It’s illegal to kill a human being, blow up a building, hack into a corporate website. But Peder Lund has made an impressive living teaching the world how to do all this and more with his Paladin Press. On the from lines of his quiet war, the first amendment (which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, among other rights) is a battlefield, and the blood that flows is all too real.
Once again, for the thousandth time, which will still not be enough to satisfy him, Peder Lund is waiting to hear gunfire. He’s standing on the edge of a small clearing in the misty woods of northern Wisconsin. Compact and bull-chested at 69, dressed in high-waisted shorts pulled up tight, a golf shirt tucked in and deck shoes with brown socks pulled high, he looks like a geriatric Boy Scout. His manner is quiet too, gentle and unassuming. But his eye is on the guns, long, black, monstrous technological marvels that look as though they should have teeth and claws. And on the four men preparing to use them, who are at this moment in history the most celebrated long-distance snipers in the world – men who have become famous, to put it bluntly, for killing other men. Lots of other men. As the snipers prepare their guns, a camera crew fiddles with its equipment, ready to record the day’s action. Welcome to a typical workday at Paladin Press, a publishing company so dangerous the US Congress passed a censorship law just to make it shut up – an actual censorship law, in America, nakedly targeting a single company. Nakedly targeting Peder Lund, Paladin’s owner and operator. But here he is, at it again, producing a training film for people who want to learn how to kill other people from a distance – available for just $69.95. The first sniper gets down on his stomach, spreading his legs.
His name is Steve Reichert. On YouTube you can see the shot that got him on TV news shows. From one mile away – one mile away – he took down three men in Iraq with a single bullet. Rob Furlong kneels behind him, looking through a pair of binoculars. A Canadian soldier who for years held the world record for the longest kill in combat – a 2,657-yard shot in Afghanistan – Furlong is another muscle- padded giant. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a death’s-head and this alarming logo: Without Warning, Without Conscience. Standing to the side and kibitzing with an easy drawl is the third master sniper, a good old boy from Alabama named Jim Gilliland. He killed more than 70 men in Iraq, including the longest confirmed kill with an M-24. Currently he researches capability gaps, in arms or otherwise, for the Soldier Requirements Division at Fort Benning. A voice comes from the other side of the clearing. “We’re gonna do wide fire right away before any wind comes up.” That’s John Plaster, author of The Ultimate Sniper and The History of Sniping and Sharpshooting. Bald as an old monk with the moustache of an Irish bartender and dressed in jeans and the Special Forces T-shirt he earned the right to wear during three tours in Southeast Asia, Plaster points across a valley at a target – a small piece of orange metal the size of a record album – a thousand yards away. That’s 10 football fields.
While they wait for the cameramen to get ready – a two-man crew setting up three tripods, two on the gunmen and another way down by the target to capture the splaat – the shooters talk shop. Like all technicians, their favourite subject is their tools. For bullets, Reichert likes a hot round called IBI. That gives you a longer distance, especially on a cold and humid day like today. Weather really affects your shooting. That’s why Afghanistan was so great – the heat, the elevation, the barometric pressure. “You maximize your ballistics,” says Gilliland. These modern scopes are amazing too, tricked out with an inclinometer, a thermometer and a barometric pressure gauge. And here’s the .50-calibre Barrett, an enormous weapon out of a Sgt Slaughter fantasy. It’s another techno miracle. You can zero the scope – set its height so the bullet flies true – right where you are and go to Afghanistan and the thing adjusts to the new barometric conditions on its own. When the rifle fires, the gunpowder packed in the brass casing delivers an incredible blast, 11,000 pounds of pressure. Time to bring the steel rain. Reichert is on his belly, legs spread wide, squinting through the scope. The cameras are rolling, the microphones ready to capture the sonic blast. Reichert quietly aims. “Sunglasses plus fog equals greatness,” he says. Boom! goes the .50 calibre, echoing off the hills. Standing behind Reichert, Furlong watches the target in his spotter scope. Without looking away he tells Reichert, “Six mils to the right.” Another shot rings out, followed by a metallic ping. “I heard a hit!” Plaster shouts. “Sweet sound!” Lund smiles. It would only be sweeter, he says, if someone were trying to kill him.
Want to learn how to make homemade weapons and explosives? Master the art of street fighting? Hack into corporate websites or start your own country? Paladin Press has a training book or video for you. Known for selling such books as Be Your Own Undertaker: How to Dispose of a Dead Body, The Poor Man’s James Bond and Silencers for Hand Firearms, Lund’s mom-and-pop black-ops shop is also known for victim lawsuits, murder prosecutions and US Senate hearings. They say Timothy McVeigh learned how to construct his fertilizer bomb from one of Lund’s books, Homemade C-4: A Recipe for Survival. Lund has been running Paladin Press since he got back from Vietnam, where he led a Ranger team into the jungle a few times too many.
He once tried to raid Cuba. And invade Haiti. Next to him, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks look like public-spirited social reformers. Lund’s long journey through the American court system began on a cold winter night in 1993, March 3 to be exact, when a small- time Detroit hoodlum named James Perry broke into a house in suburban Maryland with a meticulously detailed murder plan that he based with eerie fidelity on a Paladin title called Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. Perry was later convicted of triple murder, but it was his method that made his case a national story. As advised in Paladin’s Hit Man, Perry made contact with his client through a discreet friend. As advised in Hit Man, he collected an advance of $3,500, rented a nearby motel room under a false name and conducted surveillance on his target in a rental car with license plates stolen from an out-of- state car. As advised in Hit Man – well, let’s go to the lawsuit that the victims’ families filed against Paladin, which piles the incriminating details higher and higher: “Hit Man instructs that a ‘beginner’ should use an AR-7 rifle to kill his victims. Perry used an AR-7 rifle to slay Mildred Horn and Janice Saunders. Hit Man instructs its readers where to find the serial numbers on an AR-7 rifle and instructs them that, prior to using the weapon, they should ‘completely drill out’ these serial numbers so the weapon cannot be traced.
Perry drilled out the serial numbers of his weapon exactly as the book instructs. Hit Man instructs in ‘explicit detail’ (replete with photographs) how to construct, ‘without need of special engineering ability or machine shop tools,’ a homemade ‘whisper-quiet’ silencer from material available in any hardware store. Perry constructed such a homemade silencer and used it on the night he murdered Mildred and Trevor Horn and Janice Saunders. Hit Man specifically instructs its audience of killers to shoot the victim through the eyes if possible. Perry shot Mildred Horn and Janice Saunders two or three times and through the eyes.”
Hit Man was authored by a writer named Rex Feral, which translates from Latin to “King of the Beasts.” Lund has described her several times as a “housewife from Florida,” but he chose to protect her and take the full brunt of the Hit Man controversy himself. To this day he has never revealed her identity. After Perry was found guilty and sentenced to death, the victims’ families sued Paladin for “aiding and abetting” the murders. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Lund; it was the era of the Columbine shootings [when two students walked into their high school and killed 12 fellow students and a teacher in 1999] and the controversy over Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, a contentious moment in America’s long anxiety about the corrosive effects of pop culture. In the end, an outraged judge ruled that “Hit Man is, pure and simple, a step-by-step murder manual, a training book for assassins.” Intent made all the difference. “Criminal law will take everyday conduct and, when it’s combined with a criminal purpose, penalise it,” explains Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor who covered the Hit Man case for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “So if I draw a map, it’s not a crime. But if I draw a map to a bank vault and give it to some criminals, it is.” But Paladin didn’t give Hit Man to any specific criminal. It published the book for the general public. “Unlike the usual circumstances,” Levin says, “the court seemed to be saying you can aid and abet someone you don’t even know.” Lund’s case went to an appeals court and finally to the Supreme Court. Just like that, his cheapie 130-page murder manual was shaking the foundations of free speech in America.
Between takes, the snipers discuss their trade. Killing humans requires a certain “emotional maturity,” Gilliland explains. “To be able to look through the scope and see a human being and say, ‘All right, here’s your judgment day. You’re a bad guy, I’m sorry,’ and kill him, you have to have a solid emotional feeling,” he says. “And you build that off of being moral: ‘I am there to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution says I have rules of engagement.’ You look at some dude and you go through your rules of engagement, and you say, ‘Either you’re gonna go home and see your wife and kids tonight or I’m gonna go home and see mine. So guess what. Fuck you.’ ” Reichert laughs. “Easy enough.” But Gilliland comes back to it later. “When it comes down to it, it is what it is. You’re killing men. We’re the hunters of humans. It’s not pretty.” Is that why Furlong’s T-shirt says “without conscience”? “Yeah,” Furlong answers. “Because you don’t worry about who that guy was.” The American military uses “without remorse,” Gilliland explains. Basically it means you can sleep at night when you’ve appropriately applied lethal force. That’s the difference between civilians and soldiers. It comes down to character.
Lund has been listening in from the sidelines, but now he joins the conversation. “Some guys are gonna get dead,” he says. “One guy [in combat], he was so enthusiastic he thought he was George Patton. Red scarf, always standing up. Sniper got him.” Gilliland remembers a time he was taking incoming fire in a soccer stadium with concrete walls about four feet tall. Suddenly one of his guys… The stories continue until the snipers are called to film the next scene. Watching them walk away, Lund smiles. “Forty years, and nothing has changed,” he says. “Nothing at all.”
Lund’s father died when he was three, and his mother raised him in the farming town of Lebanon, Connecticut, where they didn’t have electricity or running water until he was 10. He spent his time fighting off bullies and hunting in the woods with BBs and .22s or playing cowboys and Indians, and even though he did well enough in school to get into Kenyon College, he dropped out and headed for Miami to join the fight against Castro. “I wanted a little bit of adventure, and I thought Communists were pretty bad guys,” he says. In Miami’s anti-Castro circles, he ran into another adventurer named Bob Brown, about 10 years older and already in and out of the military. Together they came up with a scheme to rescue some refugees from Cuba. The way Brown remembers the story now, they took “this shit-ass 14-foot powerboat with a 1/5-stroke engine” down to Key Largo to rendezvous with some Cubans who were going to bring guns and fuel. But the boat was barely floating, and at the last minute Brown persuaded Lund to jump ship.
The others went on, and the motor died in the middle of the Atlantic. Then Lund enlisted in the Army. He went to Officer Candidate School, jump school and Ranger training and, in 1966, ended up deployed to the jungles of the Mekong Delta, where he quickly learned – just an hour after he got off the helicopter, as he picked up bits of a popular sergeant who had stepped in the wrong place – that he was the kind of guy who becomes very calm in a crisis. Lund loved the adrenaline rush of being in charge of troops at war. Soon the Army made him a recon platoon leader and then, though he was just a second lieutenant, made him a company commander. When the Army tried to rotate him off the field, he wrangled a job running a Special Forces A Camp, the elite of jungle warriors. That’s when he started to take patrols out when it wasn’t his turn, a bad sign indeed. “I liked it so much,” Lund says now, “I realised I was going to get dead.” So he asked the Army to send him to Germany for a change of pace. If he could get just a little break, he’d be good to go. They sent him home. When his duties were fulfilled, he was discharged. He went to Boulder to work for Brown, who had started a tiny publishing company called Paladin that specialised in technical books on war.
Lund figured he’d help out for a year or two. A few years later Lund bought Paladin, and Brown went off to start Soldier of Fortune magazine. They still came together over mutual interests such as the war in El Salvador, where Brown and his magazine staff were working as advisors and Lund got his last armed march through the jungle. “I was accredited as a photojournalist,” Lund tells the snipers, “but I took an M-16 off a dead guerilla.” “Can’t hurt to have it,” Reichert says. Ah, the good old days.
Now it’s time to shoot up a car. From atop a hill a thousand yards across a green field, the car looks brand-new. But it’s such a lemon, the snipers had to tow it here. The owner wants it destroyed. “Prepare to engage engine block,” Reichert jokes. Once again, Lund’s cameras are rolling. Reichert is on his knees in the grass, spotting for Gilliland and Furlong, who are in the spread-eagle-on-your-belly sniper stance. “I’ve never ever had a fucking Barrett work,” Gilliland says of his gun. “Really? It was working for me this morning.” “I saw ya! I thought, Well, maybe I’m not just manning up on it.” “Maybe you’re limp-dicking it.” “It kept getting up and in my shoulder.” “You need to eat more.” “That thing’s a piece of shit. Fuck Ronnie Barrett.” Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! goes the .50-calibre Barrett. After the shoot the snipers go down to inspect the car, with the camera crew following. The block is pierced, the engine blown, the doors have holes. But sadly, no glass is broken.“That’s what you get for giving me a shitty gun!” Gilliland looks through the window at a long crease the .50 left when it skimmed across the car seat. “That’s a killing round,” he says, his voice sombre with respect. Why a killing round? Because the .50 cal is just so big, he says. That crease on the seat looks like nothing, just a scratch; it didn’t even cut through the fabric. It looks as if it would have nicked whoever was sitting back there on the back of the thighs – nothing too serious, just a little amateur liposuction. But that would describe only the “primary wound channel,” Gilliland explains. That’s the size of the mass of metal – not much bigger than a pencil – that pushes through the flesh. But what you don’t see is the secondary wound channel. “Something that big, moving that fast, it just explodes stuff away from it.”
After the day’s shooting, the snipers head into Iron River to look for a bar. They can’t find a place to turn around on the main drag out of town, a long two-lane road through endless pines. So they make a U-turn in the middle of the road that’s so fast and sudden they burn rubber. A cop appears out of nowhere and pulls them over. “What the hell was that?” he asks. Reichert explains. “Well, you see, when you slam on your brake all the weight shifts forward in the car, and if you turn just right, with the emergency brake on, then you can get momentum and spin the car around. It’s called a J-turn.” The cop looks them over. “You’re those sniper dudes, aren’t ya?” Hell yeah! “Could I get a photo with you guys?” After they talk guns for a while, the cop lets the snipers go. And so does the cop who pulls them over the next time they violate a traffic law. Friendly town.
The insurance company forced Lund to settle the Hit Man case, which ended up costing Paladin $500,000 and the insurance company more than $2 million in legal fees and $6 million for the settlement. Then Senator Dianne Feinstein attached a rider to a defence reauthorization bill making it a crime to distribute “information pertaining to the manufacture of explosive materials, if the person intends or knows that such explosive materials or information will be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a federal criminal offense or a criminal purpose affecting interstate commerce.” The penalty was 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. In her statement to Congress, Feinstein singled out Paladin’s “mayhem manuals.” It drove Lund crazy, especially the part that seemed to hinge on mind reading. How could he aid and abet someone he doesn’t even know? “How do I know what you intend to do? How cuckoo is that?” But legality aside, wasn’t Hit Man irresponsible? Didn’t it encourage violence through sheer enthusiasm? A quote from Chapter Four: “Using your six-inch serrated blade knife, stab deeply into the side of the victim’s neck and push the knife forward in a forceful movement. This method will half decapitate the victim, cutting both his main arteries and windpipe, ensuring immediate death.” Exasperated, Lund points out that the book was originally written as a novel. He told the author that Paladin didn’t publish novels and she did a rewrite to make it fit in the press’s catalogue. So the absence of a single noun on the cover cost $8.5 million. And they say fiction is dead.
Lund’s insurance company dropped him, and no other insurance company in the world would step in, especially after he was sued a second time when another wannabe hit man attempted murder in Oregon. So out went the bomb-making books, and out went Hit Man. He couldn’t risk another prosecution. “If the federal government wants you, they have vast, vast resources,” he says. Overnight his income began to plunge. So what was he going to do? Back off, be a good boy, obey the lawful authorities? Or spend the rest of his life flirting with the zap-your-ass electrified censorship line the government laid down for him? The surprising truth, it turned out, was this: In the eyes of the world, Lund was a greedy opportunist who would print anything, no matter how dangerous or shocking.
In fact, he was probably the most sincere publisher in America. Each new mayhem manual he published was a piece of autobiography, a chapter in a long memoir, and he was as committed to the integrity of his work as any artist. So it didn’t matter that he looked all over the world and couldn’t find a single company willing to insure him. He had to publish these books. So he followed Hit Man with such books as Building a Better Gunfighter, Plaster’s Ultimate Sniper series and somewhat tamer criminal how-to manuals including Hookers, Tricks and Cops. “We have resisted so many subpoenas for records,” he says. “We actually had a formulaic thing with a lawyer saying, first of all, we would not consider any request without a subpoena. Then we tried to get the subpoenas quashed.” One time, after he published a maritime sniping manual, the military police came after him. Another time he received a copy of the Secret Service manual and had barely unwrapped it before a Secret Service agent showed up at his door. “I want all the manuals you have,” he said. Today Paladin publishes some 800 titles and makes millions each year – Lund won’t get any more specific than that, though he says Plaster’s sniper series has grossed $1 million all by itself. His audience is at least 20 percent cops and soldiers; the other 80 percent are hunters and hobbyists of one kind or another.
But Lund estimates that his fights with the government and Feinstein’s law have cut his profits by at least 10 percent. Still, he refuses to concede a single moment of remorse. “Books don’t kill people, knowledge doesn’t kill people, and everyone should have access to all the knowledge they can acquire. The hit man [James Perry] had been in prison in Michigan. Why was he in prison in Michigan? He shot at a police officer. I couldn’t control what this guy was going to do. And what about the father who ordered a hit on his son for money? I’d say he bears some responsibility.” But without the book, would Perry have known to shoot his victims in the eyes? “Where did the author get that information? She’s just a telephone operator in the state of Florida. She did a little research. So our culpability is, we assembled information from various sources.
Now Google does that in two seconds.” Would he print the plans for a nuclear bomb? “Well, that’s all out there anyway.” Even Hit Man is on the Internet now, he points out, posted from some anonymous server by an unknown person. Grudgingly, Lund makes one concession: “There are certain technical things I wouldn’t print, like the devices that make a plane explode as they go up in altitude. But I can’t be responsible for the overall psyche of society.”
It is fun to shoot, fun to make things explode, fun to hunt and stalk, fun to shoot up a car and marvel at the destruction unleashed by the twitch of a finger. And there is no denying the mystique of the warrior, which is based on the ability to deal death. On this level, Lund’s secret autobiography is expressed in one of Paladin’s lighter titles, The Paladin Book of Dangerously Fun Stuff for Boys Who Never Grew Up. But there comes a time when the jokes and games fall away. The video shoot is almost wrapped when the snipers get to talking about their finest moments in battle. Reichert describes his now-famous mile-long shot. A platoon of marines was pinned down in Iraq, and insurgents were taking firing positions in a water tower. “I put a stop to that,” he says. “Anybody that basically got high ground met the other end of my muzzle.” When three insurgents took cover behind a cinder-block wall, Reichert aimed right at it, shattering it into a thousand pieces. On YouTube you can see the splash of blood, which looks like an effect in an old video game.
The guys ask Gilliland about an Iraqi sniper he killed. The Iraqi had just killed a fellow American. What did Gilliland do? A decent man with four kids at home, he looked through his scope at this man who had just killed his friend and lined his reticle right on the man’s face – because a face shot is the shot most likely to kill – let out half a breath, stopped thinking and let the trigger pull itself. Watching from the sidelines, Lund brims with sudden emotion. “These are good guys,” he says.
And there it is, a glimpse of the engine that drives his work. It is the memory of lost brotherhood, the lost brotherhood of the gun, which turns the entire back catalogue of Paladin Press into a kind of love story: Hit Man, a song of longing and loss; Ultimate Sniper, a psalm of exaltation; Homemade Guns and Homemade Ammo, an orison to the reckless freedoms of childhood. Later, reflecting on what it all means, he sums it up: “The most exhilarating thing in the world is to know you’re out trying to kill somebody who is armed and intelligent, maybe better trained than you and trying to kill you. I never got such a rush again. Extreme sports, skydiving, none of that stuff ever gave me the same buzz.”
By John H Richardson
Photography by Zachary James Johnston
Published in Playboy South Africa August 2012