The Army's next-generation carbine may come out of a Highlandtown machine shop best known for making high-volume bottling equipment for major drink makers.
Adcor Industries Inc. learned this month that it was among a handful of weapons makers selected to compete to build a possible replacement for the M4, a rifle descended from the well-known M16 and that some soldiers have criticized as unreliable in the dry, dusty conditions in Iraq.
Adcor, which employs about 80 people in its block-sized building on South Haven Street, will face some of the biggest names in global gun-making in a race to be the Army's small-arms weapon of choice in the 21st century. The competition includes the M4's maker, Colt Defense LLC, as well as Fabrique Nationale, Heckler & Koch and Remington Arms Co.
"We are not a gun company," said Jimmy Stavrakis, Adcor's owner. "It's just another machine to us. The gun is nothing different than any other mechanical device."
Adcor has poured $10 million into developing the BEAR, short for the Brown Enhanced Automatic Rifle. It's named for Michael Brown, the Adcor executive and expert machinist who decided he could design and build a better carbine with the company's equipment. Powerful and durable, the automatic rifle doesn't jam when immersed in sand, mud and water.
The BEAR made the Army's first cut, when it screened for a manufacturer's production capability and the weapon's cost and basic attributes. The competition's second phase could last more than a year and will encompass rigorous testing of the weapons. A handful of entrants then will be chosen and evaluated against each other, followed by an analysis by top Army leaders who will determine whether to buy a new weapon — or simply upgrade the M4.
Adcor faces stiff competition and long odds, but a win would be a huge shot in the arm for Baltimore's manufacturing sector, which has been decimated in recent decades. Adcor would add a couple of hundred jobs, Stavrakis said, and gain a foothold in long-term defense contracting that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars as hundreds of thousands of new weapons are made in coming years.
"It's a huge win if Jimmy wins," said Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's former secretary of economic development and a former Westinghouse executive who contracted with Stavrakis on critical electronics parts years ago. "He's got the quality of product. There's nobody better than they are at making complex parts."
Adcor uses computer-operated precision tools to turn hunks of metal into complex parts for defense-related electronics and automated bottle fillers. It works as a subcontractor to a range of manufacturers, including fabricating parts used in electronics equipment built by Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors.
Companies such as Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch buy its automatic bottling machines, which can fill 2,000 cans a minute.
By comparison, creating a rifle that can fire 900 bullets a minute is tough, but not overly complicated, Stavrakis said.
In 2005, it began making parts — specifically the upper receiver, or top half — for Colt's M4, the Army's standard-issue automatic combat rifle.
"It's an accurate gun," said Brown, Adcor's executive vice president. "But it requires a lot of maintenance."
Brown, who came to Adcor 13 years ago with a background in machining complex parts, such as knee and hip joints and pieces of the space shuttles, started thinking Adcor could make a better gun. A tinkerer by nature, Brown keeps a refrigerator-sized automatic machining system in his executive office to create parts that he dreams up.
The M4, he said, is based on aging technology. Brown developed several features, including a dust cover that keeps debris from entering a critical part of the firearm, ambidextrous controls and a gas piston system that keeps the gun cleaner and reduces the number of needed cleanings.
The resulting BEAR carbine is a lighter and more accurate weapon, and more reliable in the sand and dust that soldiers have faced in Iraq, according to Adcor.
"We want to give our men and women [in the military] the best equipment," said Brown. "These guys lose their lives with gun jams."
Army officials declined to comment on the competition and said they could not release the names or number of competitors involved, due to federal procurement regulations. Colt is the incumbent. FNH USA (the U.S. unit of Fabrique Nationale of Belgium), Heckler & Koch and Remington all said they made the cut for the second phase as well.
"The Army's intent is to ensure that the competition is as fair as possible," wrote Army spokesman Kevin Doell in an email. "The Army does not want to adversely affect the competition in any way."
The Army competition wouldn't have been possible without intensive lobbying in Washington by Adcor and other companies. Congress passed legislation in 1994 that enshrined Colt and two other manufacturers — Fabrique Nationale Manufacturing Inc. and SACO Defense — as the sole small-arms makers for the U.S. military, in order to protect the country's industrial base of weapons makers.
But Adcor and the other weapons manufacturers spent millions in recent years on lobbying firms to push for re-crafted legislation that opened up the market beyond those three. Over the past three years, Adcor spent more than $400,000 lobbying, and hired, among others, former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley to press its interests in Washington.
"The only thing we asked for is an open competition, and may the best gun win," Stavrakis said.
Small-arms manufacturers saw an opening over the years as the Colt's M4 received mixed, often conflicting reviews from soldiers in the field and in organized testing. Colt, based in West Hartford, Conn., has fiercely defended its weapon's performance against rivals, but its officials could not be reached for comment.
"They have been producing the M4 for some time," said Matthew Potter, a writer at the trade website Defense Procurement News. "If another weapon from a different manufacturer is chosen they will gain all of that work with the potential for a great deal more due to the adoption by many other nations' armed forces of U.S. weapons."
Potter estimated the winning carbine could be worth several billion dollars in future orders.
Even if the Army decides to stick with the M4, Stavrakis sees a ripe market for selling Adcor's rifle to domestic law enforcement agencies across the country and to U.S. allies overseas. Already, the Baltimore Police Department's SWAT team has started using the BEAR in training, while law enforcement agencies elsewhere also are testing it, Adcor officials said.
A semi-automatic version of the BEAR is currently sold to sport and hunting rifle enthusiasts, for upwards of $1,500. Adcor declined to disclose how much the company would charge the Army if it won a contract.
Either way, the BEAR is transforming the machine shop Stavrakis, who grew up in nearby Greektown, took over from his late father.
It wasn't so long ago that Melissaratos told Stavrakis' father that his equipment wasn't modern enough to make parts for Westinghouse, Melissaratos recalled. Jimmy Stavrakis, then in his early 20s, scouted other machine shops in the area and figured out what equipment Adcor needed to score supply work from major defense contractors, and modernized his father's business.
Under his leadership, Adcor attracted defense contractors and began supplying parts to fiber-optics communications firms. Adcor entered the global bottling equipment business a dozen years ago when it bought the machining division from a Crown Cork and Seal Co. division in Baltimore. It became a significant source of Adcor's revenues, Stavrakis said.
With the BEAR, it's entering another new industry.
"We're the new kid on the block," Stavrakis said.