(TX) Death of talented gun designer still a mystery

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Dec 24, 2002
Moscow on the Colorado, TX
Death of talented gun designer still a mystery

Charles Kelsey lived a life of great success and great failure before being found dead in Georgetown last year

By Sarah Coppola


Sunday, November 14, 2004

Charles Kelsey sits in a dimly lit room, staring into a video camera.

His hair is peppery gray, his face etched with faint lines. A neatly ironed shirt covers his slight belly. He wears no wedding ring.

On a table nearby are 15 guns, the work of Kelsey's life. A friend has asked Kelsey, a gun designer, to explain his genius for the camera. So Kelsey gently lifts one gun and begins speaking.

It is a muted, innocent moment: seven years before Kelsey's dreams dried up; seven years before his money ran out, for good; seven years before he was shot once in the head and lit aflame, his burnt body left in a Georgetown drainage culvert where it was found in April 2003.

Georgetown police say Kelsey was murdered. There are still no suspects.

It was a mysterious end to a vivid life.

In his prime, Charles Kelsey drank single-malt Scotch, wore expensive suits and created some of the most innovative guns of his time. But over the years, friends say, the sometimes-naive inventor wasted large sums of money on concepts that did not make a profit and was ruined by big gun companies who stole his best ideas.

In his last few years, Kelsey, 67, rented a small Georgetown office and worked on a bullet design he thought could become his finest invention. Finally, depressed and nearly broke, he scribbled a note telling his landlord to sell his last few possessions. He told a niece he was in danger and told a friend over the phone he wanted to talk to him in person. He never got the chance.

Today, Kelsey's friends wonder whether he was murdered, or if he might have arranged a suicide. But mostly they wonder how Kelsey, born brilliant and privileged, could end up as he did.

'An uncanny sense'

Even as a boy, Charles Kelsey liked the speed and power of mechanical things. "If it was something bigger and faster, his eyes would get wide," his sister, Wendy Brant, said.

The son of a Pennsylvania Railroad executive, Kelsey grew up in an elite Cleveland suburb -- a staid life into which the rebellious Kelsey did not always fit.

As a boy, he would hop on riding lawnmowers and speed around, startling the family groundskeepers. As a teenager, he wrecked so many cars in one summer -- six -- that his mom had coffee with the local police force to smooth things over.

Kelsey felt most at ease tinkering with cars or firing rifles in the makeshift shooting range his father had set up in the basement.

He was expected to lead a conventional life. Instead, Kelsey set off for Europe in the mid-1950s to race cars with the likes of racing great Jackie Stewart. When he returned to the U.S. in the early '60s, he launched his career in gun design with no formal training. He named his company Devel after a Scottish phrase that meant a devilish strike or blow.

In his shop near Cleveland, Kelsey often worked with classical music playing. The space felt like a mad scientist's workshop, full of blueprints and prototypes.

"One of his favorite expressions was always to take a clean sheet of paper and as a designer, 'Fight his way to the middle of the room' -- to come up with something innovative or die trying," friend John Miller said.

Kelsey's specialty was converting guns -- improving them one by one. He cut down their size and created a more comfortable pistol grip. He tightened the fit between barrels and slides, sharpening guns' accuracy. He designed a new pin safety to prevent guns from firing if they were accidentally dropped. He made sleeker competition guns that didn't recoil as roughly and could be shot more quickly. He "de-horned" guns, melting sharp outer edges until they felt like "a bar of soap in your hand," friend Gary Paul Johnston said.

"The other guns were kind of like big, clunky American automobiles. His guns were like refined Ferraris," said Chip McCormick, an Austin resident who shot Kelsey's guns in competition.

By the late '70s, Devel was booming. Kelsey's designs had been featured in every major gun magazine. His guns had won big matches like the Bianchi Cup, the pinnacle of competitive shooting. At gun shows, Kelsey was a quiet, almost mythic figure -- the rare person who innately understood the mechanics of a gun.

"He had an uncanny sense as a non-engineering type of person to stand back and watch how things worked. The way he would assess mechanical things was amazing. It was intuitive, maybe genetic," friend Shep Kelly said.

A man of mystery

To many friends, Kelsey was a down-to-earth guy who liked to laugh and told stories with flair.

But he was also a mystery.

At gun shows across the country -- where Kelsey caught up with most of his friends -- he revealed brazen snippets of his past, such as skiing off a snowy rooftop in Canada and flying out of Cuba at the height of Castro's reign with a defecting pilot.

Although friends today can describe the smallest nuance of Kelsey's guns, they cannot name his hobbies. They cannot list his likes and dislikes. They don't know if Kelsey was ever in love. Kelsey did not tell them.

The little his friends do know puzzles them: The man who grew up with servants and drove race cars lived in small apartments as an adult and drove a modest, mid-size Toyota. When Kelsey died, his friends weren't sure if he had ever been married or had children. He hadn't.

Kelsey could also seem bafflingly refined for someone involved in the macho world of guns. He smoked Cuban cigars, wore neatly pressed suits and rarely went anywhere without a briefcase. He had near-perfect diction and hated bad manners. He knew how to order the best wine, the finest dinner.

"You could imagine him in an English gentlemen's club, sipping gin," Kelly said.

Beneath the pomp, Kelsey ignored a slowly dawning truth: His business was failing.

Some friends say he was stuck inside his shop, dreaming and designing, and did not try hard enough to market his ideas. He could be stubborn to a fault, obsessing over radical designs as his bank account ran dry. Other friends say he pitched his ideas to gun company executives who listened politely, then mass-produced similar guns at cheap prices. Some of those meetings ended in angry fits: Kelsey resisted any changes to his designs.

"He had a real hard time letting go of his inventions. That was probably his only flaw," friend Jerome Berkeley said.

Kelsey refused to cut corners. Whether noble or naive, he was part of a fading breed of inventors who designed not for notoriety or wealth, but because he took a kind of quiet pleasure in the work itself. He could be prickly toward gun aficionados who tried to impress him with their limited knowledge of the machines he understood so well.

"I've met a lot of old-time gun designers," gun industry writer Dean Speir said. "Some have realized they're about to be forgotten so they're big on pumping themselves up. Charlie wasn't. There wasn't a bit of that in Charlie."

Kelsey had paid his few employees partly with Devel stock, but the stock's value sank in the '80s as bigger companies made similar guns at low prices. Bills piled up. One secretary paid the light bill out of her own pocket. Another employee stripped the shop of machines in an effort to recoup money. And Kelsey was losing money on a radical, 8-round magazine design. By the late '80s, Devel -- long past its golden days -- folded.

A slow descent

Kelsey moved to Houston to be closer to his brother, Henry. For awhile he lived in a small room at a Houston YMCA. He was promised venture capital funds, but that money never materialized.

Every so often Kelsey's mother, a rich and empathetic woman, would send him money. When she died in 1997 she left Kelsey $300,000. He spent most of it as he always had: cranking out new designs and patents.

Friends and Kelsey's sister, Wendy Brant, urged him to look for a steady job or make simpler guns. He waved off their advice.

"Charles didn't want to be in a mundane world doing mundane things. I knew he was not going to settle for something," Brant said.

In his final few years, on the advice of a gun-industry friend, Kelsey rented an office at the Georgetown gun company STI. He worked more feverishly than ever creating a non-expanding bullet that would have a more potent impact than the typical bullet. Kelsey believed it would revolutionize the industry.

But Kelsey was falling, slowly.

He was perennially short on money. Dave Skinner, the director of STI, accepted Kelsey's rent checks but rarely cashed them; he knew they would bounce. Another friend, Wayne Novak, invited Kelsey to work for his gun business in West Virginia. Kelsey declined. Friend Tom Burczynski occasionally bought Kelsey's bullets over the Internet to give him quick cash without hurting Kelsey's pride.

"He was the kind of person you didn't want to see fail," Burczynski said.

By the fall of 2002, friends heard a fresh despondence in Kelsey's voice. He was pained by his failures and had tried to get a job bagging groceries but was turned down.

He seemed agitated for other reasons: Novak remembers Kelsey worrying that his phone was tapped because agencies such as the FBI had taken interest in his bullet design. At one point Kelsey anxiously told Johnston he wanted to talk to him in person but he didn't say why.

In February 2003, Kelsey visited his brother in Houston. The two were both running low on cash, but Kelsey stopped at Central Market and bought two steaks and a fine bottle of wine.

"I said, 'Charles, let's take it easy.' He said, 'I haven't put anything on that credit card and I think we deserve a decent evening,' " Henry Kelsey remembered. "I castigate myself now for not realizing he was saying, 'This is the last time we will get together.' "

When Kelsey left, Henry found a small brown envelope in the corner of his living room. Inside Kelsey left his most expensive watch. Kelsey also mailed his brother a note wishing him luck in life.

A month later two boys playing near the drainage ditch found Kelsey's bones. A medical examiner ruled that Kelsey had likely been shot then moved to the drainage culvert and set on fire, "apparently in an attempt to conceal the remains by burning," according to the autopsy. Lead investigator Detective Bill Pascoe would not comment on any details of the caseincluding why the medical examiner ruled it a homicide.

Kelsey had stripped down his life. His work desk was empty; his computer wiped clean. His cell phone and the briefcase in which he carried his precious designs were gone. In his closet were a few neatly hung clothes. He had left a note for Skinner to sell his car.

Most significantly, Kelsey had sold every one of his guns. For Kelsey's friends, it was a final, painful irony: that Kelsey may have ventured out into the world without the protection of the very thing he had spent a lifetime perfecting.

Today Kelsey's sister plays the 1996 videotape and tries to find in it clues to her brother.

On the video, Johnston asks Kelsey if he is angry about his failed business ventures.

Kelsey pauses a moment. "Occupational hazard," he finally replies, smiling gently. As though he's already forgotten the question, he lifts another gun and stares at it thoughtfully. Then the inventor begins explaining again the details of the guns he knows so well.


That's a sad story that has ended in tragedy.
I read about the company named Devel and the Man named Charles Kelsey very recently. Up to that point, I did not know about the two.
He sounded like a very interesting individual. I wish His family and friends the best and My deepest sympathies go out to them.
I would have liked to see where His designs could have gone if only His company had succeeded.

Anyone know where I could get more info on Devel and the Man behind it?
Many people don't know it, but Charlie was also very close friends with the late CIA Director William Casey. Charlie and I were in a hotel in Washington, D.C. when Bill Casey was hospitalized, and Charlie decided to call him. Damn if he didn't get right through to the Director in his hospital room! Surpassed the hell out of me! - Lou Alessi
Sounds like he knew people in high places. I'm guessing he borrowed money and couldn't pay it back. I dont see how he could take his own life with all of the new ideas and concepts he wanted to try out.
Thank You for the article. I remember a friend of ours had one of his guns and said it was the best gun he ever purchased. He knew him quite well and my husband and I got to meet him one time. He was all business and just wanted to talk about his gun. He was very much the gentleman. Sad to hear the story of his death.

Mrs. Toro

Luke 11:21to23
When a stong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armor wherein, he trusted, and divideth his spoils. He that is not with me is agaist me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.
Thanks for those links Sylvilagus Aquaticus.
I have that issue of A.H. and am amazed by those pistols. Would have loved to be able to buy one if the company was still in business.
Does anyone know what "big gun companies" stole his ideas? Sounds like a good organization to stay away from.
I can't say for certain, but one of the articles that Sylvilagus posted hinted at a few, including Browning.

Yes, Browning stole the MkIII firing pin safety design from Kelsey. It is an ingenious design for a firing pin safety, it really is... it adds only 1 part to the BHP design, without affecting the trigger pull. Ingenious.

Kelsey could also seem bafflingly refined for someone involved in the macho world of guns.

I liked the history but the above quote got me. I suppose that gun enthusiasts are all hulking Neanderthals, at least according to the author?
Very interesting post, I had no idea who this fellow was. Sad story.... reads very much like a Greek tragedy :( It sure seems to me to like he arranged his own demise. It seems unlikey to me that everything would have been wiped clean if he had just been murdered.
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