1 August, 2007, Dayton, NV
David Edward “Dangerous Dave” Cumberland was born 18 November, 1932 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He married his wife Elsie in 1955. Dave was Interarmco’s man in Thailand in the 1950s and one of the early machine gun and cannon dealers in the US. His company, The Old Western Scrounger, was renowned for helping shooters around the world get their odd ammunition needs filled. This author has known Dave for thirty years, and we caught up with Dave at his home in Nevada, where he was pleased to sit down and recap many of his experiences for SAR’s readers. A lot of Dave’s experiences interact with a number of our other interviews, and help “fill in the blanks.” In Part I of The Interview, (SAR Volume 12 Number 9) Dave takes us on his journey through Southeast Asia with the military and as Sam Cumming’s man on the ground in Thailand, atomic bomb tests, the French evacuation of North Vietnam, evacuation of the Nationalist Chinese troops, the AR-10 program in Thailand, and his coming home and starting his gun business. In Part II, we take up where Dave is running the Old West Gun Room, and then meets with Dolf Goldsmith and starts in heavier on machine guns. But first we touch upon a few historical stories…. – Dan
SAR: Korea – you ran into more interesting firearms than we have discussed, didn’t you?
Dave: Hell yeah. When I was in Korea for a year, I’d located an ordnance area up there where they kept stuff that they captured or was turned in one way or another. That was the Army’s First Cavalry Division area. There was everything you could think of and more piled up. One thing that really caught my eye was over in the corner of the room, there was an original Gatling gun that had been converted to 7.62x54R, the Russian caliber. It had a tag on it that said, “Aberdeen Proving Ground.” I’ve always wondered where that ended up. I’m pretty sure that was one of the Russian contract Gatlings, but I didn’t know enough about them at that time. That was probably the neatest gun I saw over there, plus there were some really interesting Winchester Model 1895 rifles in caliber 7.62x54R that appeared to be leftovers from World War I.
SAR: Did everything run smoothly in the Old West Gun Room?
Dave: Of course not. We had a great time, lots of interesting stuff, but like the Chinese say, we were “Living in interesting times.” I had a scary run-in with the predecessor to the ATF once. That was in 1965, when I was running the gun store at the Old West Gun Room. A guy came in and sold me a Dewat (De-activated War Trophy) Reising submachine gun. Back then, they didn’t need to be registered, they were just wall-hangers. This Reising Model 50 looked like it had crossed the Atlantic on a rope underneath the Queen Mary. It was just all rusted to hell and beat up. It didn’t work and it was missing parts. All I had to do was call in to the ATTU and they would have issued the registration paper for me and I would not have gotten in trouble with the law. But, I was broke at that time and I needed money, so I took the non-functioning Reising and sold it to a guy for $50. About two months later, I was in the store one night. That guy came in and said, “I’ve got that Reising you sold me here.” I said, “Oh, you have. Why are you bringing it in to me?” He said, “I want you to take a look at it.” So, he opens up a paper sack and the damn thing looked brand new and had a Thompson magazine converted to work in it. I thought to myself, there’s only one guy I know in this area that’s good enough to do that. Bud Matthews was his name, and he made a left-hand action at one time for bolt-action rifles. That guy was a helluva machinist and he was crazy on machine guns. When he pulled that thing out of the bag, I looked at it and I said, “Somebody’s been working on this, this isn’t what I sold you.” Right then, the doors open up and the cops came in from three different ways. They put me in binders, threw me in the back of the car, and dragged me to the Oakland jail to check in for the night. I was bailed out the next day. They were trying to say that I sold this gun as a functional weapon, because at that time, a machine gun had to work; otherwise they couldn’t get a conviction. I said, “Well, this thing has been modified considerably and I didn’t do that.” I ended up having to hire an attorney, which I couldn’t afford. We went to court in San Francisco; the main courthouse. I didn’t know this at the time, but there was a local FBI agent who knew me. I didn’t know that he’d gone to the ATTU and also to the FBI to speak on my behalf that I was a good guy and that I was helping him from time to time, which I was, acting as an expert witness on several cases. He didn’t believe the ATTU testimony picturing me as a true SOB, who would probably sell dynamite to children and that I was as crooked as a snake going over a washboard. The ATTU agent kept on about what a bastard I was and a danger to society. The judge finally said, “I want you all to come into my quarters.” They’re all standing there and the judge said, “Mr. Cumberland, I realize that you know that you’ve broken the law but that, under the circumstances, you didn’t have any idea that this would turn out this way or you would never have sold it.” I said, “That’s right, Your Honor.” He said, “Well, I’ve got to make a ruling now. You are on two years probation. You have nothing to do with machine guns during that time period.” It was just after that when I got together with Dolf. That’s the only problem I ever had with the government.
SAR: At the time, deactivated guns didn’t require registration, and someone had taken it and made it into an active, live gun, to set you up? Scary. How was the business in the Mid-1960s?
Dave: The Old West Gun Room was in the second building by that time. I moved the business three times. The last time I moved it I bought the property, which we still own. It had to be like 1967 or ’68 or so. It was during the time of the civil riots and there was rioting in Richmond. In fact, we had a situation occur where the police called me up one night. They said, “We just got it from one of our informants they’re going to hit your store about midnight. Take all your stuff, put it in the walk-in vault and lock the door.” I said, “They’re going to burn me out or something. I could lose everything I’ve got.” He said, “Well, that’s the way it is. You don’t want to get shot.” I had a different opinion; I didn’t want to lose my livelihood and was in a position to defend it. I called three or four buddies of mine. We had just gotten in a bunch of Model 97 riot guns. I had about a dozen of those and six or eight G3s that had just come into the country secondhand. Four guys came over. We each took a shotgun and a G3 – these were the semi-auto only Golden State Arms guns, no full autos. I put one guy on the roof of the lumber yard across the street so he could cover the front door. The back door was bolted shut with steel bars so they couldn’t get out once they got into the ambush. I said, “If anybody looks like they’re going to set anything on fire, just shoot them.” When we were ready, I called the Richmond Police Department and explained the whole thing and the sergeant says, “Good Lord, don’t do that. We have enough trouble now.” So I said, “Then, get your ass down here and protect my gun store.” [laughter]
SAR: I take it there was no problem at all with your store? Nobody tried to burn it down?
Dave: No, I guess the bad guys got wind of our planned response and thought better of visiting us. We also had a bit of other local “insurance” against troublemakers. The Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club were all good customers of mine. Their President, Sonny Barger, was well-known to me. In fact, I saw him in Reno not too long ago, and he was talking to some newscaster type. I walked over to him and I said, “Sonny, do you remember me?” He looked close and said, “Course I remember you and the Gun Room.” He had a body guard by the name of Big Red who collected Model 70 Super Grades. I got him a 7mm Mauser, which in that model is a rare rifle. Sonny came in one day and he said, “You know, we spend a lot of money with you.” I said, “Sonny, I do appreciate that.” He said, “I think that you ought to give us a discount.” I said, “Sonny, I don’t give my own brother a discount. I just simply won’t do it.” He reflected for a moment then said, “You know, we can make you do it.” I stated plain as fact, “No, you can’t.” He thought about it for a moment then smiled, chuckled and said, “Well, I know you’ve been fair with us, ah, just forget it.” They also bought all the Nazi memorabilia I could get my hands on, and were really big into collecting the daggers and the accessories. Sonny Barger didn’t buy any guns. I don’t know if he had a record at that time. Mostly his interest seemed to be in shotguns, doubles, pumps, .45 automatics and Lugers. In one particular interest, there was one pattern that had Swiss script that came down and had the little knob on it like the regular Luger has. It also had the squeeze safety on it, and instead of a skinny barrel, it had a 6-inch standard-rate barrel like on a Navy model. They made 100 of those and they’re rare as hell. I found one the other day at my old gun store down in El Cerrito. He wanted $1,100 for it. That’s a good buy.
SAR: Still watching for the deals, Dave? You did some work with Hollywood, right?
Dave: Of course I’m always looking for deals, it’s in the blood. On the Hollywood sales and rentals, we did a pile of work for movies. The first call we ever got was from Ellis Mercantile – they later became Ellis Props & Graphics. I sold them a bunch of ammunition first, and Bert sold them a couple of guns. Pretty sure Bert was still with me at that point in time, you know Bert broke off on his own. He decided he wanted to fool around with machine guns a lot more than I did, and he and Dolf decided to go that route. That worked out better for them. We all did really well. We were out on the East Coast looking for things, and on the West Coast we were the people to see if you wanted to buy anything up to an artillery piece. We had all kinds of stuff. We had a 4-1/2 inch Howitzer, just about anything you could imagine. I did get one of Val Forgette’s 1895 brass Maxims from the Argentina deal. Got it the same time as when I bought the gun store. Dolf was working with us later and he loved those Maxims. As Dolf tells it, one day he just waltzed in the shop and saw a couple of us messing around with the ANM2s and Brownings. Bert wasn’t having much luck with them, and Dolf jumped in and got them together. He was a Browning armorer among other things. Dolf started doing a lot of business with us and working at the Gun Store. Since I wasn’t that into the machine guns, that was fine with me. As far as that brass Maxim went, I paid $150 to Val for it. He lost a pile of the other ones to the government confiscating his and he never got ’em back. Rumor is that the government handed them out to museums, and some got dumped in the Atlantic. Those brass Maxims were pretty much all Dewats, and you can tell today if one was dewatted by Val. Take off the fuzee spring cover on the left side of the receiver. Slide a hacksaw blade between the barrel extension rails and the left sideplate, and see if it is blocked. What they did was drill a hole through the left side of the receiver under the fuzee cover and welded a rod on the inside rail to the plate so that you couldn’t move it. If you took that hacksaw and went down the inside, you could hacksaw that weld out and the Maxims worked just fine. If you take the fuzee cover off of any of the 1895 Argentines, you’ll see a spot of different colored metal there where those were repaired but the hole was hidden under the fuzee cover.
SAR: Did you keep it?
Dave: Everybody wanted it. George Repaire, the gent I bought the Old West Gun Room from, he wanted that thing in the worst way. I didn’t want to sell it to him and he finally said, “Look, Dave, I’ll send the $150 right now and you can buy another one.” I didn’t know that all the rest at Val’s had been confiscated. George knew it, because he had tried to buy one and they wouldn’t sell him one as they didn’t have one to sell. He didn’t tell me that. In the end, I sold him my brass Maxim for what I paid for it and I never got around to getting another one. When I did get around to trying to order, it was too late. There were lots of characters around the machine gun business, though. In Southern California, it was mostly Ed Faust and ARMEX: they did a lot of business. One day we had a strange guy come into the gun store. This was during our machine gun business time. His wife was with him. He had on white cotton gloves, he wanted to see a couple of guns but he wouldn’t talk to us. He would talk to his wife and she would talk to us. He would just stand over there against the wall and he’d wipe his hands. He was Bill Thoresen. His wife eventually shot him, and wrote a book about their crazy travels and machine gun deals.
SAR: Louise Thoresen’s book “It Gave Everybody Something to Do.” Dolf makes sure we all read that book. There’s a lot of speculation about who was which character that she used pseudonyms for. “Orval Lee” was supposedly J. Curtis Earl. Curtis never indicated to me, either way on that. I do know Curtis traveled across country with them buying machine guns though.
Dave: Yeah, that’s the book! Thoresen was really odd, a very strange person. He spent quite a bit of money but she always made the deals. He wouldn’t physically touch anything, he wouldn’t talk with us, and he made her do it all. Thoresen was apparently hoarding up some legal but mostly unregistered machine guns, anti-tank guns, and tons of ammunition. There was supposedly 72 tons of it when the government got them. We got into a deal with the ATF on that. The government had confiscated everything he had. We went up to his mansion on Nob Hill in San Francisco. It was a very nice place. Then we had to go up to Marin County at the old Navy/Coast Guard base, I guess it is. They had bunkers up there and the government had moved all the ammunition and guns up to store and sort. We went in there and I never saw so much ammunition in my life. We bought 280,000 rounds of 8 mm Mauser and about 100,000 rounds of it was APIT. Very neat and fun to shoot. He had a couple of machine guns in there that were so rare that I’d only seen pictures of them. I never have seen one in my life and I can’t remember what they were today. One was a Swiss machine gun. None of that stuff was for sale, of course, because it was all illegal or had become illegal. The ammunition got sold. I knew Curtis Earl, and we outbid him on the ammunition. My group got 1,600 rounds of 25 mm Puteaux. Thoresen had bought out everything Interarmco had left in Puteaux ammo, that’s the reason it disappeared in a hurry and was so dried up. Bert, Tom, George H. and I split the Puteaux ammo. I sold mine to George for around $3 a round. If I’d known he wasn’t going to shoot it I wouldn’t have sold it to him. From what he says, he has yet to fire a round of it. He’s in his 80s and when he decides that should hit the market, it’ll be the biggest pile of desirable ammunition that’s been around for 50 years. Among other things, he’s got one of those Swiss 24mm anti-tank guns that has a toggle action on the side. They’re pretty rare. I remember he had two Solothurn S18-1000s, one of them on the wheeled carriage. A bunch of Lahtis, and a 3 inch Navy deck gun which is actually that cute little thing they used in the movie The Sand Pebbles. It had a little short barrel on it, maybe 5 or 6 feet long. Some of these neat collections go on, and on.
SAR: Speaking of interesting collections, you were working on the Stembridge Gun Rentals collection; you did the inventory there.
Dave: That was 1973. Stembridge wanted to value it, and sell it off. They wanted $600,000 and much as we tried, we couldn’t find that much value there. Dolf valued the machine guns and worked on counting parts, bayonets, etc. too, with Tom Phair and Hal Ross. They were pretty much working for me on that. That was one huge pile of stuff, well you know, you bought all that.
SAR: No, we appraised it then brokered it all off. LMO did the Class 3 and assault rifles, I brought in J.R. & Diana LaRue and they handled the Title I. Collectively, we sold off five major Hollywood inventories. Altogether about 14 000 firearms.
Dave: There weren’t near that many when we did the appraisal. We couldn’t see $600,000 for the pile back in ’73, went for a heck of a lot more than that in the 1990s, I’ll bet. One thing I noticed is when the guns came in from rental use, like a bunch of single-action Colts and some 1892 Winchesters that were all original, they were pretty nasty. “These things are filthy, don’t you clean them?” I asked. They said, “Yeah, we know they are, but they’re just rental guns.” There was every imaginable gun there, some really rare stuff. We had other deals of great interest. The San Francisco art museum, the Golden Gate Museum, used to have a collection of World War I memorabilia and a Renault tank. They had a 150mm German field piece, a truly big gun. There was a 75mm Italian gun that was the first gun ever made to have a split trail on it. Then there was an Italian 150mm Howitzer complete with a limber that was just gorgeous. It weighed 10,600 pounds. These were all in excellent condition because they’d all been indoors in that museum for 50 years: no rust, no rotten wood, just in really nice shape. When they took that display out of there and put it in storage in Southern California, they decided nobody’s interested in this old garbage anymore and they were going to sell it. They went to a local auction outfit, the Raben Brothers. That guy could sell vacuum cleaners to Eskimos with dirt floors. He really could, he was talented, and a great auction place. We went down there, Bert and I and Tom. We got a paddle and bought all the cannon except the French 75mm. We had agreed not to bid on that because someone wanted it for the museum in Los Angeles. I said, “That’s a fair deal. Let them have it, we won’t bid.” When it got around to that Renault tank, we saw that it had taken a round in the engine compartment on the left rear. Other than that it had World War I paint on it: that camouflage paint. It was restorable. It had the wooden drive wheels up front instead of the steel or metal ones. We bid on it and at $600 the bidding stopped. I was at $600. The auctioneer looks around and says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I can’t believe that this extremely rare piece of ordnance from the First World War, so rare that the Smithsonian doesn’t even have one,” (which was probably true), “and you’re going to let this man steal this valuable artifact for a lousy $600.” One guy shouts, “Hell no, $700.” Then $800, $900, and up, and it was gone. [laughter]
SAR: That’s such a sad story, Dave, you didn’t get the tank.
Dave: No, sadly, we didn’t get that, but we sure did get a lot of good cannon. That tank now belongs to Hayes Otoupalik. He’s been around for almost fifty years in this business himself. Guess I was involved in most of the cannon deals around the US. I ran the Old West Gun Room for around 20 years, and I got more and more into cannons. Sold over 50 Lahti 20mm 1939 anti-tank guns. Thousands of other pieces and over 15,000 rounds of Lahti ammo. Had a few Gatling guns as well. About eight years ago I had this Model 1903 Gatling, it was an experimental, in .30-40 Krag. There’s a radio show and people call in and ask questions. One day this guy called in on the program and said, “I got this old Gatling gun. How do I find out more about it?” The radio guy says, “Call Dangerous Dave.” The owner calls me up and I asked what he wanted for it. He said he didn’t know. I said, “Well, you’ve got to have some figure in mind.” He says, “It’s yours for $25,000.” I said, “Sure, I’ll give you 25 grand for it. I’ll send you $10,000 right now and I’ll pay you the rest when I get there. I can’t come out for three days; I’m busy.” He said, “You don’t have to send any money. Your word’s good enough.” I got on a plane, rented a car and trailer and drove up into Massachusetts. We walked in his living room and there it sat; a beautiful 1903 Gatling. I gave him the $25,000 and drove off with it. It was later sold at Butterfield’s Auction and brought $58,000.
SAR: You had that nickname “Dangerous Dave” for a long time, and the company was called The Old Western Scrounger. When did you start that company?
Dave: I would say it was about 1975. The reason was that people would come in and always ask for something unusual, and we didn’t have a source. “Where can I get ammunition for a 43 rotary rolling block, or a Spencer or this or that or the other thing?” Of course, there isn’t any available. There’s nobody left that makes these odd calibers. I got thinking, “Hell, there’s a market here for this stuff.” I started out with making odd caliber ammunition, had a couple of guys custom-making it for my store. I made a deal with RWS for the exclusive right for the entire United States for their set of rifle and pistol cartridges. I was the distributor for the whole country for that. That’s how we really got the Old Western Scrounger started. We’d make custom ammunition for customers that couldn’t get it any other place.
SAR: I can remember buying 8mm Nambu from you and some weird Italian cartridges that I needed way back in the ’70s. Everyone I knew bought from “The Old Western Scrounger.”
Dave: It was a helluva good deal for everyone. People got the cartridges they needed; we made money and made the business grow. One of our specialties at the Old Western Scrounger was something that many SAR readers will be very familiar with, that’s the Rock Crusher Loading press and our reloading for artillery pieces for recreational shooters. I designed it in about 1974. I had taken a .55 caliber (14.3x99mm) 1937 Boys anti-tank rifle, and converted it over to .50 BMG (12.7x99mm). I couldn’t find any good ammo for it, and reloading for .50 was almost unheard of. I made the Rock Crusher for this to start with, and ended up adding calibers and ability as we went along. Eventually, we got it up to 37mm Short for the US 37mm Model 1916 Trench Cannon. No problem at all. It takes 960 grains of FG together with machine gun primer, one fuse and fill her up with black powder. We used original brass on that. Then, there’s the Two-Pounder, 42mm, we can load for. The Rock Crusher could load for 20mm Lahti (20x138mm) and load for any 20mm. We turned conical projectiles out of bar stock. (Dave starts holding up brass from his cartridge displays.) You know what gun Teddy Roosevelt took to Cuba? He took a “Dynamite gun.” The Zalinski Dynamite Gun used a black powder cartridge to fire a captive piston down a tube to compress the air, which was then released and tossed a dynamite charge for a long distance. Here’s the blank case for the Zalinski gun.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V12N12 (September 2009)