By David Pazdera
Patent for a Discount
The history of arms production includes a number of stories that even the best paid Hollywood screenwriter could hardly conceive of. For example, this year will mark 45 years since the arms factory in Uherský Brod, then called Precision Engineering, a national enterprise, was visited by two representatives of the brand new U.S. company Dan Wesson Arms, Inc. Who could have guessed that less than 37 years later it will be the arms company headquarted in Uherský Brod, through its subsidiary company the CZ-USA, Inc., that buys the ailing DW (Dan Wesson) brand and revives its glory?
There were two gentlemen who, full of hope in the spring of 1968, set out on a journey to hardly accessible regions in the east of the Iron Curtain. Their names were Daniel Baird Wesson (1916–1978) and Karl R. Lewis (1927–), and it is generally recognised that the main and almost sole purpose of their joint venture setup in the small town of Monson, Massachusetts in the north-eastern United States, was the production of original, high-precision revolvers from the Lewis patents.
Last year, CZ-USA company representatives discovered about this in the visitors book of Ceská zbrojovka, Uherský Brod records. They, in good faith, placed this information on the Internet with comments that the result was probably a production agreement realized in the Uherský Brod factory covering the Dan Wesson brand handguns. Prospects for this plan implementation came to an abrupt end with the “friendly armies” invasion in August of the same year with known consequences. In fact, the intentions of both Mr. Wesson and Mr. Lewis were somewhat different. This year’s jubilee anniversary of this event is a good opportunity to recapitulate what we actually know about these long ago events.
Customers from the U.S.
An entry into the visitors’ book by D. B. Wesson and Karl Lewis is dated 26 April 1968 and is preceded with an essential piece of information: It was the visit of our customers from the USA. Another significant entry is: Americans, who were accompanied by the employee of the Omnipol - Czechoslovak Foreign Trade Organization (which within centrally governed economy provided export of Czechoslovak arms) Mr František Hladík, took this journey to Uherský Brod with a view for business relations extension, part of the visit was also a tour of the manufacturing premises.
The great-grandson of the legendary co-founder of Smith & Wesson summarized his impressions from the visit in barely legible handwriting and somewhat flowery wording: “We are very favourably impressed with the facilities here and hope that this may be the beginning of a long and profitable connection for both your company and ours. With close and harmonious relationships we see nothing but continued success for your company and many firearms traded with the USA.”
Wesson´s business partner and inventor Karl Lewis made a much more legible entry, but his choice of words is of similar poetic nature: “I appreciate the opportunity to visit your country and especially your factory. Your factory is very well organized and the products are first class. I am happy that you will be manufacturing many fine products for our company to sell in the U.S.A. I toast to a long and prosperous friendship and understanding for all of us.”
So it seems that the staff of CZ-USA were confused by Lewis´ entry mentioning production for the Dan Wesson Company (I am happy that you will be manufacturing many fine products for our company...). Taken out of context, it may perhaps give the impression that the subject of discussion could be some production cooperation. However, when read in context it is of course nonsense. Information attached to the entries in the visitor’s book gives clear evidence that Mr. Wesson and Mr. Lewis came to Uherský Brod as traders. Moreover, the idea of a small American company in the Spring of 1968 to seriously plan their arms to be manufactured in the Eastern Bloc country, even if such country just passed through the period of clear decline in political tension, is really bizarre. The founders of the Dan Wesson Company were no castle-builders. True, maybe they were not terribly capable traders, as evidenced by the fate of their company and also themselves, especially in the unappreciated firearms designer Karl Lewis. Nevertheless, their idea to readily take advantage of warming relations between then Czechoslovakia and the United States and to take a position a wholesale distributor of Czech firearms in the North American market was in principle certainly not such a bad one.
An interesting question, which we are still not able to answer remains; if Mr. Wesson and Mr. Lewis went to Europe only to visit the Czech country, or were they on a more extensive business tour around several countries?
“Mr. Smits and Mr. Levis”
Misunderstanding when presenting the entry in the visitor’s book could have been easily avoided if the staff of CZ-USA consulted factory chronicles. These represent a very interesting source and one can only regret that it does not cover all the years of present-day Ceská zbrojovka, Uherský Brod. Its author was long-time factory planner František Vyskocil, known to the general public through his work on the company official history published in 1996. This chronicle entry, besides providing hard to get information, is mesmerizing in its immediacy and offers a unique opportunity to experience the spirit of that time. Even though this one tends to overlook frequent factual errors and inaccuracies.
The visit of two Americans in the spring of 1968 was an event the chronicle author could not ignore. The entry says: “26 April – Visit by representatives of the U.S. arms manufacturer. On 25 to 26 April our company was visited by representatives of Smits (sic) and Wesson arms company and former chief designer of the Colt´s Company, Mr Levis (sic). These representatives expressed their interest in trade with us, particularly in the following arms: air arms, single-shot rimfire rifles, our ordinary rimfire rifles, they would pay for them 16 dollars, but we are presently selling them for 30 dollars. They produce a revolver of the same standard as our Grand in 12 hours, for us this takes 29 hours. Both these representatives assume that Czechoslovakia will soon receive the most favoured nation tariffs benefit and this could maybe open business deals even with the U.S.”
This clears up a lot of the questions. Leave aside the fact that the chronicler corrupted the visitors names, confused the Smith & Wesson and Dan Wesson companies and when mentioning the previous post of Karl Lewis at Colt´s, the concerned was promoted to chief designer, which according to information available he was not (but who knows how he introduced himself in Uherský Brod). The important point here is a confirmation of the information that representatives of Dan Wesson in anticipation of an early liberalization of trade relations with the United States set on a journey to then Czechoslovakia with a plan to negotiate an inexpensive purchases of civilian arms, particularly of air arms and rimfire rifles and were interested also in other types of arms. To this, Mr. Vyskocil, with his usual frankness, revealed that for the arms company in Uherský Brod, at least at the time, this was not a big money-maker. The production cooperation was clearly not spoken about.
Arms in Hundreds of Thousands
Even this is not the last source of information related to the visit of Mr. Wesson and Lewis in Uherský Brod. Thanks to the following correspondence that for Dan Wesson, in the first phase, was led by Karl Lewis as General Manager and we know exactly what range and volumes were actually negotiated in those two days in the Precision Engineering national enterprise. From this perspective the most interesting letter is the one that on the first page bears the date 6 June, and on the second 22 May 1968. It was written a relatively short time after the return of these gentlemen back to the U.S. After introductory thanks for the kindness and hospitality extended towards the letter author and his colleague during their stay in Czechoslovakia and expressing hope that Karl Lewis will soon be able to repay the visit to the Managing Director of arms company in Uherský Brod, Ing. Stanislav Ružák in the United States, this is followed by numbers, which can make the reader slightly dizzy. First, it says outright in 1968 the Dan Wesson Company wants to buy as many air pistols of the Tex designation as the arms company located in Uherský Brod will be able to deliver. The air guns were clearly not covered by U.S. import restrictions applied against communist countries. The same information went more or less in a parallel manner to the FTO Omnipol to the Head of Trade Dept. Mr. M. Lamka. Karl Lewis, in a letter dated 16 May 1968, confirmed to this man a purchase order of 25,000 Tex pistols at the price of $3.20 CIF (cost, insurance and freight) New York, that is including transport to that destination. In Uherský Brod they immediately add to the letter translation the following notice: “$3.20 unacceptable.” (Add to this a comment of the factory chronicler and it is evident that the U.S. delegation had overly optimistic expectations about the financial side of things.) A further part of the letter related to the expected purchase orders for 1969, which should be carried out providing that during 1968 the U.S. import laws would be changed. Karl Lewis, within this context, once again mentioned that the political changes in Czechoslovakia are looked on in the U.S. very favourably. Dan Wesson then in 1969 had intended to buy:
- 50,000 Duo pistols in 6.35mm cal. with the grip safety, about which Karl Lewis during his visit in Uherský Brod led discussions with the Technical Manager, Mr Miloš Plocek;
- 10,000 CZ vz. 45 pistols in 6.35mm cal.;
- 20,000 ZKM 452 rimfire rifles in .22 LR cal.;
- 10,000 ZKM 452 rimfire rifles in .22 WMR cal.;
- 3,000 light centerfire rifles ZKW 465 Hornet;
- 20,000 light centerfire rifles of the ZKW 465 type cal. .222 Rem.;
- 10,000 semiautomatic rimfire rifles ZKM 581 cal. .22 LR (asking if arms company in Uherský Brod manufactured these rifles with a tube magazine under the barrel, as this version is also desirable in the U.S. );
- 10,000 centerfire rifles ZKK 600 with Deluxe stock;
- 10,000 centerfire rifles ZKK 601 with Deluxe stock;
- 2,000 centerfire rifles ZKK 602 with Deluxe stock.
Overall, this was to be 145,000 firearms. The final amount of the order would be subject to whether or not the US Import legislation would actually be changed, and of course the delivery price amount. There were a lot of variables involved. Why then did Karl Lewis send a letter formulated in this manner? It is said by some for the factory to catch up with finding ways to solve any problems in design concerning the above mentioned firearms. From Lewis’ side this was a forward looking step, as there were several models where Dan Wesson asked for rather significant changes. However, today, we can conclude that even if there was not a fatal turnover in the political situation and the Czechoslovak arms industry was really fully opened for exporting their products to the U.S, then we can state that the appropriate adjustments of legislation most likely would not have been implemented by 1969.
The arms factory in Uherský Brod at that time started to build its own design department and in no case would this be economical to place the order for these modifications to be made at the design department of Zbrojovka Brno, which at that time still represented a centre for the Czechoslovak civilian firearms development.
Don’t You Want a Patent?
Karl Lewis was most likely an interesting person and talented designer of arms. During his visit to Czechoslovakia he did not forget to point out that factor of his personality. From accessible documents we know that in Uherský Brod he had discussions with the Technical Director, Mr. Plocek, about stamping checkering on the stocks, where he promised to provide more details soon, and also about the option for outfitting the ZKR 590 Grand revolver with an interchangeable barrel. This structural design had been being refined by Lewis since the early 1950s and was soon to become a characteristic feature of the new DW revolvers.
During his visit to Czechoslovakia, Karl Lewis promised to send to Uherský Brod drawings of design changes set for the Grand revolver, and he offered, free of charge to Omnipol, the foreign trade company, his U.S. Patent No. 3,303,594 dated 14 February 1967 (filed on 23 November 1960) under the title “Firearm barrel, shroud, frame, and cylinder construction.” Reputedly, this was supposed to be compensation for terms of payment.
Omnipol approached this pragmatically and on 2 May 1968, sent a photocopy of said patent to the arms company in Uherský Brod for them to assess if the given structural design could be utilised in Czechoslovakia. At the same time they also asked for an approximate value to be calculated for the patent so the effectiveness of the whole business operation could be comprehensively assessed. National enterprise Precision Engineering arranged for a Czech translation of the patent to be made, read over it and with a letter from General Manager Mr Ružák dated 3 June sent to Omnipol the following response: “Based on the patent examination within a technical point of view the said patent cannot be applied to any part of the Grand revolver. Any expansion of the revolver production or as case may be an introduction of new models in our company is out of question due to limited sales. Said patent will therefore only serve for information at our company and will not be used, or in any way exploited.”
Drawing a Line Under Shotgun
The invasion of the 21 August 1968, marked the end of the hopes brought about by the Prague Spring, but it did not mean an immediate suspension of all relations and processes linked and started in the previous period. Rather surprisingly this related also to plans of Dan Wesson regarding trade with the arms company in Uherský Brod, although after intervention of the Soviets et al., there was little hope that the U.S. would lift sanctions for imports of arms from Czechoslovakia.
From the surviving correspondence we know that on 8 November 1968, Daniel B. Wesson sent a letter to the General Manager of Precision Engineering, Mr Ružák, in which he referred to his spring visit at Uherský Brod and pushed ahead with the just prepared production of O/U shotguns of the future CZ 581–586 model series. It should be pointed out that the development of these firearms in 1968 came to its final stages and for 1969 the commencement of series production was being prepared and the arms factory in Uherský Brod was making ready for two basic versions of this shotgun: in 12/12 ga. for sport shooting and hunting purposes, and in 16/16 ga. for hunting purposes.
Dan Wesson was evidently impressed by the O/U shotguns of the CZ brand, albeit subject to his recommendation for making also a model in 20/20 ga. with length of shell to be 76 mm. To this November letter, (we unfortunately were not able to find), General Manager Mr Ružák responded on 19 December 1968, politely, but negatively - referring to the experts´ opinion stating that O/U shotguns of this gauge would be relatively heavy and expensive thus resulting in reduction of their competiveness. Ing. Ružák openly admitted that shotguns of 20/20 ga., which then had been available on world markets, are simpler in design and not so challenging to produce. This decision could be changed only by sufficient demand for the mentioned gauge. “In such a case,” Ružák promised, “We would develop a new over/under shotgun solely in 20 ga.” Ružák´s letter dated 19 December 1968 is concluded with a wish, which is according to our current information a definitive ending to this remarkable episode in the history of the Czechoslovak-U.S. relations: “Finally, I send you and Mr. Lewis cordial greetings and at the same time I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year of 1969.”
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