Florida weaponsmaker finds unwanted glare
C. Reed Knight has made his firm a force.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published February 17, 2007
TITUSVILLE - With severe dyslexia, C. Reed Knight said he knew as a youth that he would have to work harder at a career, so his father said he should pick a job he loved.
"I was so slow I was going to have to work 80 hours a week to keep up with the world," Knight said. "I said, 'Dad, I like guns.' "
Did he ever.
So began the career of a Vero Beach resident who today may be Florida's largest small-arms maker, head of Knight's Armament Co., a high-tech operation in Titusville with 300 workers and up to $120-million in annual sales.
The company has been pushed into the spotlight by recent news of an investigation, opened in 2005, by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that may involve work done by Knight to produce sniper rifle nightscopes for U.S. Special Operations Command based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
The investigation, NCIS says, involves "allegations of fraudulent business practices."
It's a frustrating time for this 61-year-old member of a fourth-generation citrus family who said he rejected farming because Mother Nature, more than hard work, determined success.
Reporters plague him. He said employees openly question whether someone will be jailed. And Knight worries whether his military customers - 98 percent of his business - will continue to trust him.
For the record, Knight said he has never done anything wrong, and wonders about the legitimacy of an investigation when NCIS has never interviewed him and refuses to tell him its focus.
"That's as criminal as anything," he said, noting an NCIS source told him he wasn't a target of the inquiry. NCIS declined to confirm that.
Knight blames his troubles on competitors trying to undermine his business with the military by complaining to agencies such as NCIS, which he said is a common ploy with defense contractors.
"It's sour grapes," he said in an interview at his manufacturing facility. "But I compete with them on a level playing field."
Optical Systems Technology Inc., one of Knight's chief competitors in the optical sights business, denied filing a criminal complaint.
"It's everybody else's fault except his own," Paul Maxin, OSTI president, said on Friday.
Knight approaches guns with the fervor of a religious pilgrim. He maintains a museum, which isn't open to the public, inside his plant. Hundreds of assault weapons are displayed, including a Civil War-era Gatling gun. He winds the gun's rotating barrels for a visitor.
Knight said he began the business 25 years ago by picking up the phone and calling renowned weapons designer Eugene Stoner, inventor of the M-16 rifle, a moment of chutzpah Knight still chuckles about.
"I wasn't bashful," he said.
The two began a friendship, and soon, Knight got a toehold in an idiosyncratic business.
Knight recalled the moment that really launched his company: seeing troops on TV during the invasion of Panama using duct tape to attach flashlights to rifles. That led him to design a modular weapons system, allowing soldiers to easily attach to their guns anything from lights to silencers to grenade launchers.
So far, he has sold more than 400,000, his best-selling product. The U.S. Army is his biggest customer.
Knight formerly served as a reserve police officer in Vero Beach, and he sometimes joins his weapons testers on the range to fire the military rifles his company produces.
The Sept. 11 attacks transformed his business, bringing orders that forced the company to grow three or four times larger, Knight said. He moved his factory into a larger plant where Tomahawk missiles were once built.
Knight isn't used to working under a cloud and said he just wishes the NCIS would finish its work quickly so life can get back to normal.
"These allegations aren't going to pass the reality check," he said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3436.
[Last modified February 17, 2007, 05:44:53]
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