Gyrojet Recollections

                                                          Captain Monty Mendenhall

          Tim Bixler is probably best known as the co-developer of the Boatman M21 ‘radio submachine gun. Only his closest friends are aware though, that ‘Bix’ also includes being a Chicago police officer and commercial diver in his resume. Moreover, he was one of the first people, perhaps the first person to buy a Gyrojet rocket launching pistol. It is probably a safe bet too that Bix is the only cop to have carried a Gyrojet.

            ‘Bix’ often has a table at the Knob Creek Gun Show. In spite of being busy, he is very approachable and willing to share his wealth of knowledge. ‘Bix’ gave the following interview and has kindly granted permission to publish it.

Monty            When did you first learn about the Gyrojet pistols?

Bix    In 1965. SHOTGUN NEWS was a monthly publication then. There was an ad in it for Gyrojets, so I went down to the bank and cashed in my Christmas Club. I ordered one and some ammo.  It came on September 9. Packed with the Gyrojet pistol was a letter saying that they were holding a Gyrojet carbine with a matching serial number, 67, for me if I wanted the set. As I recall the price was about $300 or $350. Anyway, I went down to the bank and cashed in my other Christmas Club.

Monty            Everything considered, that was a smart investment.

Bix     Well nobody could have guessed then. At that time I was a city cop in Chicago and money was a little tight.  

Monty         Bix, you said that you once met MBA’s President, Bob Mainhardt, face to face.

Bix     That’s right Monty.  Along comes the SHOT Show. It was held at McCormick place in Chicago then. I bummed an entry badge from a friend of mine who ran the Chicago Ridge Gun Shop.  

In Chicago, if you are a police officer you are required to carry a firearm twenty-four hours a day.  On duty, you were required to carry a blue S&W or Colt four inch revolver that was capable of firing .38 Special ammo.  I carried a Colt Python but it was loaded with 200 grain 38 Special.  We didn’t have frangible ammo back then.  If your supervisor caught you carrying it loaded with .357 Magnum ammo, you got three days off and that was a lot more serious than the average civilian realizes.

The city didn’t really care what you carried though when you were off duty, a .22 derringer or a .44 magnum. In that time frame there were no .50 caliber pistols.  I remember that one kid, back in The Chicago Police Academy, asked, “What do you do if you go swimming”’  “The instructor replied put it in a plastic bag and stuff it up your a**.”

So off I went to the SHOT Show with my Gyrojet tucked into a holster under my sport coat.  At the show, there was a booth, in fact there was a room there, for MBA.  Bob Mainhardt, the president of MBA, was there and he was telling me about the Gyrojet. I said, “Yeah, I have a couple.”  He looked at my tag kind of quizzically and I said, “I’m Bix. Then he said “Oh, I didn’t recognize the name on the badge.”

I said, “I just borrowed it from a friend ‘cause I’m really not supposed to be here” and we talked Gyrojets for a while. I must have mentioned that I was a cop because Bob asked, “What do Chicago cops carry?”

I just opened my sport coat and the Gyrojet was there.  He about s***.

It really blew his mind.

Anyhow, after that, we got to talking much more personally. He really thought it was kick that a Chicago cop would carry one of his guns so early in the maturation of his company. 

I asked Bob about other guns and he said “I’ve got a couple of the experimental, but in reality, my number 67 gun was experimental. They just weren’t calling them that.  Anyway, all of the early Gyrojets were made from the experimental castings. These castings were inletted, ah well not inletted, but they had the provisions for the full auto parts. I don’t know if they had ever had the full auto parts in them or not though.

Anyhow, Bob said, “We’ve got two of the experimentals that are gold in color.  We have number seven and number 13.” 

I said, “I’d really like to have number seven,” and he said, “Well, we’re holding number seven for the Hollywood people that are making THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.  That’s why we anodized them gold, but you can have number thirteen,” and so I said, “Ok.”

I either gave him some more money or we made the deal and I sent him a check later. I don’t remember.  So that’s how I got number 13. Later I got number 5088, which was the snub nosed Gyrojet.

They also had a survival gun there that shot a round that was probably twice as long as a standard Gyrojet round. The way it worked was that the firing pin was a screw.  You could fire regular Gyrojet ammo in semi auto and then unscrew the firing pin about an inch, or an inch and a quarter. Then you could load a single round of the longer specialty ammo.   There were some flares and ‘sneaky Pete’ CIA stuff there for this gun too.

I tried to buy one of those, but Bob said that they only had the one.  It would have been a neat gun to have had.

So I got the number 13 and the snubby because of my talk with Mainhardt.  These were all 13mm guns (.51 caliber).

Monty            Did you find out anything else about Bob Mainhardt or MBA?

Bix    After Bob left, I talked with another MBA salesman and he said that Bob Mainhardt had gotten the money to start MBA by winning a contest to build nuclear reactor that could fit into an eighteen wheeler trailer. That was a pretty small reactor, especially for its day.  It was a $100,000 prize, which as you know was a lot more money then than it is today. That was the ‘seed’ money for MBA. 

He also said that at one time Mainhardt had been the chief assistant to Werner von Braun.  I forgot to ask though if that was in Germany or after von Braun came to America.

There were also some deep scars on the back of Mainhardt’s neck. They disappeared down below his collar. This would lead you to believe that he was involved in some kind of a rocket accident. I never asked him about it. Its something I’ve never forgotten. It was bad.

Monty         You must have had some of the first Gyrojet ammo that was ever made?

Bix    All these rounds that I had, about a hundred, were handmade. They were made of copper and you could see how they were spun in a lathe. There was a silver tip in front that was made of a heavier metal. It might have been stainless steel but I doubt it. It’s been a long time.

Monty         Tell me a little about your experiences while shooting Gyrojets.

Bix     A friend and I went to El Paso, Texas, and I took my Gyrojets along. We went out into the desert with the guy that I went there to visit. There was an old car out there and we shot it.  We were pretty impressed with the gun. It made big holes in the sheet metal, and as you know, cars were built better back then.

About a year or so later, I got on the Chicago Police Marine Unit that they had at the time.  They had six boats that patrolled Lake Michigan and assisted the Coast Guard.  We did rescue stuff and sometimes recovered bodies and what-have-you in the lake. It was kind of like a summer vacation for a cop on the payroll.  I had a city credit card to buy gas for the boat. We’d just go out there and play. It was the neatest thing that I have ever done as far as working goes. 

We did do a lot of police work too, but there was a lot of leisure time in the Marine Unit. When there was nothing going on, we’d take the boat out a couple of miles and swim. 

Sometimes we’d take some machineguns out there that we weren’t supposed to have and shot them out on the lake.  Cops have always kind of felt that they were immune to whatever laws they had to enforce and that’s no major secret.

I once took my Gyrojet out there, number 67, and the scuba gear. I jumped off of the police boat and went down about, I don’t know, five or ten feet, and I shot the Gyrojet underwater.  It was really, really neat. The bullet went out but it left a spiral trace of bubbles from the four rocket nozzles. As the rounds got farther out, I imagine about five or ten feet, but this has been a long time, the bubbles expanded.  When I looked where the round had been, and I have no idea how far it went but probably not too far after the burn out, the bubbles kind of expanded.  It was kind of like looking down the big end of a megaphone. That’s the best way I can describe it.  As they were expanding, they were also deforming. The bubbles were trying to float up.  I can’t describe it better than that, but boy was it neat.

After shooting a few rounds like that, then, from about five feet under water, I shot a couple up into the air.  They went to the surface but the bubbles didn’t deform the same way.  Since they were going up, the spirals stayed round.  You probably don’t care about all this but it was neat and I am reliving all this in my mind as I tell it.

Anyhow, after I shot five or ten more rounds, I came up and my partner on the boat said, “Man! What were you doing?”  I said I was just playing with this gun I got. He said, “Things were coming out of the water going ‘ phew’ up in the air.”

It put me in mind of the atomic submarines launching missiles.  I know that’s an exaggeration but it was neat.

Monty         When I did my recent Gyrojet tests, I had a few failures to ignite. Did you have any problems? You were shooting rockets that were almost new.

Bix     I shot a few rounds that sizzled, not many though, two or three out of a hundred.  When the round went off, it didn’t go anywhere. It just sat there and went ‘whoosh.’ After that you had to dump it out of the gun and there was a lot of carbon residue that wiped off rather easily.

Uh Monty, I had another interesting experience because of the Gyrojets.  The ATU once came to my house when I was a cop. I had a Federal Firearms license then too.  My mother came to the door and the agent said that he wanted to talk to Bix.  She said, “He’s at work. You know he’s a city policeman.” The agent said, “No I didn’t. I’ll be back”

That evening two agents showed up.  They said we are offering (and this was all b******** too) all policemen who have FFLs an opportunity to surrender them before they cracked down on people who have FFL’s but who are not truly in the firearms business. 

We got to talking and they looked my record book and at the Gyrojets  too and they said, “We don’t think that these are guns.”  I said, “What are they?”  He replied, “Well they are rocket launchers.  It’s just like you had an Atlas rocket and a launching pad in your backyard.  It wouldn’t be any of our business because it’s not a gun”

That was before 1968 and the new Destructive Device rule. I also had two cannons out in my garage that were listed in my book, a 37mm and a 25mm. When they saw the cannons, the whole tone of the conversation changed. It was like, “Ok, we’re dealing with a kook.”  

Monty          You haven’t been a Chicago Policeman for a long time. Is this why you quit?

Bix    No.  Not long after getting on the Marine Unit, I went to Florida to a diving school to learn to be a diver for the Chicago Police Department. While I was in diving school, I decided to quit the force. I never really liked being a cop. I was brought up in one of those neighborhoods where everybody was either a cop or a crook or a priest. I joined the police department on a lark just to see if I could. You see Monty, there was a rumor that unless you gave a certain person $1500 you could not be hired.  Well I took the entrance exam just to see and I got on the force. I never gave anybody a penny either, except for the registration fee, which was $3 or something. I remember that 2500 people took the test for the job and I came out number 42 from the top. I’ve always been a little bit proud of that. I was tired of working in a machine shop so I went on and took the job on the Police force but I never really felt comfortable being a cop so I quit.

After diving school, I moved to Morgan City, Louisiana, which was the hub of commercial diving in the US. That’s where most of the diving jobs were then. 

Monty          Bix, I know that you a few years ago helped the NRA’s Museum to recover some Gyrojets that the BATF had confiscated from them. How about telling the readers about that?

Bix      It’s a long story, but I don’t mind telling.

Monty         Yes, please.

Bix               I was in Morgan City in 1968 when the amnesty happened.  In fact a friend of mine told me about the amnesty and I said, “Aw b******,” I didn’t believe him.  When I went to the Post Office though, I saw the poster and registered the Gyrojets.

Monty          Your Gyrojets weren’t machine guns. I know why you had to register your Gyrojets, but many of our readers may not.

Bix      Well, I had to register my Gyrojets, not because they were machine guns but because the ATF had ruled that anything above fifty caliber was a Destructive Device. The 13mm Gyrojets were .51 caliber so I had to register them.

The number 67 gun had been made so that a select fire mechanism could be installed.  On a lark, I decided to register it as a machine gun. 

Let me make a little aside here about the installation and removal of full auto parts.  Before 1968 a Class Five did what a Class Two does now.  He could remove the full auto parts from a machine gun, like an M2 Carbine and tell the ATU (they were called the ATU then for Alcohol, Tobacco Unit), and they would remove the M2 from the Federal registry and it could be sold like any other semi auto gun. After 1968, the one way conversion ruling was adopted. This may be interesting to you because you write about other stuff than Gyrojets. This ruling is why a 1927 Thompson can still be carried as a semi auto if it has not had any full auto parts in it since 1968.

1927 Thompson's were once full auto 1921s. John Thompson didn’t design the Thompson submachine gun you know.  He was just the guy who had the foresight to see the need for a weapon of this type.  Well, he got some investors and hired Oscar Payne and Theodore Eickoff.  These two are the real designers and   Warner-Swasey actually manufactured all of the prototype Thompson's.

Anyway, after they got the prototype Thompson perfected, John Thompson paid Colt Firearms to manufacture 15,000 Thompson Submachine Guns. By the time they were ready though, nobody really wanted them. The war had been over for three years. Sales were really slow. To try to get a little more cash flow, they just converted some full auto 1921s to semi auto and called them 1927 models. The semi autos didn’t sell very well either.

At any rate if you ever try to transfer a semi auto ’27, the ATF may try to change the classification from a semi auto to a machine gun.  If you argue with them though, and especially if you talk to one of the guys who have been there a while ‘cause they are very knowledgeable, you can explain that this is a semi auto ’27 and that registering it as a full auto lowers its value a lot.  Somebody who knows will listen and leave the registration as a short barreled rifle. That still has the same $200 tax as a machine gun though.

There never were a lot of 1927 Thompson's anyway. Of those few, there aren’t many left that haven’t been reconverted back to full auto or if they haven’t been, they are now registered as a full auto.  

I have a ‘27A and when it came to me the ATF tried to change the paperwork and I said, “I don’t want it changed.” So we went through this and we used the M2 Carbine story as the basis for keeping it as a ‘short barreled carbine.’ And in truth it probably should be a $5 transfer tax item but I’m not going to fight that. It’s my prize possession, my 1927 Thompson.

Ok, back on the Gyrojet story. Where was I?  The amnesty came along and I said well, “if I’m going to register these things as DD’s, why not put the full auto parts into them and register them as DD machine guns?” 

Monty          What was involved in the full auto conversion Bix?

Bix      To answer your question, I don’t remember exactly what was required to do that.  I know that when I looked at the receiver I could figure it out back then so I could figure it out again today.  I have no reason to do that, but it could be done. So I registered all four of my Gyrojets and the registrations came back on the three that I registered as full auto but not on the snubby (s.n. B5088S). That one came back stamped “REGISTRATION NOT REQUIRED.”  Here is a color copy of both sides of the form for you to keep.  This is the famous form from the NRA confiscation case.

Monty            This is a good place to get back to the BATF and NRA Museum incident, as I recall, the BATF confiscated the museums 13mm Gyrojets because they were not registered as Destructive Devices.  How did you get involved in helping the museum to get its Gyrojets back?

Bix   You see Monty, the Mark I Gyrojet “A” frame series guns had their castings inletted for the full auto parts.  I registered all of my Mark I, “A” frame Gyrojets as machine guns. There was my first pistol, a Mark I, serial number A067, the carbine, serial number A0067 (MBA just added a ‘0’ to the serial number for some reason) and the gold plated pistol, A013.  I tried to register my snubby Gyrojet (B5088S) as a destructive device, but the ATU wouldn’t let me.  That’s the one that came back with the for stamp, REGISTRATION NOT REQUIRED, the one that helped to recover the NRA’s 13mm Gyrojets

After the BATF confiscated the NRA Museum’s unregistered 13mm Gyrojets, somebody at the NRA learned about this 13mm Gyrojet registration form that I had that had came back stamped “REGISTRATION NOT REQUIRED.”  The NRA wanted to see a copy of it, so I sent them copies of the BATF’s paperwork.  The NRA got their Gyrojets back pretty soon after that.

Monty          You don’t still have these Gyrojets do you?

Bix    No. There came a time when I couldn’t get ammo anymore.  The Gyrojet thing sort of petered out like the Dardick thing did.  I had one of those too.  I ran an ad in Shotgun News and nobody responded for a while but then I got a telegram from Canada from Eric Davidson.

I called him up and he wanted to buy my Gyrojets.  He flew down from Canada and bought the guns. He had a permit to own pistols in Canada and so we did a test on the paperwork. I did the exportation paperwork as machine guns. I did take the full auto parts out first though. I also wrote a letter to go along with the guns to the Canadian import officials saying that these Gyrojets were registered as machine guns in the US, but they aren’t really machine guns anymore because the full auto parts have been removed. I exported them through a freight forwarder after ATF approved the export paperwork. They went through fine. 

That’s about all that there is to it except that I also sent Eric Davidson a book that I had.  It was called “Gyrojet Rocket Technology.” Somebody at MBA offered that to me at the same time that they sold the Gyrojets to me.  I thought, “What the heck, I might as well buy a book.”  It had a lot of Gyrojet theory in it.  I found out later that this book was not supposed to be released from MBA.  It was sold by the sales force to make an extra ten bucks, but when the technical people found out, they had fit because it told all of the secrets.

Monty            Thanks for your sharing your recollections Bix. They were very interesting.   I was not surprised to learn that you had ‘fizzles’ with new ammo. In the data that came from MBA, the book that was not supposed to be released, they reported a success rate of 99% at best. In some places, the stated rate of failure was much worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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