The first U.S. machine gun patent was issued to Samuel L. Farries of Middleton, Ohio in 1829. Eli Whitney progressed from his cotton gin invention, Samuel Colt started thinking full auto from the deck of a ship in international waters, John Browning (and his father) from a small workshop, and David (Carbine) Williams did it from a prison cell. All in the great American tradition of rugged individualism….
Once upon a time there were a handful of licensed firearms manufacturers (Class 02 SOT) who never reached the heights of Colt, Winchester, Remington, etc. Nor did they particularly aspire to. However, they played by the same rules, paid the same fees and taxes, held the same licenses, did the same paperwork and complied with the same baffling array of Federal, state and local laws. They were self-financed, self-employed, and self-driven. This cadre started a revolution in the early 1980s within the firearms community and some made a mark for themselves and their wares. They were a testimony to the classic American entrepreneur trying to build a better mousetrap. They daringly offered custom services to a marketplace that was closeted, secretive, largely ignorant and very, very small. That marketplace was what we call the NFA Community, or the Class 03 community. Good and bad, glad and sad, full of passion and insight, they climbed a mountain only to fall to the sea.
What these Knights did was full auto conversions on semiautomatic firearms. Specifically, they applied their own individual hands-on re-engineering techniques customized to a selection of firearms – some which have even escaped the most recent media-induced misnomer of “semiautomatic assault weapons.” Going where few had publicly dared go before; each had his unique handle on firearms technology. Each Knight figured out a conversion technique and refined it as best as a small production machine shop equipment would take them. Most had no training, or manuals, instructions or factory parts to work with. It was frequently seat-of-the-pants work.
Collectively we might call them “custom conversion military weapons experts,” which would be an over-simplification. Some may have been gunsmiths or armorers. Most were inventors. Some had military experience. Most had few real world credentials as firearms designers. But in reality, most could actually take a block of raw steel and cut away everything that didn’t look like a gun and it would shoot when they were done. Every conversion was an adventure and a new challenge. Largely, they had to re-invent the wheel. If parts were needed, they made them, often carving out the bits and pieces by hand. Later, molds were made to cast perfected sear designs or other pieces of their conversion techniques. Every customer had to be educated because they had forever been told, “All machine guns are illegal,” and all believed it. Everyone knew it was very, very, expensive. Except what our Knights were offering wasn’t.
Almost every collector and shooter could now have affordable rock n’ roll. What a concept – be still my heart! The start of my instructional talk to potential customers who were almost always misinformed went something like this: “If you don’t run dope, horses, or women, if you pay your taxes and back alimony, have been a good boy all your life and are not a known ne’er-do-well in your neck of the woods, you too can own one of these fine machine guns!”
Back in The Day, if you could sign a yellow (then) sheet Form 4473 and not lie to any of the questions and could get the local sheriff or police chief to sign the law enforcement section (not a certainty at all), could paste a photo on the Form 4 which didn’t make you look like a miscreant and could acquire a gun and the money to get it converted to full auto by one of the aforementioned Knights, then Yes! You could come to the party and bring your own fast gun and put out a heart-thumping, flame-spewing, put-hair-on-your-chest, singe your eyebrows and bloody your nose glorious exhibition of firepower.
These little no-name Knights had to be ferreted out. You had to know someone who knew someone who heard it from a guy at work, etc. When you finally stumbled across the threshold of their machine shops, usually hidden discreetly in out-of-the-way places, you were beside yourself with glee. You had entered the domain of genius, daring-do, and joyful noise.
Greeted by a test-firing rat-a-tat-tat staccato of 9mm or .223, you paused for breath and prayed you could get past the gnarly security barrier. Rarely did you encounter anyone other than The Man Himself. This fellow likely greeted you from across his lathe or from behind his milling machine hollering he’d “be with you in a minute.” Wiping his brow and hands on a greasy shop rag, he would shake your hand and ask what he could do for you. Oh, My! (Breathe slowly, please.)
In due course, you would hand over your AR-15, your sleek H&K, or maybe an Uzi or an AK type. Any one of three-dozen or so likely conversion candidates. Your investment was in steps: buy a gun, pay for the conversion, pay the tax stamp, and buy ammo & accessories. Workable money for most people. After months of anticipation and frequent high anxiety attacks, you would receive The Call. Your gun is ready, your paperwork has cleared, and yes, a case of ammo is being held for you. You had attained the headiest of all firearms acquisitions – your first NFA firearm.
Yes, there was almost always a second and a third, ad infinitum. Potato chips have nothing on these goodies for not being able to have just one. It wasn’t about addiction. It was the unending thrills …of the hunt, of successfully negotiating the morass of lawful acquisition, the expenditure of significant monies from a working man’s budget, the lawful ownership of that which many people aspire to and would never obtain, and the lawful and necessary commitment to becoming the ultimate gun owner. Thrill-seekers abound, because you got to shoot it!
Our motley Knights did not have the support of the firearms industry, nor of the proclaimed “traditional” gun owning public. (Yes, you surely detect my aggrieved sneer at the memory of those who looked away with distain. They didn’t “get it” about how important it is for Americans to own military firearms… Bless their hearts.) Many Americans including “traditional” gun owners just refuse to understand that the Second Amendment outlines that Americans have a citizenship duty to come to the defense of the nation, bearing the arms of the day (i.e. military weapons being used by the military of our times. See: M1, M14, M16.). Furthermore, we are to be fully equipped to take care of business and be fully trained. That’s not something you do after 3 days at boot camp with the first real gun you ever saw. Our Freedoms in the First Amendment stand on the shoulders of the Second. Without adherence and exercise of the Second, we got diddily, friends. Our American Republic becomes a toothless on-paper-only tiger and we can only cower under our beds and hope nobody wants a piece of us. While the idea of making these conversions and owning them in the early 1980s is discussed as “fun,” the fact is that martial enthusiasts have always coincided with free, strong populations.
The Knights weren’t schlepping hunting guns, or shiny engraved collectibles, or respectable vintage 6-shooters. What they worked on had mostly black finishes, often less than perfectly manufactured (to the point of ugly); and were the semi-auto civilian versions of business guns. Not even that mighty behemoth, the NRA, acknowledged either the converted guns or the Knights’ existence, until much later when forced to acknowledge their contributions …both good and bad.
In May 1986, the infamous statute 922(o) of the McClure-Volkmer Firearms Owners Protection Act took all the fun out of it. The door that was slammed closed hit the collective noses of future NFA would-be owners. (And undermined, desecrated and negated the Second Amendment for what has seemed like an eternity.)
The Knights of the Black ‘N Ugly Armories created some of BATF’s worst nightmares. They managed to “paper” some of the oddest items… as there were few rulings on what made each particular firearm an NFA weapon. BATF had to make it up as things rolled along as new techniques reared their ugly heads. Mired in a morass of arcane and hard to understand laws created by our elected representatives, filtered through decades of regulatory rulings and assorted confusing muck, the BATF and the NFA manufacturers were frequently adrift in uncharted waters. Various Class 02s declared everything from a shoelace used to convert a Mini-14 to buckets of unfinished FA sears as “machine guns.” There were few firearms experts at BATF and frequently they had to accept the word of the 02 manufacturers as to what made a particular gun a machine gun. Some items were papered simply to protect the 02 from possible BATF adverse action. If an 02 deigned to declare a gum wrapper or piece of tin foil as an NFA weapon, BATF had to accept it as such. This was not the free ride it sounds like. Conversely, if it could be used to do the deed, you had to paper it or risk the consequences of committing an illegal act. There was bickering, squabbling, hassles and the occasional integrity issue to be dealt with. No industry support and no free legal backup protection or rights organization protecting Class 03 were available. Some Knights knew what they were doing, some were wily, some were very good at their inventiveness, and some were butchers.
Collectively, our Knights produced tens of thousands of affordable, shootable, NFA Class 03 guns and hardware. Class 03’s will never be boring, same-same, or cheap to shoot. Once upon a time, these were cheap(er) to own. Now, alas, it is a rich man’s hobby. Due to the unholy aberration in 1986: Pioneering… MIA. Expertise… aging. Availability… mostly gone into some collector’s “Black Hole” – that’s “where guns go in and don’t come out.” Affordability… get serious. This is the laugh that hurts.
From our Knights came forth ingenuity and invention, progress and new design. They did everything the hard way. They sacrificed and they pioneered. Nobody financed the R&D. Projects gone awry, mistakes, false starts, dead ends, and losses were absorbed by them, not some giant conglomerate owned by foreign investors. They got their hands dirty and rarely made any real money for themselves. They crossed the lines drawn in the sand. They stood against the tide. Each Knight was on his own. As independent thinkers and doers, it should make it hard to throw stones at them now, yet people do.
I am no sideline observer to all of this. I can claim to be an eyewitness, a participant, a supporter, and a partner. I have labored on the Class 02/03 line since 1982. From the firing line, I occasionally still dance with the one that brung me, an RPB SMG M-1l/.380 ACP. I have shot more than my share of all kinds of guns. Trust me; cold dead fingers are not very useful with any of them. However, I submit to you that if it’s not black n’ ugly, 850 RPM or more with an 8 pound trigger pull, it’s not real shooting!
So if you own an NFA firearm or even its semi-auto counterpart, you likely need to thank the small, mostly unknown and unlauded, Class 02 Licensee. These are folks who carry the American Warrior Spirit within and forward. I applaud our modern Knights who are responsible for keeping faith with the Second Amendment and using their expertise, skills and talents to progress forward firearms technology, our military might and our civilian readiness. They are indeed the real traditionalists.
(Linda and the late J. D. Farmer, Jr. worked together as Hard Times Armory, Inc. now in Kennesaw, GA. Converting a considerable selection of semi-autos to NFA select-fires and producing suppressor and silencer designs, Mr. Farmer was the plaintiff in Farmer vs. Higgins seeking to overturn the 1986 ban. Linda remains in the business and continues to be infamous for her opinions.)
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V14N8 (May 2011)|