When A Drycleaner Equipment Maker Built 20mm Cannons and Torpedoes

The Providence Journal has a fascinating article about the many layers of subcontracting that took place during WWII. Richard Parker writes about his time as a driver for the Pantex Pressing Machine Company. During the war the company was sub-contracted to make clones of the famous Oerlikon 20mm cannon and other weapons. Once a week Mr Parker would drive an incomplete torpedo across town to the home of an elderly machinist

To deliver it, I then drove to a working-class section of Pawtucket. Arriving at my destination, instead of formidable gates of a giant defense plant, I’d ring the bell of a three-decker wooden tenement and be greeted by an elderly man with a strong British accent. After chatting a bit we’d lift the warhead off the truck, roll it across the courtyard to the cellar door and, an old man and young one, carefully slide it down the stairs and roll it across the floor to his lathe.

Machinists usually love their work. Like many, this retired machinist had a well-equipped workshop to do precise and difficult grinding operations. At the lathe we’d lift off the warhead previously worked on, boost up the new one, lock it in place, roll the completed one across the floor, up the stairs, across the courtyard and hoist it onto my truck. And that’s how subcontracting won the war.

One of the most famous guns to be outsourced was the M1911 pistol. It was made by a typewriter manufacturer (Remington Rand), a sewing machine maker (Singer) and a railway signaling equipment manufacturer (Union Switch & Signal).

Many thanks to Earl for the tip.

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Steve and Earl — Many thanks for a wonderful and intimate look at an important but largely-forgotten part of history on the Home Front!

  • Cornelius Carroll

    Cool anecdote: the deep-sea sub Alvin was built by General Mills

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      It was a joint, multi-contractor effort — Hahn & Clay built the 6-foot diameter HY-100 pressure sphere that was the heart of Alvin, Southwest Research Institute built the pressure-rated plexiglass viewing ports and seals, other vendors and sub-contractors provided various components, and General Mills co-ordinated and integrated the whole vessel as a complete system that eventually worked very well for its intended purpose.

  • gunslinger

    My company works with US&S (now Ansalod). May need to see if they have any of the M1911 stuff back in storage….

    • Cymond

      My grandfather-in-law had an all-original US&S 1911. He asked me to find an approximate value for one, but I could barely find any records of them being offered for sale (and the few I found were so many years old that I considered them no longer valid since collectible prices fluctuate so much). I eventually started to find a few recent sales for about $4k.

      In the end, it went to one of his sons who did God-knows-what with it. I worry that he may not really understand what he has, that it’s not just some old pistol, it’s a very rare & valuable collectible. (I consider such things as historic pistols & classic cars to be cultural treasures and part of our heritage).

      • HSR47

        From what I’ve heard, US&S pistols are fairly common (relatively speaking) in the area around Pittsburgh PA.

        There’s a firearm dealer who specializes in antique collectibles that has been at pretty much ever suburban Philadelphia gun show I’ve been to in the last few years; He typically brings a display case full of US&S pistols.

        • Cymond

          Interesting, especially since my family is from an area only a few hours south of Pittsburgh.

  • Plumbump

    Aye, machinists are an odd bunch… I do polishing, and am a bit of an oddball myself, though young…. older machinists always keep you guessing 🙂

  • Excellent images of it.Want to see its video tutorial if available.