Established February 28th, 2002
February 28th, 2020


Pictures from Dornaus & Dixon Bren Ten Catalog

DORNAUS & DIXON: From Vision To Failure


Cast Of Characters

Thomas F. Dornaus was born in Wisconsin in 1942.  His family later moved to California, and he spent his high school years at Don Bosco Technical Institute.  Tom had always had a 'mechanical' nature, and in high school he learned his way around a machine shop and basic drafting skills.  After high school he was eventually hired by the Western Gear Corporation where he was a technical illustrator.  Tom was fascinated by firearms and it was while working here that, In 1965, he met Mike Dixon.  In the 70s Tom started working for Pachmayr Gun Works where he fine tuned the manufacturing of their 1911 pistols.  It was during this time that Tom became involved in competitive shooting, joining the Southwest Pistol Leauge founded by Jeff Cooper.  Tom used a 1911 that he built himself, and these experiences influnced his later work on the Bren Ten.  During one of these shoots Tom met Cooper for the first time.  After working for Pachmayr for three years Tom was passed over for promotion to supervisor of the company's custom shop, and so he decided to leave.  Around this time Tom's father passed away leaving him with an inheritance of $27,000.  Even though Tom was no longer earning a living working on guns, he and Mike Dixon continued their friendship and experimentation with firearms.  In reading some of Col. Cooper's writings he was struck by two things.  One was the Colonel's praise of the CZ-75 pistol, and the other was his low opinion of the 9mm Parabellum as a combat round.  It was in 1979 that Tom Dornaus decided to use his inheritance to pursue the creation of Cooper's .45 CZ based pistol.

Michael W. Dixon was born in Hawaii, also in 1942.  After his father's stint in the Navy they moved to Los Angeles.  Mike was also interested in how things work and tinkered with electronics in his family's garage.  In 1959 he joined the Navy where he served on a destroyer.  In 1962 he returned home and got a job as a draftsman at the company where his father worked.  At the age of 23 he started work at Western Gear Corporation where Tom Dornaus was working.  Ten years later Mike Dixon moved into law enforcement and worked for various agencies in the Los Angeles area.  When Dornaus made the decision to build Col. Cooper's 'dream gun' he approached another idividual as he believed that Dixon was invested in his law enforcement career.  When this didn't pan out he reached out to Dixon.  Where Tom's talents lay more in the areas of mechanical design and machining, Mike possessed the business acumen and long-term vision for the project.  With Mike Dixon now on board, his first priority was to find a technical expert to guide and advise the project.  The obvious choice for Mike was Colonel Jeff Cooper.

John Dean "Jeff" Cooper is credited as the developer of "The Modern Technique of Shooting."  Born in 1920 in Los Angeles, Cooper joined the Marines in 1941 and served in both World War II and Korea.  By the end of hostilities in Korea he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but the Marine Corps declined his request to remain in active service.  Starting in the 50s he became heavily involved in the shooting sports.  He founded the American Pistol Institute, was made an honorary lifetime chairman of IPSC, and was president of Gunsite in Arizona.  It was Cooper's lifetime of experience with combat handguns that provided much of the design criteria for what would become the Bren Ten pistol.

Starting At The Beginning:  The Prototype Pistol

Over the span of five weeks in 1980 Tom Dornaus took the drawings of the new pistol and, in a rented machine shop, turned blocks of steel into a working prototype.  At one point Dornaus was asked how a pistol is made from scratch and he responded, "First you take a solid block of steel and then you whittle away everything that doesn't look like a gun."  While it the process was obviously a little more involved than that, the result was a functioning firearm.  As the 10mm Auto wasn't even in the picture yet, the prototype was originally chambered in .45 ACP.

Prototype pictures from Ron A. Carrillo's BREN TEN: The Heir Apparent

With the $17,000 prototype complete (but sans magazine or front sight) it was taken to the Huntington Beach Police range for test firing.  There was some back-and-forth over who would shoot it first (in case of something very bad happening), but eventually Tom Dornaus loaded a single .45 round and fired the pistol.  The gun functioned perfectly, but considering the lack of a magazine necesitated loading rounds one at a time into the chamber, it could not be deemed a total success.  Now that they new they were on the right track they had the gun engraved with COMBAT SERVICE PISTOL-1980 on the left side of the slide, and CAL .45 ACP on the right side.  Following further successful testing the gun was taken to Col. Cooper who apparently was very pleased.

Having a working prototype was only the beginning though.  There were numerous changes made to the gun as testing was conducted, and conversations with Col. Cooper continued.  One of the Bren Ten's greatest claims to fame is it's chambering of the 10mm Auto cartridge.  Interestingly enough there are two stories as to how this actually came to pass.  According to Tom Dornaus it was at one of their meetings with Cooper that the Colonel stated that he wanted the gun chambered in a 10mm caliber cartridge.  This stunned Tom as Col. Cooper was well known for his devotion to the .45 ACP.  Tom later stated that if he had known about the 10mm chambering that he wouldn't have started the project in the first place, and that the funds involved in creating a new cartridge would have been better spent on improving the pistol itself.  Mike Dixon, on the other hand, remembers it differently.  According to Mike the new caliber was always part of the plan, but the original chambering in .45 was simply an easier way to produced a useable prototype for testing purposes.

It was during this time that Jeff Cooper also pushed for a different name for the pistol.  While "Combat Service Pistol" certainly described the gun, the problem was that so many guns were technically combat service pistols.  Cooper pushed for the name BREN TEN in recognition of the Czech city of Brno where CZs were produced, and the Bren light machine gun of World War II fame (which was actually based on a gun designed in Brno).  At the time both Tom Dornaus and Mike Dixon were resistant to the new name, but not wanting to jeopardize the Colonel's endorsement the agreed.

A New Company

With a working prototype and some positive function testing done it was time for Tom Dornaus and Mike Dixon to make things official.  In 1980 both Mike and Tom started looking for investors.  Part of the process is, of course, to showcase the Bren.  At first Col. Cooper was somewhat concerned about betting his reputation on this new pistol, but in August he convinced Tom and Mike to reveal the gun at the International Practical Shooting Confederation Nationals.  The potential for disaster was obvious to the creators should the gun malfunction, or even break, but again they didn't want to risk losing Cooper's endorsement.  Mike arranged for a display booth at the event, and fortunately when the Colonel fired the gun in front of an excited audience it functioned perfectly (at this point the prototype was still chambered in .45 ACP).

As fundraising efforts continued there were numerous interested nibbles, but nothing ever developed into hard cash.  In January of 1981 it was decided to officially present the Bren Ten to the public at the annual SHOT Show.  Funds were so low at this time that Dornaus and Dixon had to actually borrow money to make the trip!  After returning home to California there were still no serious signs of investment, but Dixon was able to locate an attorney who, being a gun enthusiast himself, agreed to work for free in putting together the documents to create a legal and official business.  On July 15th, 1981, Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises, Inc. became a reality.

This is from the 1984 Dornaus & Dixon catalog:

Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises was formed in December 1979 with the combined efforts of two men, Thomas F. Dornaus and Michael W. Dixon, who had decided to build what they hoped would be the heir to the Colt .45 Auto. In January 1980, they went seeking advice from the most knowledgeable sources available. This effort naturally led to Jeff Cooper. Upon seeking his advice, it was discovered that Jeff Cooper, likewise, was working on such an arm. It was decided that Dornaus & Dixon and Jeff Cooper would join forces, with Jeff Cooper providing conceptual design criteria, as well as technical advice based on his vast practical experience, and Dornaus & Dixon providing the engineering, development, manufacturing, and marketing expertise. To retain his professional objectiveness, Jeff Cooper is not an employee of Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises, nor does he have any authority in the manufacturing of the Bren Ten.

On July 15, 1981, Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises, Inc. became a legal entity and was incorporated by the Secretary of State, in the State of California. On November 1, 1982, the manufacturing facility was dedicated in Huntington Beach, California. This many thousand square foot facility has within it some of the most modern state-of-the-art computer controlled equipment available today, which allows for precise workmanship second to none. Another fact unusual within the firearms industry, is that all of the employees who work directly for Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises, Inc., as well as their key advisors and associates, are all, themselves, shooters. This fact underscores the uncompromising dedication to excellence uncommon within the industry.

The goal at Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises, Inc., is to bring to the shooter the satisfaction he deserves in a quality product second to none, and the kind of service he can depend on. Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises is firmly committed to this goal.

Investing In The Future

While the creation of Dornaus & Dixon as a legal entity was a major step, the paper that created the company didn't automatically translate into facilities or equipment which could start producing firearms.  It also did nothing to make the new 10mm Auto cartridge a reality.  Much work had been done, but there still wasn't a lot to show for all their efforts.  A functioning and profitable corporation requires a lot more than just a machine shop making and assembling parts.  Over time a board of directors was created, positions were established, and people were hired.  Fundraising also continued.  Mike Dixon, with the advice from a banking institution, came up with a plan to raise money by offering presales of a special limited edition firearm made in Col. Cooper's honor.  This gun would be include numerous embellishments such as gold inlay and a presentation case.

The price would be $2,000 per gun (quite a price in early 80s dollars!) and monies would be submitted directly to the bank where it would be held in trust until there was sufficitient funds to produce 2,000 pistols.  This would have totaled some four million dollars in much needed investment, but the response was not nearly as enthusiastic as hoped for.  With orders stagnating at around the $300,000 mark (150 guns) Dornaus & Dixon asked the bank if they could tap into the funds even though the goal of 2,000 orders had not been met, but the bank informed them that the only way this could happen is if each individual who had reserved a Jeff Cooper Commemorative authorized, in writing, release of the funds.  Fortunately everyone agreed!  With this money in hand, along with other investments (including $25,000 each from Tom and Mike), Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises, Inc. now had approximately $3,000,000 to start up production with.

Jeff Cooper Commemorative magazine advertisement & pictures of Col. Cooper's personal JCC pistol

A Production Pistol

In November of 1982 Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises finally found a home.  Located in Huntington Beach, California, the building would contain not only the manufacturing facilities, but also the business end of the operation.  Having a working prototype and securing facilities does not immediately translate to guns rolling off the production line though.

While the prototype did what it was supposed to do and proved that the pistol could be built, there were still a lot of decisions to make!  To begin with, Cooper wanted the thumb safety altered to more closely resemble his beloved 1911 and this required significant and time consuming reengineering.  The question about which steels to use needed to be answered (remember, stainless was still a relatively new firearm material). Tom also wanted to move away from the two-lug barrel design to a single-lug to simplify manufacturing.  Another change from the prototype was the innovative barrel rifling.  Add to the list the contouring of the grip that Tom wanted to make to improve the pistol's ergonomics.  As if all this wasn't all enough, the lawyers had to have their say and convinced them that another safety was needed to ensure the hammer could be safely lowered on a live round (the infamous cross-bolt safety).  While all of these were certainly enhancements to the original prototype and would make the Bren Ten even better, they were all things that would require time and money.

While work was being done to enable the frames to be investment cast (remember the prototype was milled from a solid block of steel), another part that needed to be set up for mass production was the pistol's magazine.  This vital, and yet simple part, would prove to be a nightmare for Dornaus & Dixon.

The Unraveling

On the surface Dornaus & Dixon and their Bren Ten seemed to be doing very well.  They were getting lots of press coverage and made a big splash at the 1985 Atlanta SHOT Show.  There were things going on behind the scenes, however, that painted a very different picture.  The company was opperating at a serious loss with more and more orders showing up.  All the orders rolling would seem like a good thing, but the small company didn't have the capacity to fill them fast enough and capitalize on this potential source of revenue.  Management problems inside the company, combined with continued issues with getting vital parts from their various vendors, made things bad.  Pushing guns out the door as fast as possible at the expense of quality control made things even worse.

Picture from Ron A. Carrillo's BREN TEN: The Heir Apparent

With angry customers wanting information about their long overdue orders bogging down the phone lines Dixon set up a dedicated customer service department.  At least now these individuals frustrated by continued delays now had someone they could talk to.  By spring the new dedicated 10mm magazines from Century Brass Products were finally arriving helping matters further, but the company's inability to secure loans to allow them to increase production were not coming.  The financial crisis of the late 70s and early 80s made getting loans for a small, struggling company like Dornaus & Dixon difficult.  With enough cash an expansion would have allowed them to produce up to 500 pistols a week.


Picture from Ron A. Carrillo's BREN TEN: The Heir Apparent

Then the legal problems started...  To begin with, a fradulent scheme initiated by a public accountant hired by the company decided to forge Dornaus and Dixon's names in a loan scam.  The company was able to win their case against the bank that was suing them for lack of payments on the fake loans, but it was still another expensive use of time and resources.  The next, and more severe problem came from an outraged customer who was done with waiting.  The New Orleans gun dealer started publicizing his woes which had a snowball effect.  Mike Dixon talked personally with the idividual, fulfilling his back order immediately.  Dixon wanted all the complaint letters that the gun dealer had accumulated from others via his ads, but instead the letters were sent to the Orange County District Attorney.  In early 1986 the DA hit Dornaus & Dixon with a 'consumer fraud judgement.'  The finding was based on the company not fulfilling orders in a timely manner (six weeks from time of deposit).  Dixon immediately ceased the practice of taking deposits, impacting their operating funds even further.

The Voit Option

There finally came a point where something had to be done, one way or the other.  At a late night meeting Mike Dixon informed Tom Dornaus that there were only two options left that could keep the Bren Ten alive.  The first was to find an investor with at least $750,000 available to pump into the company immediately (which would be a miracle).  The second option was to sell the company to someone who would continue operations and continue to produce the pistol, which also seemed unlikely.

Strangely enough, an individual coming into the Dornaus & Dixon building asked if he could purchase a gun.  Dixon jokingly told the person that if he was an investor he would be more than happy to sell him a Bren, but if not he'd have to wait in line with everyone else.  The invividual told him that he wasn't interested, but that his brother might be.  That brother was Richard Voit, grandson to William Voit of the Voit Corporation, a well know sporting goods company.  Soon after Richard Voit contacted Mike Dixon and told him that while he wasn't interested in investing he would like to buy the company!

In March of 1986 Dornaus & Dixon halted the manufacture of the Bren Ten.  On April 21st, 1986, the company filed for Chapter 11 so they could reorganize under the new ownership of Voit.  At this point negotiations began with Voit and a company Engineering Review Board was set up to discuss the upgrading of the pistol into something that could be efficiently mass produced.  Hopes were high that the Bren Ten would survive and continue on, but it was not to be.

Dornaus & Dixon Documents

Over the years I've managed to pick up some of the various Dornaus & Dixon publications, literature, and correspondence. Most of the images and PDF files below are from originals, but a few have been made from copies, or in a few instances reconstructions of digital versions. They are all, however, accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Dornaus & Dixon: Dealer/Customer Correspondence

Dornaus & Dixon: Catalogs & Manual