- The Deal
- USA Made
ABOUT AT THE FRONT
My name is Rollin Curtis, owner of At the Front, and I'd like to thank you for visiting the site.
How the hell does one end up making a career of recreating WWII stuff? I saw Patton on TV when I was 4 and was immediately hooked on WWII. I started model building around the age of 5, and devouring history books on warfare of all eras. In 1979, at age 12, I was at a meeting of the Louisville Military Modeler's Club, when one of the other members brought in his real uniform and equipment from a reenactment. I immediately forgot about plastic tanks and ships- I wanted the real stuff. A few months later, I attended my first military show to look for gear, and by the Summer of 1980 I was "in the field" suffering under the weight of a helmet, K98 rifle, ammunition and gas mask. Yes, I chose to portray one of the bad guys. Why German? Simple. That was the local unit.
Events in the 1980's were somewhat different than those today, with the vast majority being "tacticals", which were essentially wargaming in 3D. Military issue grenade and artillery simulators were often handed out like candy during the safety & authenticity inspections, and many events had active duty military personnel acting as referees. Running through the woods at Weldon Spring chasing a real M4 Sherman tank, with an original Panzerschreck, that actually fired rockets (balsa wood powered by F engines) was heaven for a 15 year old. Events began Friday afternoon and ran until about lunch time on Sunday. Miles long road marches and extensive field time were the norm, and many participants were combat veterans (Vietnam, Korea, and some WWII) and their tutelage proved incredibly helpful when I joined the real Army a few years later.
After the Army, I returned to college to see if I could figure out what to do when I grew up. I also needed some sort of employment, and Tom Arter (Axis & Allies) agreed to let me work gun shows for him. This I did for a year and it taught me (some of) the ropes of running a small business. In 1993, with Tom's encouragement, I decided go off on my own and only deal in WWII items, still mostly German. (Most allied reenactors didn't need reproductions- they wore originals.)
The real beginning of ATF was when I got a burr in my pants for a good reproduction A-frame- (a quirky piece of German fieldgear) of which no good reproductions existed at that time. I spent months scrounging for the right webbing- I finally found something close at G & K Shoe company in downtown Louisville, but it was pale yellow. With trial and error I figured out how to dye it with RIT on my Mom's stove. Then I bought a Pfaff heavy duty sewing machine that could handle the webbing and leather- hoofing that monstrosity down the basement stairs was an event in itself. After Lord knows how many hours, dollars, headaches and false starts, I finally had a pretty good reproduction A-frame. I proudly strapped it on at the next event....and hated it. I never wore one again.
One of my early A-frames, 1993-94
Despite my disdain for the A-frames, many other people asked me to make them one. It was obvious that this was preferable to working at Hardees or 7-11, so off it went.
In 1997 I inherited some money from my grandmother (Kate Kirkman- sound familiar?) and I went to Los Angeles to see SM Wholesale. $50,000 later I was driving across the desert in a purple Dodge Caravan packed full of WWII junk - UPS was on strike and Fedex was too expensive so I drove it home. I rented a 1500 sq ft. building in an industrial park, hired my first employee and put out the first catalog. In October 1998, I was talking to Stevie (the owner of SMW) one morning and he mentioned having just been by Dreamworks' warehouse and seen the stuff from "that movie" they had just made and were taking bids on. After a phone call to Los Angeles to verify this info, I went to the bank, secured a line of credit, and we faxed over an offer. 4 days later they called and asked when we would be picking it up. In early November, two semis arrived, and soon the building was piled 12ft high with boxes- it looked a bit like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
About this time, "The Rants" came into being. As with nearly everything else I've done, they were an accident. Like any business, we encounter certain, select customers who can ruin your day with in 30 seconds. When we screw up, criticism is warranted, even if people go a little overboard, and I'll usually tolerate it. However, there is that percentage of special types, the ones who like to send their food back 5 times at restaurants to impress their date, make the staff cry, blame their wife for bleaching their uniform, put their boots in an oven, make ludicrous demands and so forth. Having no background in customer service, and newly equipped with a website, I did what I deemed appropriate. I went off on some nitwit- on the home page. I can't remember what the original "rant" was about, but I clearly remember the look on our web guy's when he read it.
In 1999, it became obvious that US militaria was as popular as German and I gradually started adding it to the product line, but a very large obstacle soon became apparent- the unreliability of suppliers. Chinese ebay didn't exist, and the Indians and Pakistanis hadn't found the internet yet. The few guys in the US were horridly flaky at best. So, my naive self decided to start our own sewing factory- we had been making fieldgear for almost 10 years so why not clothing?
Initially, we tried to do it in Louisville, but a couple of help wanted ads in the paper produced exactly one phone call- from some lady who was like 110 years old and sewed teddy bears. In the Summer of 1999, Larry the paint-ball loving preacher stopped by, and we discussed my struggles with the factory idea. He pointed out that the Lake Cumberland area in central Kentucky was full of unemployed sewing workers due to Fruit of the Loom and OshKosh closing plants the year before and moving to Mexico. By December, we had rented a building, hired half a dozen ladies, and the new adventure had begun. A few months after that, I found a vacant 15,000 sq ft. slaughterhouse (true story) a few miles away in Columbia for a very reasonable price. Over the next year we had that building renovated and we left Louisville in the Summer of 2001. The move had just been completed when the planes hit the towers.
Making garments in the USA in 1999 was sheer folly; the girls we hired actually had a pool going on how quickly we would go out of business. Luckily we were retailing our products, we still had a lot of "SPR" inventory and I was terrible at tracking my expenses so we managed to putter along for a couple of years. The event that ultimately saved and made us was making contacts in China in 2002. We were doubly lucky in finding three well run, honest manufacturers who actually care about what they make. The owners of two of the firms are now personal friends of ours, and we all get together every year or two.In the end, the foreign companies ended up saving our jobs here- allowing us to offer a mix of domestic and imported products.
Although I have toned down some of my descriptions and commentary on the site, it will always maintain the tone of an NCO rather than that of a concierge. I personally despise mealy mouthed sales pitches and cringe whenever something I write sounds too cheesy. We will give honest, no nonsense assessments and descriptions, and sometimes my caustic sense of humor may show through. Our goal is to provide the best products possible, deliver promptly, handle refunds immediately, and fix our mistakes all with the least amount of BS.
Now, over 30 years on, we are still growing, and adding products nearly every week. Although I had no idea at the time, it was a lucky choice I made in 1992 to "do some gun shows." It's been a long, winding and bumpy road, and I doubt it'll be much different for the next quarter century- but four wheeling is fun right?
-Thanks for visiting!