Lee Custom Engineering started out in 1958 as a partnership between two shooting buddies, Richard Lee and Jerome Golner working out of the basement of Lee's home. Both men at the time were employed on the night shift at A. O. Smith Corp, a tool and die maker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They had collaborated to make a simple kit to reload shotgun shells, while originally intended for their own use the two friends felt that it potentially could be marketed to other shooters.(Lee v. United States)
Working on the weekends they enjoyed some modest initial success in promoting and selling the kit in 1958. Named the Lee Loader, one of the first mentions of the tool in the print media was an article appearing in the December 18, 1958 issue of the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper which included a photo spread of the newly introduced Lee Loader for shotgun shells in use.
Probably the best outline of the the early history of this venture is a 1969 tax appeal filed by Richard Lee in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin(Lee v. United States).
According to the brief, Richard Lee was laid off from A. O. Smith in 1959, so he decided to devoted his energies full time to the fledgling business. Golner opted to continue working at A. O. Smith and the partnership was informally dissolved in May 1959 when it was agreed that the rights to the patent for the Loader would go to Lee and that there would be the promise of some form of renumeration going to Golner at some point in the future.
By 1961 annual revenues for the company were at an all time high of 98,000 dollars, a more than 28 fold increase from the first year of operation.
In 1962, Jerome Golner came to work at Lee Custom Engineering as a salaried employee, having left left A. O. Smith. Later that year Lee Custom Engineering incorporated with 76 percent of the shares going to Golner and remainder of the shares being retained by Lee along with the rights to the Lee Loader Patent.
The next product put out by Lee Engineering was a set of powder measures for measuring smokeless powder by volume. Of course powder dippers for measuring smokeless powder by volume were nothing new. Many reloaders in the past have made them by taking a fired brass casing and trimming it down to hold the required volume. The innovation was to have a set of cast nylon measures with table listing weights of common powers thrown by each dipper in the set.
1963 saw the introduction of the Lee Loader for metallic cartridges, also patented by Richard, the company would make royalty payments to Lee for this product as well at least for a time.
In 1964, Jerome Golner sold 150 of his 190 shares to Gordon Schanzer in order to set up his own machine shop 1 Gordon Schanzer in turn took over the position vacated by Golner. This would later cause some trouble for Richard Lee.
Lee Reloading Handbook
As has been the case with many companies selling reloading tools and supplies, Lee Custom Engineering came out with their own book on reloading featuring their products. Entitled "Lee Reloading Handbook", this first edition has no copyright date printed in but it is just about certain that it was published in 1967 as it is pictured in a Lee Engineering display ad that appeared in the February 1967 issue of the American Rifleman with the tag line "Watch for the New Lee Reloading Handbook".
A small soft cover volume of only 98 pages, it covered the basics of reloading ammuntion along with some basic loading data tailored for use with the Lee loaders and their volumetric powder measures or dippers.
In 1969, as had been mentioned earlier in this article, Richard Lee sought a tax refund of some 35 thousand dollars from the IRS for royalty income received for his patents on the Lee Loader and other tools. The royalty payments from the company had become a substantial portion of Lees income and perhaps was becoming increasingly irksome for the majority shareholder, Gordon Schanzer.
Richard Lee established Lee Precision in 1971 starting with a 5000 square foot location near the Hartford Wisonsin Airport. (Pecor, 7). To begin with this new business manufactured bullet molds of machined aluminum as well as some lead melters.
Still president of Lee Custom Engineering, we can only speculate why Lee established a new business to manufacture these products rather expanding the product line of the existing company. Still, it was probably fortuitious that he did so.
The Two Lee Companies
Around 1974, the President of Lee Custom Engineering, Richard Lee was forced out of the company by Gordon Schanzer, the majority shareholder of the Company who held 2/3rds of the outstanding shares. Schanzer then took over the post of President of the company and halted royalty payments to Lee.
In 1976, Lee Precision introduced the Lee Load All, an inexpensive shotshell reloading press geared toward the beginning reloader. It effectively made the old Lee loader for Shotgun shells still produced by Lee Engineering obsolete in 12, 16 and 20 gauges. While the Lee Loader was a good tool for the time, reloading with it is a somewhat slow and tedious process. In addition competion was cutting into the sales, Herters had a similar shotshell reloading kit which was listed in the Page 196 of the 1st Edition of the Handloaders digest for 7.93
At the tail end of the 1970s Lee Precision came out with a stripped down version of the Load-All, the Load-All Junior at half the cost of the original machine. A very bare bones press, powder and shot had to be manually measured and poured into each shell as the tool did not include the reservoirs for either component or a charge bar to measure them
The End of Lee Custom Engineering
Circa 1980-81, Lee Custom Engineering changed its name to Mequon Reloading Corporation. As a result of this name change, much of the company's old stock labeled with the old name was relabeled with stickers affixed over the old logo.
After the name change the company does not appear to have received many mentions in the print media.
A small ad on page 16 of the March-April 1981 issue of American Handgunner advertised products of the Mequon Reloading Corporation including the "Original Lee Loaders" (p. 16) priced at $ 14.98. Turn to page 44 of the same issue and you will find an article entitled "Reloading on a Budget" which featured the Lee Precision version of the Lee Loader with a MSRP of $ 13.98.
After the departure of Richard Lee, there is little evidence that Lee Engineering/Mequon sought to expand the product line much beyond their Lee Loader kits. Without innovation and new products, Mequon withered on the vine so to speak. In 1988, Mequon Reloading Corporation formerly Lee Custom Engineering cease operations.
Lee Precision by all accounts has continued to thrive, garnering a large portion of the marketshare for reloading presses, dies and molds.
1. Golners machine shop, still exists as Golner Precision Products Inc in Sussex, Wisconsin http://www.golnerprecision.com/index.html
Briggs, Philip "Reloading on a Budget" American Handgunner Mar-Apr 1981 p. 16, 44, 68
Cornacchia, Pete "Simple, Low-Cost Reloader Appears" Eugene Register-Guard Dec 18, 1958 p. 3D < http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=D6VRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_xAEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5503%2C4514116 >
LEE v. UNITED STATES. United States District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin. 6 Aug. 1969. <http://wi.findacase.com/research/wfrmDocViewer.aspx/xq/fac.19690806_0000035.EWI.htm/qx> Accessed Nov 14, 2014
Pecor, Joe "Lee Products Lead Ammo Tools Field" Milwaukee Sentinel Aug 23, 1971 Section 2 p. 7 < http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=D6VRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_xAEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5503%2C4514116>
Wahl, Paul "Reloading Saves : On Target" Popular Science July 1976 p.16 Google Books
"On Target " Popular Science March 1977 p. 62 Google Books
LEE v. LEE CUSTOM ENGINEERING, INC. No. 77-C-376. 476 F.Supp. 361 (1979) <http://www.leagle.com/decision/1979837476FSupp361_1773.xml/LEE%20v.%20LEE%20CUSTOM%20ENGINEERING,%20INC> (Accessed Nov 14, 2014)
Lee Custom Engineering Display Ad American Rifleman Nation Rifle Association February 1967 p. 47
Lee, Richard "An Inside Look at Lee Precision by Richard Lee" Handloader's Digest 17th Ed. 1997 p. 65-70
Lee, Richard "Lee Reloading Handbook 1st Ed." Lee Custom Engineering 1967
<http://leeprecision.net/support/index.php?/Knowledgebase/Article/View/158/17/lee-custom-engineering> Accessed November 15, 2014