- Bruce Elliott
They come from all over Colorado -- men and women with AK-47 assault rifles tucked into dusty truck cabs, their children holding cardboard boxes filled with multicolored paint balls.
They come almost every Saturday and Sunday to the place where they can play war games to their hearts' content. Their destination: a 220-acre compound consisting of a gun store and firing range, paintball field, motorcycle repair shop and several massive war museums, eight miles east of Colorado Springs.
"This is the most freedom you can have in America," said Mel Bernstein, aka Dragon Man.
"Right now I could go outside and shoot machine guns. I could blow something up. I could ride my motorcycle around. I could fire up the tank and run it into the wall." He paused to laugh. "As long as you don't hurt anyone."
Bernstein is one of three gun dealers in Colorado with a Class III license, which allows the sale of some of the most lethal weapons in the United States. This September 11, he plans to mark the anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks by turning his rifle range into an apocalyptic war zone. He will unleash 150 full-automatic machine guns, spitting 90,000 to 100,000 rounds into a series of gassed-up cars that will explode in balls of flame. World War II- and Vietnam War-era cannons and mortars also will be fired.
"We've got a mannequin of [Osama] Bin Laden that we're going to blow up," he said. As a finale, all 150 machine guns will be fired in unison for three minutes.
At 60, with his thinning silver hair slicked back, a silver goatee and arms covered in tattoos, Bernstein looks like an aging biker, which he is. But he is no ordinary man.
He and his wife, Terry, live on the compound with their two teenage daughters. Over the past 24 years, they have converted their dusty plateau near Highway 94, above the Colorado Springs dump, into a world of big blasts, big engines and even bigger guns.
- Bruce Elliott
- The Dragon Arms complex, eight miles east of Colorado Springs.
It's a world, they say, that couldn't exist anywhere else in America.
'This is what happens to criminals'
Anyone who comes to the Dragon Man's lair must drive down his mile-long dirt driveway -- a dusty strip of no-man's land, and all that stands between ordinary reality and Bernstein's world.
The driveway used to be littered with junked cars riddled with thousands of bullet holes and stuffed with bloodied mannequins. Signs alerted customers, "This is what happens to criminals," or "This guy wrote a bad check."
About a year ago, Bernstein removed the gory display because "they were scaring a bunch of customers away."
Now, customers are still greeted with signs warning of strict prosecution, if not retaliation, as they near the compound. Video cameras record anyone who approaches, and alarms are triggered if someone arrives outside of business hours.
All told, the family runs five businesses: Dragon Precision Machining motorcycle repair shop, Dragon Arms gun dealership, a shooting range, a paintball park and the Colorado Springs Military History Museum. This month they'll open a sixth business, a BMX bicycle park.
"It's like a big carnival," Bernstein said, "with everything going on at once."
- Bruce Elliott
- Bernsteins collection of military memorabilia, including the Nazi Room, is full of rarities.
Six days a week, Bernstein sweats over huge industrial welders and milling machines, repairing Harley Davidson motors and transmissions. This is his big money-maker, and he says he does over $300,000 a year in mail-order business.
A slice of history
In front of Bernstein's bike shop is the gun store, one of the handful of places in the country where people legally can buy high-powered killing machines like the M-60 machine gun, which is capable of firing 550 rounds per minute.
Huge training fields sprawl across the compound, bordered by towering walls of bulldozed dirt. A firing range with 60 short- and medium-range targets frequently is packed on the weekends, as are the massive paintball fields -- each one a labyrinth of hills, dugouts, fences, junked cars and tires to which gunners pin themselves and fire at each other.
Prefab buildings behind the bike shop house several war-themed museums. Over the past 15 years, Bernstein has built one of the nation's most impressive private collections of military memorabilia from the World War I to Vietnam eras.
Flanking 65 military vehicles are rows of display cases, crammed with everything from medieval Japanese swords captured by U.S. troops in World War II to packs of cigarettes the GIs carried with them. Racks of guns and gas masks, dating back to World War I, are everywhere.
Nazi and SS flags festoon a side wing filled with rare Third Reich items. A glass case holds original photos of massacred Jews, along with a bar of soap that Bernstein claims is made from humans.
In another room, Bernstein has reconstructed a World War II American combat camp, complete with mannequins. The collection, he says, is worth millions, and schoolchildren from Falcon and Ellicott sometimes visit with their history classes.
With all these artifacts on the compound, Bernstein and his wife have plenty of protection, including seven German Shepherd dogs on guard and security lights that blaze through the night.
- Bruce Elliott
- Gun enthusiasts (from left) Rudy, Scott and Carolyn Bluhm spend a day at the Dragons Lair.
"In my bedroom, I have an M-16 I sleep with, two Glocks and an M-60 machine gun under the bed with 25,000 rounds," Bernstein said. He keeps a 12-gauge shotgun between his mattresses. "You know I've got to protect it. What am I going to do if 30 gang-bangers show up at one in the morning? I can hold them off for a half hour until the helicopter gets here."
Tough guy from Brooklyn
Bernstein's always been a tough guy. Growing up in an affluent Jewish family in post-World War II Brooklyn, Bernstein became streetwise and rebellious early.
"You learn fast, and you've got to fight back," he said, describing his early encounters with neighborhood toughs who demanded lunch money in return for safety.
He never showed much interest in school. "I was never really interested in math or English or when George Washington crossed the bridge," he said. He preferred to spend his time taking apart and rebuilding his toys and building go-carts.
His family moved to Long Island when he was 14. Bernstein began building bigger and better machines. He fashioned a bicycle with flames painted on the middle panel, a big wheel in the back and a small wheel in the front. "Like they build choppers now," he said. "I was way before my time."
He eventually dropped out of high school, which, for him, turned out to be a good choice. His parents enrolled him in Roberts Technical Trade School in New York City at age 15, where he spent his days taking motors apart and putting them back together. He bought his first Harley Davidson, in an illegal sale, at age 16. That same year he got his first tattoo, a smoking skull wearing a beret. He began to grow his hair and sideburns out.
'You've got the power'
In 1964, Bernstein was drafted into the Vietnam-era Army and spent two years at Fort Bliss, Texas, firing huge quad-mounted anti-aircraft guns.
- Bruce Elliott
- Bernstein is ready for anything in his bunker room.
"It gives you a lot of power," he said. "You've got the feeling that you've got the power, and you can blow anything up."
By end of his two-year stint, he'd acquired 138 tattoos on his arms, back and chest. Motorcycles careened across his back and a dragon slithered across his torso. In 1967, a year out of the service and back on Long Island, he built the machine that would become his namesake.
He became Dragon Man.
Bernstein explained that back then, "when the choppers were first coming out, you didn't have any custom places where you could call up with a credit card."
So he outfitted a 1966 Harley Davidson motor with a customized frame that was welded to huge sheets of metal and fiberglass, forming a dragon's wings and head. With so much weight in the back of the bike, it was easy for him to pull wheelies. He later outfitted the dragon's head so its eyes would light up and its snout would shoot fire.
There was nothing especially symbolic about dragons; Bernstein just thought they looked cool.
"Everywhere I went it was a big hit, and I really liked that," he said. "People used to go, 'there's that dragon man,' and that's how the nickname stuck."
For the next decade and a half, Bernstein established a thriving motorcycle shop in Amityville, Long Island. He married, had four children and divorced. By the late 1970s, when he met his current wife Terry, he'd grown sick of the crowded East.
An unzoned paradise
- Bruce Elliott
- The paint ball range provides fun, messy entertainment.
"I wanted to get out of New York," Bernstein said. "I'd had it with the laws, and the permits and the traffic."
It took three years and many trips west to find the perfect spot -- a place where he wouldn't have to worry about neighbors, but also wouldn't be out in the boonies. For him to make money, he knew he needed to be near an urban center.
Then he found Colorado Springs.
At the time, eastern El Paso County was unzoned -- a rarity even in the West. Bernstein and his family could set up an industrial machine shop and live there. And the neighbors seemed tolerant of his lifestyle. "Nobody protested us or picketed, saying they wanted this place closed," he said.
He bought 40 acres in 1981 for $200,000.
Turning a desolate patch of prairie into a business came with its hardships. It cost $18,000 to extend electricity to the compound. More challenging was the loneliness. "It took almost two years for people to start coming," he said. "It was boring, and you know what? I almost moved back."
But Bernstein's mail-order business began to kick in, and he and his wife added more land and businesses: the gun dealership in 1990, the paintball fields in 1993. They even tried raising cattle for a few years. Before long, business was booming.
Good family fun
On a recent sunny Saturday morning, the firing range and paintball fields were popping.
- Mel Bernstein
- Bernstein on his proto-dragon bike in the 1950s.
Brian Schneider, a flooring and cabinet installer from Colorado Springs, squatted behind his AR-15 assault rifle, squeezing off several rounds at a distant orange bull's eye.
Schneider's been coming to Dragon Arms for years, and loves the place. So do his three kids. In El Paso County, he said, "there's not a lot of places to go" to shoot in "a nice controlled environment."
Two firing positions down, another dad crouches behind his teenage son, who's holding an AK-47. He instructs the teenager how to turn the safety off and hold the gun.
Range manager Travis Wilson, 17, said that on busy weekends with 60 guns going off, "you can't hear yourself think." Below his feet, the ground was covered in bullet casings.
Every week, gun enthusiasts collect the expensive shells and reload lead into them, while the cheap shells are swept into the trash. To avoid environmental and safety hazards, the earthen berm behind the targets, which fills with bullets, periodically is brought to the dump and replaced with fresh dirt.
Meanwhile, on the paintball fields, kids tumble over hills and roll into firing position. They shout directions to their team members and, when a day-glow filled paintball thuds and splatters across their clothing, raise their guns in the air in surrender.
The backbone of the operation
Bernstein freely admits that the businesses wouldn't have gotten this far if it wasn't for his wife, the backbone of the operation.
When Terry Bernstein moved to Colorado in 1981, she was, as she describes herself, a nave 22-year-old. She quickly realized that if the business was to thrive, she needed to step in and help her "totally unorganized" partner.
- Bruce Elliott
- Another day, another 1,000pound explosive.
She taught herself business accounting and took over the paperwork. She also mastered the rapidly changing subject of land use permitting after their land finally was zoned in the mid 1980s.
It was her inspiration to start the gun dealership, because, as she puts it, "I'm cheap." Bernstein had been spending thousands of dollars buying high-powered rifles and machine guns. She decided to cut out the middleman and become a dealer herself.
In 1993, she acquired a permit to sell Class III, or fully automatic, machine guns.
"We complement each other," she said. While Bernstein is the flashy salesman and tough guy who steps in if customers get out of line, she is the quiet realist.
"When I was in high school, if you told me I'd be a gun dealer I'd have laughed in your face," she said. When she met Bernstein, she'd been studying biology at a community college with hopes of becoming a medical researcher.
When she arrived in El Paso County and caught a glimpse of her future, living on the prairie above a dump, her heart sunk. "We walked up here and I nearly died," she said, "This?" she asked her husband in exasperation. "This?"
But she grew to love life here. Now fully ensconced, she has served on the El Paso County Planning Commission, including a stint as chairwoman. She's a National Rifle Association gun safety instructor, and her focus is constantly on gun applications, receipts and permits. After all, she said, "If my records are not efficient, that means someone got off with murder."
'One of the good guys'
- Bruce Elliott
- On September 11, Bernstein plans on showing this fake Osama bin Laden whos who.
Not everyone appreciates the passions of people like the Bernsteins.
"The thousands and families who treasure their sons and daughters far outweigh those who want to clutch their AK-47s," said Eric Howard, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
Howard's group wants to halt the sale of semi-automatic guns, such as the AK-47 and machine guns like the Mac-10 -- "weapons favored by terrorists and criminals," he said.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited the sale of 19 types of high-powered guns, including the AK-47, the Uzi and the Street Sweeper.
The ban expired last fall when President Bush chose not to re-sign it.
While the law has changed over time, it is worth noting that Bernstein's adherence to the law has not. Bernstein never has been cited for any wrongdoing, says Rich Marianos, the outgoing agent in charge of the ATF in Southern Colorado. "Believe it or not," he said, "Bernstein's one of the good guys.
"Dragon Arms every year ranks as one of the lowest gun stores [in terms of guns linked to crimes] in our metropolitan area," said Marianos, whose office tracks more than 80 percent of the guns used in crimes that take place in El Paso County.
"Because of the machine guns and the bravado, people think he's dirty and that criminals go out there," he said. "None of that is true."
In 1999 a group of gang members came to Dragon Arms to buy guns, using a person with a clean record to make what is called a "straw man" purchase. Bernstein contacted the ATF, and agents tracked the gangsters after they bought the guns. The three arrests made in that case led to convictions.
- Mel Bernstein
- Terry Bernstein shows off her big guns.
"That was all on Bernstein," Marianos said. "That rarely happens with gun dealers and pawn shops in the city."
Blowing up their leader
For his part, Bernstein notes that "if we weren't 'a good guy,' we wouldn't even get this far." He says it's better to do everything by the book, but he rejects the notion that he has a larger responsibility for society or people's actions. "If they shoot three people right there in the parking lot, it's not my fault," he said.
Bernstein focuses instead on more immediate concerns that could threaten his business -- including a rapidly expanding city that is sprawling closer and closer to his doorstep. "Whenever there's land available, we buy it automatically," he said.
Recently, a landowner built a house within striking distance north of his firing range. Bernstein rearranged the range so it pointed east -- to face the dump -- instead of north. As more people become Bernstein's neighbors, chances increase that he'll have to scale back his operations.
After all, some neighbors may not understand the type of extravaganza with which Bernstein has planned to commemorate September 11.
The upcoming firefight is not designed to insult the families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bernstein said. Rather, "It's just a date that's easy to remember."
While he admits he couldn't pull off such a stunt in New York, he says he doubts anyone here will ask, "How dare you?"
"Nobody's going to say that to my face," he said. "We're not going to make [the terrorists] famous. That's why we're blowing up their leader."
For the more than 3,000 people he expects to attend, it will be an experience available only in the Dragon Man's world.
Only in El Paso County.
"The only [other] time you can see something like this," Bernstein said, "is a Schwarzenegger movie."