By Dan Shea
July 28, 2006
To most of SAR’s readers, Dolf is known either as the author of the most authoritative books ever printed on Maxim, Vickers, and Browning machine guns, or as a friend from the many shoots he has attended over the last fifty years. This interview was done after 18 days on the road in England on a SAR Expeditionary Force trip. Traveling with Dolf was Robert Segel, Dr. Philip Dater, myself and my son Kyle. It was an incredible trip, gathering photos and information from museums to reference collections to firearms events. I had planned to interview Dolf over the course of the trip, but the stories kept coming, and finally, in the end, we sat down in a hotel room and got down to taping some of Dolf’s adventures. We hope you enjoy part two of the experience that is Dolf. (Part one was in last month’s issue of SAR) – Dan
SAR: How did you hear about the 1968 amnesty?
Dolf: I was living in Hong Kong and a friend of mine was keeping all my guns for me in the US and he read about it in the Post Office. I registered some of these guns under my name, but in Hong Kong. I’m the only one from Hong Kong who registered weapons in the 1968 Amnesty. I also had to state on the form where they were stored. The machine guns were stored in Vermont, and the artillery pieces in New York. I was a little worried about registering a machine gun in a state where they were forbidden by state law. I was under the impression that as soon as I registered them with the federal government they would then tell the state “so and so registered machine guns” and then the state would come and pick them up. Later on I learned that wasn’t the case at all and they were not allowed to divulge anything about registrations to the states because it was tax information. But at the time, who knew that? I had to register some in the name of a friend of mine in Vermont so the original registrations were in his name. As soon as I came to the United States I had them transferred to my name.
SAR:You had been in the United States before you went to Hong Kong and you’d been involved in the periphery of the class 3 community.
Dolf: Yes. It was the summer of 1970 that I came back again and got much more involved.
SAR:How long did it take you before you became a Class 3 dealer?
Dolf: Very quickly. (Dolf Smiles) I’ll tell you how it happened. I came back and was working in California but while I was living in New York I knew other dealers. I used to go down to InterArms and I knew Bill Easterly. I knew a lot of different dealers in the earlier days, but I hadn’t been buying a lot of stuff from them. I don’t know why, I just didn’t. I got back into the States and decided I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity again. I started looking around for who was into interesting firearms. The first I found was Dave Cumberland with the Old West Gun Room. He had 3 partners in that business, Tom Phair, Dave Cumberland, and Bert Jacques, and they ran a business called Ordnance Supply Service. Their main interest was in artillery. Dave had brought in all these Krupp 50mm Howitzers that were beautifully restored and, of course, I bought one of them. I was able to get the papers signed as in those days California wasn’t that bad on Destructive Devices. I found out that they were into machine guns when I was in the store one day in 1971 and I looked through the back doors. I saw two guys sitting there struggling to put a Browning machine gun together. I said to the clerk that I could see they were having trouble with it, and that was my field in the Army. They called over to help them and it was Bert Jacques and somebody else with a Browning ANM2 all apart. I put it together immediately, and they asked me if I wanted to work with them part time. I said, “Hey, man, do bears s**t in the woods?” That was my start. Bert was ready to split away from Dave Cumberland and Tom Phair since they were really only interested in artillery. Bert and I formed a company we called ARPAC. We took the cue from Sarco (Steen Armament Research Company). ARPAC meant Armament Research Company of the Pacific. Bert didn’t like the name. He said that it was corny but he never came up with anything else, so ARPAC it was. We did a one hell of a lot of Class 3 business because Bert had connections with the police, with Hollywood and connections all over. In California, to get the state machine gun dealer’s license is a major problem. They don’t give that out unless you have absolutely what they consider is a legitimate reason to have to be dealing in machine guns. In the meantime, I saw that the business that my father was a partner in was going nowhere and had no chance of success, so I liquidated it and got him all his money back. After that I stayed in business full time with Bert, and we traded with almost every police department in the West Coast.
SAR:This was 1972?
Dolf: We got the class 3 license and the state license. That was probably the end of 1971.
SAR:Had you dealt with Curtis Earl?
Dolf: I bought a couple of dewats from him. I knew about Curtis Earl because I used to go to all the gun shows in the Bay area. One day I heard two people discussing this guy in Arizona who’s got loads of machine guns and holds his own machine gun shoots. I asked them for more info and they said it was J. Curtis Earl and gave me his address. By coincidence, the company I worked for did not have a sales representative for the state of Arizona and I made all the sales trips to Arizona. I managed to make one of my trips the same time Curtis Earl was having his shoot. I didn’t know who anybody was. This was in 1972 when he had two shoots a year on Ralph Wong’s land. I didn’t know who Curtis Earl was, he just invited me to come there. I walked up to the first guy I saw and asked if he was Curtis Earl. The guy I addressed that question to happened to be Bob Faris. He sure had a funny look on his face.
SAR: (Laughter) That was when you met Bob?
Dolf: That’s when I met Bob. As I got to talking with Bob I found out he knew John Blatz, the same guy I went to Ordnance School with in the Army. That was a full circle as he and Bob were buddies in Korea during the Korean War.
SAR:You were still traveling to the East Coast?
Dolf: Yes. I would go there twice a year. When I was there, I had many dealings with Charlie “Cholly” Steen at Sarco. I would always have my truck, so I would go to Sarco, fill up the truck with all kinds of things, then sell them on the West Coast. I did this a lot and I missed one of the biggest opportunities in my life. Cholly decided that after the Vietnam War was about over in 1973 that there was very little interest in machine guns, and he offered all of the machine gun related items in his inventory to me for a total sum of $2,000.
SAR: Wow. I’m calling Cholly when we get back tonight to see if he’ll still honor that offer….
Dolf: Not a chance, Dan. Cholly is a smart guy so I figured that if he didn’t want all these accessories, I didn’t think I’d be able to sell them. I remember there was this stack of 100 brand new in the grease Browning belt loading machines in that pile. These were five bucks each normally. I bought a couple for myself. I would like to have that pile today as they’re each worth about $1,200. There were barrels of every description; all kinds of machine gun barrels. All kind of accessories and an incredible array of Lewis gun parts. Lot’s of ones and twos of parts. I probably would have 6 or 8 pick up truck loads full of stuff to haul out of there. I was offered so many of these deals. Val Forgett had a 55-gallon drum full of brand new in the grease spade grip backplates, complete, for .50 caliber machine guns. Take ’em all for five bucks each. I bought 3 or 4 of them at ten each. Jack Tomlin out of Utah offered me 500 brand new 1917A1 tripods with the pintle and the T&E and cradle, wrapped in a kind of paper cloth – brand new – take them all ten bucks each. I was cheap and I bought only 10 of them at twenty each. I also went to Numrich in New York and bought a lot. They had a pile of 120 Lewis drums, 6 dollars each so I just picked out the 20 best ones and bought them for 8 dollars each. .50 caliber Brownings, the short water-cooled Model A Browning 52, well they had 30 of them that came out of some South American country. These were 175 dollars each with no barrels. Those little Hotchkiss Portative machine guns – there were lots of them as well.
SAR:This was twice a year?
Dolf: The period from 1972 to about 1978 I traveled all over the place and we did a huge amount of police business on the basis of trading. We gave them two M16s for any Colt 1921 Thompson. The M16s cost us 150 bucks each. At one time I had quite a large number of ’21 Thompsons. We also got a lot of Civil Defense guns: they had a “CD” in a circle painted on the butts of the guns. Thompsons, M2 Carbines, Reisings – these were all weapons that had been given to police departments during World War II and they no longer needed them so they were willing to trade them off for M16s, Remington 700 sniper rifles and Remington 870 shotguns. These were all transferable machine guns that we took out in trade. There were no “Dealer Samples” at the time. The strangest transferable we took from a police department was a Russian snow cap Maxim. It did not have a tripod for it but I had a wheeled mount. Some lady’s husband had died and he had brought all of this stuff back from Korea and registered it in the Amnesty, and she did not know what to do with it so she donated it to the police department. They just traded it for new stuff that they could use. We got all kinds of submachine guns. Oddly enough, we even got Stens. Once, I got a mint condition Lewis gun from a police department in a trade, some MG08/15 Maxims and Brownings. They had an awful lot of guns in those police departments. It was very good business and I did it until 1978; so we were active in this for 6 years.
SAR: What did you do in the movie industry?
Dolf: We worked to supply weapons to the two main companies: Ellis Mercantile, which had been around since 1918 and was later renamed Ellis Props & Graphics, and Stembridge Gun Rentals. With Ellis, every time they needed a machine gun it was always up to us to get it for them, and they always bought two of each. I supplied them two Stens, two 1919A4 Brownings, and two MG08 Maxims. Everything had to be in pairs. We’d go once every two months and make sure the guns were properly set up for blank firing. We’d fire them in the office out of the back door in the shop of Ellis Mercantile. All of the mechanics from the garage across the street would quit work and come in and watch this. We did caution the Ellis guys on the types of blanks they fired, and on one movie set they used the wrong kind of blanks which had more power and launched an M1919A4 barrel jacket with blank adapter downrange and just missed the lead actor’s head. I know this because later I saw they had welded the jackets to the trunnions on their guns. We reworked their blank adapters for them after that. We made them for every gun imaginable. With Ellis, I never did know what movies they were working on.
SAR:Ellis used a pink index card system to track the gun use. When LMO sold the Ellis machine gun inventory off, we were only able to cross-reference a few of the histories on the machine guns. (Note: The Ellis inventory of MGs is listed in full on the LMO website (www.longmountain.com) as a service to the community, so owners can track their guns.
Dolf: It was tough to track, because much of the early work was done in a period where there wasn’t so much nostalgia about movie use of props. That was a different kind of deal, just working inventories of props. In about 1973, there were few war movies being made so the people at Stembridge decided they should sell all of the guns. Dave Cumberland was offered a deal, but he was not interested since, as I mentioned before, he was not into machine guns. Dave got three of his friends to come down, one of them was a fellow called Doc Ross and I forget who the other two guys were, and there was Bert Jacques and me. We were the Class 3 guys, so we evaluated the machine guns. There were quite a few Vickers, a lot of Maxims, French Hotchkiss’ and about seventy Thompsons. It was an incredible pile of guns. They wanted $600,000 for everything including all the regular guns too. We came up with a value of $80,000 for the machine guns, and Dave’s crowd came up with something like $300,000 but Stembridge wanted $600,000 and that killed the deal. We tried to come up with another $140,000 or so, but it didn’t happen. I remember there was one fellow there, not doing the deal, his name was Fritz Dickey. He told me that he played the part of the German machine gunner in All Quiet on the Western Front because the actors that had to do the shooting never knew how to work a Maxim. Fritz put on a German uniform and helmet and he fired whatever machine guns were used in that movie. You still have that Maxim, don’t you?
SAR:(Dan): Yes, it’s the ugly blanked one at the shop with the Naval finish. Danny Sprague did the same thing in the last movie that gun was used in, Legends of the Fall. Danny had to put on the uniform and helmet and run the gun.
Dolf: They only had two MG08s at Stembridge starting in the 1920s and much later two MG08s at Ellis so just about every movie made in Hollywood used one of those four guns. I got along very well with Syd Stembridge but he was not in charge back in 1973. I believe it was his father, James that I dealt with. Syd was a very nice guy, very accommodating, and I went back to Stembridge many times over the years. When we were there working on the 1973 deal we finished our machine gun work in about two days, and we were there for five. Dave Cumberland paid our accommodation and when we were finished with the machine guns there was so much Title I stuff that Dave pulled us in to work on that. I counted French Lebel bayonets until I thought I was going to go mad! Again, we missed that deal like so many other deals, and that’s why my nickname has always been day-late, dollar-short Charlie. So many good deals and for one reason or another I would be close to getting them, but never got them. Or I sold something I shouldn’t have sold or I didn’t buy something that I should have bought.
SAR:Come on, Dolf, we all miss opportunities, and you certainly had a lot of successes. Did you ever work on the sets of the movies?
Dolf:(Laughs) That’s true, I have done some good deals. No, I never did work on the sets. The only real Hollywood connection I had was that I knew Steve McQueen quite well. I met Steve through Pat Tomlinson. Steve McQueen was extremely interested in aircraft, and lived in an aircraft hanger for some of the last years of his life with his girlfriend/wife, Ali McGraw. He wanted to make this movie on the basis of The Magnificent Seven. These “seven” were going to arrive by flying seven old airplanes into this remote South American or Central American country to rescue a village from a despotic warlord. We were going to outfit the planes with a whole lot of old vintage machine guns and Steve wanted me to handle all the machine gun work. He had the script written. I read it, and in it his character had fallen in love with a beautiful senorita and she said that she would marry him if he would free her village from this tyrant. Steve got together with Pat and some others with WWI Sopwith and other aircraft and started on the plan for this movie. Steve told me a lot of interesting stories. The one I remember most is that he knew he was going to die, because when he was in the Navy he was on a punishment detail where they put him in an engine room with twenty other guys to remove asbestos. He was a “cut-up” who could never take discipline and was always in trouble. They breathed that asbestos dust for two solid weeks and every single one of those guys had already died. He said it wouldn’t be long before he went, too. A month later he was diagnosed with cancer. He was very interested in machine guns, and I think he probably did own a few but he didn’t tell me about them because they would not have been legal in California.
SAR:In 1978 you closed down ARPAC?
Dolf: No, I’ll tell you where that went. In the movies, We also did a lot of business with Joe Lombardi of Special Effects Unlimited who was a close personal friend of Bert Jacques. Joe Lombardi was a hell of a neat guy, and we did quite a few deals with him. He had about twenty ANM2 receivers and we had 20 sets of complete parts with no receivers, and we tried and tried to trade him 10 sets of parts for 10 receivers and he wouldn’t do it. He said the receivers were worth more than the parts kits. I tried to get Bert to take 5 receivers and give Joe 15 sets of parts, but Bert did not want to do that, so we never made the deal. I don’t know where those receivers are now but they were really nice receivers.
SAR:(Dan) I got them.
Dolf: You got them? That just figures. (Laughter). Now you gotta thank me.
SAR:Thanks, Dolf. Did you supply the Brass Maxims in Hollywood?
Dolf: No. Ellis got their two from InterArms. Stembridge got theirs from Moe Gronski. Back to ARPAC. One day I got a visit from the California State Dangerous Weapon Control Unit and they said they were pulling my California State License. I asked why as I had done nothing wrong. They said they had discovered that I had other sources of income and therefore did not need this machine gun business to support myself. He said, “You’re not going to starve if you don’t do this, so get out of it.” That was a California State Official. He said Bert would have to go on Welfare or Relief because it was his only income so Bert could remain in business but I could no longer be involved with machine guns. I had done nothing wrong, I’d done everything absolutely correct and above board. There were no questions about that, no allegations of wrong doing; they simply wanted fewer people to have the license for some political reason.
SAR:We’re from the government, we’re here to help.
Dolf: Exactly. I was floored, and out of the business. Remember the oil shortage still going on in 1978? My brother and my father had gotten together some investors who wanted to get into the oil drilling business as individuals. The price of oil was going up and they wanted my brother to go to work in Texas to shepherd this operation. My brother didn’t really want to go to Texas. They decided that if they could get me to move to Texas and teach me the oil business, he could go back to New York. I moved there and also wanted to do Class 3, but it seemed like every police department had a Class 3 dealer on the force so there wasn’t much business opportunity. Bert continued on with the business in California, and I became a Class 3 dealer buying and selling with collectors. That went on from 1978 until I gave up my Class 3 license in 1991 or so. I tried to find collections and sell them for the people. Most people knew nothing of the values and were very grateful to have good help. There was no Knob Creek at the early part of this time and I was always at the Houston Gun Show and some other big ones. Just at the beginning of this time I had gone up to InterArms and bought thirty MG42s. That was probably late 1977 as I was losing the California license. I paid $200 each for them and I thought I was extremely clever in selling all within a year at $450 each. These were put-together guns that were ex-French inventory. The parts were all thrown into bins and a gun would be assembled by grabbing parts from each bin. Nothing matched. I test fired every single one of them except for a few that we sold as dewats that we had to weld up.
SAR:Did you ever run into Louise Thorenson?
Dolf: No, but I knew the collection very well. In fact I worked on that deal. There were three people that bid on that collection. That was the Thorenson collection that is chronicled in the book It Gave Everybody Something To Do. It is really an incredible story about her and her husband traveling across the US buying machine guns, ammo, cannons etc, legally and illegally, and the abuse she went through. When she shot her husband she was charged with murder but was acquitted on grounds of self defense. That was 1974. The guns stayed in a government facility until about 1976 or ’77. I did that deal also while I was in California. One day Curtis Earl called me up. He was pretty friendly to me, always treated me right and never cheated me on a deal. He called and said he wanted me to help on something. (In the Thorenson book, names were changed to “protect the innocent” and the character Orval Lee is supposedly based on J. Curtis Earl). Curtis and I drove up to Hamilton Air Force Base because he wanted me to help inventory a collection of weapons. I had no idea what this was about, and then we got there and saw the bunkers. Man, I had never seen anything like it. There were a lot of weapons in there – big piles of machine guns but none of them were on paper, so those were not saleable. There were only 2 that were on paper and they had been stolen while in government custody: a PPSh41 and a Russian DP26. To my knowledge, the guns never were recovered. There were beautiful guns in there. Believe it or not, there was a .22 caliber Browning machine gun – an original. Not one with these little pieces or a kit, this was an actual conversion to .22. The biggest thing was the ammunition. I never saw so much ammunition in my life. There were thousands of rounds of 25mm Puteax in nice tan colored cases. Thousands of rounds of the German round that looks like a 20mm necked down to a 7.92 projectile and almost a million rounds of 8mm Mauser. There were all kinds of accessories and parts, just tons of stuff for us to inventory. Curtis said if I helped, I could have some of the stuff. Some months later Bert Jacques and Dave Cumberland called me to help them load about 30 tons of ammunition into an 18-wheeler. Curtis didn’t get the deal, he had only offered $21,000, and I think Dave got the whole pile for about $24,000. The 18-wheeler went to Texas, and we had a machine gun shoot down there that lasted one solid week. We had hired some Mexicans to load all of our belts, which they did mostly by hand, and we shot up at least 100,000 rounds of 8mm ammunition. This shoot was like a big sales loss-leader because the guys who owned the ammo invited everyone to shoot for free, but were selling the ammo as people tried it and liked it. This was held in West Texas in a place called Terlingua. All the ammunition was stored in the old mine down there and we stayed at a motel called Villa de la Mina, village of the mine. The Mexicans would come out at night, play guitars and sing for us in Spanish. This whole experience was so unbelievable, it was so off the wall: all they wanted was to shoot machine guns and party.
SAR:It sounds like The Wild Bunch.
Dolf: It was The Wild Bunch: it was amazing. We had every kind of gun down there that you could think of. The guys who put the shoot on were the two fellows that got the deal, Fred Kaase and Bill Rubey. They called themselves K & R. They had appointed Dave Cumberland to be the agent to buy the Thorenson stuff. Fred passed away a little while ago. I have a memoriam to him in Volume II of my Browning book because he was a good friend of mine, a very close friend, and he really had an impact on the Class 3 community.
SAR:Any other deals or events stick out in your mind from that period?
Dolf: At that time we had a lot of shoots in Nevada, up in Reno. There were neat places to shoot up there, and of course I never missed any of Ralph Wong’s shoots that were held twice a year. We had small shoots in California and while I was in Texas I’d shoot at different places but we never had a real good place to have a big shoot there. Our main place was in Arizona; that was the best place to shoot. Gun deals? One deal that sticks in my mind that was exceptional was the case where in California we were invited by the Prisons Department to go to every prison in California and inventory all of the weapons. We went to almost every single one of them except the very small ones that had very few weapons. In San Quentin we went up on all of the guard towers and inspected all of the water-cooled Brownings, and they had racks of 1921 Thompsons that were in horrible condition after being carried by the guards for 40 or 50 years. The 1917 tripods had the legs replaced with legs that were 4 to 5 feet long, and on the bottom there were rollers so they could be rolled around in the towers and shot out of the tower in any direction. The guards told me that was just to let the inmates know they had machine guns up there they would shoot them once a month. I asked what they shot at, and they pointed out at the ducks swimming in the bay and started laughing. They said they never did hit any of the ducks.
SAR: What happened to all of the guns in the system?
Dolf: Curtis Earl got them. We had bid a good price for the Title I stuff. They had a rifle and pistol team so they had beautiful .22 target rifles and target pistols and a lot of shotguns. But, the Thompsons were in such horrible condition that we couldn’t bid much on them. There were 40 or so that I remember. Curtis had bid more. You know he was a very keen Thompson guy and I think he bid 800 dollars each and he exceeded our total bid – we saw the bid papers. We bid $102,000 and he bid $106,000 so we lost by four or five thousand dollars. Once again, I’m a day-late, dollar-short Charlie. We had even gone to the bank to arrange for a bank loan for this deal. We explained to the bank we were buying weapons and machine guns and they had no problem. We wanted the Brownings above all things and there were six of them total. They were 1917s and they were in nice condition, mostly Westinghouse. Those guns were given to the Prison Department early on in the 1917 production and could have very low numbers.
There was another deal I remember very well. The guy who was running the deal for the Prison Department was a fellow named Archie Van Winkle, and he was quite a guy. He fought in World War II in the South Pacific, the Korean War, and Vietnam. He was awarded the Medal of Honor during his service in the Marine Corps for actions at Sudong, Korea during the Korean War. He was also a devotee of the M1 rifle and thought the M1 rifle was the Rifle to end all Rifles. When we got into the discussions on rifles, guess what he had to have for the Prison Department? The closest thing he could get to M1 rifles. That turned out to be the Ruger Mini 14, and they bought something like 1,500 and all the guards were using the Ruger Mini 14. The idea was that if somebody tried to escape over the wall, they could shoot them accurately. They ended up going direct with Ruger on that. Typically when a deal got large, the manufacturers would go around the dealer who did the work.
SAR: It’s still like that today, Dolf. Weren’t you part of the Fox Studio deal?
Dolf: That was after I moved to Texas. 20th Century Fox wanted to sell all of their guns. I flew to California to look at the guns. A well-known California gun dealer had the deal in hand and he said he only wanted the Title I guns. I wanted the machine guns of course, and this was just me – no partner. There was some terrific stuff at Fox. There were two 1904 Colt Maxims, two nice Hotchkiss heavy machine guns, two 1909 Benet-Mercies, there were two of everything. The dealer put it straight on the line to me. He wanted into the Title I guns for nothing. He found the deal and wanted to make the money. The Title I stuff was his profit. I figured that if I could live with the price I needed to pay, it didn’t matter. He told me something very interesting, that his friends with 20th Century Fox told him that if he bid $62,000 he would get the deal. I looked at the machine guns and there were about thirty BARs as well, and decided I could get $120,000 for the guns without much trouble so I was ready to go. I felt that the $62,000 info was kind of fishy, so I said let’s bid this at $72,000, but he didn’t. I felt like we were being set up. I’ve seen these kind of things happen before in this business. It turns out there were people who were bidding $66,000 and had presold it for $96,000, and someone at Fox just wanted some lower bids to justify this sale. Fred Kaase was the one who paid the $96,000 for the guns, and later he and I pieced the information from the deal together, and found out there were other dealers who had been told to bid $58,000 and other lower numbers, thinking they had the inside track. I ended up buying one of the BARs from him and I also bought a 1917 Browning and one of the 1904 Maxims. When the dealer saw the end result and the game that was played on us all, he was pretty mad. You can recognize most of these guns today because they were stamped with “FOX” on them with individual hand stamped letters. Curtis got some of MGM’s machine guns, and Warner Brothers also sold theirs off.
SAR:Stembridge and some of the other theatrical armorers bought many of those guns as well. I know that Bob Landies had some nice pieces from these studios, LMO did, and so did some of the other Class 3 dealers. Dolf, when did you close your license?
Dolf: It was either 1991 or 1993, I can’t remember right now, but I did sell my collection in 1989 or 1990. I had around 75 machine guns. There were two 1904 Colt Maxims and two 1909 Argentine Brass Maxims (I sold one then, one later). I had all different types of Vickers guns, lots of Brownings, one being a Colt 1917. Everything was in pristine condition. I had just about every World War I and every World War II machine gun. I didn’t really want to get rid of my collection. I had written my first book on the Maxim Gun, and many of the illustrations are marked “Author’s collection.” A wealthy collector saw this, and he sent his executives down to buy my collection. They were told to come back with it, or not come back. The guy came down and looked at the collection. I already knew that it was worth a lot, but I said I didn’t want to sell them. I had taken Curtis Earl’s published prices and doubled them to get the value. He said everything has a price, name a price that you would sell for. I said $250,000 and he said that was a lot of money, but the next thing I know I am selling it and I have to rewat all the dewats and pay Pat Tomlinson about $10,000 for all that work. My idea was to just go out and buy the guns back on the market a lot cheaper. This guy also bought Ralph Wong’s collection. He had some very rare guns including my old Villar Perosa with magazines and accessories. I had originally paid $1,300 for that to a guy up in Kentucky, and sold it for $7,000. I thought I did extremely well on that. Anyway, when I went out to replace my guns, the prices were even higher than I had sold my collection for! I hate to think about what my collection would have been worth today. I estimated that collection of mine that I sold for $250,000 would be worth at least one million dollars today.
SAR:Dolf, don’t go there, really, it’s going to be a lot more than a million. You probably don’t want to know.
Dolf: Oh, yes, and there was my 1895 Gatling gun in there as well. A dozen different kinds of Maxims, MG34s, MG42s, all the Japanese guns, Bredas, ZB26: row after row of guns. Chatellerault 24/29, Vickers guns, several Brens and a really nice Colt Vickers. And then there were all of the military rifles as well.
SAR: That was the end of your dealing in Class 3?
Dolf: I have bought guns for myself and may have brokered a gun here and there and gotten a finder’s fee. The Class 3 license went because I had been told the new laws were not allowing dealers to personally own firearms. I had many firearms personally that I had all my life and there was no way I wanted to let the government get a hold of my guns. You remember this?
SAR: Yes, Dolf, the late Eighties was a pretty crazy time. No one could figure out what the laws really were and where things were going. The events you were concerned about never really came to fruit, about dealers not being allowed to own guns personally, but many of the dealers were told that by ATF inspectors.
Dolf: ATF was concerned that some FFL dealers were selling a gun off paper to somebody and if they got caught they would say that was a gun out of their private collection and that it was not from the FFL business inventory. That’s when ATF came in and said we had to keep a private bound book on our personal stuff and it had to be out of your inventory for over a year before you could sell it privately and there was a whole bunch of regulations that came in. I was never sure what they meant and it sure looked like we were going to not be allowed any private ownership if we were dealers.
SAR:You’re still a gun owner, you just didn’t want to be a dealer under those circumstances.
Dolf: Exactly. I have a number of things, and one of them is my “Fifty Dollar Browning” that came in a collection that I bought when Bert and I were starting business back in 1972. It had been through a fire and was all rusted and twisted. It looked just terrible, but it was a registered machine gun, and we got it all apart, reworked it, replaced parts, and with a very clever application of heavy presses and weights and blocks, the twist is out of the receiver and it’s straight as an arrow. I shoot it all the time.
SAR: Dolf, want to make a quick fifty bucks on that? I’ll give you a hundred.
Dolf: That wouldn’t be a quick fifty bucks, it’s been over thirty years. And no, I don’t want to sell any more of my guns. Every time I sell a gun I feel very bad because I know I’ll never be able to replace it. I almost died about four years ago from a blood infection. I had to get blood transfusions all the time. A friend wanted to buy my Chinese Maxim so I sold it to him for $12,000 or $13,000. I got over my illness and I was thinking of buying it back, but it was sold at the SAR show last year. I thought I might get first refusal on that gun, but didn’t. I will probably not ever get another one of those. I mostly just try to help other people find guns for their collections now. I do make small deals on parts once in a while and sell some of the books I have written.
SAR:We know you’ve traveled a lot and dealt with many different people in the Class 3 world. Anyone else come to mind?
Dolf: I haven’t traveled with Bob Faris much, but I’ve gone to many shoots with him. I have many friends around the world and would hate to get to listing them for fear of leaving someone out. One man I think is a very significant man in this whole Class 3 community is Dick Wray. We traveled together to England and he helped me research at the Vickers Archives for my Vickers book. One guy I really liked working with was Ira Trast at Numrich, and another I enjoy is Cholly Steen who would get a whole bunch of stuff in from Europe and call me to look at this stuff. We had a lot of fun. He’d say, “What is it?” I’d say, “How much for it” and he’d say, “Dolf, I can’t give you a price until I know what it is” and I’d say, “Sure you can, you know what you paid, just make some money on it.” Round and round we’d go. Usually it would end when he’d say, “Ok, ok. Give me fifty bucks for that, but then you have to tell me what it is.” Usually I would give him the money, take the piece and say, “Well, this is the Vickers booster disassembly tool” and Cholly would go, “Aaargh! That’s got to be worth two hundred bucks!” He would then be able to sell the rest of them at the better price. It was just a little act we had where we had a lot of fun. I remember a deal with Bob Landies before Bob got in the business. He was buying a few guns and I had an MG34 for sale that he wanted. It happened I was driving to upstate New York so rather than ship it, I just brought it to Chardon, Ohio. The only problem was that it was at 10 o’clock at night that I was coming through Chardon. I had my little daughter with me, she was 6 or 7 years old at the time. I met Bob in the Safeway parking lot in Chardon at 10 p.m. and gave him the MG34. We put it into his car, and sat and talked for a while. I later learned that my little daughter was in school and they asked what her daddy did for a living. She said, “I don’t really know, but I do know he delivers machine guns at night to people in parking lots.” (Laughter) I’m very friendly with Kent Lomont as well, but I’ve never been to his place in Idaho, and I intend to go when I get a chance. I was at his place in Indiana just after it burned up. That was such a sad thing and a great loss. Kent also had some new designs for muzzle brakes on fifty caliber sniper rifles, and he actually got me to fire one. I was very impressed.
SAR:When did you meet Henk Visser?
Dolf: I knew of him back in 1975 when he was interested in buying a Gardner Gun. I had a Gardner Gun, Dave Cumberland had one, and I found another in California. I figured I didn’t need two so I would sell one to Henk. Dave had bought his for scrap price, with no tripod, and had a good copy tripod made for his gun. I offered one of mine to Henk, but he thought I was trying to sell him the one with the copy tripod and got very angry. We corresponded where I sent him photos, explaining that I am selling my gun, which is all original, not Dave’s gun, and that no one has represented a copy as real, anywhere. We never did business on this and didn’t correspond anymore; he still believed I was trying to sell a copy. After my Maxim book was published, Henk started corresponding with me. He was very excited that a Dutch man had written this book. We talked a lot, and sent me nice letters. It was about 1990, and he said I must visit him in Holland. I visited with him and stayed at his place several times. He also took me around Holland, Belgium and Germany where he introduced me to a lot of interesting people.
SAR: In 1986 the United States Government started some hearings on banning private manufacturing machine guns.
Dolf: I was on a National Guard Training weekend and we had been firing .50 calibers up at Fort Hood all weekend long. I was the armorer for that unit and boy I’ll tell you that was fun. I shot up so much ammunition you wouldn’t believe it. I fixed a lot of guns and I saw a lot of crazy things guys can do to mess up the guns. I had not heard about the law and I got back Sunday night and went home. The first thing that I heard about Monday morning was that this machine gun manufacturing ban had been signed and it was law. No one could manufacture any more guns in America for private consumption. It went into effect as soon as President Reagan would sign it. President Reagan was out of the country on a trip and it was actually something like 90 days before it went into law. I remember that everybody I knew in the Class III community was punching out receivers and machining out tubes by the bucket full. I was told that the idea was to stop or slow down this manufacture of machine guns in the US and the way it ended up being structured that it basically doubled the amount of transferable machine guns in that 90 days.
SAR: Honestly, everyone made everything that could be a machine gun into a machine gun. It was crazy, because no one could believe the government did this. It came out of nowhere, and really accomplished nothing other than making things more valuable. You were criticized for some of your suggestions at the time.
Dolf: Yes, but you have to understand that we were trying to save very rare historical guns that had missed the deadline and would now be chopped up if found. In England on one of my trips, I ran across a guy and he had a water-cooled 1913 Parabellum. Talk about a rare gun! It was made originally as a cavalry gun with a small slim water jacket, and I found it in The South. The guy had it and he wanted a thousand pounds for it, which was about 1,500 dollars, and I just had to save it. I went to ATF and proposed to them that if any one person turns in say 7 or 8 legally registered complete machine guns, ATF would give them a permit to bring in one machine gun and register it. Remember that they had been in trouble with Congress because of the amount of guns registered in the 1986 ban, which the intent of the ones who put that law in was to freeze the amount of privately owned machine guns, not double it. I thought if we took say, a bunch of MAC 10s, bought them, and turned them in to ATF, then they gave us the right to register one much rarer machine gun, the whole community would win and rare pieces could be saved. Remember at the time that there were so many MAC 10s out there that no one would ever buy them all up, or so we thought. I went to Congress to talk about this, but there was no political mileage for them, and they dropped it. I was not trying to destroy guns, many of us simply thought that there were guns that would never be of interest to people and if we could trade these out for historically important and rare guns, it would be better – but it never flew. We were afraid that our laws were headed the way Canada went. That was where a law was enacted where everybody that had a registered machine gun could keep it, and buy more legally registered guns, but when they died the government would get them. If it works out the way I think it could, there is going to be one guy in Canada that will be 110 years old that will own every registered machine gun in Canada. He will be the only one that can acquire them, so anyone that has a machine gun that dies it will go to him and when he finally dies, they all go to the state.
SAR: Musical chairs with machine guns.
Dolf: They wanted to do that here in the US. I said I have an idea to stop this, and I think it worked. I went to Congress and said they were talking about confiscating all these guns when a person dies. I said that they could not confiscate legally owned private property, people have paid transfer taxes on them and there is no way the government can take away legally owned property from an individual or from an estate, without due compensation. They asked what I was talking about, so I referred to the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, when they wanted to buy all of the gold because they could not confiscate it, and they had to pay for it. There was a precedent here, the government can not confiscate, and they knew that gold was selling for 20 dollars an ounce and the government offered 35 dollars an ounce just to make sure they got it all. I said that now we have the same thing with their intentions on the machine guns if this confiscation law goes through, and gun owners will have standing for a class action lawsuit. I estimated the buyout cost for the government to purchase the privately owned machine guns was well over 500 million dollars at the time. I pointed out that there had never really been a crime with this class of registered machine guns, and now they would be proposing to spend 500 million dollars to take them away from the private ownership of the people. I suggested that there would be a better way to spend that 500 million dollars, wouldn’t it be better to use that money to improve law enforcement capabilities. They got the point, and I think I helped stop this confiscation that they were trying. The idea of trading out some MACs for a rare gun was not part of this discussion. Eventually, the guy in England managed to give that Parabellum to the MOD Pattern Room; you’ve seen it there.
SAR:You’ve said in the past that you started on your books long before you actually got into writing.
Dolf: I have certainly been studying and gathering material for many years. My first writing project came about because of Fred Kaase. It was in 1972 or so, before I really knew a lot about Maxims but had always liked them. Fred suggested that I write a book about them, the models, the history, how to work on them, all kinds of different things. People would like to know that, Fred told me. He kept after me and I finally said OK and started collecting information. I went over to England in 1974 and I was there for about a month. That’s when I first met Herbie Woodend at the MOD Pattern Room at Enfield Lock. We became good friends. I went to the Royal Military College of Science. I went to the Small Arms Collection at the School of Infantry, and then I went to the Imperial War Museum. I never got to see all of the guns they had at the Imperial War Museum, they didn’t want to let me in the back and had to bring each piece out. They had much significant stuff that I never got to see and it never got into the first volume. I went to maybe three places a week, driving around England. I started trying to put the information together, and it turned out I had a lot of Vickers information as well so I decided to target two books, one Maxim, one on the Vickers. By 1978 just before I moved to Texas in this oil business, I went back to England for three more months of research. I almost drove my relatives nuts. Here’s this brother-in-law, he eats our food, sleeps in our house, is never here and he is always in some damn museum. I know they talked to my wife Alice, and Alice talked with me, but I was on a quest and had to find all this information. I went everywhere, I went to every museum I could think of, I went to the public records offices, I went to the Maritime Museum, I went to all kinds of weird old archives where they had stuff no one had ever heard of before. I spent about three weeks in the Pattern Room. By that time I had miles of Maxim and Vickers information. I came home with it and worked on it. But, then I had so much to do in the oil fields, that eventually I just didn’t get enough time to work on these files. All those papers sat on shelves in my closet.
SAR:How did you meet Herbie? Did you just show up at his door?
Dolf: I got his name from someone, and I wrote him a letter telling him I wanted to write a book on the Maxim machine gun, that I would really like to meet him, and finally we met. We hit it off right away. No, no, you just didn’t go down there knocking on a door in those days. Herbie told me he had an experience one night with Tony Scherer, who was an old time Class 3. Tony came to England and the only thing he knew was the address of the Pattern Room. Herbie lived in a row of houses right by Enfield, and Tony found where he lived. At about 10 or 11 p.m. Herbie had already gone to bed, and Tony rang the door bell, and kept ringing until Herbie stuck his head out the 2nd floor window and “inquires” as to who’s down there. Tony shouts up, “I’m Tony Scherer! I’m a machine gun dealer from Chicago and I want to see the Pattern Room!” All of the windows in the neighborhood opened up and everybody sticks their heads out to see what’s up. Herbie loved to tell that story about how NOT to gain entrance to the Pattern Room.
SAR:Did Tony get to go in?
Dolf: Yes, he talked his way in.
SAR:Worked for him. Was that before you met Herbie?
Dolf: Yes, as I said, telling that story was his way of “letting you know” how things are, and aren’t done.
SAR:You had 2 trips to England. Did you travel anywhere else for research?
Dolf: Not in the first 2 trips. I didn’t go anywhere else, just England, then I put it all aside. Fred asked how I was getting along on the book, so it was in my mind. About 1986 I got a call from Blake Stevens, whom I had known for many years because he had always come down to Texas for the Houston Gun Show. He was in the parts business. In that call, Blake told me he was getting out of the parts business and starting into the book business. He had heard from Fred, I think, that I was working on the Maxim book and that he would like to publish it. I hadn’t really put it together of course, but I was headed up to New York by car with my wife and kids. I decided to take all of my research up to him in Canada while I was there. When he looked it over, he said he liked it, and thought he could do something with it. Blake put the first book together with me, and as a result, more information came out and we updated the book, and did the Vickers. It’s funny, but if I hadn’t done that first book, the collector would never have seen my guns, and I would have never sold my collection which would now be worth probably a million bucks, so really that book cost me a lot of money…
SAR:And consider the amount of time and money you spent researching the book… no, let’s not go there.
Dolf:(Laughs) I really have loved the research and writing that I have done. In 1986 I realized I needed to get more information so that meant I would have to go to other places. I traveled all over the United States, I went to every military museum I could think of. On the Browning book research I went to France, Belgium, Sweden, simply all over. I speak French, so that went well. On some of my trips in Asia I went looking for Maxims and other guns. I found a beautiful German WWI MG08 Maxim in the Hong Kong Museum of History. A very odd place to find it. It seems that after the British Army came back into Hong Kong in 1945 they went in the prisoner of war camp and this gun was on the wall in the tower. There was also a Japanese Type 3 heavy machine gun. I went to Macau but didn’t find much of anything there. I did find a nice Chinese air-cooled Maxim at the Hong Kong Police, that they had gotten from Macau. I told Herbie about it and he flew to Hong Kong on an RAF plane, stayed in the bachelor officers quarters, then traded the Hong Kong police department out of it – I think they needed a Vickers – so the Pattern Room got the Chinese air-cooled. I went back to Hong Kong just before the Mainland Chinese took it over. I was there for a year, taking Cantonese lessons.
SAR:What’s next, Dolf?
Dolf: With the two .30 caliber Browning books done, I am working on the third and final volume of that series now. Finally, there is a book in the works on the Fifty Caliber Brownings. That book is being done with Frank Iannamico. Hopefully, it will be at the publisher’s early next year.
SAR:Is there anything you would like to say to the readers, Dolf?
Dolf: Only that I look forward to seeing them at Knob Creek, SAR Show, and on many other travels in the future!
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N5 (February 2007)|