Steel and Glass

By Chris Oxley

Essay

 

In 1777, George Washington found a site in Springfield, Mass. to store weapons inaccessible from the British Royal Navy. Aside from housing cannon and muskets, what became the Springfield Armory also manufactured cartridges and gun carriages for the American Revolution.

 

Nearly a couple of decades later, the armory produced the Model 1795 Musket, the first such firearm to be made in the United States. It was designed by Eli Whitney. At the turn of the century, the musket was also produced at the armory in Harpers Ferry, Va, (now West Va.), the second federal armory commissioned by the U.S. government, as well as the site of John Brown’s famous raid in 1859.

 

In 1835, Samuel Colt was awarded a British patent, and two U.S patents in 1836, for his revolver design. He promptly started a company in Paterson, N.J., but after production problems, closed in 1842. Undeterred, he soon collaborated with the family of Eli Whitney at their armory in Whitneyville, Conn. His newly revised revolver design was available just in time for the Mexican-American War and, in 1855, he started Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Conn. A year later, the Smith & Wesson Revolver Company was founded in Springfield, Mass., a few miles from the Springfield Armory.

 

The region saw several other gun manufacturers emerge over the years: Remington (Ilion, N.Y.), Winchester (1866, Springfield, Mass.), Savage Arms (1894, Utica, N.Y.), High Standard (1926, Hamden, Conn.), Sturm Ruger (1949, Southport, Conn.), Sig Sauer (1985, Newington, N.H.). Meanwhile, for nearly two hundred years, the Springfield Armory continued to serve as the U.S. Army’s prominent design and production workshop for small arms.

 

With the British invasion thwarted, a New England industrial economy boomed and “Gun Valley” was born.

 

“Happiness is a warm gun.”

 

Douglas McClenahan was a gun designer who had worked for Colt, High Standard, and Sturm Ruger in the mid-20th century. He was inspired to design a reliable handgun that was both high-quality and largely affordable. 

 

His five-shot revolver, known as The Undercover, was made using a one-piece frame with no side plate, meaning it could be made lighter than a frame with a side plate and still retain the strength necessary to bear the powerful ammunition. A few parts were made of aluminum to save weight while the others were made of steel. 

 

A new hammer block system was added for safety, featuring a transfer bar that only moves into position when the trigger is all the way to the rear and only then allows the hammer to connect with the nearly indestructible beryllium-copper made firing pin. 

 

The Undercover weighs sixteen ounces, lighter than a basketball or a human brain, one-seventh the weight of a Rickenbacker 325 guitar. It was touted as “the smallest, lightest steel framed revolver in the world with the fewest moving parts.”

 

In 1964, McClenehan created Charter Arms Co. in Stratford, Conn., right in the heart of “Gun Valley” in between High Standard and Sturm Ruger’s headquarters, located in Hamden and Southport, respectively. The company focused solely on designing and producing handguns. 

 

Also in 1964, and nearly sixty miles down the road, the English rock combo The Beatles arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on February 7, exactly eleven weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. 

 

(Incidentally, during his attempted getaway, Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit using a Smith & Wesson Victory Model .38 Special revolver. Two days later, following his arrest, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, who used a .38 caliber Colt Cobra revolver.)

 

Rock ‘n’ roll combos were a cheaper, more efficient way to get big sounds in small clubs and The Beatles catapulted their sound and style to mass media and the mainstream. “Beatlemania” was a term the British press coined in late 1963 to describe the effusive praise and fanatic behavior of the group’s fans and followers. Psychologists and sociologists studied “Beatlemania” with one author writing of the psychometrics of a study that “the combination of expectation, hype, beat variation and increasing sound levels seemed to affect one’s heart-rate, pulse and discernment.” 

 

Unsurprisingly, then, The Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. was welcomed as a much needed distraction from war, riots, and assassination. The event also marked the beginning of a phenomenon wherein other acts from Great Britain would gain popularity in the States in what became culturally known as “The British Invasion.”

 

The band’s first American press conference took place at the airport moments after their landing. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were collectively interviewed.

 

Q: “Are you a little embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?”

 

JOHN LENNON: “No, it’s great.”

 

PAUL McCARTNEY: “No.”

 

RINGO STARR: “Marvelous.”

 

GEORGE HARRISON: (giggling) “We love it.”

 

LENNON: “We like lunatics.”

 

Q: “You’re in favor of lunacy?”

 

BEATLES: “Yeah.”

 

LENNON: “It’s healthy.”

 

For the first couple of years, Charter Arms guns boasted a sketch of an oak tree on a gold medallion on the grip with the words “Charter Arms Corp USA Made” around it. The tree image was later changed to a scroll and, starting in 1966, the guns were marked on the right side of the barrel “Charter Arms Shelton, CT” in all capital sans-serif characters. That same year also saw the release of The Beatles’ seventh studio album: Revolver.

 

The song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” written by John Lennon, appeared on The Beatles’ eponymous ninth studio album, also known as The White Album. Lennon was inspired by the May 1968 issue of American Rifleman, the National Rifle Association’s official magazine that featured an article with the same title, itself a riff on Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz’s book title Happiness is a Warm Puppy. The album was released on November 22, 1968, five years to the day after the Kennedy assassination.

 

Earlier that same year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the Springfield Armory, putting six thousand people out of work, when the federal government decided to purchase weapons exclusively from private contractors.

 

Meanwhile, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, following the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The law bans mail order sales of rifles and shotguns, and prohibits most felons, drug users, and people found mentally incompetent from buying guns.

 

“I read the news today, oh boy.”

 

From 1976 to 1977, two hundred years after Washington created the Springfield Armory, David Berkowitz was responsible for a killing spree that terrorized New York City. Known as the “Son of Sam” murders, Berkowitz shot and killed his victims using a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver that was manufactured by Charter Arms. He sought young female victims and claimed to have been carrying out the orders of a demon embodied in the form of his neighbor “Sam’s” dog.

 

(Incidentally, a former in-law of mine served with Berkowitz in the U.S. Army in the early ‘70s when the latter’s duties were administrative. He was known around the office as “Berk the Clerk” and was seen as quiet, unassuming.)

 

Berkowitz’s handgun was acquired illegally by way of a straw purchase. While in Houston, Texas in the summer of 1976, he asked an old Army buddy of his to buy him the revolver reasoning he could have it for protection on his trip back to New York City. He lacked the proper identification to purchase it himself.

 

Gun ownership was at its peak in the 1970s, when a reported 47 percent of Americans owned a firearm. In 1971, Charter Arms offered The Undercoverette and advertised it “Just for the Ladies.” It was a six-shot .32 caliber revolver, but light, high quality, and affordable like its predecessor.

 

“You better run for your life, if you can, little girl.”

 

Crime was also on the rise in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. A February 1981 New York Times article headline read “1980 Called Worst Year Of Crime In City History.”

 

On November 17, 1980, John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono released the album Double Fantasy after a five-year recording hiatus to raise their son, Sean.

 

Exactly three weeks later, on December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman shot and killed Lennon outside of the Dakota, the latter’s home in New York City. Chapman used the .38 Undercover revolver.

 

“Living on borrowed time without a thought for tomorrow.”

 

Chapman purchased his handgun legally in Honolulu, Hawaii, his residence at the time. He had a permit, no police record, and flew with the gun back to New York, presumably by putting it in his checked luggage which was not regularly searched or X-rayed in those days. The gun, however, was not legal in New York, as the state does not recognize the validity of handgun permits issued in other states.

 

(Incidentally, Chapman is reportedly a descendent of William White, a Mayflower passenger, who died in 1621 at approximately 40 years old, the same age Lennon was when he was killed.)

 

The Undercover was also used by 21 year-old Arthur Bremer in an attempt to assassinate George Wallace on May 15, 1972, paralyzing the four-term Alabama segregationist governor for the rest of his life.

 

Bremer had an Undercover revolver seized in November 1971 after a concealed weapons charge. A few months earlier, his only known friend had shot and killed himself in front of his sister, while playing Russian roulette. In January 1972, Bremer purchased another Undercover, a duplicate of the one he had confiscated.

 

Bremer’s An Assassin’s Diary, published in 1973, indicated he, a loner obsessed with fame, was originally targeting President Richard Nixon, but later discovered it was too impractical and settled on Wallace instead. His diary would also serve as an inspiration for Peter Gabriel’s 1980 song “Family Snapshot” as well as for Paul Schrader’s script for the 1976 film Taxi Driver. That film would then be an obsession of John Hinckley Jr.’s.

 

Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, wounding Reagan and White House Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and police officer Thomas Delahanty. He used a German-made revolver.

 

In December 1980, Hinckley had actually been pursuing President Jimmy Carter. However, as Dr. William Carpenter, director of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, discovered after spending many hours with Hinckley in 1982, Hinckley had become too depressed over John Lennon’s death, which may have prevented an assassination attempt at the time.

 

“One thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.”

 

In September 2000, author Jack Jones (Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon), who had extensively interviewed both Berkowitz and Chapman, appeared on “Larry King Live.”

 

KING: “They’re very different, right?”

 

JONES: “Different in some ways, but actually both men were carrying out acts of rage against the world. Berkowitz and Chapman both didn’t come out shooting from the outset. They both built up to their acts of violence against other humans by–”

 

KING: “But Berkowitz killed indiscriminately and Chapman had a target.”

 

JONES: “Right; well, Berkowitz didn’t really kill indiscriminately, he was looking for people, specifically people who might have been having sex in cars and looking for women who looked like his mother. He was murdering his mother over and over and over.”

 

Mother, you had me. But I never had you. I wanted you, but you didn’t want me. So, I just got to tell you, Goodbye.”

 

KING: “And who was Chapman killing?”

 

JONES: “Some psychologists say he was killing his father, but, I think, on a much more relevant level he was killing a part of all of us. He wanted to hurt the world.”

 

“You want to save humanity, but it’s people you just can’t stand.”

 

On December 15, 1978, citing health issues, Douglas McClenehan retired and sold his share of Charter Arms to his business partner David Ecker. 

 

Earlier that same year, the National Park Service reopened the Springfield Armory as a National Historic Site and museum.

 

In 1984, Nick Ecker, David Ecker’s son, became part owner of Charter Arms. Then, in 1988, the company was acquired by its vice president of finance, Jeff Williams, renamed Charco (Charter Arms Company), and moved to Ansonia, Conn. where quality control was apparently not what it used to be and the company filed for bankruptcy sometime in the 1990s. Nick Ecker and two other investors bought the company and reopened it in 2000, under the name Charter 2000 in Shelton, Connecticut. In a couple of years, the younger Ecker had become sole owner, and in 2007 renamed the company Charter Arms again.

 

McClenehan died on October 26, 2004 at age 71. His obituary says he was “an accomplished jazz pianist, specializing in boogie woogie” and “he regularly played piano to entertain residents of Beechwood Manor, a New London nursing home.”

 

In 1982, at the 24th Annual Grammy Awards, Yoko Ono accepted the Grammy for Best Album for Double Fantasy.

 

YOKO ONO: “I really don’t know what to say. I think John is with us here today. Thank you very much. Both John and I were always very proud and happy that we were part of the human race who made good music for the Earth and for the universe. Thank you.”

 

In 1984, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Milk and Honey was released, containing tracks recorded during and following the Double Fantasy sessions. Then, in 1995, the remaining Beatles reunited to finish two new tracks for the Anthology project based on demo tapes recorded by Lennon after the group disbanded in 1970.

 

“Our life together is so precious together.”

 

David Berkowitz is currently serving time at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, N.Y., and is entitled to a parole hearing every two years. His hearing scheduled for May 2020 was delayed due to the Coronavirus disease until further notice.

 

Mark David Chapman is currently serving time at Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, N.Y., and was denied parole for the eleventh time with officials saying his release “would be incompatible with the welfare of society.” He will be eligible for parole again in 2022.

 

Arthur Bremer served his sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. In his June 1996 hearing he argued that “shooting segregationist dinosaurs wasn’t as bad as harming mainstream politicians.” According to 1997 parole records, psychological testing indicated releasing him would be risky. Bremer was released from prison on November 9, 2007, at the age of 57, having served 35 years of his original sentence.

 

Conditions of his release include electronic monitoring and keeping a distance from elected officials and candidates. He must undergo a mental health evaluation and receive treatment if the state deems it necessary, and may not leave the state without written permission from the state agency that will supervise him until the end of his probation, which ends in 2025.

 

John Hinckley Jr., who was being treated for narcissistic and schizotypal personality disorder and major depressive disorder, was released from institutional psychiatric care at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. on September 10, 2016. He was required to live full-time at his mother’s home in Virginia. On November 16, 2018, a judge ruled he could move out of his mother’s house and live on his own. In October 2020, it was ruled that Hinckley may showcase and sell his artwork, writings, and music publicly under his own name, though his treatment team could rescind the display privilege if considered necessary.

 

James Brady was the namesake for the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers in the U.S., and imposed a five-day waiting period on purchases, until the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was implemented in 1998. In a March 1991 editorial four years after “the Brady bill” was introduced in 1987, President Reagan declared, “Based upon the evidence in states that already have handgun purchase waiting periods, this bill—on a nationwide scale—can’t help but stop thousands of illegal handgun purchases.” 

 

President Bill Clinton signed the act into law in 1993. Brady died in 2014.

 

Between 1964 and 1985, The Beatles sold 75 million records in the U.S., while in 1969, it was estimated that Americans owned 90 million firearms. In 2011, Americans owned approximately 177 million Beatles records and 270 million firearms.

 

The Beatles are currently the best-selling music artists of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. 

 

In 2018, a Small Arms Survey stated that U.S. civilians alone account for 393 million (about 46 percent) of the worldwide total of civilian held firearms.

 

A 2013 Boston Globe blurb noted, “In ‘Gun Valley,’ the swath of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut where industrial gun making in America began, business is booming once again… challenging the long-held assumption that manufacturing is firmly in New England’s past. And it will force critics to reconcile their dislike of guns with their support for good blue-collar jobs.”

 

On October 9, 2020, John Lennon would have been 80 years old. Celebrations took place around the world, many live streaming online, including an event hosted by his son, Sean.

 

Less than a month later, on November 3, 2020, and a little over a month before the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death, it was reported that U.S. gun sales hit a record high, breaking the record set in 2016, with the coronavirus pandemic, an election year, and civil unrest cited as possible reasons spurring the increase in demand. Sales had plummeted the year prior following a series of mass shootings across the U.S. in recent years.

 

“Strange days, indeed. Strange days, indeed.”

Chris Oxley lives in Charleston, West Virginia. He is a writer, musician, filmmaker, and co-founder of Holler Presents along with author Scott McClanahan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *