By Dan Shea and Dolf Goldsmith –
Hinderikus (Henk) Lucas Visser was born in the City of Groningen, the capital of Groningen Province in the northeast of the Netherlands, on 5 August 1923. Henk was very involved in the CETME rifle project, the original HK G3, Stoner’s projects (most notably the Stoner 63A1), Oerlikon, Mauser, and many other historical events that impact on the small arms community today. Smallarmsreview.com is pleased to bring this lengthy and comprehensive interview to our readers from our 2006 issue and will be presented in two parts. – Dan Shea, SAR Editor-in-Chief
SAR: Thanks for joining us, Henk. I guess the readers would like to know what got you started with firearms – what was your first gun?
Visser: My first gun was an old pinfire revolver, which you could buy for about two bucks in those days. I was maybe fifteen years old. Pinfire ammunition was very rare so I just collected these and enjoyed looking at them and I would hide them from my mother who did not approve. My father had died when I was ten years old. Later in life my mother would complain about my gun collecting habits, but I would say, “Mother, it’s your own fault. You never bought me an air rifle.”
SAR: And your interest in military firearms?
Visser: I had wanted to be in the military, so as soon as I could ride my bicycle, I was always around the barracks in Groningen and the nearby airfield. After the German occupation of Holland, May 10, 1940, there wasn’t much hope for me to join the Dutch army. I was still in high school, and was definitely not a Nazi sympathizer. With friends, we harassed the occupying military units, and I was arrested by the Germans but managed to talk my way out of it several times. I was eighteen years old when the SD (German Sicherheitsdienst) finally arrested me.
SAR: What were the charges? And, I suppose, were you actually guilty?
Visser: Guilty as charged. Sabotage, gun possession, those were the main charges. It was May 5th, 1942 when the German SD arrested me. It was in the classroom, in front of all the other kids. (Laughs) It was quite something! On one occasion I had broken into the German barracks and put a match to a wooden building that the Germans were setting up for storing radio transmitters. It was at the airfield next to our town that the Germans had expanded and made into a bigger airfield. They held me, because the last thing I did was to break into the Navy officers’ mess, and I stole a K98, a machine pistol, a pistol, ammo and some of their papers. We had a small group of people that had gotten together to do this, and there was one man who was a traitor, he tried to blackmail me. Anyway, the Dutch police got involved, and I got arrested. Then in July I had a Navy court-martial in the town of Utrecht.
SAR: So, your first machine gun involved getting a Navy court-martial from the Germans while you were in high school?
Visser: (Laughs) Yes, and they condemned me to death and also three years for another break-in in a Dutch Nazi gunsmith shop in town.
SAR: An additional three years?
Visser: With the Germans, you were condemned separately for each crime and punished that way as well. I had a friend in jail, a cadet from the Dutch military academy, who was condemned separately to death three times, plus ten years, and four months. His father was very rich, and he started paying people off, so the Germans took off two of the death sentences and shot him for the third. My uncle, who was a director of the Dutch Philips electronic company, knew one of the German supervisors of the factory and tried to get me off. He told the supervisor, “You have to go and see if you can get the boy pardoned since his mother is a widow and only has one other younger son.” The supervisor went to see Seis Inquart, the German ruler of Holland, who said that this was a job only for the military. He suggested that my uncle should talk to General Christiansen, who was the military commander in Holland…but he also said no, and he said that Dutch high school boys who think that they can make a joke out of the German Army will be shot. So my mother was quite desperate, and she went with our lawyer to see the German Navy commander herself. Just to let you know how these Germans were; he lived in a big villa…my mother and our lawyer passed the guards at the gate, rang the bell, and a Navy sailor opened the door. He took the letter that my mother had brought asking for a pardon, and left my mother and the lawyer standing outside in the rain for half an hour. Then the door opened again and the same sailor gave the letter back to my mother, torn in half.
My mother was very desperate at this point. Her father had a butcher shop in town, and next to that was a vegetable shop…our two families were good friends. One of the children of the vegetable shop owner, Kees Veening, had gone to live in Berlin to be a speech therapist, teaching them how to breathe, etc. Kees Veening had a neighbor, and they became good friends. The neighbor was a historian, a reservist in the German army and was called up for duty in 1938. He had become a general and was responsible for the daily historical facts in Hitler’s headquarters, the “Wolfschanze.” This man had an idea: if he could get a hold of my file from the Dutch prison and keep it, the Germans in Holland would not be able to shoot me. So I sat for three months in the section of the prison where they kept the prisoners who were condemned to die, and oftentimes at 5 in the morning you would hear the Germans with the steel-toed boots coming up to take one or two of us out to be shot. So the question was always, “Who’s next?” I was there for three months.
SAR: On a German death row cellblock for three months, waiting to be shot every day?
Visser: Yes. You had to take all of your clothes off at night, so that if you escaped during the night you’d be naked. One night, there was a tremendous row and shouting and a group of drunken German guards came knocking on my door. I was sleeping on a straw bale, so I got up and ran to the window, stood at attention, reported myself and my punishment. The Germans shouted “Visser, who was condemned to death…You swine, our Führer has pardoned you!” After repeating this several times they threw my door closed, and I thought, “Oh, this is wonderful,” and went back to sleep on my straw bale. The next morning I realized that I had made it, and had gotten 15 years in a German prison instead. Later I learned that the German historian had waited until the Germans were throwing a party for their successes in Russia. They had taken over a million prisoners at that occasion and were celebrating. They were extremely pleased and were drinking champagne in Hitler’s headquarters. As Hitler was sitting at the table, the historian, General Scherff, approached with the letter from my mother and explained the story. Hitler looked up and said, “A friend of yours, eh?” and Hitler himself crossed out “Death Penalty” and wrote “15 years Zuchthaus” instead. When the people at my prison got the telex message from the Wolfschanze, they got drunk and came to my door at 2 or 3 in the morning to tell me that I had made it.
SAR: Well, there’s a project for some of our better connected readers. Somewhere, there is a piece of paper with Adolf Hitler’s handwriting on it that freed Henk Visser from a death sentence.
Visser: Yes, yes, I would pay $10,000 for that piece of paper! I was then transported to prison in Germany, a prison with small factories inside. There I had to work very hard, we had to make little aluminum cylinders. After the war, while taking apart a 20mm shell, I found one of those little cylinders. It was an aluminum detonator. We had to fashion them and drill a hole through them and of course thread them. We would make 5,000 of these per day and if you didn’t make 5,000 then you only got a liter of cabbage soup instead of 1.5 liters. Cabbage soup may not sound very special, but in the prison, an extra 0.5 liter of soup was important! So we made 5,000 per day.
We were in a very old prison called Zuchthaus Reinbach, near Bonn. Then I was moved to another prison called Zuchthaus Siegburg, on the other side of Bonn, and there I also worked for my dinner. I repaired military uniforms, and worked in a tool making shop. We worked about twelve hours a day in shifts, sometimes during the day and sometimes during the night. I must say I was lucky; in a concentration camp I would have died. In these prisons you had a roof over your head. It was a big building with thick walls, and if it was 20 degrees below zero outside it was only just freezing inside, which was cold but you didn’t freeze to death. We had guards who had been guards for all of their lives, they were professionals and so there were not many beatings or much abuse. We had some new guards who came in from the Eastern front missing an arm or something, and since they really couldn’t do a good job they would sometimes beat us to take revenge.
Anyway, I got very ill. I had tuberculosis in my lungs, intestines, on my vocal cords, and on a heart valve. I was dying and my weight was 100 pounds. Still, I was always treated a little differently from the other prisoners.
SAR: You must have had some pull from somewhere.
Visser: They knew I had received a pardon from Hitler himself, and the General Scherff sometimes inquired about how I was doing, so yes, they were careful with me. I was taken to the prison hospital. It was unbelievable, there were 3,000 prisoners with half of them sick and there were only 14 beds in the hospital. I got one of those beds, and I was dying. My uncle, who’s company Philips also owned a lot of factories in Germany, started inquiring about how I was doing. He was told that I was ill, but treated very well, and that I was cared for by nuns and that every day I would get an egg, but my uncle didn’t trust them. He sent someone who talked to the director of the Zuchthaus who reported that I couldn’t talk anymore and that I was dying. So he had his lawyers look over the German law regarding prisoners, and they found an old law that said if you were incarcerated and dying, you could go home to die. All of the judges that condemned me would have to sign off for my release, so my uncle went to see all five of the judges, at that time they were dispersed all over Germany because of fear for an invasion in Holland. When all of them signed I was sent home, but because of my contagious disease, I wasn’t allowed to go back by train. They didn’t want me infecting anybody else. The Phillips people had an ambulance that ran on propane, but since the gas stations were so far apart in Germany, they put the ambulance on top of a truck and trailer which ran on a wood burning gas generator. They came with a nurse to the prison, and through my uncle managed to rescue my hospital cellmate as well, another Dutch student from Groningen. We drove back through Germany and I was very happy to see buildings still on fire from Allied bombings. We got back to Holland and they hid me in a Roman Catholic sanatorium in Bilthoven. I was there for two and a half years, recovering.
SAR: Was that the end of the war?
Visser: On the 18th of May, 1944 I got out of Germany. The liberation of Europe happened while I was convalescing, and at the end of 1946 I went home.
SAR: It must have taken a long time to build your strength back.
Visser: I felt ok, I did what I had to do, and I could even bicycle a little bit. My mother made me go back to high school; she said I needed a high school diploma. (laughs) Of course the military was out of the question for me, because of my weak lungs. I wanted to go to the police academy, but was offered a job as a sales inspector in Java, in the East Indies – formerly the Dutch East Indies – and I accepted. The company had me tested to make sure that my health was alright, it was, and I was approved to go and work in the tropics.
SAR: Was this a firearms related job you were looking for in the tropics?
Visser: No, it was in the tobacco industry. I was in Java for five years where I worked and hunted; wild boar, mostly. I had a German 7mm rifle with a 12 gauge shotgun barrel. My job was inspecting the cigarettes sold by our company in Java. We manufactured the cigarettes, and wanted to make sure that the cigarettes weren’t being sold or bought on the black market. There were many Chinese sales outlets all over Indonesia and the islands that needed to be inspected. I traveled a lot, all over Java, and for a while I lived in Jakarta, Malang and Semarang. There were about five Europeans running the factory, and for a year and a half I was the chief purchasing agent. This was from 1950 until 1955. (Dolf mentions that he was there at the same time, too bad they hadn’t met at that point.) It was a fantastic time; the company was really well run. The Dutch people who were running it were no-nonsense and everything was always ok. Holland had given up Indonesia in December of 1949, and the bad thing was (and I’m very pro-American) that under American pressure, they pushed the Dutch out and threatened to stop the Marshall Plan for Holland. There were millions of dollars going into rebuilding the Netherlands. So you can understand that our government gave in.
SAR: (Dolf) The Americans pushed the Dutch into giving up the country. My father was very bitter about that, too.
Visser: Yes, yes, the Americans had the idea of instituting liberty and democracy and everything Western, but we were not ready for it! Our Queen Wilhelmina had already said in 1942 that Indonesia would be a free country in the future; the process would have only taken about 15 years to complete.
SAR (Dan): In America we tend to think that there’s a magic wand for those who’ve been under colonial control or subjugation or despotic control, that they can suddenly handle freedom. I don’t want to get too far off the subject, but I’ve seen it too many times in too many places. Often we think we can touch a country and suddenly it’s free. It’s certainly not that simple. Henk, you lived right through the middle of the Jakarta incidents? Is this the point where you started to develop more of an interest in machine guns?
Visser: No, Dan, I have always been crazy about weapons. But going through the war years changed my perception of the world. When the Germans first “arrived,” they acted nice and very friendly. Holland was very wealthy and a rich booty. When it came to food I saw German soldiers go into Dutch shops to buy and eat an entire stick of butter, they hadn’t seen real butter in so long. Other things too, pastries, breads, all sorts of foods, they took them back home to their families. So in the beginning there wasn’t any ill treatment, but as every good Dutchman, I hated them from the very first moment. It wasn’t until later that the Germans showed their real character. They cleaned out the whole country. I actually started my collecting interest with military weapons when I got home from prison and the sanatorium. There was a gun in almost every home, taken from the Germans when they fled. I had friends at the police department, so if they had a really nice machine gun I was able to shoot it or buy it if they didn’t require it.
SAR: This was before your journey to Indonesia? Were you able to pick up many rare guns?
Visser: Yes, this was from 1947 to 1949. My interest in collecting military firearms was very intense, starting then. In those days it was all the common guns, also French guns that the Germans used. For instance, the first French machine gun that I got was a Hotchkiss 1914. It was a great big machine gun with cooling fins and a huge tripod. I was very interested in German sniper rifles at the time. When I went to Indonesia, I had to hide my collection in my mother’s house, since I had no license for these guns.
SAR: Are we seeing a pattern of youthful disregard for gun laws here?
Visser: (laughs) Yes, yes, and they were all cleaned very well before I left, so that when I returned there wasn’t a spot of rust on any of them.
SAR: When did you get involved in arms trading?
Visser: On my way to an appointment I stopped at a gun shop in a small street in Groningen. The guy that owned the shop had also spent some time in a German prison, as well as a concentration camp. In the shop I met a gentleman who was on the board of an ammunition factory in the south of Holland, he invited me to come and see the operation. I went there; it was a small factory that had just received an order for .30 carbine ammo from the Americans. The factory itself was a mess. I was told that the chairman of the board from the factory would like to talk to me; he offered me a job as director. He told me that the founder of the factory had died and that his younger brother wasn’t doing a good job running things. I said no, I didn’t want that job; I wanted to go back to Indonesia.
My boss back in Indonesia was a colonialist. He worked us to death, we never got enough salary, but we still led a wonderful life. He would always say, “Do this and I’ll give you a raise and a promotion.” I learned that even if I got a promotion, there would be no raise for me. He told me to go to Jakarta for a year and if I did a good job there, I would get a raise and a promotion, but when my review came up, I got a good promotion but no raise, as usual. He always had another task for me but I never got a raise. After five years, I got 8 months furlough. Usually when people went on furlough they would go straight home to Holland, but I asked if I could go to America. My boss agreed to pay for it, saying that I wasn’t such a bad guy. I flew to the Cocos Islands, Australia, lots of other small islands, Samoa, and then on to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Boston to visit a friend, and down to Washington D.C.
SAR: That doesn’t explain your start in the arms trade…
Visser: I am getting to it, Dan, patience. Before I went on vacation my boss in Indonesia began to worry about the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, which was getting more and more attention in America. He asked me to see how the American tobacco companies were dealing with it. I went to Philip Morris, and they told me that more and more people were buying mentholated and filtered cigarettes because the public thought that they were not as bad. I wrote back to my boss what the Americans had told me, and he quickly started ordering the machinery to manufacture filtered cigarettes. These of course are more dangerous than unfiltered cigarettes because it allows you to smoke the cigarette all the way to the filter. You end up inhaling far more tar, etc. than you would get from smoking a cigarette without filter.
My boss had told me that upon my return from furlough I would become the Inspector for the Island of Sumatra. And so again I asked him if I would get my raise, he said that we would discuss it when I returned. He was in Holland at the same time, so I traveled to Eindhoven where he was with his family and had dinner with him. I asked him during dinner if I would finally get the position I wanted, with a higher salary and the ability to sign for the company as a representative. (Editor’s note: In Europe, the right to sign documents in the name of the company puts you in a much higher level socially. You generally get a much better salary.) He said that if I did a good job working in Sumatra that I would get the position I wanted. At that moment I realized he was lying, and the next morning I started talking to the people from the ammunition factory again. I asked for what was at that time a fantastic salary, not at all contingent on how the company did at the end of the year. They accepted!
SAR: So your international weapons career started in the ammunition factory in Hertogenbosch in Holland.
Visser: You might say it started when I was making those fuzes in a German prison (Laughs). But, I’ll tell you, my first day as director there, I almost cried. There were two secretaries, and neither one could write or type a letter without mistakes. Everything looked horrible and unprofessional from that office on down to the factory. I had to fight to straighten out that company. When I arrived, there were 63 people working there, and when I left there were over a 1,000.
SAR: Did this job lead to you becoming a member of the 7.62 NATO council?
Visser: After the cigarette factory in Indonesia, I think this was a really big start for me. I got a call one day from an American friend at the Pentagon who said, “Henk, we know you’re working on blanks with a lengthened case so that they feed automatically. We don’t have that, and this morning during a mock battle in Panama the American side had to shout “Poof! Poof!” because they had no blanks that would function automatically in their weapons. The general who was responsible for Panama got mad and demanded immediate delivery of the special blanks.”
I said to my friend that I could get some of my guys and some of our new blanks, cases, powder, tools and the necessary weapons, and fly over to see what we could do. We flew to Washington and went from there to Frankfurt Arsenal, where testing began on our ammo. Whether fired from a gun that had been in a freezer or not, our blanks worked perfectly! The guys from Frankfurt Arsenal wanted to inspect our blanks and see how they could copy them, but they didn’t have the time. The Pentagon wanted 45 million blank rounds in cal. 7.62 NATO, and we would get one-third of the order, which for us was a very, very big order. We were very excited until one day I got a call from them with sad news. They said that Congress refused to release the money needed for that big order and instead specified that only 30 million rounds would be purchased, with the order going to Frankfurt Arsenal, so we lost out. This was a big blow to our company, but there was also good news. They told me that they understood that we wanted to make 20mm aircraft ammo. They offered me a 20mm ammunition factory for free, with new machinery and everything, in St. Louis, that had been used to manufacture .60 caliber ammo and later 20mm aircraft ammo. It had been “mothballed” for use in an emergency.
SAR: The early M39 revolver cannon series, the T161s, were T130E3 .60 caliber machine guns before they were moved into the 20mm range.
Visser: Yes, it was the plant for that ammunition. We went to St. Louis to look at it, and we were flabbergasted. Everything, the machines, the tools, etc. was brand new, and just for us. I went back to Holland to arrange for transport. I came back to the Pentagon (which was very easy to just walk into in those days) to talk to Colonel Moor and a couple of other officials, but they had sad news again. “We cannot give you the plant,” they said. They saw my reaction…and after a long pause continued, “But we can sell you the plant for a $1,000.” We paid the thousand dollars and brought all of the machinery back to Holland. The end result was that once we got operational we supplied every NATO Air Force with the 20mm rounds: the Brits, the Norwegians, the Germans, the Dutch, everybody. Later, when the Vietnam War began, the US Air Force realized that they did not have enough 20mm rounds. They requested an order for 10 million 20mm rounds. Our Holland plant could fill that order so a meeting took place at the pentagon. One of the officials said, “This is crazy! Lake City is not the only ammunition plant we have. Don’t we have one in the South?” Colonel Moor pointed at me and said, “Yes, and HE has that plant.” (Visser laughs) So we used the plant from St. Louis to fill a 23 million dollar order for 10 million rounds.
SAR: Like all good arms dealers, I love a story where you get a plant for surplus and then get to sell the product back to your source (laughter). Henk, that probably would have been 1967 or 1968 and jumps us too far ahead in this story. When did you first get involved with Armalite?
Visser: Ah, patience, Dan, patience. First we must address the CETME (Centro de Estudios Technicales de Materiales Especiales) program. When I started to work in Holland for NWM in 1955, they had an advisor that was a retired Dutch rear admiral who became a very good friend of mine. He had been in Spain recently (he spoke fluent Spanish), where some Spanish and Germans had been working on a new gun made from sheet steel. I knew of some of the developments that had been done in Germany with the Sturmgewehr, and I flew to Madrid. The operations there were very isolated from the outside world. The main operation was on the CETME rifle. They showed me the whole factory, and pointed out some of the small tools and things that they were missing which I could supply, so I told them I’d help out. I became very friendly with them, and pretty soon I had my own CETME rifle to take back with me to Holland. That rifle…that’s a whole other story.
It was made for special ammunition, an aluminum bullet with a copper jacket…a very long bullet with a short case. The man who designed this ammunition was Dr. Voss, and he was the German Air Force ballistician, and he was also the ballistician for the CETME group. He was very knowledgeable about recoil and automatic fire and the physics of holding a gun. During that time, the first German armed forces were the Bundesgrenzschutz who were supposed to guard the German boarders. There were 20,000 soldiers armed with German K98’s and the MG42’s, as well as 100 new 20mm Hispano guns and of course the P38 pistol, and nothing else. The boss was Colonel Naujokat, and he had been in charge of the two flat cars before and behind Hitler’s quarters on his train (during WWII). These open cars had 4-barreled 20mm automatic cannons on them.
The Spanish went to the Colonel and demonstrated for him in Bonn. The Colonel liked the new Sturmgewehr and the ammo very much, but told them they had the wrong caliber. The standard caliber was cal. 7.62, but this new Spanish ammunition was cal. 7.92. So they went back to Spain and changed the gun, the magazine, and, of course, they had to make new ammunition. They also made new firing tables, it took a year. After which they had their new CETME ammunition in cal. 7.62.
SAR: This was not yet 7.62 NATO ammunition, correct?
Visser: Correct. After the Spanish finished their new ammo, they brought it and the guns back to the German Colonel, who turned white and said, “Oh my God. I should have told you that 7.62 also requires a new case: the T65 case.” The Spanish group was beside itself, returned to Madrid and decided that it was all over. The gun was mathematically designed for a low powered cartridge and the 7.62 NATO had much more power, so it needed a totally new gun. But one of the bosses at the Madrid factory pointed out that the factory had good relations with the American military attaché, since they had just received an order to develop caseless rifle ammunition and caseless 20mm. The boss said, “Go and get a barrel and 1,000 7.62 NATO rounds.” Which they got from the U.S. The CETME with that barrel fired 600 7.62 rounds before the gun fell apart. The cartridge was far too powerful, since the gun was designed for a lighter round. The German engineers rebuilt and strengthened the housing as the German army wanted to arm their soldiers with them.
They had contact with the Heckler & Koch people, who were all old Mauser people working in two wooden barracks, making tools for pressings and so forth, and that’s how I came into contact with Heckler & Koch. The Germans at the Weapons Department in Bonn were always making changes in the gun, and it was Heckler & Koch who made the changes on the CETME. I told the CETME people, “You guys have no sales organization….let NWM have the rights to act for you all over the world.” They told me I had to pay for the right, which was no problem for NWM. They gave me the world rights for the CETME rifle, excluding Spain, Portugal and Germany. The rest of the world was ours. They also said that if I wanted to set up production elsewhere, they would help us get started.
In the meantime they were still working on the guns…making a new grip and so on…they had spent millions making the guns and making the changes. I went to the Dutch army, who agreed to test out the gun with all kinds of different ammo, including French steelcased ammo. They fired the steel ammo. When the trigger was pulled, there was a BIG noise, the rate of fire was 1,800 rounds per minute, and about half of the empty steelcases got stuck in the wooden wall. I told the Colonel to stop the test…it was a hopeless case. As it turned out, they never actually manufactured the steel ammo, but it was a hopeless case nonetheless.
To make the gun work, they had added grooves in the chamber, so that some of the gas would press on the exterior of the case to release it. The main fault of the CETME rifle is that as soon as the climate gets moist, firing the gun without immediately cleaning it results in sticky cases. This design of the roller locking system is only good for lightly-powered ammunition. We had a very fortunate thing happen; the Germans had improved the gun enough so that it functioned, but later on I learned that Heckler & Koch had a trick up their sleeves. All of the guns were tested, and they had seven different-sized sets of rollers, so that if there was a problem they would put other rollers on the locking mechanism. They would change the rollers until everything worked properly!
SAR: Very pragmatic from the point of view of a demonstrator. What year was that?
Visser: 1958 as I remember. Because the Germans had changed the rollers and had gotten the first order for 400,000 rifles, the whole world wanted the CETME rifle in the form of the G3. They had to say no to worldwide orders, because they didn’t have the rights to sell outside of Spain, Portugal and Germany, I did! We did have plans to make the rifle outside of Spain, but I stopped those plans because I felt the design was not good. I got a call from Bonn, it was my good friend from the Ministry who said, “Henk, we cannot have this. Here we are, a great nation, and we cannot sell our own rifle. I’ll offer you a deal: I know you want to make 20mm ammo for those thousand Starfighters we have bought.” They were so far back, they bought 1,000 Starfighters and they didn’t know what gun was in it! He said, “You’ll get 33% of all orders for 20mm ammo if you relinquish the rights to sell the CETME rifle.” I said, “OK.” He immediately went and got his secretary to type up a document saying that I would forever get 33% of all the 20mm orders for the Germans. ANY 20mm ammo. It saved our neck. It was one of the best days of my life…I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the end of our CETME involvement.
SAR: You were the link between CETME and Heckler & Koch?
Visser: Partly, yes. Heckler & Koch were not big shots. Their company wasn’t large enough at that time to make the big deals. They grew because of all these orders that came in from everywhere. Later they designed many important weapon systems. It was really something to see.
SAR: Henk, I would like to come back to the rifle design programs in more depth, later. If you share your experience as a collector with our readers, I am sure they would be interested. This may seem somewhat insensitive, but to obtain your collection must have cost a fortune; far above the income of a young Dutch boy who was on the Nazi death row.
Visser: Yeah, that’s about right. I have been very fortunate in my business decisions and made some very nice commissions. We can come back to that business later.
SAR: So, what was your passion?
Visser: Collecting guns. Well…really the military guns. That was the start, anything military I could get. Later it was the Dutch firearms and I sold my military collection to Bonn, it was the beginning of the museum they have now in Koblenz. 849 of my guns are still there – even my Gatling gun – the beautiful brand-new Gatling gun with the carriage and the ammunition car.
SAR: What was the Gatling, a British one?
Visser: No, an American one. The Colt 1883 model with the jacket around the barrel, and the tripod. One day in a military base, somewhere in America, near Picatinny I believe, a sergeant was cleaning up the attic, and he found this Gatling gun. It was brand new but completely taken apart, no one had ever looked at it. He went to his Colonel who said to get rid of it. And there, magically, was Val! (laughs) And who do you think bought it on the spot?
SAR:(Dolf) Yes, Val would certainly have been there! (We are discussing the late Val Forgette of Navy Arms, another international arms dealer of the good old days.)
Visser: I knew Val very well and he sold the gun to me. Very cheap, I might add. It was really a big affair, and when I left NWM they wanted to take it, but instead I sold it to Bonn, and the Gatling is in their museum today. Two of the magazines disappeared, it is sad that there are always people in museums stealing things. There were many rare guns in the military collection. One that I thought was very rare was a 7.62 NATO Gatling gun from GE. I was the only private guy in the world who had a brand-new one.
SAR: Gatling Gun, you mean an M134 Minigun?
Visser: Yes, I got it out of Vietnam…I had so much stuff there….I was working for Dutch intelligence at the time, so they arranged for a Shell tanker to haul all the stuff I had gotten to Singapore. I had 10 RPG-7 anti-tank launchers, with 200 rounds of HE grenades. The Dutch and the Germans wanted to test them.
SAR: And how about the testing?
Visser: Well, we finally got the shipment and it had to go on the deck of a Dutch destroyer in Singapore. They loaded it from the tanker onto the warship. I had managed to get a lot of interesting items for the collection during my time in Vietnam. With the RPG-7, we had to do some testing for the government. They decided that this test they wanted to run was too big for them and they made a deal with the Germans, who did a tremendously detailed testing. They even tested the glue on the wooden cases, they checked the labels to see where they were made, in Russia or East Germany. I still have one RPG-7 and an inert rocket at home. I was very interested in the American M72 LAW. I once owned six LAWS.
SAR: When did you get into the antique guns?
Visser: Slowly I got more and more interested in the antique guns…I had always hated them, so crazy and ugly they seemed to me…but then, because of my historical interests, I decided to get rid of anything that was non-Dutch. I had the best automatic pistol collection in the world, all the early Mausers, Bittners, Schonbergers, Borschards, Gabbit Fairfaxes, etc, etc. I sold them all in one lot to Dr. Sturgess, a good friend of mine. He came to my place the first time and I opened drawers for him, and he started sweating, he was going crazy. He was…really, I’ve never seen anybody so excited by my collection.
SAR: (Dolf) Even the Maxim automatic pistols came from you? I have them in my latest book.
Visser: Yes, Dolf, the Maxims as well! I was collecting automatic pistols when nobody was interested. I went to every gun shop in Switzerland where they hadn’t had the German occupiers to take everything, and there were a hell of a lot of people saying, “That old gun there, 150 francs and you can take it, with ammo too.” Those days are gone, you know. There was a gunsmith who I was talking about Lugers with, about how the prices of the Lugers had started going up, and he said, “You know, I have Luger serial number 0001, which was presented to my neighbor, an officer, in front of the troops.” It was the first Luger that the Swiss Army officially adopted. I said “That’s interesting, can I see it?” and he brought it to me in the holster. He said, “The normal price for this is 225 francs, but if you give me 275 then it’s yours.” Those were better days, you know? You would go into a gunshop and there would be a Mondragon rifle with special bayonet. It just doesn’t happen like that anymore.
SAR: Basically Henk, all the money you made you put into collecting guns?
Visser: Everything. I had no capital, no shares; I only had substantial commissions from sales. Eventually I sold my pistols and all my special ammo to Geoff Sturgess…but…it’s like a sickness, you know? I was at the Las Vegas Antique Show and there was a very rare Dutch gun there. It looks like a single-shot pistol, but it’s a three-shot pistol with a little channel where the powder goes for the first, second and third shot, and there is a Maastricht mark under the barrel. It was from the Funderburg Collection, a very famous collection. It’s in a catalog. I bought it for a lot of money! It’s crazy!
SAR: You’re preaching to the choir when you talk to Class 3 owners in the United States. You did a series of books on your collection of Dutch guns….
Visser: Yes, they are available commercially, but are out of print at the moment. The set weighs 22 kilos. Now I’m writing more books, one with the names of all of the Dutch gun makers, about 1,400 of them. Another book project that I was working on with two technicians, both specialists with Master’s degrees in History Drs. Martens en Drs. de Vries, was to write the story of Dutch weapons starting at the Napoleonic era. As these books were written in Dutch they will be translated into English and the 3 volumes will be condensed into one. There is another book in English, almost finished, about a very special German – who later became an American – Otto von Lossnitzer, the father of the modern aircraft revolving guns.
Look for a link to the second half of our smallarmsreview.com interview with Henk Visser in an upcoming SAR newsletter when we look at Vietnam, Oerlikon, the changes to the Stoner 63 system and the innovative Mecar rifle grenade programs, as well as Visser’s work to restore Dutch firearms in Russian museums. – Dan Shea
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V9N6 (March 2006)|