By Dave Anderson
Mike Dillon, founder of Dillon Precision, died on November 7, 2016 at the age of 81. I can remember when the best progressive available, the Star, cost as much as three new Colt Government Models. Through a combination of ingenious design, brilliant marketing and unsurpassed customer service, Dillon made progressive loading tools affordable. They say Henry Ford put a car in every garage — well Mike Dillon put a progressive tool on every reloading bench.
Back in August I wrote and sent a nostalgia piece on some of the people who helped practical shooting grow. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about Mike Dillon:
“It’s not often one can pinpoint just when everything changed … An ad in the Nov/Dec 1983 Handgunner shows the 450 priced at $365. Then Dillon dropped his bombshell. He went to factory-direct marketing. Full-page ads appeared in the gun press, such as the M/A 1984 Handgunner, offering the RL-450 for $185. One hundred and eighty-five dollars!”
It’s hard for young shooters today to appreciate the impact of the affordable Dillon progressive. It was such a big deal we could hardly believe it. For a relatively modest investment, we could shoot as much as we wanted.
I was fortunate to get to know Mike through a mutual friend, Nyle Leatham. Nyle was a professional photographer and journalist. We worked together to cover a lot of handgun competitions for Handgunner articles. Several times my family and I visited Nyle and his wife Carole at their home in Mesa. Usually Nyle and I would take an afternoon to drive to Scottsdale for a visit with Mike Dillon.
In the early 1950’s Nyle was an aerial photographer in the Air Force, later a journalist and photographer for the Arizona Republic. Dillon was a commercial airline pilot for TWA. With their mutual love of flying and photography, some time in the 1960’s they began doing articles for Air Progress magazine.
Along with several like-minded friends they competed to see who could get the most dramatic photos, and took hair-raising risks in doing so. I recall Nyle saying. “It’s a miracle we survived those days,” to which Mike replied, “Some of us didn’t.”
One friend who was killed had been a shooting enthusiast and collector. He left Mike his Thompson submachine gun, along with a Star progressive loader. The Star was a beautifully made, precision machine and priced accordingly. Mike liked guns and shooting, though as far as I know he never hunted or shot competitively. He appreciated precision machinery and fine workmanship, features the Thompson and the Star certainly exemplified.
Dillon was a mechanical genius. He had to see how everything worked, and once he did, his innovative mind couldn’t help seeing ways to make it better. Early on he modified a Star (made for handgun cartridges only) to reload .223 ammunition. Nyle had one of those converted Stars in his loading room.
As Nyle remembered it, Dillon offered Star rights to use his idea in return for a small royalty. This was in the 1970’s, and according to Nyle, Star didn’t think it was a good time to be making new investments. They told Dillon if he wanted to pursue the idea he had their blessing.
Mike Dillon doing what he loved, flying. He’s the man who, in Dave’s opinion,
taught us all how to shoot — or at least, made it possible for us to have the
ammo to learn to shoot. People say Mike Dillon was a genius, and people are right.
First came the commercial-grade RL-1000. It was followed by the RL-300 for the hobbyist reloader. Only about 1,000 were made and Mike later recalled, “We lost $100 on every one we sold.” Then came the RL-450 — and factory marketing. Mike recalled, “We knew we had to sell 500 the first month just to pay for the ads. We sold 5,000.”
Today, the RL-550 with interchangeable tool heads remains the workhorse. Many shooters find the XL-650 gives the speed they need at the right price. As for the wonderful, the magnificent, Super 1050, it came along at a time when I desperately wanted to shoot, but was farming a couple of thousand acres and working two other jobs to pay the mortgage. Finding 10 hours a week to load a thousand rounds on my single stage equipment was impossible. The 1050 would do it in an hour, in effect giving me another day a week.
Mike Dillon’s other interests included collecting and restoring old aircraft, and collecting and shooting full-auto firearms. One acquisition was a “Minigun,” the electrically-powered Gatling gun. Being who he is Dillon found ways to improve it, which resulted in a contract to modify thousands of Miniguns for the armed forces.
On one visit Nyle and I got to accompany Dillon in his restored Huey helicopter to test-fire a couple of Miniguns on a remote, privately owned desert ranch. Mike had the Minigun set to fire 4,000 rounds/minute, meaning it would empty a 1,500-round ammo box in 20 seconds. Believe me, firing a Minigun from a door mount of a Huey at a target on the desert below is as much fun as it sounds.
Ammo for Miniguns, I’ve been told, is usually loaded with one tracer round in 10, and you “aim” by walking the tracer on-target. Mike had one box of 1,500 rounds of 100 percent tracer. We held it back until just after sunset.
With the 1050 loader, Mike Dillon gave me an extra day a week. And one evening, out in the Arizona desert, he gave me 20 unforgettable seconds.
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