Going ballistic? First, test the gear at H. P. White's Firm draws the world's well-armed

December 27, 1992|By Nancy Menefee Jackson nTC | Nancy Menefee Jackson nTC,Contributing Writer

They come from around the world to the brick and cinder-block building to find the answers:

Would a police officer survive a high-caliber slug fired into his bullet-proof vest? Could a vault door be blown off? Would the bubble on the "pope-mobile" protect the pontiff from gunfire?

H. P. White Laboratory Inc., an internationally renowned weapons-testing firm in Harford County, is in the business of answering such questions for governments, law enforcement agencies and businesses worldwide.

Here, experts rely on sophisticated tests to determine whether weapons, ammunition and armor can pass muster.

Oliver North, the owner of an ordnance security business and a regular customer, shows up to have body armor tested. The government of Israel, a major customer, wants to find out whether a steel panel can withstand heavy enemy fire.

And today, the lab is conducting tests related to the Bradley fighting vehicle and its 25 mm guns for the U.S. Defense Department, another regular client.

Donald Dunn, a Naval Academy graduate and former CIA man who is owner and president of the Street lab, says he finds the work endlessly fascinating.

"We're not dealing with the same little widget every day," he said. "I'm never bored. I like the variety. No two days are ever the same, and I meet such a broad range of people."

Mr. Dunn began running the 56-year-old business in 1971 after its founder, Henry Packard White, suffered a stroke. In 1976, Mr. Dunn bought the business, which he helped revive after it had fallen on hard times.

Initially, most of the company's business centered on ballistics work associated with crimes, and it boasted among its clients the venerable Scotland Yard.

H. P. White's best-known sleuth work came when Walter Cronkite and CBS commissioned the lab to simulate the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Elaborate tests proved Lee Harvey Oswald could have shot the president.

Now, because law enforcement agencies' crime labs have taken over much of the ballistics testing associated with crimes, H. P. White has shifted its emphasis. But its technicians often testify as expert witnesses at criminal trials.

The lab expanded into testing the accuracy of guns, the safety of ammunition and new lines of guns, and, most of all, military ordnance.

Today, 80 percent to 85 percent of the business involves the hardware with which men make war. U.S. military officials often prefer the lab to their own testing facilities because, Mr. Dunn said, "We do it quicker and cheaper."

At a lab range, technicians fire 20 mm shots, the equivalent of a small cannon, into steel panels. Israeli defense officials eagerly await the results, as they plan to buy the panels.

In an adjacent 100-yard range, a gun barrel mounted beneath a laser beam is pointed at a bullet-proof vest. The beam allows the test bullets to be precisely directed to such vulnerable areas as the seams.

A cube of modeling clay, set up to replicate the density of human flesh, is positioned behind the vest.

A technician cries out, "Ears!" and spectators cover their ears as the gun is fired.

Computers measure the velocity of the shot.

The vest meets one criterion: It swallows the slug, which leaves a cavity the size of half an orange in the clay behind it. A technician measures the crater and decides the vest has passed the second criterion: It will prevent significant internal injuries.

Mr. Dunn knows all about the vests and takes pride in the fact that H. P. White is the only certified testing facility for them.

While at the CIA, he lined a briefcase with Kevlar, so that a diplomat could open the briefcase and use it as a shield. The material, then being developed by duPont for use in tires, now is used for bullet-proof vests.

"I like to think I was one of the first," Mr. Dunn said with a smile.

If not the first, he is now the leading authority on the effectiveness of such vests.

"Every vest worn by every police officer in this country has been tested by us," Mr. Dunn said.

Still, he says, no matter how sophisticated the tests, there's a big difference between a cube of clay and a human body.

"It's a somewhat subjective thing," said Mr. Dunn. "Obviously, if I am a 300-pound officer, I can tolerate this better than a 105-pound woman."

With approval from the U.S. State Department, the lab also has done tests for commercial interests in China, Communist bloc countries and for Yugoslavia.

Mr. Dunn is joined at the lab by his sons, Craig and Eric, both Naval Academy grads, and about 30 specialists in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, physics and business.

But it's not a business for those seeking riches, says Mr. Dunn, who estimates the lab grosses $1 million to $3 million a year.

"You would be ill-advised to start a business like this," said Mr. Dunn, who jokes that with such a narrow profit margin, he should put his money in government bonds.

Rather, he said, "I'm in it for the fun" -- like "hot dog photography."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.