Ammo Boxes Are Music To His Ears

Soldier's Amplifier Business Grows -- Even As He Serves A Tour In Iraq


As a former nuclear submarine pilot, Lt. Christopher Brownfield learned a thing or two about the particulars of sound, learning to ``drive blindly'' deep under the ocean using nothing but sonar.

So when he wanted to give his older brother a special birthday present -- one the budding musician could actually use -- he decided to put his perfect pitch to use and build him a guitar amplifier. Unfortunately, the college English major knew nothing about putting together an amp.


It took three years and a lot of tinkering, but eventually he delivered: The older Brownfield received a small, funny-looking ammunition box full of sound. ``At first, my brother looked at the Ammo Box Amp a little strangely, but when I gave him the prototype, and he plugged it in, he seemed to forget about its unconventionality and my tardiness.''

And then Brownfield's brother started telling everyone he knew about his amp. Hartford musician Randy Collins, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and controversial rocker Ted Nugent came knocking for an Ammo Box Amp, and Brownfield's belated birthday present turned into a business.

Since last year, Brownfield, now on his first tour in Iraq, has operated Ammo Box Amps out of his condominium in New Haven. Despite dodging IEDs in Baghdad and serving as a liaison among the Department of Defense, State Department and the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity to oversee energy implementation in the besieged country, the soldier with a penchant for good tone has managed to keep his small shop running and growing.

``I've recruited two exceptionally talented technicians to continue building Ammo Box Amps while I am deployed -- their work is the best I've ever seen, as one might expect from instructors who train other people how to build control systems for nuclear submarines,'' Brownfield wrote in an e-mail from Baghdad's Green Zone, where he is stationed. ``We're hoping to take a shot at making music history, or at least help to make some great sounding performances.''

From overseas, he has coordinated events and seminars about building amplifiers with the masters of the trade, including Gerald Weber, the founder of Texas-based Kendrick Amplifiers, one of the most well-respected builders of custom amps in the country. ``I guess life here is not so busy as I've said previously, or maybe I'm just hyperactive,'' Brownfield wrote.

Usually discarded or recycled after transporting military ammunition, ammo boxes have been used as humidors for cigars, but not much else. One day while tinkering around in his studio, Brownfield realized how well the size of the olive green metal box would lend itself to military-grade sound components. He drilled a couple of holes in the side of one for knobs and cords, wired it, and plugged it into his Gibson Les Paul, then let the sound rip.

``It's hand-wired with a level of craftsmanship and detail that is nearly impossible to find,'' said Nick Lloyd, the founder and owner of Firehouse 12, a popular bar, music venue and recording studio in downtown New Haven. ``The amp has a level of clarity and detail I haven't heard from other guitar amps, at any price.''

Moore echoed the praise.

``Ammo Box Amps have the firepower I need when it's time to scorch,'' he said. ``It allows a sweet tone to become a raging beast and back again. It's immediate yet sensitive. The way I like my rock `n' roll.''

Brownfield's Ammo Box Amp, though cool to Moore, Lloyd and most other customers, does have a few setbacks its creator admitted.

``I wouldn't want to try to get one past airport security these days,'' Brownfield wrote from Iraq. ``One girl at Guitar Center actually asked me if it was a bomb when I brought it into their showroom to play through different speaker cabinets.''

Originally from Michigan, Brownfield settled in New Haven after finishing the U.S. Naval Academy in 2001 and taught the intricacies of submarine sonar systems at the New London Naval Base before the military shipped him off to Iraq as a ``individual augmentee'' -- support staff for the U.S. Army. Expecting to work closely with the operational army, the military placed Brownfield in Saddam Hussein's former presidential palace, where he serves as a junior staffer under Gen. George W. Casey, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq.

Brownfield has started writing a book about submarines, Iraq and the general use of defense spending in foreign policy, in addition to trying to run his nascent business thousands of miles away. Through e-mails, he has described an existence that is a complete paradox to accounts from the front line, though he hears the car bombs and the chaos unfolding around him every day.

``Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, provides four meals a day, during very flexible hours, in a wonderful dining facility immediately adjacent to a beautiful pool behind the palace -- the cost to American taxpayers: $35 per meal,'' he wrote. ``I live in a `small but fashionable air-conditioned trailer' in a `Riverside Villa,' as the Army calls it. Never mind that the river is the Tigris and it has on any given day four or five unknown Iraqi bodies in it.

``As I sit here inside an Internet cafe with chandeliers, marble floors and 60-foot high ceilings, I can't help but feel guilty about being here. Still, I feel as if I could do a lot more good if I stay than if they send me packing.''

Come August 2007, he hopes to part company with the Army. He wants to devote more time to Ammo Box Amps and then the pursuit of his graduate business studies at Yale's School of Management, which he deferred to come to the Middle East.

In the meantime, however, he continues to stock up on his much-needed ammo boxes while overseas and looks forward to the day he can ``annoy my neighbors sufficiently when I'm testing out the newly built amps.''