of the part that lack some final holes and a machined trigger well. Because the parts are unfinished, they’re not regulated as firearms by the ATF, and consumers can make so-called ghost guns: unserialized weapons without the need for a background check or waiting period, as long as they machine the last 20 percent themselves.
“They’re in demand and people want to have it,” said Defense Distributed CEO Cody Wilson, manufacturer of a CNC machine specifically designed to mill out receivers. “It’s similar to the reaction to encrypted emails after Edward Snowden. There’s an appetite for rifle privacy, as absurd as that sounds.”
Former Marine Dimitri Karras founded Ares in 2010 and started making nylon tactical gear, including load-bearing vests and backpacks. He also designed 80 percent lowers that another company manufactured for him, and sold other manufacturers’ lowers as well.
Karras said he was motivated by a distrust of government and a concern that politicians may try to ban homemade guns using 80 percent lowers.
In March 2014, ATF agents seized 6,000 unfinished receivers made by manufacturer EP Armory but sold through Ares, along with Ares’ customer list, claiming the receivers were made in such a way that they were technically firearms. Karras filed two lawsuits over the raid, arguing the raid was an overreach, but so far his claims have been dismissed.
Karras put the Obama’s Blaster on sale six months later, which he called a joke that was not meant to imply any violence toward the president, though even U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, who was critical of the ATF raid, said the product was in poor taste.
In the Wake of Departure
Stirlen bought the assets of Lycurgan Inc., Ares’ corporate name, last March, attracted by Ares’ intellectual property and its dominant position in the 80 percent lower market. He later had a falling out with Karras, who left the company; their dispute remains unresolved. Stirlen said Ares previously posted annual revenue of $10 million to $15 million, but saw sales falter in August in the wake of Karras’ public departure. Stirlen maintains the company can rebound by expanding into other aspects of gun manufacturing and avoiding actions that might antagonize the ATF, including distancing himself from Karras’ lawsuits. Stirlen added one could disagree with gun regulations without demonizing individual ATF agents.
“They’re human beings,” Stirlen said. “(Their jobs) don’t mean they’re evil.”
Since Karras left, Stirlen changed Ares’ name and partnered with Maddox Defense CEO Jason Maddox, who makes medical backpack systems and other kits for Special Forces. Maddox had already worked with Ares when he needed more sewing capacity and eventually showed Stirlen how he could sell AWCs’ nylon products to the government.
The pair formed Arizona-based Industry Armament in December, which will be a federally licensed firearms manufacturer. Opposed to AWCs’ components and unfinished receivers, Industry will make completed AR-15 rifles and specialized nylon gear for military and local law enforcement agencies. AWC will continue to design parts and more consumer-focused gear, though AWC employees in San Diego will make all the nylon products for both companies.
American Weapons Components Inc.
CEO: Bryce Stirlen
Revenue: $10 million-$15 million
No. of local employees: 40
Year founded: 2010
Company description: Manufacturer of nylon tactical gear, holsters and firearm parts, including some that allow customers to make their own unserialized semi-automatic rifle.