By Robert M. Hausman
What today is arguably the largest dealer in surplus war material in the country, SARCO (an acronym for Steen Armament Research Company), Inc., of Stirling, New Jersey, actually began quite humbly in the attic of a small apartment. Charles “Cholly” Steen, the company’s founder, recalls his next major expansion came by moving into a barn some years later, and then into his first store, all in the anti-gun state of New Jersey.
Living in a Toy Store
After several years in business as a non-corporate entity, SARCO was finally incorporated in 1962. It has since established a long tenure of 38 years in the arms business. SARCO’s emphasis is strictly focused on surplus merchandise. Although activities are conducted in commercial-type material, virtually all the business centers around the accumulation of surplus material.
Through the years, SARCO has expanded into almost every facet of the gun business, except for the commercial end. Much of the business is done with military arms collectors, shooters and military history re-enactors. Steen describes his business as having allowed him to, “live in a toy store all these years.”
Steen began collecting militaria at the tender age of five when he began to fill the drawers of his clothes dresser with military surplus. “I’m a collector at heart,” he chuckles. He later served in the U.S. Marine Corps. and afterward began selling arms at gun shows as a way to support himself while in college where he studied engineering. He had plans to become a machine gun designer. When he told his wife of his intention to become a part-time gun show vendor, she made an agreement with him that if he did not clear $60 a week profit from the activity within the first year, he would give up on the idea. However, Steen’s very first weekend at gun show dealing gave him a lot of incentive to stay in the gun business as he made $200 during those first two days, a whopping sum for him at the time.
Another big coup for Steen’s fledgling business was expanding into mail order by advertising in the then new publication, Shotgun News. In contrast to the multiple full-page ads Sarco now runs in that advertiser publication, his first ad was just 3-inches by 3-inches in size. Steen estimates SARCO is the Shotgun News’ longest continuously-running advertiser. Today, sales by mail order make up the largest part of SARCO’s volume, with sales to U.S. and foreign governments playing the next largest role.
Traveling around the world in SARCO’s early years during the 1960’s, Steen built up a global network of agents who remain on the lookout for surplus materials when such items are offered from military and government sources. The agents alert Steen to the items being offered and bidding/purchase procedures. Steen says his import activities over the years have probably earned him the distinction of being the largest U.S. importer of gun parts.
Overseas manufacturing is another area of the business that has been developed. For instance, SARCO has slings for the Mauser 98 and Johnson rifles made overseas, in addition to 400-500 other items. Steen got into the machine gun part business by offering parts for .30 and .50 caliber Brownings. SARCO does sell live machine guns as well. A wide assortment of non-firing rebuilt machine guns (with a dummy receiver) are available and machine gun parts sets (sans the receiver).
Among the more notable surplus material Steen has sold over the years, was a model 95 Gatling Gun with limber which went to Bill Gasser of the American Armour Foundation museum in Long Island, New York. The serial number of this piece was in the same range as were the Gatling Guns shipped to Cuba at the time Teddy Roosevelt was there.
Steen also bought the Rock Island Armory’s military manual library containing seven to eight tons of manuals. In one of his more unusual purchases, Steen bought several Navy model KDB-1 remote controlled drones. These were used in the 1950’s and 1960’s for training in air-to-air and ground-to-air combat. They are radio-controlled targets that could be recovered after a parachute landing.
Made by Breech Aircraft and powered by a 125 h.p., 6 cylinder, 2-cycle, turbo- supercharged engine, the drones are 15-feet long and have a 12-foot wingspan, making them the largest, radio-controlled airplane models you can get.
Sarco has successfully fulfilled several contracts with the federal government and recently supplied the feds with 17,000 units of a multiple magazine holder. This product holds two magazines, in a “V” configuration on the underside of the M16 rifle. Once the first 30 rounds are fired, the holder allows another magazine to be inserted into the rifle within seconds.
In a recent deal, SARCO purchased much of the production facilities of the old High Standard Co. This included nine models of pump and automatic shotguns including the famous Model 10B bull pup police shotgun, three models of pump and semi-auto .22 rifles, and ten models of revolvers.
The deal also encompassed SARCO’s acquisition of all fixtures for production, drawings, sources, flow schedules, spare parts (including barrels and receivers), five cut-away guns, five trademarks for revolvers and technical data on High Standard silencers. There are also tons of spare parts, filling some five 40-foot trailers. “We bought this as a project to produce guns,” Steen says, “but there just isn’t enough time in the world for us, as new deals keep coming in. We expect that with the making of a few parts, approximately 400 Model 10B’s could be produced.” The lot was being offered for sale at the time of the author’s visit.
Today, Sarco employs up to fifty persons in its 20,000-square-foot store/warehouse, with an additional two warehouses comprising 7,500- and 24,000-square-feet respectively. “While I thought this second (24,000-square-foot) warehouse would be the last I would need, we filled it up to capacity due to the good deals I have been offered on merchandise from my suppliers,” Steen says. About 20,000 guns, mainly surplus military rifles, are kept in stock at the store.
Among his other activities, Steen is very active in the F.A.I.R. (Firearms Importers’ Roundtable) Trade Group (serving as its president), which protects the interests of firearms importers by monitoring legislation and other activities. The organization was founded in 1994 and has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. FAIR’s membership is composed of firearms and ammunition importers, manufacturers, distributors and sales representatives. The group’s goal is to keep the American firearms and ammunition markets open to the global community of suppliers, with an end goal of a “level playing field” that will provide American consumers the broadest market choices.
The Clinton-Gore Administration had taken the position that global commerce in firearms and related items is the “weak link” of the American firearms industry. The Administration had taken its anti-gun campaign global by working closely with international disarmament groups and the United Nations to push the anti-gun agenda worldwide. FAIR has been very successful in keeping American markets open, but Clinton and Gore had achieved some significant victories as well. These include: -use of Presidential Authority to impose and continue an embargo on the importation of firearms, parts and ammunition from China. This ban led to the formation of FAIR. -Use of Presidential Authority to direct the Department of Treasury, in collaboration with the Department of State, to implement a Voluntary Restraint Agreement with Russia banning the importation of various guns and calibers of ammunition. —Establishing a new policy on, “foreign policy grounds,” that the Department of State shall be the agency having jurisdiction over the authorization of the importation of foreign and U.S. origin firearms component parts and ammunition, instead of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, since the policy of the State Dept. is not to approve such transactions.
One of SARCO’s most recent successes is the publication of its Machine Gun Catalog #4. Several years in the making, the nearly 100-page book contains parts, tools and accessories for: M-2 Browning .50 caliber machine guns; M-3 Browning aircraft machine guns; the M-85 machine gun; the 1919A4/A6 Browning m.g.; the M-37 m.g.; the M-60 m.g.; the B.A.R.; M3/M3A1 “Grease Gun”; the Lewis and Vickers machine guns; the German MG-34; and the Bren Gun.
SARCO usually has some live, transferable machine guns in stock. At the time of the author’s visit, these included: a Walther MPK; IMI Micro, Mini and commercial UZI submachine guns; and the Galil in .223 and .308.
For those who would like to visit, SARCO is in northern New Jersey, situated in the southern corner of Morris County. The store is about 20 minutes south of Morristown, and 15 minutes north of Plainfield/Route 22. It is most easily reached from Exit 36 on Interstate route 78, a major east-west highway, only five minutes from SARCO’s door.
After leaving Exit 36 on route 78, go north (past the Exxon station) on King George Road. At the traffic light by the church, turn right onto Valley Road. Proceed one mile to the traffic light at Main Street. Turn left and go four blocks to Union Street. Turn left on Union – SARCO is the last building on the left. For more information: Sarco, Inc., 323 Union St., Stirling, N.J. 07980 Telephone (908) 647-3800 FAX: (908) 647- 9413 Web site: www.sarcoinc.com E-mail: email@example.com.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N9 (June 2001)|