Interview with Buddy Howells (Grandson of Col. George M. Chinn)

Interview with Buddy Howells (Grandson of Col. George M. Chinn)

Buddy shows off broken well pipe retrieved from gun-bolt style extractor he designed.

George:  What did Chinn do after the Cave House?

Buddy: George was a pretty tough guy in his youth.  His friend “Happy” Chandler described Chinn as, “That tough little river rat from Murdy’s Landing,” and hired him to be his bodyguard during his first term as Governor of Kentucky.  Chinn also served as Sergeant-at-arms of the Kentucky legislature.  You know, he had a flair for the unusual.  Instead of buying a house in Frankfort, he bought an old ferry boat and converted it to a houseboat.  George picked up other odd jobs too, like serving as Jack Dempsey’s bodyguard whenever he was in the area.  (On the wall is an autographed picture of a young, rugged George Chinn standing with a group of men, one of them is Jack Dempsey.  Jack’s inscription thanks him for his service.)

George: With a few exceptions, he seems to have led a charmed life to this point.  

Buddy: George always said “I have lived my life in reverse.”  He was too young for the First World War and lived a carefree life between the two wars, even though it was during the depression.  In the late 1930s when our allies were looking to us to supply them equipment to fight the Germans with, Chinn took a job with the U.S. Government, as an inspector at Frigidaire in Dayton Ohio.  He worked in the weapon section where the .50 cal. aircraft machine gun was in production.  Through the years, Chinn had become even more interested in guns and collaborated on a book with his cousin, Bayliss Harden.  (Buddy points to a framed letter from J. Edgar Hoover thanking George for the book, The Encyclopedia of American Hand Arms that he had received from Chinn.)

George:  George was pretty old when the U.S. entered WW II.  Did he attempt to enlist?  

Buddy:  He did.  Prior to the war, a military recruiting train came through Harrodsburg taking applications and collecting résumés, and George submitted his, but he was already 37 years old.  He knew he was not likely to be called up, and he wasn’t.

George: So, how did he get into the U.S. Marine Corps?

Buddy:  He called in a political favor.  His buddy “Happy” Chandler had moved on to become a U.S. Senator.  Happy was not at all in favor of Chinn entering the military at his age.  Chandler told him: “George, you are too big and too old to get into the military now.  You’re going to get somebody hurt.”  But Chinn insisted, and with Chandler’s help he enlisted into the Marine Corps, graduating from Aviation Ordnance School in 1943.  (Buddy motions me over to a photograph on Chinn’s wall.  It’s George’s graduation photograph from Aviation Ordnance School with our star graduate obviously older and substantially heavier than the other grads.)  You know, George thought the whole thing about his weight and age was all very funny.  Almost monthly, a Navy doctor would notice him on base and order him to come in for a physical exam.  You see, any Marine perceived to be out of shape was a reflection on the competency of the Navy medical corps.

George:  So it’s World War II, Chinn is an Aviation School graduate.  Where is he assigned and what does he do?

Buddy: Most of the time he’s at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, but he was on something akin to a permanent TDY (temporary duty).  He traveled around to various military installations checking out problems with guns and seeing if he could help with a solution.  Whether it was a tool, a muzzle device, an operation or maintenance issue, or a design change, George was on the spot to help.  His work was obviously appreciated as he received a number of commendations and promotions as a result.  Chinn had a priority card that let him take flights and bump other people whenever there was a gun problem he was called in to review.  Others had cards with higher priority but he told me he used that card for many years and only got bumped once; by the Manhattan Project Oppenheimer’s people.

Graduation from USMC Aviation School, 1943. George Chinn is front and center. (G.M. Chinn collection)

George: After the War, Chinn is still in the military, and Korea starts up.  What does he do then?

Buddy: Again he served as a troubleshooter for field problems.  He traveled a lot, solving field problems, developing gages, tools, and helping with designs changes.  He was called in to help with an engine flameout problem on the F7U aircraft caused by the ingestion of gun gas.  The test pilot was none other than John Glenn.  Chinn designed a muzzle device that solved the problem and was ultimately patented.  Chinn is remembered in John Glenn’s memoirs for this brilliant and expedient solution.  George had befriended John Glenn and baseball great, Ted Williams, as well, as they were both fighter pilots during the Korean War.  (Buddy digs through a box of parts and retrieves a sample muzzle brake and shows me a copy of a patent that is framed and hanging on the wall.)  It was also during the Korean War years that the Navy Department got George started writing The Machine Gun book series.

George: Let’s talk about The Machine Gun book series for a moment.  I’ve always wondered how Chinn was able to get so much design information on all of those weapons – especially the foreign ones.  It was before the information age and there was no internet to help him.

Buddy: Chinn made extensive use of the U.S. Patent Office.  Patents on various guns, components, and feed mechanisms gave him a wealth of information about the theory and the design approach because that’s what patents do.  It turns out that foreign patents were filed in the U.S. Patent Office as well so the foreigners could protect their concepts in the U.S.  Chinn had a whole team under his direction researching patents.  During their research they ran into some patents they believed could affect national security and should have been assigned a security classification, like Top Secret, or at least Secret.  Chinn, a Major at the time, reported their findings and was told by his commanding officer: “If what you are saying turns out to not be true, it will be your last day in the Marine Corps.”  This had Chinn worried for a while, but he trusted his own judgment and that of his team.  Sure enough they were correct and the security leak was plugged.

George:  And after he left the USMC?

Buddy: He was called back into the Marine Corps and went to work at the Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville.  Bill Schnatter, Walt Cashen and George made up the design team that was awarded a patent on the Mk19 mechanism.  He developed the 20mm/30mm Mk22 canon there too.

George: And after that?

Buddy: In later years, Chinn was like a guru for guns.  People would come from all around to check out their designs with Chinn.  Even the U.S. Government ran new designs by him to get his opinion on their viability.

Author is presented with autographed Volume 5 by Col. Chinn in 1985.

George:  Did Chinn ever get involved with hand-held small arms?

Buddy:  Because of his vast experience, the U.S. Army JSSAP (Joint Service Small Arms Program) tried to get him to work on a new military rifle.  Chinn wasn’t real excited about the idea but the JSSAP people kept after him, even sending down representatives from the Navy at Crane and their top gun guy in Washington DC.  I guess they figured if the Navy asked, Chinn might work on it.  All of his life Chinn had worked on bigger guns and there is a difference between guns fired from hard mounts and guns fired from the shoulder.  He finally conceded, going along for a little while to see where it would lead.  In considering the new rifle, George decided to use recoil operating cycle rather than a gas drive.  He knew that recoil operated weapons didn’t have the guns gas residue and erosion problem and plus you could fool with the operating cycle and maybe even reduce the recoil.  For his prototype he started with an old Remington Model 8 recoil operated rifle originally chambered for .35 Remington.  First we converted it to fire 7.62mm and made some other modifications.  When we had the design completed, we went over to Ft. Knox to demonstrate it.  Due to time constraints and our limited manufacturing resources, we decided against converting our sample to fire full auto.  Instead, we bought one of those inexpensive BMF activators – you know, one of those hand crank devices that attaches to the trigger guard and pulls the trigger multiple times for every rotation of the crank.  We went out to the range and unexpectedly found our friend Bill Schnatter.  He was there demonstrating the Mk19 and we were requested to share the range to demonstrate our rifle.  We shot it semi-auto for a while and the gun worked perfectly.  Then we decided to show the “full auto” capability, even though the rifle only had a five-round magazine.  We spun up that BMF and cranked off a 5 round burst.  Bill Schnatter looked up from his test site and yelled out: “Looks like the Colonel has done it again.”

George:  Buddy, as you think back on your grandfather’s long association with machine guns, who did he admire most? 

Buddy: Without a doubt, he most admired John M. Browning.  He had met members of the Browning family and was presented with a medallion from Val Browning, John’s son.  This plaque was one of his most cherished possessions.  Chinn was more than dismayed by the lack of progress made in gun design since Browning and was often heard to say: “We ought to dig up John M. Browning and see if he might have left us another gun design in his vest pocket.”

George:  I seem to recall a similar comment he made about German machine guns. 

Buddy: Yes, it’s in one of the books in The Machine Gun series where he compared our development programs to the German’s.  He said: “True to the German military tradition, they sought to build tomorrow’s weapons today.  In contrast, it has always been our custom to build yesterday’s weapons soon.”

George: George M. Chinn is remembered for his wisdom and sage remarks.  Can you recall some examples so we can get a better insight into the man?

Buddy Howells and George Kontis in 1985.

Buddy:  That’s a tall order, but I’ll try.  Even though George Chinn was not above calling in a political favor from time to time, he actually had no use for politics.  He was incensed when politics affected the gun business and he’d say that it had no business there.  Chinn’s success was characterized by a man who had a keen insight into knowing when to quit.  Whether it was a business venture, horse racing, drinking whiskey, or pursuing a design approach, knowing when to pull up stakes and move on was a human character trait that served him well through the years – like his decision to give up drinking whiskey.  Chinn believed that the proof of any good design was to put it into practice.  He was known to remark: “I’ve never had a malfunction on paper.”  That being said, he and his co-workers would make every effort to make their designs fool proof, but were always confounded by users who would still find a way to cause a failure or a malfunction.  This led to one of his favorite expressions, though not original:  “You can make something foolproof, but not damn fool proof.”  George Chinn had a lot going for him but he never let it go to his head.  He would jokingly say, “I am thought of highly in low places.”  Of course, this was much earlier than the country tune with the same theme.

On our way to lunch, Buddy took me past some other buildings with Chinn connections.  The old family house is possibly one of the oldest in Harrodsburg and was built from two log cabins that were merged into a single house where parents live.  Buddy and his father have been working together restoring the house, room by room, starting with the living room where Chinn and his wife Cotton were married.  Around town, construction sites mark the landscape of this historic city.  A historic marker, near the war memorial, memorializes George M. Chinn for his contributions to the field of small arms.

Original postcard from Chinn’s Cave House. (Author’s collection)

Late in the afternoon, Buddy and I drive a winding road that leads to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Cave House.  As we near the river, the road hugs a sheer cliff on the left that faces a lush riverbank on the right.  A chain link fence marks off the grounds and prevents intruders from entering the remains of the cave house.  It is evident that the roots from a number of large trees have lost their grip on the thin soil in the cliff above and have come crashing down into the Cave House compound.  Buddy and his son have been clearing them out.  Even in its present condition the Cave House is impressive.

Buddy: (Buddy points to a large storage box at the Cave House entrance.)  When Chinn was working on the Mk19 he leased the Cave House to the Navy for a dollar a year.  They did their testing inside and stored their ammo in that box at night.

George: (Fast moving vehicles slow to rubberneck when they see the two of us – and me with a camera – examining the Cave House.)  Do you suppose they’re looking for a sandwich or a little slot action?

Buddy:  No, I’ll be answering a lot of questions from the locals.  Around here, there is a certain mystique about George Chinn and amazing rumors have developed surrounding the Cave House and Chinn’s home.  There are people who believe George had machine guns mounted on his roof and other outrageous things.

As the sun sets over the Cave House, I feel a bit guilty of taking up so much of Buddy’s day.  I thank him for sharing his insight into the life of a man we have long admired.