Two years ago, police and federal agents in Detroit made a startling discovery while tracing the origins of guns used to break the law in that city.
Of 1,226 firearms recovered in crimes ranging from drug dealing to murder, 445 were cheap, small-caliber pistols made by a company in suburban Los Angeles--Raven Arms in the City of Industry.
Including Raven, at least 10 federally licensed firearms manufacturers are based in and around Los Angeles County, a region that agents say produces more than its share of so-called "Saturday night specials" favored by criminals nationwide.
The vast majority of those weapons are made by Raven, Davis Industries of Chino and Bryco Arms of Irvine, whose guns are sold under the name Jennings Firearms. All three companies, records show, are owned by relatives of George Jennings, a former machinist who became a Rancho Mirage millionaire after incorporating Raven in 1970.
Davis was the nation's fifth-most-prolific pistol manufacturer in 1990 with 143,252 guns produced, while Raven was sixth with 119,000. Bryco made 38,193 guns in 1990.
"They're certainly the preferred commerce of gunrunners," said Jack Killorin, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "They can buy them cheaply and sell them on the street. . . ."
The tiny pistols, Killorin and others say, can be readily concealed and easily dumped after a crime.
While at least two states have outlawed several models of Davis, Jennings and Raven firearms as threats to public safety, California has imposed no such ban.
In all, nearly 4 million guns of all types were manufactured legally in 1990 in the United States, according to the most recent federal figures available. Of those, 475,560 were made in Southern California.
Virtually all gun manufacturers in the Los Angeles area maintain low profiles, usually doing business out of anonymous warehouses or remote industrial parks. Officials from most companies, alleging an "anti-gun" bias by The Times, declined to be interviewed for this series of stories.
Some companies make sophisticated, expensive firearms that their makers say are intended for use by police, military and serious sportsmen.
Calico Light Weapon Systems of Bakersfield employs 50 workers who produce fully automatic and semiautomatic weapons that have been sold to law enforcement agencies in many states as well as the governments of Ecuador, Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others, according to company President Michael K. Miller.
In Irwindale, Arcadia Machine and Tool Inc. offers among its line of firearms the "Automag," a long-barreled pistol made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie "Sudden Impact." The gun can sell for more than $600 a copy.
Claridge Hi-Tec of Northridge makes 9-millimeter pistols and carbines used prominently in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Total Recall," while ATF officials say Peregrine Industries of Huntington Beach makes the "Bren 10," the pistol carried by actor Don Johnson on television's "Miami Vice."
Accu-tek of Chino manufactures .32-caliber and .380-caliber pistols. Federal Ordnance Inc. of South El Monte makes .45-caliber pistols.
In addition to Raven, Davis and Jennings, Sundance Industries of North Hollywood and Lorcin Engineering of Riverside make .25-caliber pistols. Lorcin's guns, which can be purchased in pink for women, often retail for less than $40.
Advertising brochures describe these weapons as affordable personal or home protection.
Records show that such guns, especially Raven- and Davis-made weapons, are used with considerable frequency to commit crime.
Of 56,568 handguns recovered in crimes nationally in 1990-1991 and traced by the ATF, 4,242 were Ravens. Only Smith & Wesson Corp. of Springfield, Mass.--which began making weapons more than a century before Raven--had more of its handguns traced, with 9,599.
Davis ranked fifth with 3,041 of its guns traced, behind Colt Industries Inc. of Hartford, Conn., with 4,319, and Sturm Ruger & Co. Inc. of Southport, Conn., with 3,823.
Raven was incorporated in 1970 by George Jennings, records show. Eight years later, his son, Bruce, formed Jennings Firearms to produce essentially the same .25-caliber semiautomatics.
By 1982, George Jenning's son-in-law, Jim Davis, had started his own manufacturing venture, Davis Industries, also making .25-caliber pistols virtually identical to Raven and Jennings guns.
Los Angeles authorities say Davis, Jennings and Raven pistols, as well as other small-caliber handguns, are not as popular as they once were among local criminals, many of whom prefer 9-millimeter or other, larger pistols.
Two of the 21 firearms banned by Maryland's Handgun Roster Board are manufactured by Jennings, and another by Lorcin, according to board administrator Iris Birenbaum. Raven guns are also considered illegal in Maryland because the 20-year-old company has never submitted them to state officials for review, Birenbaum said. A two-shot derringer made by Davis is similarly outlawed in Maryland.
The same guns also cannot be sold legally in South Carolina, where firearms are banned if they melt when heated to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. "Anything less," said Hugh Munn, a spokesman for the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division, "we consider a Saturday night special."
In November, Raven's manufacturing plant in the City of Industry was destroyed in a spectacular $3.5-million flash fire that, according to authorities, was fueled by gunpowder.
Undaunted, several Raven officers and other principals have applied for a new license to make guns under the name Phoenix Arms.