The Rise of the House of Kahr

Kahr Arms came out of nowhere to dominate the ultra-compact pistol market. Why did the Kahr design flourish where others have failed?

American Handgunner/November 2001
By Massad Ayoob

They had a small booth in an out-of-the-way corner of the massive firearms trade exhibit known as the SHOT Show, yet nothing so trivial as a remote location could impede the buzz. Word was spreading across the show floor about this new gun called the Kahr. It was said to be the slickest little double-action 9mm pocket pistol since the Devel conversion of the Smith Model 39, and it was being offered at an unbelievably low price.

Such talk is a magnet. I was drawn to the humble booth like a moth to a searchlight. My first reaction was, "No way. Somebody paid a fortune to build this prototype, but no way can it be produced as nicely as this. Not at the price they're talking. If it even works. Big if.

"They're gonna get a ton of prepaid orders, cash the checks, and disappear," I surmised pessimistically. Shades of Bren Ten. In the immortal words of The Fonz, we now admit that we were "Wr...wruh... wrong!"

Now six years later, Kahr pistols have become one of the handgun world's greatest success stories of the last decade -- the Glock of the Nineties. (Kahr has gone on to pass the tortuous approval test by NYPD for off-duty carry with the K9 model.) No less a personality than Bill Wilson has put forth a series of customized Kahrs. Dealers tell us they can't keep them in stock.

The models have evolved from small to smaller to smallest, light, lighter and lightest and increasingly more high-tech as polymer models have entered the line. The 9mm chambering has been expanded to the .40 S&W caliber.

Not only has the line expanded with new models and calibers, the company itself has risen liken a dot-com stock. Kahr Arms absorbed Auto-Ordnance and now manufactures and sells that company's Thompson submachineguns and generic 1911-Al pistols.

You read it here first--Kahr Arms may well be the next Kimber on the 1911 horizon.

One thing few observers realized when Kahr first trotted onto the scene was that the firm wasn't just a standalone. From the beginning, Kahr was a division of the Saeilo Group. Pronounced "Say-low," the parent company was founded in 1983 by Kahr Arms' founder, Justin Moon's father, Rev. Sun Myung Moon. According to a company spokesman, the Rev. Moon is no longer involved in the Saeilo Group.

Specializing in precision metalworking, Saeilo was in a position to render the fledgling gunmaker expert advice on metallurgy and production efficiency. By 2001, Saeilo would employ 220 workers, and some 20 percent of its income was generated by the Kahr Arms division.

Justin Moon designed the guns and serves as CEO of the company. He is a wunderkind in his field. He was only 25 years old when Kahr Arms emerged, and only 30 when we interviewed him for this story.

The son of the founder of the controversial Unification Church, Moon is well spoken and articulate. He has produced the most successful small pistol to ever enter the market with so little fanfare. He is as engaging to interview as he is gifted in his ability to make a good gun.

The Interview

Ayoob: Tell us something about your background.

Moon: I was born in Seoul, Korea, on July 17, 1970. I came to the U.S. in 1973 and have lived here ever since. I went to school, from kindergarten to high school, at Hackely School, a small private school in Tarrytown, N.Y I graduated from high school Cum Laude and was accepted into Vassar College. I transferred from Vassar to Harvard University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor of arts degree in economics.

Ayoob: How did you become involved in firearms?

Moon: I have been interested in guns for as long as I can remember. Even as a child, toy soldiers and toy guns were my favorite playthings. My favorite subject in middle school and high school was history. I loved reading about weapons of all sorts.

Ayoob: Your shooting experience?

Moon: My first experience shooting was with my older brother when I was 14. He also liked guns and took me shooting with friends and family. We would have a great time setting up and shooting targets with an assortment of firearms. Ever since that first shooting experience, I continued to pursue my interest in firearms. I maintain several subscriptions to firearms magazines which I voraciously digest.

Ayoob: Training?

Moon: My training in firearms comes largely from reading about guns and from practicing with my brothers and some friends involved in the personal security industry.

Ayoob: Tell us how you became involved in the firearms industry.

Moon: When I was finishing my junior year at college, I began thinking about the path I should follow after I graduated. I thought about doing what everyone else did-- either join Corporate America or continue with education. However, upon reflection, those options did not appeal to me. I wanted to work right away, and in a field I enjoyed.

I decided that I would like to work in the firearms industry. I had been licensed to carry in New York State since I was 18, and had looked for an ultra-compact 9mm pistol. However, to my chagrin, I could not find a pistol with the quality of construction and features in design which I felt were appropriate for a carry arm. Therefore, I decided to design an ultracompact 9mm pistol that I could carry.

I figured there were many shooters like myself who desired to have a truly carryable 9mm pistol. I spent the summer and much of my senior year designing the mechanical layout of the pistol and prototyping various design concepts. By the time I graduated I had pretty much solved all the conceptual problems that hindered the manufacture of the pistol that I had in mind. From there I partnered with Saeilo to move to prototype the pistol and prepare for production.

Ayoob: Where did the name Kahr come from?

Moon: When it came to marketing the pistol, I did not feel that Saeilo would be a "catchy" name to put on my gun. I wanted a name that was short, easy to remember, and symbolic of the high quality of manufacture. Given Germany's renown for engineering prowess and quality, I wanted a name that sounded German. That's how I came up with "Kahr."

Ayoob: What do you feel was the heart of the Kahr pistol's design concept?

Moon: The primary specifications that I started with were to build a double-action-only, breech-locking, striker-fired 9mm that was no larger than a Walther PPK .380. Breech-lock mechanism and striker-fired pistols have been around for decades and the use of that basic technology was of course borrowed from prior art. The challenging aspect of the development was to figure out how to Incorporate those features into a gun that was no larger than the venerable PPK.

Ayoob: Yet, in the end, you wound up with, what, four or five patents on the Kahr design?

Moon: In all, five patents were received on the Kahr pistol design. The most important of the patents is the Staggered Barrel Locking Lug. By offsetting the barrel lug and staggering it with the trigger and trigger bar assembly, I was able to greatly reduce the vertical height of the pistol from the trigger to the top of the slide. This innovation made it possible to greatly lower the bore axis of the pistol and helped compress a breech lock design toward the dimension of a simple blow back design.

That innovation in conjunction with a second patent that explained a Method of Retaining a Trigger Bar Onto a Trigger made the Kahr pistols possible. This second innovation was necessary in order to keep the thin overall dimension of the pistol. The second patent made it possible to attach the trigger bar to the trigger with the minimum use of space.

The third patent covers the Striker Activation System of the pistol. The use of the "cocking cam" to both actuate the striker and deactivate the safety gives Kahr pistols a uniquely smooth and consistent double-action trigger pull.

The fourth patent explains a method of an Inertia Fired Striker. This patent is less critical in that there are a number of methods explained in the art of how to achieve this function.

The fifth patent is related to Kahr's unique extractor design. The extractor's uniqueness is that its pivoting motion is limited in one direction to make "failures to extract" a near impossibility. Furthermore, the extractor has a unique mechanical design which enables it to be self-cleaning.

Ayoob: A lot of people in the industry thought it was very honest and forthright of you and your company to license the double-captive recoil spring design from Larry Seecamp, instead of just copying it and fighting it out in court as Llama and Para-Ordnance did.

Moon: Yes, the double-recoil spring design was licensed from Seecamp.

Ayoob: You built your first 9mm, the K9, to take 9mm [plus]P and [plus]P[plus] ammo, and one complaint was that the springs were strong enough to make the gun 's slide hard to draw back. Tell us where you went with that.

Moon: The recoil springs in the first K9s were 24 pounds. Based on the feedback from customers who experienced difficulty in manipulation of the slide, we chanced the recoil spring to the current design of 18 to 20 pounds. At this time we only offer one strength of recoil spring in the Kahr K9 models-- 18 to 20 pounds.

Ayoob: Did this impact the company's policy of warranting the guns to handle [plud]P and [plus]P[plus] 9mm, and full power .40 S&W?

Moon: According to our instruction manual we recommend only high- quality factory ammunition of the proper caliber. The Kahr 9mm can handle [plus]P loads and in the Kahr .40 S&W we recommend regular pressure, high-quality factory ammunition.

Ayoob: Warranties?

Moon: We offer a limited lifetime warranty on all the Kahr models. As long as the gun has not been abused, we will stand behind our products.

Ayoob: What's your best seller?

Moon: Polymer pistols are the most popular.

Ayoob: What's on the horizon for Kahr Arms?

Moon: We do not discuss ongoing research and development projects publicly. We continue to pursue a number of promising projects and are committed to introducing new products on a continuing basis.

Ayoob:There is speculation on the Internet that your father or his church own your company Your response?

Moon: I currently am the majority shareholder of Kahr and operate my business to provide high quality firearms to the public and to make a profit.

Moon: I am a member of the Unification Church, but I do not hold any formal positions in the church. I proudly participate and support my church and my community. This is, after all, a free country. I cherish my First Amendment rights as well as my Second Amendment rights.

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