HUDSON - It was a simple idea, with big potential.
For years, marksmen have been using a technique called bump firing, shooting a semiautomatic rifle from the hip and allowing the weapon's recoil to pull the trigger.
With federal regulations keeping fully automatic weapons out of their hands, it was one of the few ways for firearm enthusiasts to enjoy the thrill of firing a machine gun.
If there was only a way to simulate that action, Bill Akins wondered, by creating a device that mechanized the recoil resistance to fire more rapid, and accurate, bursts of bullets.
Thus the Akins Accelerator was born.
Akins, 54, is an expert marksman, ex-Marine, Elvis impersonator, seventh-generation Floridian and member of the National Rifle Association.
The Hudson man spent nearly a decade designing his Accelerator. He got a patent for his invention. Then he poured his life savings into marketing and producing it for distribution.
In the era of gun control laws, the device promised to revolutionize target shooting.
"They were selling like hot cakes," Akins said. "We were truly amazed by the response."
That was until the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives banned the Accelerator - two years after approving it.
To the ATF, the mechanism is an illegal converter kit that, in the wrong hands, could turn a run-of the-mill target rifle into a 700-round-per-minute killing machine.
Threatening him with imprisonment, officials ordered Akins to cease production, turn over the recoil springs from his existing stock and hand over his customer list.
And they didn't give him a dime in return.
More than five years later, Akins is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
His business partner has severed ties with his company. His investors have bailed. He has a warehouse in Oregon filled with more than $750,000 worth of useless stock. His reputation has been sullied by trade publications that once praised his invention.
He can't afford to hire a lawyer to challenge the ATF's ruling.
"They've destroyed my dream," Akins said. "Eleven years of my life, gone like that."
Case Closed, ATF Says
ATF officials stand behind their decision to outlaw the Akins Accelerator.
Drew Wade, an agency spokesman in Washington, said the ATF initially approved the device after test-firing a prototype that Akins sent them in 2003.
Records indicate that the prototype malfunctioned when it was tested and analyzed by a senior technician from the ATF's Firearms Technology Branch, according to Wade. But the agency approved the Accelerator anyway, saying in a letter that it did not meet the criteria for a machine gun and, as a concept, was allowable under federal law.
"FTB has concluded that your submitted device is not designed and intended for use in converting a weapon into a machine gun," ATF officials wrote in a letter dated Aug. 23, 2005.
Wade said the agency reversed its position after someone who bought a fully functioning Accelerator requested another test firing.
This time, Wade said, the mechanism worked.
Shortly after, federal regulators issued a new ruling: The Akins Accelerator is prohibited under the National Firearms Act and the Gun Control Act of 1968.
The stop-production order came in an ATF letter dated Nov. 22, 2006. Besides mailing in all recoil springs in stock and his customer list, the agency demanded that Akins send an affidavit to each customer to account for all the devices sold. The recipients had to sign the document and return it to the ATF with the removed springs.
Wade would not comment on Akins' contention that the ATF erred in its decision-making.
"That's the bottom line is that we believe it's a machine gun," the spokesman said. "End of story."
Reversal Of Fortunes
Akins questions that rationale.
He cites sections of the 1968 gun control act that define a machine gun as any "weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger."
"That's not what the Akins Accelerator does," he said. "It isn't a gun. It isn't a machine gun. It's an accessory; that's all it is. These guys are making it up as they go along."
Officials from the NRA and the National Sports Shooting Association, chief advocates for gun ownership in the country, were not willing to comment on Akins' dilemma.
"We just don't know enough about it," said Ted Novin, the shooting association's president.
Before he patented the Accelerator, Akins did his homework.
He consulted lawyers such as James H. Jeffries III, who represented the NRA in high-profile lawsuits against the federal government, and sought a legal opinion from the ATF's Firearms Technology Branch.
They all thought his device was permissible under federal law.
"I wouldn't have invested millions of dollars on this if I knew it wasn't legal," Akins said.
Bringing his product to the marketplace, he established Akins Group Inc., took out bank loans and a second mortgage on his home to fund production, and began advertising in Shotgun News and other firearms publications.
The Accelerators, made of injection molded plastic, sold for about $1,000 apiece. They came in a small box with tools and instructions on how to attach the device to a semiautomatic rifle.
Buzz Spread Online
Similar to a Hellfire - which attaches to the trigger guard and already is on the market - the Accelerator was based on the practice of bump firing.
Once the trigger is pulled, the Accelerator's spring mechanism takes over and the trigger reciprocates at high speed, using recoil resistance to imitate automatic fire.
Most of the Accelerators were made for a Ruger 10/22, but Akins intended to make them for other rifles.
Overnight, the buzz about the Accelerator spread across the Internet.
"This thing is cool," one buyer gushed in a sporting chat room. "I can't believe it's legal."
But in 2006, several months after full production began, the ATF reversed its original ruling, outlawing the device and leaving Akins with a worthless product.
Akins wrote to the ATF, asking for clarification.
What followed was a flurry of vague and often contradictory correspondence that never fully explained why the federal regulators changed their position, Akins said.
"I wanted to explode," he recalled. "I started calling everyone I know, looking for help."
The NRA understood his dilemma, a spokesman told him, but didn't have a dog in the fight.
Akins turned to several pro-gun Republicans in Congress. Staff members promised someone would look into it.
"They said they couldn't do anything," Akins said. "Their hands are tied."
At the very least, he hoped to recover some of the money - his own and investors' - which he estimates at several million dollars.
"I don't understand how the federal government could come into my life like this, destroy my business and not offer compensation," Akins said.
"We did everything by the books."
Feeling Shaken And Stirred
The man behind the Akins Accelerator has toured the country impersonating Elvis onstage. He and his wife, Jeannie, live in a modest home on 2 acres along a winding road, in a rural corner of west Pasco County where you still can see the stars at night.
"I haven't made a lot of money over the years," Akins said. "But I've done all right for myself."
He considers himself a patriot and a rugged individualist in the Jeffersonian tradition.
He is an unflinching defender of the Second Amendment and a 30-year member of the NRA who learned to appreciate guns as a kid hunting rabbits in rural Florida.
He joined the Marine Corps at the height of the Vietnam War.
He has voted Republican his entire life, twice for George W. Bush.
And he loves his country.
"I was brought up to believe in America, in the principles of right and wrong," Akins said. "My boyhood heroes were John Wayne and Roy Rogers. I was a child of the 1950s."
That's why his ongoing feud with the federal government and the lack of backup for his cause have shaken him to the core.
He cites the Ruby Ridge shootings and the Branch Davidian siege by ATF agents in Waco, Texas, as examples of how the government crushes dissent.
He wonders if they will come for him, too.
"They're a bunch of jack-booted thugs," he fumed. "I wouldn't put it past them."
He also said he feels betrayed by the pro-gun lobby.
A few weeks ago, the NRA sent him a membership renewal. Akins stared at the one-page letter for a while. He sighed.
"I couldn't bring myself to renew it," he said. "What's the point, right?"