One month ago today Mike Dillon cleared for takeoff one last time. We’ve spent the time since sharing little insights into Mike’s life; the things he did, the people he knew, and his many accomplishments. These glimpses into the life of any man cannot tell the entire story, nor should they. In remembering and celebrating Mike Dillon’s life we hope we have shown you something you hadn’t known or at least brought back a memory you hadn’t thought about in a while.
Today we aren’t going to talk about helicopters, machine guns, reloading machines or irascible pilots. As much a part of Mike’s life as those things were they were the least of what he left behind. Mike’s wife, Carol, his sons, Stephen and Christopher, his daughter, Stephanie, and daughter-in-law, Kimmie, along with all 9 grandchildren, Wyatt, Ethan, Nellie, George, Travis, Sara, Jack, Michael and John are Mike’s true legacy. We’ve spent this past month remembering Mike Dillon and we certainly will continue to do so for a long while. Now lets remember Mike’s family and hope that the pain of his passing is tempered with fond memories.
Back L-R: Chris Dillon, Carol Dillon, Mike Dillon, Steve Dillon, Stephanie (Dillon) Happ, Travis Happ, John Happ Front L-R: George Dillon, Kim Dillon, Nellie Happ, Wyatt Happ, Travis Happ
L-R: Nellie Happ, Kim Dillon, Steve Dillon, Lyn Harpum, Myrna Harpum, Sara Dillon, Carol Dillon, Mike Dillon, George Dillon, Stephanie (Dillon) Happ, Travis Happ, Ethan Happ, Wyatt Happ
Back L-R: Chris Dillon, Steve Dillon , Mike Dillon, Lyn Harpum. Front L-R: Wyatt Happ, George Dillon, Travis Happ, Ethan Happ
Steve and Kim Dillon’s twin boys Mike and John.
Jack Dillon with his father Chris Dillon
Mike and Carol with their Dobermans, Stoner and Magnum
Mike Dillon, Steve Dillon and Chris Dillon working on a P-40 Warhawk
We need to look at one more of Mike Dillon’s innovative presses to see the full scope of where he started and how we got where we are today. We’ve seen the RL-1000, which cost too much for the average consumer to afford. Then we looked at the RL-300, which cost Mike too much to make. Finally we come to the RL-450 which hit the mark on affordability both for the consumer and for the manufacturer.
Mike learned from the past and made the RL-450 with a strong, but much more affordable, cast frame. He also kept the automation to a minimum, which again helped keep the price down. The RL-450 was such a great value that the price was around half of what the RL-300 had cost and it was still affordable to produce. The RL-450 was so successful that Mike started to get the attention of the major players in the reloading industry at the time. Here’s what Mike had to say about that in The Highly Irregular and Somewhat Improbable History of Dillon Precision Products,
“By 1984, both Hornady and RCBS either had introduced or were preparing to introduce their own progressive reloaders, and they were much stronger than us in the distributor market. I wasn’t going to fight their fight. All good fighter pilots know that you don’t fight the other guy’s fight. Instead, I went into direct marketing. This was a go-for-broke thing. I spent every dollar I could raise on advertising. We had to sell 500 machines that month to pay for all the advertising we had purchased – we sold 5000.”
This ad from the March 1984 edition of Gun’s & Ammo shows the RL-450 at a mere $185, a far cry from the $2475 that the RL-1000 had cost. No wonder he sold 10 times his goal for that month. Finally reloaders had access to a machine that could reload hundreds of rounds per hour and do it affordably.
The RL-450 is out of production but Dillon Precision Products still offers parts and upgrade kits that allow you to turn that RL-450 into an RL550 B. When you examine the RL-450 you can readily see the designs that are still in use on the RL550 B and the XL650 both of which continue to lead the industry in quality and performance.
In THE HIGHLY IRREGULAR AND SOMEWHAT IMPROBABLE HISTORY OF DILLON PRECISION PRODUCTS, Mike Dillon states that “Our first hobby-level progressive loader – The RL-300 – was a major learning experience. We built maybe 900 or 1000 of them, and lost about $100 on each one.” Some estimate that Mike may have only sold 600 of them. Making machines at a loss was far from Mikes goal but producing a machine that the reloading hobbyist could afford was a goal he took seriously.
The RL-300 was a solidly built machine, just as it’s predecessor the RL-1000 had been, but without any frills. Gone were the case feeder, auto indexing, automatic primer feed, and auto actuated powder drop that drove up the cost of the RL-1000. The RL-300 was all manual but the price was also a LOT lower. The RL-1000 was $2475 while the RL-300 was under $400. A big difference to the consumer, especially a consumer who might be reloading to SAVE money on ammunition.
Operation of the RL-300 would have been a big improvement over reloading on a single stage press but it seems like a lot of work compared to modern machines. A plunger had to be depressed to place the primer for seating, another plunger was pushed to drop the powder charge. The reloader would have pushed the case itself to advance the shell plate. The completed round would have been manually removed from the shell plate. A lot of work? Not compared to running a single stage, which was all that most reloaders had at that time.
So why was Mike Dillon losing money on the RL-300? Materials and production costs. The RL-300, just like the RL-1000 had machined stainless steel components that drove the cost up. So even without all the bells and whistles the RL-300 was still too expensive to produce at a price point that made sense at that time.
The solution was to go to cast parts and then, over time, start adding the automation back in. That change led us to the RL-450 which was the first in a line of machines that Dillon Precision is still producing, although the RL-450 itself has long gone out of production. But today is about the RL-300, Mike Dillon’s machine that brought progressive reloading into the realm of the average reloader, so lets take a look at some pictures of the press and a pdf of the owner’s manual. If you like you can access the pdf directly here.
Long before Mike Dillon brought such amazing machines as the RL 550B, XL650, or the Super 1050 to market there were some pretty impressive early machines that paved the way for all that would follow. The very first machine that was truly a Dillon product was the RL-1000. Mike had been making, and rapidly selling, his .223 conversion kits for the Star Reloaders but the people wanted more. They began asking him to make a 30.06 conversion. That is when Mike decided that things might be better if he just made his own reloading machine. Out of that desire to innovate, and using his prior experience making the conversion kits, Mike created the RL-1000.
The RL-1000 was not a hobby level machine, at least not so far as the price tag was concerned. The RL-1000 initially sold for $2475 with the case feeder. Adjusted for inflation that would be over $9000 in today’s economy (2016). This put the RL-1000 out of reach of the casual reloader or hobbyist in the late 1970’s. Part of the reason the cost was so high was the stainless steel frame. When the RL-1000 was redesigned as the RL-1050 the stainless steel frame was eliminated in favor of a cast frame and the price was reduced considerably. The linkage was also changed and the press went from being capable of producing 30.06 cartridges down to a maximum cartridge size of .223.
Today Dillon Precision offers the Super 1050 which combines the strengths of both of it’s predecessors the RL-1000 and the RL-1050. The linkage is restored to the longer length of the RL-1000, so 30.06 length cartridges can once again be made, and the frame is still cast like the RL-1050 so the price is more economical. If you check out the links to the Super 1050 we think you can easily see the family resemblance to the RL-1000 below.
If you haven’t yet read one of these Air Progress articles that Mike Dillon wrote you are missing out. You don’t have to be some sort of aviation wonk to appreciate the stories that Mike relates and the engaging voice with which he writes. Like a lot of the “gun writers” that are so popular in the shooting industry, Mike wrote about the sports and the people that he knew and, quite frequently, Mike knew some big names in whichever sport he was into. Air Races were certainly on Mike’s lists of interests and one of the many interesting participants was a pilot named Darryl Greenamyer.
Darryl Greenamyer, for those who may be unfamiliar with him, was a pilot in the Air Force Reserve who later went on to work for Lockheed Martin. While at Lockheed Darryl was an SR-71 test pilot at Skunk Works where he became acquainted with many of the engineers who would later help him make modifications to his race planes. Those race planes, like the Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat below, would carry Darryl both to victory and into trouble as Mike Dillon describes so well in the article below.
Today we have an article that was published in the May 1972 edition of Air Progress entitled Greenamyer: The Grounding of a Champ. If you prefer to access the pdf directly click here.
Air America was the covert air carrier employed by the CIA to insert US forces into places they weren’t supposed to go. There are movies, books and countless conspiracy theories about Air America. One interesting thing about them is that they were going to hire Mike Dillon to fly for them. Were, that is until Mike’s wife Carol accepted another job for him. While Mike was out TWA called his home, Carol answered, and when she heard that they wanted to give Mike a job flying commercial airliners she wholeheartedly accepted the job on his behalf.
Trans World Airlines (TWA) was one of the big four domestic airlines in America. Owned at one time by Howard Hughes the airline was known for pioneering the in-flight movie, innovative airport designs, and being the first to fly an all jet fleet. Mike Dillon flew for TWA for 13 years.
During what Mike described as “long, boring, commercial flights” he worked on ideas for enhancing and improving reloading machines. It was during these times that Mike developed ideas that lead him to begin building his own reloading machines. Mike and Carol worked together assembling these early machines in their homes garage. In 1977 he began Dillon Precision. Within 10 years Dillon Precision had become the worlds largest ammunition reloading machine company.
The photo below is of a Boeing 707 which Mike is piloting for TWA.
Not one to stay bored for too long Mike also worked as an aerial firefighter spreading retardant to prevent forest fires. Below we have an image of a B-26 dropping retardant. Mike isn’t flying that plane but the photo, by Nyle Leatham, is part of his personal archives. Mike worked with those firefighters out of Safford Arizona.
Next we have a great photo of Mike leaning against the front wheel of a TBM Avenger that he did fly while fighting fires. In the background you’ll see the B-26 from the previous photo. It may not be the exotic adventure that Air America offered but Mike looks right at home.
True was a “man’s magazine”, a fact that they incorporated into their title until some time in the 1960’s. True had regular columns for advice, adventure stories, sports, and other writing that generally appealed to men. One of the contributors was none other than Mike Dillon who, of course, wrote about other pilots and their airplanes. This particular article is about a pilot named Leroy Penhall. Penhall’s efforts at becoming a Marine Corps pilot failed due to his poor eyesight but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his pilot’s license when he got out of the service. Penhall raced power boats and fighter planes so he was definitely the kind of guy that Mike would want to meet and fly with and he did just before the 1974 air race in Reno. According to Mike “460 miles per hour at 50 feet is impressive!”
Leroy’s son, Bruce Penhall is a champion motorcycle and powerboat racer of some note, winning the World Speedway Championship in 1981 and 1982. He also took a turn at acting and was on the television series CHiPs in its final season.
This article appeared in True in February of 1975. Leroy Penhall, his wife Bonnie, and three others died in a plane crash in January of 1975 just before the February issues release. True ceased publication later that same year in August of 1975. The copy below is from Mike Dillon’s personal archives and is in the original format that he typed it in. If you prefer you can open the pdf below by clicking here.
Mike Dillon was a man of varied talents and interests and that included politics. It wasn’t uncommon for editorials, or even entire articles, in the Blue Press to take a decidedly political turn. Mike’s opinions on these matters were to the point and well thought out. As those who knew him, or perhaps have been reading these posts about him, would know he also didn’t pull any punches. There’s a reason he called the warranty a “No BS Warranty”, he believed in telling it straight.
Today we have a few examples of Mike’s writing on matters of politics from some older editions of the Blue Press. Hopefully you will find these enlightening and even entertaining to read. If you prefer you can access the pdf directly here.
From the April 1969 edition of Air Progress magazine we have Mike Dillon’s article on Bob Hoover. Bob Hoover was a pilot in the 52nd Fighter Group during World War II. On his 59th mission he was shot down by a German Ace over Southern France. After his capture Hoover spent 16 months at a prison camp in Barth, Germany. During a staged fight at the prison camp Hoover stole a Focke-Wulf FW 190 that was being kept for spare parts, yet was still flyable, and made his way to freedom in the Netherlands. After the war Hoover met and befriended Chuck Yeager who, impressed with Hoovers flying skills, chose him as his backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program. After entering civilian life Hoover engaged in quite a bit of pilot training and worked as a test/demonstration pilot. Eventually he began putting his skills on display at airshows and that is what Mike Dillon covers in the article below.
Gunsite was founded in 1976 by WW II and Korean War veteran Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper. Cooper’s vision was that the training facility in Paulden, Arizona would be the perfect place to teach his Modern Technique of the Pistol, which he had developed during his “leatherslap” matches in Big Bear, California. Mike Dillon got wind of this development and decided to load up the truck and drive to Paulden to see just what Colonel Cooper had going on up there. Mike took his son Steve, his friend, and photographer, Nyle Leatham and Nyle’s son Rob along for the ride. Rob Leatham, quoted here from the September 2010 edition of Handguns magazine had this to say about the trip;
“My dad was a photojournalist for the Arizona Republic. Mike Dillon and my dad were buddies. We went up to Gunsite to do a story on this guy who was starting this shooting thing up there. We met Jeff Cooper and went out and shot on the range and that item right there that day probably made me more enthusiastic about shooting than anything I’d ever done. It was the first time I’d ever shot in front of anyone other than family, and I loved it–the showmanship and the desire to compete came out there.”
Once again something that Mike had taken on as one thing morphed into a lot more. Meeting Jeff Cooper, going to Gunsite, these things inspired a young man and got him more interested in shooting. We all pretty much know what happened after that. Mike didn’t let it go at that either. His sponsorship of Rob Leatham helped to lay the foundation for an outstanding career. That “shooting thing” that Jeff Cooper started that year didn’t do too bad either.
We don’t have a video of that meeting, or the fun that they had shooting Mike Dillon’s Thompson machine gun, but we do have this classic photo taken by none other than Rob’s father Nyle Leatham.