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Art Alphin is ready to let the cat of the bag – a confession, if you will.
Alphin, 61, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, opened a Bedford manufacturing company in January 1991 called A-Square. For nearly 20 years, the building that sits in behind the Bedford Water Company on U.S. 42 – and what went on inside – has been a mystery, except to a select few people.
“The locals have had a lot of question about what went on in this building, and now they’ll know,” Alphin in an interview last week.
Greg James, who was working for James Welding, is one of the curious. James Welding was hired to dismantle the A-Square equipment and prepare it for shipment to Montana. “I’ve lived here all my life and I never knew what went on here,” he said.
You have to know Alphin and listen to his story to understand the secrecy behind his operation — a weapons and ammunition factory that specialized in armament \used in big-game African safaris.
Alphin was born and raised in Virginia and upon graduation from high school received a commission to West Point. While there he was given the nickname “A-Square” because is initials were “A.A.”
Most of his 25-year military career was spent in an armored unit as a tank officer. in charge of planning field operations. Later on, he got into research and development and ended his career at Jefferson Proving Ground in Madison, Ind.
“I performed proof-testing for about 20 percent of the Army’s gun tubes and breech rings,” Alphin explained.
At the Proving Ground, Alphin became pretty good at that job. He’d combine known weapons and unknown ammunition – or unknown weapons and known ammunition – and test fire them to see if everything held up under pressure. He knew if the equipment needed more propellant, more powerful propellant, or heavier projectiles.
At about the same time, Alphin became quite a fan of African safaris. He’s spent in excess of 1,000 days in the field, specializing in elephant and buffalo hunts.
He called his time on safaris as “problem animal control” – the tracking and hunting of animals that were known to be man-killers. He also helped to cull overpopulation of some African animal herds.
“I saw stocks split, telescopes fail, bullets that wouldn’t feed and ammunition that failed. That’s when I saw an opportunity.
“I vowed then that I was never again going to go to Africa with a pogo stick.”
So, from 1974-84, Alphin performed private research on cartridges, bullets and rifles.
“In 1984 I received a telex (fax) from the National Parks in Zimbabwe. They wanted 16,000 rounds of my ammunition and four rifles,” said Alphin. “And I didn’t even have a company.”
Alphin says his designs were so superior to anything on the market that professional outfitters began making orders. Alphin complied. At its peak, A-Square had 27 employees on payroll – tool-and-dye experts, engineers and office personnel.
Alphin said his decision to move is because Kentucky weather has taken a toll on is wife, who suffers from asthma and allergies. Her condition worsened when her blood pressure increased and she suffered a stroke.
“After three years in Montana, she doesn’t even carry the asthma inhaler.”
So, the industry that was so secretive is moving somewhere in Montana. And Alphin offers several reasons why the cloud of secrecy.
“First, the fewer people that knew, the less threat to vandalism and theft,” Alphin explained. “Second, I wanted to protect my processes by secrecy rather than hiring a patent lawyer.”
Alphin says he let the proper community leaders know what he was doing — including then-Sheriff Howard Long, as well as the then-judge-executive and fire department officials.
He claims his employees understood the program and the reason for secrecy, and everyone signed a nondisclosure agreement.
It may have been the best-kept secret in the history of Bedford.
Alphin still shrouds much of what he does in mystery.
“I’ve been asked if we ever did any projects for the military, and I always say: ‘I can’t rightfully remember.’”
Alphin said people have been trying to copy him for 20 years without success, thus validating his need for secrecy.
What Alphin calls a “lucrative” business continues to show healthy increases in interest and expanded sales.
“It’s not recession-proof, but regardless of whether the economy is up or down, someone is going to have money and someone is going to want to go hunting.”
His products can be found in Cabbala’s stores under the A-Square name with four models, from a varmint rifle to a the largest, named “Hannibal” after the Carthaginian general who crossed up the Romans by crossing the Alps in 218 BC.
“Let me just say our rifles and ammunition make a big hole with a big bullet.”
Over the years Alphin said he’s heard some of the talk about what he might be doing, but said he had better things on which to spend his time.
“No one really confronted me, but if asked I’d just give a non-answer.”
That had to add to whatever mystery residents had for the 12,000-square-foot building that was situated close to downtown and that test-fired from 50,000 to 100,000 rounds of ammunition a year.
And the process was pretty mind-boggling as well. It took 44 separate processes to make a cartridge, and the equipment and personnel necessary to do that was all right there.
Alphin said there were people who scratched their heads because of some of the noise coming from the building. There was a three-quarter-inch thick tube (about 18 inches in diameter) where the ammunition and weapons were test fired into an OSHA-approved backstop. He said it made a distinctive noise.
But the A-Square book has seen its final chapter in Bedford, and will now move on to Montana.
And the cat is out of the bag.