|Dedication of Don Wilkerson’s Colt Single Action Army Revolver Pre-War Post-War Model, to Al DeJohn.
When Al DeJohn joined Colt’s in 1946, just after his World War II service, little did he know that he was destined to become the most dedicated advocate of the art of gun engraving that the company had seen since the days of Colonel Colt himself. A talented technician, gunsmith, and designer, Al would find his true calling in the mid-1960s, when his supervisor, Joe Gannon, was transferred to another position, and Al DeJohn became Manager of Colt’s Custom Gun Shop.
A fondness and aptitude for guns was in the blood, with one of his brothers being an exceptionally talented gunsmith, who had known William B. Ruger, Sr. That was older brother Gene, who knew and was known to young Ruger before his phenomenal success in creating – with Alexander McCormick Sturm – Sturm, Ruger & Co. in 1949. Gene had a gun shop in Hartford, and he was a valued employee of the Colt company for several years.
The DeJohn family was a bustling household, with five brothers and three sisters. Another talent of the DeJohns was music. Forming a country and western band, they forged a reputation in Connecticut, and - who knows – might well have made a career out of popular music. But then, along came World War II. Although Al would continue his avocation with the guitar, his successful career with Colt’s was top priority, along with family life with his wife Helen, and their daughter Sherri – and eventually, grandchildren (and lots of nephews, nieces, and grandnephews and grandnieces).
Custom Shop Superintendent/Manager Al DeJohn, at right, with Bob Burt at the bench, Leonard Francolini at center, and Dan Goodwin at left. Photograph taken late in the 1970s; DeJohn retired in 1989.
Though there were some difficult times for Colt’s emerging after World War II, adjusting to a peacetime economy, part of that post-war era was the rapid evolution of the gun collecting hobby, accelerated by returning service men, the likes of Norm Flayderman, Robert E. Petersen, Herb Glass, Tom Haas, and numerous others. Colt’s also had a Hobby Club, with occasional shows at the factory, and the company still had such old-timers as Charles H. Coles . . . over 70 years with the company. Eventually retiring in 1957, Charlie Coles was appointed Curator, and his presence accompanied the generous gift to the State of Connecticut of the Colt Collection of Firearms.
Given the job for life, the distinguished Curator was brimming with a wealth of memories from the company’s past. He also authored a biography, from which excerpts have been quoted over the decades. Commencing as a teenage apprentice at the company in 1893, Coles knew people who had met Colonel and Mrs. Colt (died 1862 and 1905 respectively), and their playboy son Caldwell (died 1894).
A reason for Al DeJohn’s dedication to the company was that he developed his career at a time when there was increasing awareness of the significance of the gun industry, and recognition of the extraordinary sacrifice and contributions of Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Mfg. Co., Inc., in winning both World Wars I and II – and soon also the Korean War, and playing a role in the Vietnam conflict.
Visitation factory tours had been encouraged for years, but after 1957, many such groups were directed to the State Library. Fortunately those visitors were also school groups, a continuing parade of which can be observed at the State Library’s Raymond Baldwin Museum of Connecticut History. Gun collecting organizations began organizing around the country, and one of those, Ye Connecticut Gun Guild, used to meet in the Colt cafeteria. Colt’s also had a shooting team, in which Al DeJohn participated for a while. Al was also active in the Colt’s Archery team.
For Al, there would prove to be decades with Colt’s, since his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. Al had been assigned to the Signal Corps early in World War II. Thus he experienced years of active military service, with his principal armament a Thompson submachine gun. Fighting on the front lines in the European Theater of Operations, Al said his hair turned white during the harrowing pressure of combat. He rarely spoke of his service, but had survived one of the stages of the D-Day landing, and noted that the Signal Corps was sent in to establish communications – as quickly as possible.
Joining Colt’s right after wartime service in 1946, Al soon found himself in the assembly area. Mastering that key process, he learned how to file and fit so well that his skills were promoted into custom gunsmithing. As a key protégé of Al Gunther (superintendent for many years), Al had a significant role in the development of what became the Colt Python. When I was researching The Book of Colt Firearms, it was Al DeJohn who led me to Gunther, who produced a prototype of that Cadillac of Colt handguns straight out of his desk drawer. Gunther hefted from that drawer a 6-inch barrel prototype, handing it to me to view.
In April 1964, when I joined Colt’s as a management trainee fresh out of the Army, one of several assignments was to work on custom orders, and to develop what were known in the plant as “work orders.” These documents, generated usually in the marketing department, were printed to advise all the proper people key to the execution of each order. I remember doing the W.O. for a presentation Single Action Army, from Colt’s to gun writer Warren Page of Field & Stream magazine. It called for a blue and color case-hardened .45 Colt caliber revolver with plain walnut grips. The backstrap had a specific inscription – and so Al DeJohn’s department was notified through the work order. The backstrap inscription documented the presentation to Page, and was engraved by Alvin F. Herbert – then the only engraver working in the factory.
The golden years of Colt’s Custom Shop during Al’s long tenure with the company were responsible for producing many custom engraved and embellished guns such as this elaborate “John Hancock” SAA. Note the four levels of Colt engraving advertised on this die-cut advertisement, printed during America’s bicentennial.
Before too long, once Al DeJohn became Manager of the Custom Shop, the demand for engraved Colts began to grow, and the number of in-house engravers accelerated up to about seven – and their boss was Al DeJohn.
Prior to Al’s appointment as Custom Shop Manager, Herb Glass Sr. had come on board with Colt’s, establishing a consultancy arrangement with President Paul A. Benke. With Herb Glass came under contract the very gifted and versatile engraver, Alvin White. It was Glass’ idea to have a New Frontier Single Action Army designed and engraved for presentation to President John F. Kennedy. Soon Al was assigned onto that project – all of which came off with only one very tragic hitch – the President was assassinated. But the decision was then made to complete the polish and blue, and assign PT-109 to the internal Colt factory arms collection being formed (adding to what remained from the landmark gift in 1957 to the Connecticut State Library, for its Colt Collection of Firearms).
This article continues in Part 2.