Photo Credit: Jody Lewis, Crossfire
The Arsenal Democracy Phenomenon
Hearing a “click” when you expect a “BANG” is probably the worst sound a war fighter can hear in the middle of a firefight with enemy combatants closing in. Having a gun go down with a catastrophic failure is one way to get the blood flowing and push the pucker factor meter off the charts. James Pechi and David Pavlick know all too well what happens when Murphy rears his ugly head. They have experienced it first hand, multiple times throughout their Special Forces carriers. Throughout Pechi and Pavlick’s combined 25 years of combat experience with the 7th Special Forces Group they have experienced just about every type of failure or malfunction the M4 carbine has to offer. James and David have endured the carnage of war together. It was through this bond, this brotherhood that Arsenal Democracy was forged.
Rewind to 2005. Dave Pavlick had just arrived at Fort Bragg to attend the United States Army Special Forces Qualification Course. Dave was allowed to move off post to a nearby apartment complex. A short while later, Dave and his roommate ended up meeting their neighbor, James Pechi who lived directly under them in the apartment below. James had previous experience serving in the United States Marine Corps and had celebrated his 21st birthday crossing the Iraqi border during the initial invasion. During his time in the Corps he worked with some SF guys in Haiti. This experience resulted in him deciding to transfer from Marine Recon into the Army to go through the SF Q-Course. Dave and James fast became friends and they finished the Q-Course together. Upon completion, they were both assigned to 7th Special Forces Group in the same battalion and the same company. They deployed together and both have multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and have been inseparable ever since their first meeting back in 2005. It seemed only natural they go into business together. So they did. In 2013 Arsenal Democracy was born.
The name Arsenal Democracy has its roots in speech made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a live radio broadcast on December 29th, 1940.
"We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war."
Photo Credit: Jody Lewis, Crossfire
The term was later used by President Reagan on February 6th, 1985 during his State of the Union Address.
"You know, we only have a military-industrial complex until a time of danger, and then it becomes the arsenal of democracy. Spending for defense is investing in things that are priceless – peace and freedom."
For Dave and James, the name Arsenal of Democracy is not meant to be a political statement, rather it is a state of mind and about being prepared and maintaining the military industrial complex. Preparing for war in a time of peace, while not popular by many of our citizenship or elected officials, has been what has kept the United States of America the world’s leading super power for a long time. It has been what has allowed this country to come defend our shores and to come to the aid of other nations in need and confronting evil at a moment’s notice. War is shit and guys like David and James can attest to that. War also brings innovation. Dave rightly points out that technological advancements developed by the military has trickled out into the civilian world and benefited other industries such as the aerospace, automotive, medical and communications sectors.
Arsenal Democracy and M4 Advancement
Arsenal Democracy, or AD for short, is owned and operated exclusively by Spec Ops veterans. In 2013, James and David started business doing Cerekote work. They quickly expanded to building upper receivers. At the time they couldn’t build complete rifles as they didn’t have their FFL. These uppers became the basis for a project that would later be known as the Reaper 33.
In Dave’s opinion, he feels they are "wringing out the last... tid-bit of technological advances out of the M4." That’s a pretty bold statement from a company still in its infancy. Throughout their years of military service, both James and David have spent immeasurable amounts of time examining the M4 rifle platform and brainstorming ways how to make it more reliable and more combat effective. This process took years of hard combat and came in baby steps.
Initially, James and Dave started building with forged receivers. Turns out these forged receivers had too many inconsistencies with tolerances. This degraded accuracy so they switched over to making billet receivers exclusively. Initially they took a SOCOM M4 and laid clay on it and began sculpting. They removed snag hazards and improved ergonomics. They worked the clay until they had optimal angles that didn’t catch, were ergonomically friendly, didn’t cut into gear or flesh, were aerodynamic and would work well during dynamic operations such as fast roping, free fall, low crawl, etc. They even looked at how the angles of the upper would reflect light. They spent excessive amounts of time on the details, removing features that didn’t work and improving on those that did. This was not an arbitrary process. Everything had a reason to go, stay or be modified.
Photo Credit: Jody Lewis, Crossfire
For example, both James and David are huge proponents of the forward assist. When many manufactures are removing them because they "aren’t needed" or "it looks cooler," Arsenal Democracy insists they remain. Why is that? James and Dave have a long list of stories to back up that decision. For example, when David was engaging enemy fighters in Afghanistan he had to do a speed reload. After inserting the magazine and depressing the bolt catch on his M4, the bolt carrier group got stuck at the half way point. Never a good situation, but this was really piss poor timing. After hammering the forward assist over and over and finally watching the bullet slide into the chamber, he was able to send a round into the enemy fighter closing in on his position 15 feet away. The phrase "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" holds true, however I would also add "wiser" to that phrase.
They tightened up the AR tolerances and only used the highest quality components. If Arsenal Democracy’s specifications couldn’t be met, they manufactured their own parts. This isn’t to say they thought the M4 was horrible. On the contrary, they both did good work with the legacy M16/M4 rifle platform. They didn’t want to scrap it, rather they wanted to make it better. All of their time and research eventually culminated in the first Arsenal Democracy prototype rifle.
Enter Reaper 33
During the time Arsenal Democracy had completed their upper receiver a friend introduced them to a man by the name of Nicholas Irving. Nick had earned a reputation as a very successful sniper from 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Nick was the first African American Sniper to serve with 3rd Battalion. During a 3-1/2 month deployment to Afghanistan as sniper squad leader, Sgt. Irving is credited for 33 enemy combatant kills with an unknown number of probables. This unprecedented accomplishment earned him the call sign, "Reaper." He later became known as Reaper 33 or R33. After leaving the Army, Nick is founded Hard Shoot, a consulting, training and security company based out of south Texas.
Arsenal Democracy asked Nick to give them his honest, no bullshit opinion on the upper receiver they had created. They made an upper with a 10.5 inch barrel for Nick. As a way to say thank you they thought it fitting to engrave his call sign, "Reaper 33" on the side of the upper receiver. Upon receiving the upper, Nick and a bunch of other Rangers shot the shit out of it. They then passed it along to some Frogs from SEAL Team 5. In all, they put 23,000+ rounds down the tube with the majority of the shots suppressed. The result was an upper that didn’t experience a failure or broken part and didn’t necessitate a barrel, extractor or bolt change. On top of that it only went through 2 or 3 cleanings during the durations of the testing. These are shooters that have thousands of hours behind the gun, know what makes the AR tick and have broken many o’ gun. They know how to run them to the limits yet when they took the Arsenal Democracy 10-1/2-inch upper and rang steel at 800 meters, they were a bit taken back. That kind of accuracy is not the norm. It is exceptional and unique. It takes a solid shooter with a solid rifle to consistently maintain that kind of accuracy.
Photo Credit: David Thorson, Tracerx Photography
Needless to say Nick and the crew were very impressed. He contacted AD and wanted to know when their FFL would be finalized as he wanted to do a custom rifle that would be worthy of the Reaper 33 name. James and David were on board and the team began kicking around ideas and making prototypes of what would eventually become the REAPER 33 rifle.
Once the team was satisfied with the product they decided to make one-hundred REAPER 33 rifles to test the market waters. It was during this time I caught wind of the project during one of my nightly internet surfing sessions. Initially, I knew very little about the company other than what was on their website and what they posted on social media sites. The posted spec sheet and the images of the rifle are what really caught my attention. I ended up contacting James and placed an order. I was order number 57 if memory serves. I would be lying if I said I was patient for this rifle to show up. I think I called James a handful of times to just talk shop and make small changes to my rifle. He graciously put up with me and even swapped out the standard muzzle brake for one of my choosing.
After what seemed like an eternity, my R33 arrived. The REAPER 33 has some serious swagger, is overbuilt and feels like a tank. I work with a lot of ARs and have owned many in my day. My first impressions were very positive. I had ordered mine in Arsenal Grey. Couple that with black controls and the Aimpoint T-1 I mounted to the top made for a very sharp looking boom stick. The rifle weighed in at a slender 7.16 lbs unloaded sans sights. It was evident this rifle was designed to be a hard use and harder hitting war fighting tool. It took what features one would expect to find in a custom rifle and made them available for mass production.
The R33 looks unique compared to your run of the mill AR15. The first noticeable difference is the 7075 T6 aluminum billet upper and lower receivers made by Arsenal Democracy. The upper has a handsome faceted appearance with a forward assist and oversize brass deflector that seem to melt into one another. "Arsenal Democracy" is proudly and deeply engraved along the left side of the upper receiver. The upper has been hand fitted to the barrel extension for a nice tight fit.
The barrel is a stout 14.5-inch Shilen 416R Stainless Steel tube with 4 groove ratchet rifling with a 1:8 twist. The barrel has been hand lapped with a medium/heavy profile, is chambered for .223 Wylde and utilizes a medium length gas system with a 16 position, 4140 steel, screwed and pinned SLR adjustable gas block. This barrel is a beast and rightly so. I asked AD why they made the barrel the way they did. Let’s just say the conversation that followed is way too long to fit in an article. They broke down and explained the science of barrel technology, step by step in all its fascinating glory.
Photo Credit: David Thorson, Tracerx Photography
To summarize, Arsenal Democracy explained the ratchet rifling they use in the stainless barrels have a longer life and are easier to maintain than others. Not only that, the way the interior lands slope actually decreases the impressions on the bullet as it leaves the barrel. This results in less drag and wind influence on the bullet. The smooth interior finish also results in less copper fouling and less bullet to barrel resistance which equals better velocities. The velocities they are getting out of a 14.5-inch barrel are impressive. The magic number they try to hit with a 5.56 round to maximize its lethality is around 2,950 to 3,000 fps. Their 14.5-inch barrels have chronograph documentation that record velocities hitting just shy of 3,100 fps with 55 grain ammunition. AD is very proud of that report as there are 16 inch barrels and longer that can’t achieve those velocities. This is one reason AD states they are making a more lethal rifle.
Discussing barrel twist rates is one of those topics that can go south really quick. Which is better a 1:7 or a 1:9? It’s like discussing the age old AR vs AK debate or which is better 9mm or .45? Those conversations end up with someone getting butt hurt. AD splits the two and insists the 1:8 twist gives the perfect rate of spin to the 5.56 round. They explained how it works exceptionally well with 55 grain M193, 62 grain M855 all the way through 77 grain Black Hills MK 262 Mod1. They have also used 1:8 with subsonic ammunition very successfully. They then micro slick the barrels as well as the BCGs and gas blocks. This is done for a few reasons. First, it is a very durable, corrosion resistant finish. Second, it is micro thin which allows for more efficient thermal cooling. Lastly, it takes high heat in the range of 1,800 degrees. Arsenal Democracy has put a lot of thought into their barrels and the results speak for themselves. Oh, a word to the wise, do not get them started on hammer forged barrels. Let’s just say, they are not a fan. Moving on.
The ultra popular ambidextrous AXTS Raptor charging handle is used along with a chrome-lined, full auto bolt carrier group. The carrier is made from 8620 steel with a cm-158 bolt. The entire unit has been micro slicked, shot-peened and magnetic particle inspected. Each bolt features a heavy ejector spring with brown rubber O ring for consistent ejection. For the first edition of the rifle, AD originally teamed with SLR Rifleworks to have a rail made specifically for the rifle. This rail featured a full length top 1913 rail, shorter sections of 1913 rail along the nose of the rail at the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions and keymod attachment points along the remaining space along the rail. There were also four QD attachment point for slings integrated into the rail. The muzzle device that I had requested was the AAC Brakeout. This came pinned and welded to the stainless barrel bringing the overall length past the sacred 16 inch mark. They would later move rail production in house and developed an exclusive AD hand guard.
The lower was also made of 7075 T6 aluminum and mated to the upper beautifully. The lower has a unique look that is mainly due the wire EDM cut angled magazine well. The well takes its initial angel from the over sized, integrated trigger guard, then dives down just past the magazine release. This was done for multiple reasons that had nothing to do with the cool factor. Dave and James explained the additional area along the front of the magazine well allows for more hand purchase during transition from left to right sides. It accommodates for larger hands or if the shooter is wearing gloves. It also allows for a wider range of shooting styles. Say what you will, but some shooters will hold the front of the mag well for stability. If they can shoot well, who is to argue? This magazine well accommodates that style of shooting. Another advantage of the mag well, according to Arsenal Democracy, is that it helps mitigate dust and debris intrusion during helo ops and it drains and sheds water better that the traditional design. This feature may not be for everyone, but that wasn’t the intent. Dave said it best: “You can try to make something for everybody and fail, or you can make something that is everything to someone.” Well said. It should be noted that the Surefire 60 and 100 magazines will not work with this magazine well, and I have not had any luck getting my X Products 50 round drums to work.
Photo Credit: David Thorson, Tracerx Photography
The stock trigger was the ultra-reliable Geissele 2 stage trigger. Both James and Dave feel that Geissele is the best trigger company out there. They also noted that this trigger is SOCOM approved and has been proven in combat in multiple weapon platforms. Both Dave and James used the SSF (full auto) version in combat and they have tens of thousands of rounds on just a single trigger unit. They also like the fact that Geissele has fewer parts that some of the other manufactures out there. Arsenal Democracy’s philosophy is "More parts, more problems." Works for me.
The safety is the one and only Battle Arms Defense BAD-ASS safety and can be ordered in both the 90 degree and 45 degree throws depending on the shooter preference. I personally prefer the 45 degree throw as it is quicker to manipulate with the firing hand thumb and is not intrusive on the trigger finger as a 90 degree lever would be in the fire position. There is the SOCOM approved Norgon ambidextrous button installed as well to compliment South Paws like Dave. The buffer extension tube is the solid Primary Weapon System PWS 415 billet tube with integrated QD points and the 117 gram buffer is tungsten powder filled. Riding the tube is the ultra light Mission First Tactical Mil-Spec Minimalist stock. This has become my favorite light weight stock as of late. The pistol grip is Mission First Tactical’s EPGI16. To top it off, the rear take down pin and bolt catch utilize set screws for easy maintenance.
The fit and finish of my rifle was good, however I did notice a few tooling marks on the lower receiver which I brought up to James. He told me he was aware of the issue. Apparently they had a one of their finishing machines go down in the middle of the production run. The replacement had a long lead time so rather than keeping me waiting, they sent out the rifle as is. He also said that I could send it back anytime to have the marks removed if I desired. I appreciated that honesty and the willingness to make it right. My rifle came with a personalized serial number of my choosing which was a very nice touch. The only thing I changed on the rifle was the grip and the bolt catch. I prefer a larger grip so I went with the Magpul MIAD. I also removed the bolt catch and replaced it with the Phase 5 extended bolt release. These simple changes suit my shooting style and may not be for everyone.
Range time with the R33 was exceptionally fun. The rifle shoots extremely soft thanks to the mid length gas system and adjustable gas block. The rifle was slightly nose heavy, due to the thicker barrel, but barrel rise was virtually non-existent even during high speed mag dumps. I was limited in range but engaging targets out to 200m was boring and not even worth mentioning after knowing R33s with 10.5 inch barrels are hitting at 800m. It ate factory 55 grain and 62 grain ammo as well as a wide variety of reloads without a single hick up. The R33 rifle looks amazing, shoots better than I am capable of and is built rock solid. She is a shooter and Arsenal Democracy would be very displeased if one were to purchase an R33 and turn it into a safe queen. This is a hard use blaster that can take an ass whooping while bringing the pain.
The Future of Arsenal Democracy
Thanks to the rapid growth of Arsenal Democracy, James and David have expanded their Freeport, FL shop from a small single bay of a warehouse, to taking over the entire facility of approximately 6,000 sf. Their old space is now their clean room and assembly space with expansion accommodating shipping and receiving and office space. Upstairs boasts a R&D room an executive offices and conference rooms.
Growing pains are part of any business. As Dave notes, "There is not a part in the SF course that says this is how you start and run a gun company." They have had to learn a lot along the way, but they are rising above the fray and weathering the storms in true warrior fashion.
The fledgling company continues to improve on the R33. I recently sent mine back to them for upgrades. The modifications included their new rail system and side adjustable gas block. This new rail features side ports that line up with the gas block on every gas configuration. Meaning, pistol, carbine, mid-length and rifle length gas systems can be accommodated by this rail. Very slick. This enables the user to adjust the gas from the side of the rifle with ease. It also features more keymods to include the ability to mount accessories at a 45 degree. There are also keymods marked "QD" on the sides of the rail. These double as QD attachment points. These upgrades are all shipping with current REAPER 33 orders. The R33 can also be ordered with a wide variety of muzzle devices, barrel lengths and color schemes. They can be had in 5.56 or .300 blackout as a complete rifle or dedicated upper receiver. Arsenal Democracy even added some special touches. First they removed the rough machine marks and repainted the entire rifle with their maritime Tiger Shark pattern. They also modified my lower to better accommodate the Phase 5 EBRv2. Much appreciated fellas.
Photo Credit: Jody Lewis, Crossfire
Arsenal Democracy takes pride in their quality control process. Every part that comes out of Arsenal Democracy is hand inspected, coated and is range tested. As the parts go through the assembly line, they are segregated into groups. These groups are assigned to a specific rifle and will follow the build during the entire assembly process. Receivers are all hand fitted together for a rock solid fit. Once the rifles are built they are function tested then sent out to the range. All rifles and uppers are then shot for accuracy, ejection tested and properly gassed. The result is all spent cases are set to eject to the 4:30 position at a distance of 6 feet. This process is not just a set of steps that the rifle goes through and then is passed along to shipping. No Sir. Goldilocks would be proud as AD rifles are tuned, tweaked and shot until everything feels "just right." The adjustable gas blocks on the rifles are set so the bolt locks back after the last round is fired. The gas is then opened up one more position just to make extra sure last round bolt hold open takes place. The result is a very soft shooting rifle.
The REAPER 33 isn’t the only thing Arsenal Democracy has in their inventory. They continue to innovate and expand their offerings. Currently they are working on a semi-automatic .308, Glock upgrades and more they wouldn’t disclose as of yet. They tell me they have some game changers in the works. We will have to wait and see, but I expect nothing less from what I have seen from them thus far. SHOT Show 2015 is just around the corner and I am looking forward to reconnecting with the AD boys to see what they have been up to.
Oh, did I mention they have a 100%, no BS, life time warranty that is transferable to anyone over and over again? If Arsenal Democracy built it, they will fix it. They only ask you tell them how it broke. James and David and the rest of the AD crew plan to be around for the long haul. Their goal isn’t to be a huge company, rather they want to continue to innovate and provide excellent quality products and customer service. They also take time to work with veteran related organizations that help our wounded brothers and sisters after they return home from battle.
It is also important for AD to stay relevant with the SPECOPS community. That shouldn’t be a problem. There aren’t many 2-year-old companies whose T&E crew consists of just about every SPECOPS alphabet group in the U.S. military. Their flagship REAPER 33 has been jumped high, dove deep, used, abused and run hard and still keeps coming back for more. That is what AD expects and what they deliver. I think it is safe to say they take satisfaction every time they send a rifle or upper to a brother in arms. It puts a smile on their faces knowing their rifles are currently overseas inflicting some major van-damage in the hands of some of America’s finest BAMFs.
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