At the Front
At the Front is a company located in central Kentucky, specializing in recreating clothing and equipment worn by soldiers in the Second World War. For over 20 years we have supplied reenactors, films, costume houses, veterans, military and government historical projects as well as people who simply like vintage clothing and accessories. We have our own factory on site which produces over two hundred products, and over a thousand other items are contracted with companies in the USA, China, Germany, India, Pakistan, Belgium and England. We also offer an ever changing range of authentic items. Rollin Curtis, the owner, has over 35 years experience with WWII militaria and living history, as well as 6 years as an Army paratrooper. We try to make the best products possible, deliver promptly, handle refunds immediately, and fix our mistakes all with the least amount of BS possible.
ATF's roots go back to a gang meeting in the early 1970's. The neighborhood I grew up in consisted of three blocks, and we boys had divided ourselves up into two "gangs"- ours consisted of five, all 5-7 years old while the other had about 10 boys, 6-9 years of age. Although outnumbered and undersized, we normally held our own via bluff and planning. Early on, we had mutually agreed that if we were going to have wars, we needed to make it official and have armies. The other gang, being more plentiful, older and thus physically stronger declared themselves to be "the Americans" while my guys were the dirty Germans. From that point on, we literally referred to one another as the Americans and the Germans. Instead of pouting, my friends and I made the best of it- we already knew Tiger tanks were far more cool than Shermans, so we studied up on the Wehrmacht by watching Rat Patrol, Patton, and Kelly's Heroes. Over the next few years, things gradually escalated as both sides acquired bits and pieces of uniforms, helmets and weapons. Crab apples and snow balls eventually gave way to sling shots ("wrist rockets"), pellet rifles and even my grandpa's bring-back Arisaka rifle (no ammo- but it looked mean with the bayonet on it). The fact that packs of grade school boys were stalking one another around the neighborhood wearing helmets, fatigues and armed with actual weapons never seemed to cause a problem. The neighbors apparently took it all in stride.
Then, at a meeting of the Louisville Military Modeler's Club in 1980, one of the other members brought in his real uniform and equipment from a reenactment. That was the end of plastic models- I wanted the real thing. I attended my first military show in November of that year, and my first event in the Summer of 1981. Although I wanted to join the LSSAH, they wouldn't take anyone under 18, so initially I joined a "GD" unit which was based around Ft. Knox. Three years and dozens of events later, Fred Poddig finally relented and allowed me into the 1.SS with my parents' approval.
Events in the 1980's were somewhat different than those today, with the vast majority being "tacticals"- the public spectacles, WWII Weekends and dog & pony shows were rare. Military issue grenade and artillery simulators were often handed out like candy during the safety & authenticity inspections, and we often had active duty military personnel acting as referees. We were flat out playing WWII and no one was in any way ashamed about that fact. Running through the woods at Weldon Spring chasing an M4A3 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. In addition to extensive field time and weapons training, many fellow participants were Vietnam combat veterans (plus a few from WWII and Korea) and their tutelage proved incredibly helpful when I joined the real Army in 1986. It made me look like a natural...
When I was 19, I decided I was bored with college and I went to join a Marine Corps armor unit- but an Army recruiter poached me away with promises that paratroopers had more fun. She was right- the barracks at DLI (language school) were coed.
After the Army, I returned to college and was looking for a part time job. 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. The real beginning of ATF was when I got a burr in my pants for a good reproduction A-frame. 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. Realizing that it was far too time consuming to hand sew the things, 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. That first A-frame sold at the Show of Shows in 2012 as original. (The seller refused to believe I had made it in the 1990's.)
Now the cat was out of the sack- other reenactors were waving money at me and asking for other things. However, as late as 1999, the plan was to deal in militaria only until I graduated from college and then find a real job. We see how that's worked out.
Very early on I made one critical decision that likely saved this business. Up until this point, most vendors custom made everything, and items were not actually put together after they had been paid for. Waiting weeks or months was the norm, not the exception. I decided not to take money from anyone unless I had the item in hand, ready to deliver. This wasn't a well planned part of my business plan (there was no plan) but simply a result of my being somewhat lazy and easily annoyed. As soon as people give you money, they start pestering- "I know you said 3 weeks, but it's been 3 days and I'm just checking" etc, etc. The wisdom of this policy made itself rapidly apparent, with fewer complaints and more sales.
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 "nazi stuff"- UPS was on strike, Fedex was too expensive so I drove it home. I rented a 1500 sq ft. building in an industrial park, and put out my 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. 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. We contacted a trucking company and arranged everything. A week later, the warehouse was piled 12ft high with boxes- it looked a bit like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Over the next year it became obvious that US militaria was as popular as German and I quickly started adding it to the product line. The biggest hurdle at that time was the unreliability of suppliers. None of them could be described as anything other than "flaky". So, my naive ass decided to start our own sewing factory- easier said than done. 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, my best friend's older brother stopped by. We discussed my struggles with the factory idea, and 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 opened a small sewing factory in Jamestown, KY and a few months after that, I found a vacant 15,000 sq ft. slaughterhouse (true story) a few miles away in Columbia for next to nothing. We had just moved the entire operation to "the country" when the planes hit the towers.
In 2002 we made our first contacts in China- which is largely the reason we have survived and thrived to the present day. The owners of the companies we deal with are now personal friends and they honestly give a damn about what they make. Over the past 5 years have shifted our US production to fieldgear and accessories as it is impossible to compete with Asia on garments. Essentially, the Chinese saved our jobs here which allows us to offer a mix of domestic and imported products.
One difference between us and other companies is that I have personally used much of our products- I design them, decide on the specifications & materials, and make improvements almost daily to something. I eschew the term "collector" but I have spent decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars on authentic examples of WWII militaria. For whatever reason I love this old stuff, and making the best product possible keeps things interesting.
Thanks to everyone who has been a customer over the past 25 years- I never dreamed things would get to this point.