Firearm History

California’s Excellent Influence on Gun Culture

Jim Hoag at one of the Big Bear Leather Slap Competitions

Considering the politics and attitudes in California today, it may seem anachronistic, but California and Southern California specifically was at one time the epicenter of all things gun and shooting related. Yes, you read that correctly. When I started becoming interested in all things gun related, I was not aware of the resources available in my own backyard and of their importance.

I grew up in the west end of the San Fernando Valley, a place that was referred to as “America’s Suburb.” During the 1950s and ’60s farmlands, citrus groves and ranches gave way to housing tracts, shopping centers, and schools. Amongst all that activity people sought pleasurable pursuits with new interests spurred on by all those returning G.I.s that were starting their families and inheriting all the opportunities that awaited.

Colonel John Dean “Jeff” Cooper holding court
The man we must thank, the one that started it all, Colonel John Dean “Jeff” Cooper holding court.

Pistol Shooting

Among the recreational pursuits was shooting — a sport waiting to blossom. In the 1950s and ’60s, there was an explosion of activity in that area the likes of which had never been seen before and likely will never be seen again. One of the prophetic events was the entrance of one John Dean “Jeff” Cooper — a former Marine Colonel who had an interest in how the current style of pistol shooting could be improved.

Cooper initially started holding what he called Leatherslap shooting events at Big Bear Lake in California. Those initial events consisted of quick-draw matches using Colt Single Action Army Pistols out of Cowboy Fast Draw style holsters. The winner was the one who could draw and hit a target at seven yards the fastest. Initially, competitors used some form of point shooting like the FBI taught at that time. It was a single-handed technique with the pistol fired from the hip that was believed to be the best-suited to the purpose.

It wasn’t until later that attendees started using two hands and the Government issued 1911, which had lots of shortcomings in the original issued form. From the experiences gained at those events by Cooper and others, the Colonel authored the Modern Technique of the Pistol that gave us most of the techniques we use and take for granted today. He subsequently founded and establishing the International Practical Shooting Confederation or I.P.S.C. and the rest, as they say, is history.

Pistol Upgrading

The good Colonel was also the founder of the Southwest Pistol League. (Photo 3) As it happened, one of the early competitors was a young Navy Veteran, tool and die maker, and aspiring pistolsmith, Jim Hoag. Jim quickly diagnosed the short comings of the stock 1911 and started modifying and improving its performance base on his and others’ observations.

Along with Jim and others, Custom Pistolsmithing blossomed locally, giving us some of the greatest to ever ply the trade right here in Southern California. They include Jim, Armand Swenson, Arnold “Al” Capone of King’s Gun Works, Frank Pachmayr, Jim Boland, Tom Dornhaus, and Craig Wetstein to name but a few.

A match grade “Pin Gun” by Arnold Capone of King’s Gun Works
A match grade “Pin Gun” by Arnold Capone of King’s Gun Works.

Early on, Jim Hoag worked for a short time at King’s Gun Works. During his tenure there, Jim was building 1911s for Mickey Fowler and Mike Dalton — the two shooting phenoms of the time. Mike Dalton went on to create the Steel Challenge, one of the premier shooting events in the world. I didn’t meet Jim until sometime later, by happenstance, when I was in need of a gunsmith to work on a pistol. The local sporting-goods store owner mentioned to me that a new gunsmith had set up shop only blocks away, so off I went. I met Jim at his new shop in Canoga Park. Quickly, he became my number one go to pistolsmith and friend. Unfortunately, his like will not pass this way again.

Interestingly, my meeting Mike Dalton had nothing to do with guns or shooting. I was driving a 7 Series BMW at the time and was unhappy with the dealer’s service when a friend mentioned an auto shop on Sepulveda Blvd in Mission Hills California that specialized in German cars, that was both good and reasonable. As an aside, he mentioned that the owner was a shooter. I went to that shop and met Mike who was the owner and we have been friends ever since. If you ever get a chance to meet Mike, do it, for you will never meet a finer gentleman.

With interest in the new shooting styles espoused by Cooper, new holster makers such as John Bianchi (who started in Burbank CA), Ted Blocker, Gordon Davis, and Safariland also established themselves to accommodate the new style. At the time, the majority of the top shooters in the world came out of Southern California, so it is no wonder the industry developed there to service their needs.

Ed LaPorta and Jerry Miculek at a Steel Challenge shoot
Jerry Miculek and the author at the last Steel Challenge that was held in California by Mike Dalton at Wes Thompson’s Piru Range facility.

Rifles

Let us not overlook what was happening with rifles. Have you ever heard the name Weatherby? That’s right, Weatherby is best known for its very fast, high-powered rifle cartridges, all bearing the name Weatherby Magnum and its unique custom rifle styling. In 1950, the famous Weatherby stock came into being. It was a real departure from the English and traditional American-style rifles then in existence.

The Weatherby style was most recognizable by its squarish fore-end with the angled rosewood tip. The stocks also featured white spacers, an accented pistol grip with flared cap (also of rosewood) with white line spacers, and a white diamond-shape inlay. A forward-sloping accented Monte Carlo comb and recoil pad that included a glossy finish and skip-line checkering completed the look that became know as the “California Style.” Roy Weatherby’s need for speed also revolutionized cartridge design.

What about reloading… Ever hear of RCBS in Oroville California? Fred T. Huntington founded the company when he could not get good quality varmint bullets to shoot rock chucks with. He created the Rock Chuck Bullet Swage dies to make bullets, later shortened to RCBS.

Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for RCBS Gun & Die Shop

In the late 1940s, three aircraft machinists rented space in a machine shop in Whittier, California to produce precision rivets for the aircraft industry, along with fishing rod guides and rifle front sight ramps. After World War II, there was a shortage of bullets, especially quality rifle bullets. One of the three, Frank Snow, began manufacturing match rifle bullets. Before long, they were selling a 53-grain match bullet to the Hollywood Gun Shop.

That bullet is now known as the Sierra #1400 53-grain MatchKing. They outgrew that location and built a larger facility in Whittier, California. They also changed the company name to Sierra Bullets, and in 1963, Sierra moved to a new plant in Santa Fe Springs, California.

Other Contributions

How about Hogue International that started in 1969 making grips? Pachmayr started in a small shop in downtown Los Angeles and proved so promising that it was purchased by Lyman when it was headquartered in Monrovia CA. Lest we forget, King’s Gun Works in Glendale CA that supplied custom parts to satisfy both individuals and the trade.

Speaking of parts, let’s not forget Jack First Gun Shop and Northridge International that started warehousing parts and supplying them for obsolete and military firearms. How about Bar-Sto Barrels or the first progressive reloading machine from Star Manufacturing in San Diego (whose business was making irrigation systems for agriculture).

In 1970, Auto Mag Corporation president Harry Sanford opened a factory in Pasadena, California. The Auto Mag Corporation morphed into Arcadia Machine & Tool. Commonly abbreviated to AMT, it continued to manufacturer firearms from Irwindale, California. The company opened and closed several times from 1973 through 1982 under several different names: TDE (Trade Deed Estates), OMC, Thomas Oil Company, High Standard, and AMT (Arcadia Machine & Tool). It produced several weapons along with the Auto Mag series that were primarily clones of existing firearms but made from stainless steel rather than the standard steel used for most firearms of the time.

Auto Mag Pistol, right profile
An example of the Auto Mag Pistol.

On December 13, 1979, Thomas Dornaus and Michael Dixon decided to start the development of a new semi-automatic pistol to address the gap between existing revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. The company was formally incorporated as Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises Inc. July 15, 1981, in California, and a new factory was set up in Huntington Beach to manufacture their new design the Bren Ten that eventually morphed into the .40 S&W.

Final Thoughts

That is just a touch of the influence the Golden State has had on the firearms community and that’s without even mentioning Bob Petersen. The Petersen Publishing Company magazines, Guns & Ammo and Petersen’s Hunting influenced and informed their readers and opened the shooting sports to the world.

Additionally, local organizations such as Safari Club of Southern California evolved into Safari Club of Los Angeles, which formed Safari Club International and encouraged other similar groups to organize. I attended the Los Angeles Safari Club as a guest a few times. They held their meetings at the very ritzy Scandia Restaurant on Sunset Blvd. Very Pricey.

Scandia Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood California
Scandia Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Following are some ads from Guns Magazine, December 1959 with more proof of what a hot spot California was for all things gun related.

I hope this provided some insight into what an influential force California was to the shooting community. The next time something stupid, insane, and crazy comes out of the state, rather than talk about how you want to leave, think about how we can save California and bring it back where it belongs, making untold contributions to our sport.

How much of the Golden State’s firearms history did you? What can you add to the story? Can California be saved? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for Eddie Bauer
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for Early & Modern Firearms Co., Inc.
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for Hollywood Reloading Equipment
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for Mershon White Line
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for Edward H. Bohlin
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for Sierra Bullets
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for U.S. Sniper Scopes
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for gun books from Jack First
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for a Western Fast Draw Holster
  • Guns & Ammo Magazine ad for RCBS Gun & Die Shop
  • A match grade “Pin Gun” by Arnold Capone of King’s Gun Works
  • Ed LaPorta and Jerry Miculek at a Steel Challenge shoot
  • Scandia Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood California
  • Auto Mag Pistol, right profile
  • Ed LaPorta and Jim Hoag with a long slide 1911 pistol
  • Jim Hoag at the front counter of his shop in Canoga Park
  • Jim Hoag at one of the Big Bear Leather Slap Competitions
  • Colonel John Dean “Jeff” Cooper holding court
  • Hollywood sign
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Comments (24)

  1. Fun history lesson. California has really lost its way. Great article Ed, and well punctuated with some great photos as well. Keep them coming.

  2. Another exciting fun and fact-filled look into the evolution of the fun and challenges of smithing, development, and shooting in the good ol days. How sad the twisted non-sensical feel-good rhetoric has numbed the minds (brainwashed) of so many in this state, turning the Golden State into a God Awful state politically, morally, ethically. It’s as if we are living in a parallel universe- unfortunately, we can’t escape but for the moment immerse ourselves in well-written history as provided by Ed Laporta.

  3. Great article! Brings back a lot of memories. The Combat Service Pistol made in 1980 (CSP-80), in caliber .40, was the prototype that eventually became the Bren Ten 10mm Auto Pistol made by Tom Dornaus and Michael Dixon. Name changed to Bren Ten on the insistance of Jeff Cooper to maintain his endorsement for what he called the heir-apparent to the 1911 .45. Tom was a highly-skilled machinist who developed the Pachmayr Combat Special for then champion shooter Ray Chapman, and Michael was a U.S. military veteran and retired L.A. area Poiice Officer who had a background in engineering in the Aerospace Industry (the other big industry in Southern California back then). Both friends had been shooting since the age of 7, where “natural” good shots, reloaded together, and developed wildcat cartridges. Although Jeff Cooper was the “conceptual” designer of the 10mm round, it was actually Michael who was the one who designed and made all the calculations. Then with the help of Mike Bussard at Sierra Bullets in Santa Fe Springs, Irv Stone at BarSto Barrels, and Bert Johannson at Norma Ammunition, the Bren Ten 10mm Auto came to life – and rest is history.

  4. The Calico firearms such as their 9mm carbines and pistols with 50- and 100-round helical drum mags established in Bakersfield in 1982 and made their first prototype in 1985.

  5. Excellent article, like the author I was raised in SoCal during this time frame… and honestly had no idea!

  6. Talking about the 1950s and 1960s in the 1970s even in the 1980s, The ethnic and racial mix up of Southern California was predominantly western European northern European Caucasian and the other groups or a minority in numbers and cultural impact

    The second amendment gun culture is a culture that is predominantly based on ethnic and racial identity unfortunately however can be inclusive to other groups if those people have value shared by this dominant culture

    this is not an aspiration but a fact

    I can spout statistics and details and go on and on but I’m trying to keep this high-level

    The economic and social success of Southern California during this period that I mentioned was attracted to a lot of people especially to progressive liberal change minded immigrants from the East Coast in the upper Midwest who use the California legislature and court systems to try to impose their view of a change culture and Ashame culture on this previously entrenched dominant gun culture society

    As the democratic change from the World War II silent majority which would inevitably do and start to become more inclusive of different groups of people this thought policy change permeated now it dominates California culture legal jurisprudence and legislative initiatives unfortunately

    I live on the East Coast but I have lots of family in Southern California so I did it on a regular basis

    The weather is nice but you couldn’t pay me to live there

  7. Growing up in SoCal in the 50’s-60’s was a magical time, lots of wide open spaces and a laid back culture. It’s a shame California turned into what it has become today. Back in the mid 80’s I took a Para Ordinance P14-45 to Kings and they did their complete customization job on it. It’s the nicest shooting, most accurate 45 I own. I was really sorry when they folded up shop.

  8. Brings back great memories of my childhood in So Cal, California used to be a true paradise.
    I still live here but it’s turning into a 3rd world s$%^- hole under the Dems rule,

  9. Another great article from CTD. I was a member of the Eagle rock gun club in Santa Cruz county from about 1988 till when they closed in 1987. A fantastic place to shoot. The club grounds were closed due to pressure from the Marxists in Santa Cruz county. One of the other commenters talked about the motorcycle activity in Southern California. It was the epicenter for not only shooting but for off-road riding. Pretty much a shadow now of both of those events. Sad really sad. Just about three months before Weatherby moved out of Paso Robles, I was able to see the museum and talk to the curator about their move to Wyoming.

  10. WOW! I too grew up in SoCal in the 60’s & 70’s, growing up in Torrance, CA. I bought my first IMI GALIL ARM in 5.56 from Ranger Sales in Gardena and waited 3 years for Packmayr to build me a Colt Combat Special similar to the feature article in the December 1977 Guns & Ammo magazine [by author Jan Libournel (sp)]. With my first FFL, I was doing business with B&B (Bumble Bee) Sales in N. Hollywood, the same who armed the police with AR15’s during an infamous bank Robbery by armor wearing thugs the officers handguns were proving not to incapacitate.

    I shot in a place of the 14 called Texas Canyon and as growth put houses there, we traveled even further pass Mojave to Dove Springs Creek Road, driving west under the aqueduct and major power transmissions lines from up North where we would camp out and target shoot, hunt Jack rabbits, shoot Clays and have great fun (out by the square concrete water retaining pond for Cattle crazing). We had lots of fun and we transitioned from young teens to young adults, thoroughly enjoying the shooting sports.
    I left SoCal in 87 for the more gun politically friendly state of Washington, now since become another political stranglehold on our freedoms as were previously protected in the Constitution, but thanks to public indoctrination schooling, our constitution seems to becoming more meaningless to instant satisfaction, give me everything, you owe me, I didn’t ask to be born generation of rebellious and cognitively challenged snowflakes. We can only blame ourselves.
    Thanks for the memories- it brought back many fun times.

  11. Rest in peace Mr Hoag.
    I have a treasured pic of my meeting with him, while i was holding his personal .45 lonnnnngslide (no laser sight)
    .
    Ed thanks for introducing me to a legendary figure.

  12. I started with a Daisy BB rifle that my grandfather purchased when I was 12. We worked our way up through Benjamin .22 pellets and then a variety of .22 rifles. My grandad taught us safety before we were ever allowed to touch a firearm. Then I was gone for a few years. When I returned, I was in the USAF carrying a Remington 12 GA, .38 Smith & Wesson M&P K-15, an M-16, and an M2.

    One day while at my grandparents’ home, my grandfather invited me to go with him while he purchased a new hand gun, a .357. With money in my pocket screaming to be free in the hardware store, I purchased a .38 Chief Special for $100 in the box, and a couple of boxes of ammo. We walked out into the California sunshine, and strolled on home. It was a great day in Vacaville, California in 1967.

    Many years later my wife bought me a S&W Model 19. No paperwork required, and a few months later I bought an FI .380 as a backup weapon. Same deal. California was a great place to be born and raised. Pat Brown (Jerry’s father) took the state down the path (cancer) of liberalism and it metastasized into what we have today.

    I, as of 1986, live in the north state in the county seat. There were 36K people here then and 136K now. It is still fairly conservative here in this outdoor paradise. Many of the people here still hunt. In addition, many are ranchers in communities of 150, where dealing with bears, mountain lions, wild boar, rattle snakes, etc., are common activities. Yet, our state liberals are continuously pushing against people who only want to protect their families.

  13. The same can be said for performance cars, off road motorcycles and other machines. I remember when you could ride in the desert until you ran out of fuel, you broke down, or just got too tired to ride anymore. If your bike broke down and needed parts, you could finish off the weekend setting up and shooting at targets, just do it safely and pack out your trash.

  14. Let’s not forget Armalite produced the AR18 and AR180 and created the M16 that was sold to Colt who in turn sold it to the US Govt and started the AR craze we all benefit from. Eugene Stoner was with Fairchild Aircraft and created the team that eventually altered the entire firearms world with the AR10, AR15 and the AR180. All this came out of SoCal. I lived down the street from the Armalite factory where the AR7 was made as well.

  15. Wow
    What a golden time in a beautiful place. I would like to hear more about the glory days of shooting sports from him.
    Excellent read!

  16. Very interesting article it’s time we get the California gun scene back to its roots! Fantastic article lots of great info looking forward to the next one!

  17. I grew up in Glendale. When I was a kid, I used to cast 185GR 45 Wad Cutters and sell them to King’s Gun Works.

  18. I attended Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California from 1957 to 1961. While in HS I purchased my first centre-fire firearm — a surplus Kar98k Mauser. I bought it from either Golden State Arms in Pasadena or Winfield Arms in downtown Los Angeles (at the corner of Olympic and Olive streets). After more than 60 years I am no longer certain which one it was, though I believe it was Golden State Arms. I DO recall bringing it home on the bus.
    I remember reading about all the businesses you mentioned in your article though I could never afford to patronize any of them.
    I now live in Nevada.

  19. Today is 3/27/2023. Its so sad and discusting that Americans became lazy and polluted. Mainley due to educational upbringing….Politics/Demons finally got their domain. Due to being complacient with the structure of being spoiled…Just let our government take care of business and pay a little more in taxes each year. Anyone have thoughts about this!!?? Seems to many people wanted others to pay for the increasing amount of programs offered by the politicians….if you just vote for me!!! I shall give you more!!!

  20. I grew up in ihe L. A area starting in 1941 (I was one and a half years old) I spent the golden years of California growing up there. I watched it go from a paradise to a Democratic hell hole! I moved to Orange county where it is still some what conservative. I still live by Charlton Heston’s famous saying, “They will have to pry my gun from my cold dead hands!” The quote my not be exact, but it is close enough to get my meaning!

  21. I appreciate this article for it brought back many memories of fun times in my early years growing up in the Orange County area. Between my dad and a number of older friends, I got to experience a fair amount of the “gun culture” of that time. Though, after I enlisted and shipped out, did my time and was discharged (Hon.), I wondered what happened. It was like day went to night.

  22. I grew up in Spring Valley in rural San Diego county in the 50s & 60s & I could shoot rabbits & rattlers in my back yard. We would hike the hills & hunt & target shoot. Everyone was fine with guns & shooting.

    I got my first CCW in1970 at age 23! No problems, got it quick, cops were fine with it.

    Lived in Ramona in the 70s & my next door neighbor was GySgt Polaski, a National Champ in the 50s who was my coach for pistol. We, would just go down the road to a little hill where we had a 50yd pistol range set up. Popped a lot of caps there & the neighbors would also come & shoot.

    I was transferred in 79 & it was still fine regarding guns & shooting, but my dad would tell me how bad things were getting in the 90s & 2000s.

    California was a good place to grow up back then, “now”, it’s the armpit of the US. Don’t know how it went from a conservative state to commiefornia!

    By the way: lots of us kids were doing “quick draws” back then with our SSA 22s. I still do tactical draw & point shoot in my tactical steel range…but then, I’m in the free state of Florida now!

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