By Frank Iannamico
As this final chapter goes to print in the six-part series of The Life and Times of Burton “Bob” Brenner, SAR has learned that Mr. Brenner passed away on Saturday, August 8, 2009 after a lengthy illness. We are glad to have had the opportunity to publish the majority of his story before his passing. His family has reported that he was quite pleased to see his narrative appear in SAR. Mr. Brenner will be sadly missed by all who knew him and by those who have learned of his life through the articles. Rest in peace, Bob.
During the early 1980s Burton Brenner launched a new company he named Federal Ordnance that offered a newly manufactured Springfield M1903 rifle as its flagship firearm. The newly created company launched a full-scale production of the Springfield, which was well received by an enthusiastic market. It was a decent weapon consisting of 99% U.S. government parts, all carefully inspected, tested, and found serviceable, in combination with new Federal Ordnance receivers, which followed specifications for government dimensions, heat treatment, steel composition, and was in all ways entirely up to spec. It took a crew of six men to fabricate 50-60 rifles a day. With production off and running, Brenner undertook a visit to Montgomery Ward and K-Mart, selling them on the idea of handling the Springfield rifle at the retail end.
Perhaps the best single piece of business ever done by Federal Ordnance was, once more, involved with Springfield rifles. At the time the guns could still not be imported into the United States, but Brenner learned that the State of California had a large reserve of Springfield rifles stored in a warehouse in Sacramento. The rifles had been the property of the California Conservation Corp, the old CCC, which prior to World War II had been a substantial workforce within the California state bureaucracy. The state mailed out invitations for bids in the Sacramento area. Brenner, with sufficient financial backing, won the bid.
There were approximately 12,000 Springfield rifles in the lot, and over a thousand Remington Model 515 .22 caliber training rifles with target sights. There were also P-17 rifles, built on the British-designed Enfield pattern. There were also huge lots of Springfield spare parts, including some of which had been in very short supply.
After the CCC Springfield deal, Federal Ordnance was occupied with constant movement of a variety of merchandise out to gun shops throughout California and, in an ever-increasing arc, through to Arizona and Nevada. By the success of the mail-order business and the various other deals, FedOrd flourished.
Manufacturing at Federal Ordnance
A few major decisions were made that resulted in Federal Ordnance manufacturing some popular, but at the time, difficult to obtain firearms. The first one was a .45 automatic produced from scratch, along the lines of John Browning’s M1911A1 design, which then was still the official sidearm of the U.S. military. With the backing of a Spanish casting company, FedOrd moved forward into production.
A few years later, the FedOrd 1911A1 pistols formed an essential part of a big transaction with the Philippines. The success in that deal was based on the fact that Brenner was able to furnish the Philippine army with just what they needed in a Model 1911A1 .45 automatic, and just when they needed it. When advised that their guns would be emblazed with their national insignia and inscribed “Property of the Philippine Government,” their nationalistic pride was intensified; the idea of having their own guns rather than old U.S. cast-offs was very appealing to them. FedOrd manufactured several thousand of the Philippine model for their official use.
With the 1911A1 program launched, Federal Ordnance moved onto their M14 program. The U.S. abandoned the M14 rifle, which had been designed to replace World War II’s famous M1 Garand, in the 1960s in favor of the 5.56mm M16.
With the U.S. holding hundreds of thousands of M14 rifles as surplus inventory, it was decided that they would be sold off or given to friendly governments, with many South American countries receiving huge lots of them. The Israelis received large quantities, as did the Philippines and Taiwan. These rifles were utilized through the 1960s and on into the 1980s until the receiving countries no longer wanted them because they too desired modernization by a reduction in caliber to 5.56mm. Accordingly, these M14 rifles were put up for sale but, as full automatic weapons, they could not be imported. A way was found around this impediment: dismantle the receiver and leave it overseas, then make a special M14 receiver designed to function solely in semiautomatic mode which would be approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Federal Ordnance jumped into this program.
Federal Ordnance was not the innovator of the idea, but followed on pretty quickly, purchasing M14 kits and parts, 500 here, 500 there, and started to produce their own M14 rifle. This turned out to be another hot item in its time. Then, through his Chinese connections, Brenner learned that the Chinese government back in the 1950s had produced a dead-ringer copy of the M14 rifle. He found this to be one of the most fascinating things that happened in the firearms business when he later learned the details of how the Chinese obtained plans for the weapons in an effort to make an arm they could use to supply the North Vietnamese, and they chose the M14 as the gun to do it with. They thought they would make duplicate M14s, supply them to North Viet Nam, everyone would think the North Vietnamese had equipped themselves with American-made M14’s captured from the South Vietnamese, and no one would be the wiser. Of course, the idea was absurd because anyone with any ordnance experience could look at a Chinese M14 and know in an instant that it was not American made. The Chinese went on to produce hundreds of thousands of the rifles, but the North Vietnamese much preferred the AK-47. An instant surplus was thereby created, with quantities in excess of a hundred thousand brand new Chinese M14 rifles available for purchase, which ironically would supply the parts needed for semiautomatic M14 rifle production in the U.S.
Brenner made an initial contact with the Chinese and bought 10,000 M14 parts kits at a price considerably below what was paid for U.S. kits. He was able to go into full production utilizing Spanish-cast receivers suitably dressed to fit by FedOrd CNC equipment. These were very much welcomed in the American market; with customers paying in advance for a position to obtain the Federal Ordnance M14 rifles designated the Model M14A. While the M14A and .45 production took up most of their machining time, they were occasionally able to sneak in production of M1 Garand and M1 carbine receivers, both of which were in demand, to be united with plentiful spare parts available on the market. FedOrd itself had kits and parts from various sources, and was able to produce some complete guns of its own. Both the Garand and carbine programs came to a screeching halt, however, when FedOrd signed the Philippine contract. Part of that inventory was enormous quantities of carbines and Garands, which despite being in varying states of disrepair, served to supply all the receivers needed.
When Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency of the United States in 1981, the American surplus industry had great hopes that things would be made easier in comparison to the difficult Carter years when the industry faced a very unfriendly domestic government. Reagan’s commitments and promises were indeed fulfilled. By the mid-1980s, regulations were revised to make it once again possible to import surplus weaponry and ammunition into the United States marketplace. For nearly the previous two decades, a freeze on most such activity had brought a halt to all legal importation. The new laws hit the gun industry like a thunderbolt and all parties in the import game immediately fanned out throughout the world looking for surplus material.
China was considered as a possible source for surplus for several reasons. The most important one was that the Chinese government came to the realization that the obsolete weapons they were storing and maintaining in their depots, were of no use to their military. During the modernization period of the 1970s through the 1980s, their army was rearmed with AK rifles and other newer equipment, thus making obsolete and useless all the older weapons in storage. The Chinese, in a very practical way, decided that this material should be sold if at all possible, although it had no conception of value or depth of the world market, especially with regard to the United States.
Attempting to make contact with an appropriate Chinese personality, Brenner came across the name of Thomas Yu, an agent working out of Hong Kong. His initial faxes reflected that he was a technician and a man who had an excellent understanding of not only the Chinese inventory, but also of what could be done in the world market. Brenner quickly arranged to fly to Hong Kong where he met Thomas, and together they set out traveling within Asia.
Thomas was able to prove his abilities by gaining entrance into Chinese government facilities. One particular major depot outside Beijing was quite impressive, containing what appeared to be hundreds of thousands of weapons, primarily long guns in the form of Japanese Arisakas, along with considerable numbers of various German, Czechoslovakian, and Belgian Mauser rifles and carbines.
The situation with surplus pistols and revolvers in China was extraordinary. They had monumental quantities of different weapons, the major one being the C-96 Mauser Broomhandle pistol. The Broomhandle was consistently a scarce and valuable item on the world market. Large quantities of them did not seem to exist in any one-supply source.
The famous Chinese warlord Hwan Kee Lo was able to acquire a substantial lot of Thompson submachine guns and wanted a compatible Broomhandle pistol in .45 caliber as a sidearm. He turned to an arsenal that had previously been under German control in Shansei. From the arsenal came a Mauser C-96 Broomhandle in enlarged dimensions and chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge. Brenner was told in China that well over 10,000 were made, but that the bulk of them ended up delivered to Kurdish smelters in Mao’s back yard at the time of the Great Leap Forward when it was demanded that steel production be increased dramatically. So, instead of rare and valuable pistols, the world got inferior reinforcing rod to be anonymously buried in concrete. However, Brenner was able to import a small lot of the rare .45 caliber Broomhandle pistols, which immediately sold out.
China was, by the numbers involved, the richest source of surplus weapons. The country disgorged not only hundreds of thousands of military rifles such as the SKS, but also various semiautomatic AK rifles in 7.62x39mm caliber and a very interesting clone in .223 (5.56mm) caliber, as well as Chinese copies of the Russian Dragunov sniper rifle. There were large quantities of domestically produced Tokarev pistols, and huge quantities of inexpensive ammunition.
Brenner’s knowledge of military history suggested that the Philippines would be filled with surplus American weapons. Brenner entered into business with the Philippines during 1984, in an attempt to locate surplus firearms that would be of value and interest to the American collecting fraternity. It was general knowledge they had been supplied and utilized American weapons over a long period.
Making the connection was difficult. The country was unfortunately then in a state of high corruption under President Ferdinand Marcos and his minions, making it tough to do business legitimately. Brenner traveled to Manila and spent a couple of weeks meeting with various personnel, endless generals and ten-percenters, local lawyers and gun dealers; they were for the most part a sordid crowd, really something like a host of characters out of a grade B Warner Brothers movie of the 1940s.
Finally, Brenner finally met a Philippine attorney, a golf buddy of President Marcos, and a man who appeared as though he could indeed deliver as required. Through him, Brenner was introduced to a colonel who grasped the concept of barter as being extremely beneficial to the Philippine government and indicated that he needed 1,200 .45 automatic pistols, Model 1911A1.
Brenner explained to the colonel that Federal Ordnance was manufacturing the gun at that time and that he could readily produce them for him. He jumped on the deal, and was quite effective in getting through a maze of paperwork so that, within a month or two, Brenner was able to return from the Philippines with contracts signed by General Ramos, at that time Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army.
On Brenner’s end of the deal, he was trading the .45 pistols for an extraordinary quantity of U.S. material, most of it pre-war. The lot included 1903 Springfield rifles, M1 Garand rifles, P17 Enfield rifles and M1 carbines. Most of these were pretty well worn, and had a lot of missing parts, but they represented the raw material of some extremely good collectable items for the American market and for FedOrd’s production line.
The finds in the Philippine deal was not limited to U.S. armament. There were, as might be expected, plenty of Japanese items: Arisaka rifles, Nambu pistols, and other material that was not importable to the U.S. and so was left behind. The non-importable category included one lot of 25,000 Thompson submachine guns. There were also Browning machine guns and BARs of various models going all the way back to the turn of the century. However, a number of brand new Thompson submachine gun and BAR spare barrels were found and imported. In all 60,000 small arms were imported from the Philippines.
Upon arrival in the U.S., the material was off-loaded into a warehouse. Then it came time to commence activities at the technical department of Federal Ordnance, first shaking out those guns that required the least repair and could be readily made up for sale. This was done on some thousands of Garand rifles, which were sold off quickly to recoup costs of the transaction. Then began the long job of slowly repairing, rifle by rifle, the Garands, Springfield 1903s, P17s and carbines in preparation for commencing advertising through the dealer and retail publications.
Back in the early 1980s while casting about in all directions for surplus material, Brenner had some discussions with a well-known Belgian arms dealer who had recently returned from his latest in a series of visits to Iraq. Brenner was told that the Iraqis did have a considerable mass of surplus material generated by their expansion effort, particularly bolt-action weapons, and Brenner urged this Belgian agent to move forward with all due haste to acquire the material if possible.
The Iraqis had agreed to a sale and the prices had been agreed upon; all that remained was to send people to Iraq to oversee sorting and packing of the material. The FedOrd staff at that time numbered approximately 150 personnel. Brenner chose a young American expatriate who had grown up in Germany and who was extremely gun-wise. This lad, Bruce Owen, was sent over to Baghdad where he met one of the Belgians and was introduced to the various Iraqi military personnel assigned to seeing to it that the contract was fulfilled. Over a period of six weeks, Bruce and the Belgian worked morning till night with a crew of locals, sorting out thousands and thousands of Mauser and British Enfield rifles.
The price was on the high side and, accordingly, the right of rejection was reserved. Bruce and the Belgian were therefore quite careful in picking out only the best of the lots. After some six laborious weeks, the chore was accomplished, culling thousands upon thousands of choice rifles, which were all packaged and prepared for shipment. The goods were loaded aboard trucks, which were available in large quantity because of the endless array of military equipment that flowed from Aqabah up to Baghdad in contravention of various international rules and regulations. The Jordanians were shipping untold thousands of tons of material through their country to the Iraqis. The trucks were all unloaded in Iraq and, of course, were returning empty. To the Jordanian trucking companies, the prospect of having some paid freight on the way back to Jordan was very tempting, and enabled a favorable deal for transport.
The material did indeed move out of Baghdad: Mauser and Enfield rifles, ammunition in 8x57mm caliber, which had come originally from East Germany, purchased by the Iraqis for use with their Mauser rifles during the 1950s, .303 ammunition in large quantities of primarily British fabrication and presumably purchased by the Iraqis from the British government. Also purchased were large quantities of 7.62x39mm caliber ammunition that had been made in Iraq for use in AK-type weapons.
This lot of goods, in excellent shape to begin with, required little preparation after it was released from customs in Los Angeles. It was all sold over the next two years. As fate would have it, only a short time later in 1989, American munitions were being poured onto Iraq, which under the circumstances was anything but a willing customer.
Brenner went to Thailand and within a short time was put in contact with several retired Thai army officers. After explaining what his mission was they offered their services. During the next few months he traveled back and forth between Saigon and Bangkok. In Thailand the officers arranged for him to visit several army depots, which held all the surplus material. What he did manage to procure was a quantity of rifles manufactured in Japan before World War II and sold to the Thai army. They were unique and were highly collectible in the States.
The next adventure was in Taiwan. Chiang-Kai-Shek had died and the country was run by some elder Chinese statesmen/politicians. Brenner had an acquaintance in the CIA who had been operating in Taiwan. He was very helpful in steering him in the direction of the men in power. They met in a large meeting room; their English was good enough for them to understand what Brenner was after and after much discussion it was arranged for him to inspect the material. After inspecting the material Brenner came to the conclusion that it was identical to that which was purchased in China some time ago and, therefore, held no interest. There arose the possibility of purchasing ammunition from the Taiwanese factory, which was producing various calibers of high quality ammunition. Brenner was able to visit the factory and realized that the prices were excellent and the ammunition was of high grade. A quantity was purchased for shipment to California and had a successful run with it.
In Japan, Brenner had an American contact that was married to a Japanese lady. Although no surplus material was available in Japan, there were Japanese factories able to produce magazines for various weapons including the .303 Enfield rifles, which had been imported from England some time before. The magazines were imported in huge quantities and they sold like hotcakes. They were superbly manufactured and the business continued for quite a few years.
Some years later another friend of Brenner who had done business in Japan, was aware of a program to destroy quantities of U.S. M-1 rifles. The friend met with the Japanese authorities and discussed the possibility of dismantling the rifles, discarding the receivers, and selling the remaining parts. This represented approximately 10,000 rifles. The Japanese agreed to this arrangement and Brenner subsequently purchased all the remaining parts. The quantity was such that it filled a 40-foot container. As the political situation in Southeast Asia and China became extremely difficult it was abundantly clear that any type of private military surplus business was over.
Although Burton “Bob” Brenner’s name wasn’t as well known publically as many of the others involved in the surplus industry, he was indeed a key insider and central figure. Many collectors today probably own, or have owned, a military firearm that he was responsible for manufacturing or importing into the U.S. Mr. Brenner’s interest in military small arms began at the dawn of the golden era of gun collecting, in the days following World War II when the world was awash in surplus martial arms. He had an interesting and prosperous career that took him all over the world in search of surplus: it certainly was a simpler, more innocent time. We hope you have enjoyed this six-part series on the Life and Times of Burton Brenner.
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