Is It Original?

June 2001

By Bruce Stark

No one wants to be taken advantage of. As a buyer or a seller, most of us have made our share of mistakes. One mistake is to buy or sell an item that we do not have an intimate knowledge of. In some cases we may rely on the knowledge of the other party to help us establish a fair price. Sometimes we later discover that we have been cheated out of a valuable item or into an item that is not worth what we thought it was. Knowledge is power.

How do you respond to a customer who has just said, “It’s too bad that your Lee Jurras gun is not an original Auto Mag”?

The word “original” has many different meanings. When this word is thrown around during the bargaining process, as in the example above, the buyer might be trying to get an upper hand through the implication that what you have is un-original. It then logically follows that your gun could be a copy, after-market, reproduction, or even a fake. In any case, you are now put on the defensive.

What do you say to the seller who proclaims that his Pasadena Auto Mag is original, and not one of those later made copies you see out there?

If the definition of “original” is taken to mean the first, then only the Pasadena guns could be considered to be original Auto Mags. Literally speaking, only the number one prototype gun could qualify as the first.  Ironically this particular gun was not made of stainless steel and may not fit the definition of an Auto Mag.

Obviously an “original” Auto Mag would be a gun you would want as a sound investment, and a gun that would command the highest price. Let’s review the facts.

Auto Mags were made from 1971 until the year 2000 using one of eleven different names on the receiver.

1. AM, Pasadena, California
2. TDE, North Hollywood, California
3. TDE, El Monte, California
4. TDE, El Monte, California, High Standard
5. TDE, El Monte, California, Lee Jurras
6. TDE, El Monte, California, Kent Lomont
7. TDE / OMC, El Monte, California
8. AMT, Covina, California
9. AMC, Covina, California
10. AM, Irwindale, California
11. AM, Sturgis, South Dakota

The first nine names were manufactured under the direction, or with the authorization of the inventor, Harry Sanford. The guns using the last two names were manufactured under license of Harry’s widow and son, Nadine and Walt Sanford.

All of the above guns are original Auto Mags. “Original” here is defined as authentic. After all, isn’t that what a seller and a buyer need to know before a fair sale can take place? If all of these guns are authentic, then what are the guns that some have called fakes and why are some collectors still gun shy about Auto Mags as investments?

GUNS AND PARTS THAT HAVE BEEN QUESTIONED

The following examples are listed in chronological order.

The prototype, experimental, engraved and .45ACP Auto Mags are well documented in the author’s book Auto Mag: The Pasadena Days. These are not guns that collectors will readily encounter.

1. Barrels made to deceive – Pasadena

For all intents and purposes, only 6.5″ .44AMP barrels were made during the Pasadena production run of Auto Mags. From time to time, barrels in different calibers and lengths have been found to have Pasadena markings. These are later made barrels that the guys in the back room marked for a buddy or a cash-wielding customer. The only reason to mismark a barrel is so it can be sold for more than it would otherwise.

2. Custom Barrels – Barbasiewicz

The North Hollywood guns were the next production run of Auto Mags. B & B Sales in North Hollywood, California distributed these El Monte manufactured guns. Bob Barbasiewicz was Harry’s production manager and head of engineering at the time. He was one of three employees that Harry retained from the Pasadena factory. Bob had lost his own personal mill to the Pasadena bankruptcy auction, and perhaps because of this Harry allowed him to produce his own line of custom barrels. Bob sold these unmarked, highly polished barrels through B & B Sales. The lack of markings was probably due to the fact that, for warranty reasons, the owner of TDE, James C. Thomas III, did not want his company’s name on Bobs’ barrels. These barrels used Pasadena receivers (barrel extensions), accelerators and rear sight assemblies. Harry authorized the manufacture of these barrels and they were sold through the appropriate distributor. I believe it would be accurate to call these barrels “custom barrels.”

3. Barrels made to deceive – Barbasiewicz

Occasionally a Barbasiewicz barrel is found to have Pasadena or North Hollywood markings. If the guys in the back room marked one of these barrels, then the barrel should be considered “made to deceive.”

4. Mismatch of barrel to frame – High Standard

In April of 1974, High Standard commissioned about 135 Auto Mags to be built using the High Standard logo. Don Mitchell was High Standard’s CEO at the time. Don told the author that only 135 “H” prefix serial numbered guns were ordered from Auto Mag by High Standard. All 135 were to be 6.5″, .44AMP guns in field grade condition. Don said that no other calibers or barrel lengths were ordered. The eventual production was 134 “H” prefix guns, 108 in .44AMP and 26 in .357AMP.

The exclusive distribution rights for the Auto Mag were then sold to Lee Jurras sometime before September of 1974. The prevailing story was that the factory was stuck with many barrels already marked High Standard and they put them on “A” prefix serial numbered frames to use them up. Although this is how the gun left the factory, these guns are a mismatch of barrel to frame because High Standard never commissioned them. A 1998 book by James Spacek titled Hi-Standard Pistols & Revolvers 1951 – 1984 revealed that several thousand “A” prefix serial numbers were reserved in High Standard’s books for assignment of Auto Mag serial numbers. A thorough investigation of High Standard’s records by John J. Stimson Jr. shows that exactly 134 “H” prefix Auto Mags were sold by High Standard in 1974. The records also show that 911 “A” prefix Auto Mags went through High Standards books in 1974 and 1975.

1) There is no evidence of a High Standard ad campaign to sell “A” prefix Auto Mags.
2) There is evidence that the TDE El Monte factory did have an ad campaign and did in fact sell High Standard Auto Mags during this period of time.
3) Lee Jurras was the exclusive worldwide distributor of Auto Mags during this period of time, not High Standard and not the factory.

What purpose might have been served by entering the serial numbers in the serial number log if High Standard in fact did not sell them?
Perhaps the factory was selling guns out of the back door to circumvent Lee Jurras’ exclusive distribution rights, but why the High Standard records entries?

5. Barrels made to deceive – High Standard

Over the years custom highly polished barrels in different calibers and lengths have been seen with High Standard markings. Based on the author’s interview with Don Mitchell, these barrels should be considered nothing other than “made to deceive.” A collector at the time ordered several custom High Standard barrels from the factory. These barrels have less than no connection to High Standard.

6. Lee Jurras

While Lee Jurras was a distributor of Auto Mags he produced many beautiful custom guns. There were:

235 Custom Model 100’s .44AMP, .41JMP & .357AMP
11 Custom Model 200’s Internationals .357AMP
1 Custom Model 200 International Bicentennial .357AMP
9 Custom Model 300’s Alaskans .44AMP
5 Custom Model 400’s Backpackers .44AMP & .357AMP
5 Custom Model 500’s Grizzly’s .44AMP
2 Custom Model 600’s Condors .44AMP
1 with no model number Cougar .30AMP
3 with no model number Metallic Silhouettes .41JMP & .357AMP

While Lee held the exclusive distribution rights, he used “LEJ” as the prefix in his serial numbers. After Lee gave up his exclusive distribution rights, he used standard “A” prefix serial numbered frames on his custom guns.

Lee also advertised non custom model 100 Auto Mags for sale.  These were “A” prefix guns with a lion’s head on the receiver.  They also did not come with Lee’s custom zebra wood grips or the “Gun-Ho” case.  These guns were usually drop shipped from the factory and are considered to be worth less than a Jurras distributed custom model 100 gun.

7. Custom Barrels – Kent Lomont

Kent Lomont was another Auto Mag distributor who made and sold a line of custom barrels.  The barrels that Kent sold had his very distinctive animal markings.

The Groundhog .22LMP
The Fox .25LMP
The Cougar .30LMP
The Antelope .357AMP
The Grizzly .41JMP
The Bison .44AMP
.45ACP Magnum

8. Custom guns – Bicentennials

In 1976 Harry worked out a deal with B & B sales to create 100 Bicentennial guns. One hundred 8.5″, fully ribbed .357AMP barrels were manufactured by the factory for the job. Larry Grossman, at the factory, then hand made four highly polished guns to Harry’s specifications. They were USA1776, USA1777, USA1975 and USA1976. Perhaps because it was so labor intensive to produce the Bicentennial guns, these were the only four made in 1976. In 1977 Harry had an outside contractor, Ed O’Neil, produce six more Bicentennial guns. They had USA100 and up serial numbers. The author has found no complete record of the serial numbers that were used. The Bicentennial guns had engraved markings including a Bicentennial bell. The remainder of the custom barrels were marked TDE or TDE / OMC and were sold in field grade condition. B & B Sales never received a single Bicentennial gun and threatened to sue the factory.

9. Custom barrels – .45 Win Mag

In July of 1980 the factory, AMT, made up two experimental barrels to test the .45 Win Mag cartridge. Throughout the eighties the author distributed over 100 of these barrels for the factory. The earliest of these AMC Covina barrels came with a Behlert rear sight assembly. The later ones were fitted with Millett rear sight assemblies. The author, as a factory distributor, commissioned several custom barrels from the factory in .45 Win Mag, .44AMP and .41JMP. Some of these custom barrels were highly polished, Mag-na-ported and fitted with scope mounts. A few had laurel wreaths electro etched on either side of the AMC Covina markings.

Mismatch of barrel to frame-General

The serial number ranges used by Auto Mag are not completely reliable in determining what markings the barrel should have. Great groups of numbers were skipped to make it appear that production was farther along than it actually was. Custom numbers could be purchased from the factory and might only contain the owner’s initials. Generally, Pasadena guns run into the three thousands, North Hollywood guns run into the five thousands and TDE El Monte guns run into the eight thousands. Distributors, dealers and collectors have switched barrels and frames for many reasons. A five thousand serial numbered frame with a Pasadena Barrel could be considered to be a mismatch of barrel to frame. This would be especially true if the frame did not contain a Pasadena bolt, etc., etc. There have been cases of North Hollywood guns first being sold with A017000 serial numbers. Receipts and interviews with the first owners should resolve any mismatch questions.
Protect your investment by getting important statements in writing.

Lunch Box Guns

While working gun shows, the author has encountered Auto Mags that were not finished at the factory. These guns are referred to as lunch box guns because a lunch box is used for smuggling the required parts out of the factory by dishonest employees. The serial number markings are either missing or of a completely different style from production guns. Without documentation, lunch box guns are to be avoided.

Reproduction or Fake Parts

The main reason that the Auto Mag was not a financial success was that it just cost too much to produce. It stands to reason that not much money can be made by making reproduction parts.

The author has cast many styles of Auto Mag grips over the years. They have always been sold by the author as reproduction grips. Some individuals have resold these grips as original factory or factory custom grips. When these reproduction grips are sold as original grips they become fakes. Words mean things.

Some very fine reproduction magazines have been made by Krasne’s Triple K Mfg. in San Diego, California. They have been offered in black and a hard chromed finish. Some people have resold them as factory original magazines.
Again, a fine reproduction part becomes a fake due to a false representation.

Years ago a large numbers of un-welded magazine shells were put up for sale by the sheet metal shop that made them. A small time Auto Mag parts dealer bought them. He made his own very crude followers, had the shells welded and then sold them as original Auto Mag magazines. These magazines are fakes.

Mag-na-porting

The Mag-na-porting of a barrel really helps to reduce recoil and muzzle jump. Lee Jurras and other distributors have provided this on many of their custom barrels. If an individual sent a barrel in to have it Mag-na-ported he has reduced the value of his gun. Mag-na-porting helps the shooter but is a bad thing to the collector if the barrel was not originally sold with this feature.

Scope Mounts

Scope mounts for the Auto Mag were first offered by Lee Jurras. His earliest Custom Model 200 Internationals were fitted with a custom mount made by Kent Lomont using a Leupold M8 2X scope. Later Internationals, and some of Lees’ other custom guns, used Jim Herringshaw’s Maxi-Mount scope mount. While a distributor of barrels, the author fitted barrels with both the Maxi-Mount and the T.S.O.B. mount made by J.D. Jones. Unless the scope mount is a clamp-on type, the barrel has to be drilled and tapped to accept the mount. Again, if a scope mount was not fitted to a barrel by a distributor and originally sold this way, the collector value of the barrel has been compromised.

Polished Barrels

Some individuals have taken it upon themselves to hand polish their guns.
The factory would sometimes polish barrels and frames at the request of a customer.  The difference is that after polishing the barrel, the factory would electro-etch the markings back onto the barrel assembly. Backyard polishing jobs will usually entirely remove the markings on the receiver.
Sometimes only a shadow of the factory markings can be seen. Guns found in this condition are worth much less than ones with un-modified finishes.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, there are factory custom, dealer or distributor custom, and customer modified custom guns and barrels. If you were to use custom cars as an analogy, a car customized in someone’s driveway is worth far less than a factory or distributor customized car. The same holds true with guns. If you are inclined to buy a custom gun or barrel, insist on letters of authenticity, receipts or some other documentation.

What do you say to the guy who asks, “Is it original”?

You respond, “What do you mean by original?”

The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources for some of the information used in this writing:

1) L.E. Jurras’ Auto Mag Newsletters
2) Handguns magazine 2001 Annual, “Lee Jurras and his Auto Mags,” by Rick Maples
3) Hi Standard Pistols & Revolvers 1951 – 1984, by James Spacek