News & Politics

The Dark Side of "Soldier of Fortune" Magazine: Contract Killers and Mercenaries for Hire

The magazine caters to mercenaries but tries to broaden to its appeal to war fans, weapon-lovers, fanatic anti-commies and those who enjoy reading about blood and guts.

When I was in sixth grade my parents took away my collection of Soldier of Fortune magazines. This was in the mid-1980s, the Rambo-era heyday of the "journal of the professional adventurer." The seizure was preceded by a parent-teacher conference at which exhibit A was a recent two-page essay I'd written about wanting to be a mercenary when I grew up. Or a ninja.

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I remember Soldier of Fortune articles in those days being a macho-to-the-max amalgam of firearms reviews, anti-gun control rants, Vietnam POW conspiracy theories and gory first-hand reporting on Cold War proxy wars, military coups and revolutions in Second and Third World nations. But what made Soldier of Fortune so enticing in my 11-year-old mind was less its editorial content than its infamous advertising.

Along with ads for mail-order brides, bounty hunter training manuals, surveillance electronics, Secrets of the Ninja lessons (including "mind clouding" and "sentry removal"), Nazi memorabilia, machine guns, silencers, and sniper rifles, Soldier of Fortune advertised the services of guns for hire.

"It's directed at professional mercenaries -- men who will fight for pay and those who want to hire them," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko in March 1984. "But since mercenaries represent only a tiny portion of the reading population, the magazine tries to broaden its appeal to include those who might be called war fans, weapon-lovers, fanatic anti-commies and Walter Mitty types who enjoy the vicarious thrill of reading about blood and guts."

Royko left out elementary school D&D geeks. For my Dungeons & Dragons buddies and I, reading Soldier of Fortune was like perusing a Dungeon Master's Guide or Monster Manual. It was a portal to a fantasy world. We talked about killing commies the same way we talked about slaying orcs. Then we grew out of it.

Robert K. Brown never did. Brown, the founder and publisher of Soldier of Fortune, has long rocked "Kill a Commie for Mommie" t-shirts with no sense of irony. But unlike a dungeon master, Brown invited his readers to live out their armchair warrior daydreams in places where people died for real.

For several years after Brown founded Soldier of Fortune in 1975, the magazine ran full-page recruiting ads for the Rhodesian Army, which employed foreign mercenaries to defend the apartheid-style regime of prime minister Ian Smith.

The January 1976 issue of Soldier of Fortune included a classified ad placed by Daniel Gearhart, a 34-year-old Vietnam veteran with money trouble. It read, "Wanted: Employment as mercenary on full-time or job contract basis. Preferably in South or Central America, but anywhere in the world if you pay transportation."

Seven months later, Gearhart was executed by firing squad in Angola. Advertising his services in Soldier of Fortune had led to his being hired by the losing faction in a civil war.  The People's Revolutionary Tribunal judge who sentenced Gearhart and three other foreign mercenaries to death (nine others received long prison terms) called them "dogs of war with bloodstained muzzles who left a trail of rape, murder and pillage across the face of our nation." (Gearhart was arrested less than a week after setting foot in Angola. He denied ever firing a shot there, let alone raping and pillaging.)

Since the mid-to-late 1970s era of promoting mercenary work in African bush wars, Soldier of Fortune has distributed what CBS' "60 Minutes" called a "political warfare journal," published classified ads that resulted in no fewer than five murders-for-hire on American soil, and helped to equip paramilitary border vigilantes who terrorized Latino immigrants. 

Conservative media sites lauded Brown last year on the 35th anniversary of Soldier of Fortune. "Certainly the magazine has drawn its share of controversy," Newsmax gushed:

It has consistently outraged the left by publishing Rhodesian Army recruiting posters, to offering $25,000 in gold to a defector from Cuban intelligence, to a $1,000,000 reward for the defection of a Nicaraguan MI-24 helicopter. All the while training the Contras and Salvadorian army.

Now Brown finds himself in a harsher spotlight that brings out the sordid history of his magazine in the context of Brown's current role as one of the most outspoken reactionary voices on the National Rifle Association board of directors.

This morning, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence unveiled a new investigative website called Who Is On The NRA Board? It profiles members of the National Rifle Association's board of directors, "a rogues gallery of the most odious voices in the contemporary Conservative Movement":

In the increasingly distant past, the National Rifle Association (NRA) largely advocated for policies related to hunting and marksmanship, but today its leaders are defined by unsavory conduct and the advancement of extreme, anti-government ideology.


This website shines a light on the background ... of the NRA Board of Directors, in large part by allowing them to comment on the issues of the day in their own words. It is intended as a resource for those who cherish moderation, civility and principled advocacy in American politics.

The NRA board includes such colorful personalities as former Sen. Larry Craig, Fox News military analyst Oliver North, and right-wing rocker Ted Nugent, who singularly personified the NRA mindset on stage in 2007 by telling a concert crowd while decked out in camouflage hunting gear and wielding dual prop machine guns, "Obamahe's a piece of shitI told him to suck on my machine gun."

When it comes to sheer tough-guy braggadocio, however, Robert K. Brown has no rivals on the NRA board. He even out Nugents the Nuge.

"For the last decade, I've hunted terrorists with the Rhodesian African rifles and fired up a Russian fort in Afghanistan with the mujahideen," Brown wrote in a 1986 Soldier of Fortune editorial. "Between firefights, takeovers and insurgencies, I manage to put out a magazine."

Brown has long touted his taste for mercenary intervention. Soldier of Fortune reported on a 1983 expedition to El Salvador during which Brown reportedly fought alongside other foreign mercenaries with Salvadoran paramilitary units supporting far-right strongman Roberto d'Aubuisson, the El Salvadoran political leader widely believed to have masterminded anti-communist death squads that killed many civilians, including priests.

(Robert White, the United States Ambassador to El Salvador from 1977 to 1980, said d'Aubuisson was a "pathological killer.")

The following year Brown claimed to have dispatched more than 100 mercenaries and told a reporter that he and his magazine's readers had sent approximately $4 million in supplies to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

"We are not content to just tell the story. To the best of our ability, we also help equip, aid, and train the world's anticommunist freedom fighters," Brown later wrote. "We make no apologies about this or for our virulent anti-tyrant, anti-communist editorial stance."

A second trip to El Salvador planned for 1984 was reportedly called off when Brown suffered a gunshot wound to the leg from an accidental handgun discharge. The incident exemplified several gross violations of NRA-promoted gun safety precepts. Royko, the Chicago Tribune columnist, detailed theevents surrounding the accidental discharge

Col Brown and his kitchen table buddies were talking about a flight to El Salvador that Brown was to make the next day. Brown, who was a captain in Vietnam, claims to be helping train the Salvadoran army on an unofficial basis. He says he is making them tougher and more disciplined. ...

As the evening wore on toward midnight, one of Brown's buddies --who writes for [Soldier of Fortune] -- took out an automatic pistol he was carrying and showed it to Brown. ...

Brown's buddy talked about his pistol's heft, the trigger action and the other qualities that please gun lovers. He pulled the trigger. Being a gun expert, he knew it was empty. ...

When Brown's buddy, a gun expert, pulled the trigger there was a loud explosion. He stood there for a moment with his mouth wide open. Then he looked at his hand and saw a hole. He had shot a hole through his hand.

Brown looked down at his leg. His leg hurt. He saw blood running out of his calf. The bullet, after blowing a hole in the buddy's hand, had blown a hole in Brown's leg. The owner of the gun was right. It did pack a wallop.

Brown looked down at his bleeding leg. Then he looked at this buddy and said: "You stupid son-of-a-bitch, you shot me. And now I can't go to El Salvador!

At least Brown took the bullet like a man. I'd have expected nothing less from a self-declared badass whose office was decorated with a "Kill 'Em All, Let God Sort 'Em Out" banner.

Throughout the 1980s, a second poster hanging in the Soldier of Fortune offices (incongruously located in Boulder, Colorado, a liberal college town) depicted a vulture with the slogan, "Killing is our business, and business is good."

That certainly held true for hit men who advertised in Soldier of Fortune. One of them, Knoxville, Tennessee nightclub operator and former prison guard Richard Michael Savage, said that he received 30 to 40 calls a week after he placed this ad in the June 1985 issue of the magazine: "GUN FOR HIRE: 37-year-old professional mercenary desires jobs. Vietnam veteran. Discrete and very private. Body guard, courier, and other special skills. All jobs considered."

One called wanted to recruit a small army to raid a gold mine in Alaska, one of Savage's hitman associates told People magazine in 1986; another floated a plot to steal an army payroll in South America.

Based on its interview with the Savage associate, People magazine reported in 1986:

Yet another wanted to raid Nicaragua and promised to supply guns, camouflage clothing, rubber boats and $50,000 for each mercenary when the raid was completed. Savage...was enthusiastic about every harebrained scheme he heard, but ultimately was persuaded to concentrate on murder. So, if the caller sounded discreet, Savage would ask for a round-trip airline ticket and $1,000; the two would meet face-to-face, then feel each other out in a minuet of death, until each was certain of the other's credentials.

Two of the respondents Savage contacted were business associates of suburban Atlanta resident Richard Braun. Not long after the ad was published, Savage and two associates ambushed Braun and his 16-year-old son in the driveway of their home. Triggerman Sean Trevor Doutre stepped in front of the car and fired a MAC 11 assault pistol. Braun was shot and killed; his son was wounded.

Four months later, Savage subcontracted the murder of Palm Beach, Florida resident Anita Spearman, who was clubbed to death by Doutre while she slept. The victim's husband contracted her murder for $20,000 after reading Savage's ad in Soldier of Fortune.

Another hit man, Texas long haul trucker John Hearn, said "If I had never run an ad in Soldier of Fortune I would have never killed anyone." Hearn's 1984 ad, which ran in four issues of the magazine, solicited "High risk assignments, U.S. or overseas." After it was published, Hearn said, he was so deluged with phone calls that he was forced to hire an answering service. He estimated that 90 percent of the callers wanted to pay him to commit a crime, including bombings, jailbreaks, and assaults, and that he received three-to-five contract murder offers per day.

In February 1985 Hearn shot to death Sandra Black in a hit arranged by her husband for $10,000. Later that year he committed a double murder in Florida after being hired by another Soldier of Fortune reader. 

Brown stopping running gun-for-hire ads in 1986 after the Savage killings came to light, though he and his staff denied any responsibility for the murders. "We're as culpable as any newspaper which accepts an ad from a used-car salesman and doesn't go out to check the condition of his brakes," said Executive Editor Bill Guthrie.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed. In a 1992 ruling the Court upheld a $4.3 million civil judgment in a lawsuit against Soldier of Fortune filed by Richard Braun's sons. Asthe New York Times reported:

The 11th Circuit panel said, however, that while the advertisement in the Texas case was "facially innocuous" and "ambiguous in its message," Mr. Savages's advertisement "clearly conveyed that he was ready, willing and able to use his gun to commit crimes."

"When the list of legitimate jobs -- i.e. body guard and courier -- is followed by 'other special skills' and 'all jobs considered,' the implication is clear that the advertiser would consider illegal jobs," the panel said. "The publisher could recognize the offer of criminal activity as readily as its readers obviously did."

Brown reportedly settled the case for $200,000.

While Brown toned down his magazine's advertising he ramped up his public support of right-wing extremist causes in the U.S. For example the April 1995 issue of Soldier of Fortune carried a laudatory cover story on the Michigan Militia, which was then the largest, best-trained and most heavily armed "patriot" militia in the country. The article was illustrated with a photo of militia members outfitted in camouflage and brandishing assault rifles. The caption read, "Michigan militia membership has skyrocketed in light of a parade of gun control legislation passed by the Clinton Administration."

That month, Timothy McVeigh, a Soldier of Fortune subscriber, detonated a truck bomb in the parking garage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring nearly 700.

When McVeigh was arrested the same day as the explosion, police found a photocopy of the underground extremist publication The Resister in his vehicle.

The Resister published racist and anti-Semitic articles, according to the Southern Poverty LawCenter. "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft described the publication as a "political warfare journal" that deployed "the same inflammatory rhetoric espoused by the radical militia movement and portrays the U.S. government as the enemy." 

Its publisher was Steven Barry, then a Special Forces officer. Barry would later go on to become military coordinator for the National Alliance, a violent neo-Nazi organization.

The copy of The Resister found in McVeigh's possession contained a fax signature that FBI agents traced back to Soldier of Fortune. Investigators discovered that Brown had sent out 900 free copies of The Resister as part of a promotional packet to Soldier of Fortune subscribers. The FBI alerted the Army, which tested the connection between Barry and Soldier of Fortune by leaking false intelligence to Barry. The information appeared in a subsequent issue of the magazine.

At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, Brown was groping to find a new bogeyman to replace communists in the wake of the Soviet Union crumbling and the end of the Cold War. Since the late 1980s he's cycled through the jackbooted thugs of the federal government and moved on to immigrants and Muslim extremists or Islamic imperialists, who Soldier of Fortune writers frequently conflate with Muslims in general.  (The circulation of his magazine has always been cyclical, with spikes in subscriptions and newsstand sales whenever U.S. armed forces are deployed overseas. The War on Terror has been good for Brown.)

In 2003 Soldier of Fortune published a two-part series glorifying Ranch Rescue, a paramilitary border vigilante outfit that reportedly pistol-whipped, terrorized at gunpoint and set Rottweilers on Latino immigrants in southern Arizona and southern Texas.

From the Dallas Observer:

In the Soldier of Fortune account, the membership, heavily populated with men who claim to be veterans of elite police and military units, appeared to be having a mercenary's ball. They talked in the lingo of "Romeo 1" and "Romeo Base Camp," clipped their drum magazines into their AR-15 assault rifles "ready to lay down some serious fire" and field-tested an armory of products provided by Soldier of Fortune advertisers: the 17-inch Randall's Training and Adventure knives "used by the Peruvian Air Force Jungle Survival School," the ARKTIS 1604 Long Range Patrol Vest, referred to as "a superior piece of load-bearing gear," andSoldier of Fortune logo T-shirts.

More recently, the October 2009 issue of Soldier of Fortune carried a backslapping cover story profile of Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his constitutionally questionable immigration sweeps. "His tough stand on illegal immigration is what he is getting beat up for by liberals promoting illegal immigration," reads the table of contents teaser copy. "He tells his side of the story to SOF."

Despite Brown's efforts to remain current, though, Soldier of Fortune looks and reads more like a throwback to the 1980s with every passing year. One recent issue had Sylvester Stallone portraying Rambo on the cover, more than two decades after Sly as Rambo graced the cover of the June 1985 issue, the same one in which Savage ran his "GUN FOR HIRE" ad. Somehow I doubt Soldier of Fortune is generating much playground street cred for 11-year-old boys these days.

But as the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence website makes clear, Brown remains a relevant political force through his support for the richest, most powerful gun lobby organization in the land. He also strives to maintain the dominance of radical ideology on the NRA board of directors. Earlier this year, Brown supported the campaign of far-right gun lobbyist and Firearms Coalition of Colorado president Steve Schreiner for the NRA board, breaking ranks with the NRA board's nominating committee.

"NRA will not endorse him 'cause they think he's 'too much of a zealot,'" Brown told blogger David Codrea. "My response is that we could use a few more zealots on the BOD [board of directors]."

David Holthouse is a Media Matters' investigative journalist focusing on violent extremism. He previously worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center where he engaged in groundbreaking reporting on extremist groups. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Nation, American Prospect and other publications.