“In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.” The size of my nostalgia boner anytime I hear the opening words from the television show “The A-Team” is large and impressive. I don’t think there is a 80’s kid alive today who can’t recite those words verbatim, or wish they could read military classified ads like that in today’s magazines!
That’s because it was the heyday of commie-hating, Reagan-loving Cold War machismo. When American men were cruising around in their muscle cars strapped with KA-BAR knives, wishing they were John Rambo. On the large and small screens alike, we were bombarded with the threat of nuclear annihilation while the wounds of Viet Nam were still fresh in our minds.
The “A-Team” was representative of the 70s mercenary golden age that was fueled by print magazine heavyweights such as Solider of Fortune, Eagle and Gung-Ho. With circulations in the hundreds of thousands, these publications gave boys and men thrilling stories of real war. Full of real conflicts and real ways to turn yourself into a ninja-fied killing machine. All you had to do was turn to any of their advertisements and order your weapon of choice (plus shipping and handling).
As the war in Vietnam swelled and receded, there were thousands of vets that could only relate to each other. They’d find comfort in stories of roving mercenaries unleashed on the world after the end of that war. These were guys that would continue the fight against the Red Tide of Communism. They’d stamp out dictatorships and avoiding a society that didn’t understand them. Many of these stateside vets turned to the pages of underground war magazines — and readership skyrocketed.
To this day, Soldier of Fortune, touted as “The Journal of Professional Adventurers,” is arguably the best-known publication of the bunch. Thinly disguised as the National Geographic of the war culture, SOF provided unfiltered, boots-on-the-ground views of world conflicts. Skirting the line between responsible journalism and mercenary recruitment, SOF catered to the “I’m not done with war yet” crowd. Also appealing to teens that longed for something more stimulating than their milquetoast suburban lives.
The covers invariably displayed hard-looking men, foreign fighters and imagery that made you believe that this mag wasn’t fucking around. The prose was colloquial, infantry-inspired and was anything but sugarcoated.
Started by retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown, Soldier of Fortune magazine was the nexus of the mercenary universe. Ultimately succumbing to the constant pressure of digital distribution, SOF shut down print operations in 2016 but continues to this day online.
Brown, known widely for his direct and abrasive communication skills (otherwise known as giving zero F’s) developed SOF in the mid 70s for his tribe: the Viet Nam vets returning from war to a society that labeled them as outcasts. This was a stark contrast to today’s “Support Our Troops” branding on everything from car magnets to coffee cups. He often traveled to some of the worst locations, deepest jungles and most dangerous borderlands to meet soldiers and commanders on the front lines.
SOF appealed to anyone with a swinging dick that got hard at the thought of action in foreign lands. “Kill ’em all and let God sort them out” was a common mantra among Brown’s crowd.
In the days before lightning-fast global communication, 24-hour news cycles and Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories, these magazines were the only conduit between the boots on the ground and the boys at home. It is extraordinarily interesting today to read the tales of conflicts that now seem like distant memories: the Iran-Iraq war, Nicaragua, Rhodesia, Cuban infiltration and any other uprising that needed to be dissected, reported and photographed by the very men fighting in the ranks.
Fluff was nonexistent. The articles were unabashedly anti-communist and publishers like Brown reveled in their ability to report the action. This fueled the fires of guys that wanted to go anywhere, at any time to get into the fight. The pictures were graphic, often grainy and poorly exposed, but they provided an unflinching view of actual war. Reporters and contributors were often embedded in the action, themselves frequently fighting alongside whatever faction happened to be the “right side” of the conflict.
These magazines were also a gun nerd’s paradise. For example, in the December 1982 issue of Eagle, you could get the latest test results from the USMC on the M16 A1E1 and the NEW XM855 cartridge. Or in SOF, you could dive deep into the CETME MG82, the featherweight 15-pound (unloaded) machine gun. Weapon porn was as prevalent as the action and gave true insight to what forces were fighting with around the world.
And while the articles and information contained in the pages of SOF were decidedly heart pumping and politically charged. Another equally fascinating aspect of the mid-80s SOF issues were the classifieds and the full-page ads. Filtering through these magazines on my desk, it’s almost inconceivable that any of these ads would be printed today. Full-auto rifle conversions, blowguns, brass knuckles, kukri, and stun guns were just some of the readily available items for sale. None of these were illegal at the time, but with our current political climate, these ads seem almost satirical today. They are things that would give the Diane Feinsteins of the world nightmares today.
The ads themselves were brilliant, albeit rudimentary. There was no gloss, no subtle innuendo. Want to be a ninja? Buy this throwing star. Have a hankering for blowing things up? Here’s a guide to making explosives at home. Those bump-fire stocks were once called “Inertia Fire,” and you were a nobody unless you had a “Wooly Pully” commando sweater. All sorts of WWII relics, smoke bomb recipes and “covert mission guides” were only one self-addressed stamped envelope away.
Of course, the end pages of these magazines were where you undoubtedly found the good stuff. If you were trying to dispose of that pesky spouse or business partner of yours, you were in luck. Hidden in the columns of “authentic military medal” offerings were scattered but unmistakable advertisements for skills acquired only after serving in foreign wars. Craftily worded, these ads provided services of all kinds and were often thinly-veiled sales pitches for hitmen and mercenaries.
“FOR HIRE: Short term, high risk preferred, have passport, will travel. No job too dangerous.”
“MERC FOR HIRE — Will travel, expert military experience. Also will fly, security, courier. Other offers considered. Retainer plus expenses. Passport. Available.”
In fact, Brown and Soldier of Fortune found themselves embroiled in several lawsuits over the years stemming from murders-for-hire committed by some of these “salesmen.” Their settlements signaled the future demise of the publishing of their military content and stemmed the flow of money that kept them on newsstand shelves.
However, it wasn’t just the lawsuits that clouded the future of SOF. As quickly as the commando culture rose to prominence, the fighters themselves got older. Our young boys grew up and moved on to other interests and the Cold War began to thaw.
Once the Berlin Wall fell, our enemies retreated and communism was exposed as a flawed financial experiment. And while the world moved on, war didn’t. Conflicts against the drug cartels emerged, “Moslem” extremists were exposed in coup attempts in Trinidad. We were still keeping North Korea at bay and our sights began to settle on the regime in Iraq. There was no shortage of material to cover and report back to the masses. However, the internet flourished and what was once found only in the dense pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine was now readily available in online bulletin boards, forums and websites. Instant access to news reports from all over the world desensitized many readers to images of war, and the lust for these magazines waned.
While readership eventually declined, magazines like SOF, Eagle and countless other military journals paved the way for many of the firearms magazines still in print today. Of course, the content has evolved into more specialized markets, but the deep and muddy boot prints left by these 80s treasures is still clearly visible in everything we read. So, do yourself a favor and pick up a few copies on eBay and take a trip back in time. When you’re done, just drop them off at the retirement home so your old pal B.A. Baracus can relive his glory days.