I first met Petroff in the dark pine-woods of the Tayga. We were sitting around our campfire, my three companions and I—one German, two Frenchmen and one Chinese. The Tayga is a vast tract of virgin forest lying to the west of the great Manchurian plains, and in 1934 was still an El Dorado for game of all kinds. Our quarry on this occasion was wild boar, whose flesh we planned to take back to Harbin to feed three tiger cubs I had captured the previous year.
As we relaxed around the fire, waiting for the Chinese cook to prepare our meal, we sipped our drinks and talked about the day's happenings and our plans for the morrow. Suddenly the dogs gave a threatening growl, and three men staggered into the clearing. The tallest of them was clearly in a bad way. Blood clotted one trouser leg and he was limping, half supported on the shoulders of his companions. They spoke to us in Russian, a language I speak as fluently as my own. Quickly we made a space for them at the fire, and I examined the tall man's wound.
Petroff, his name was. That morning he had stumbled on a trip wire which fired a set gun and the charge had passed through his calf. Chinese hunters often used to set these traps for wild boar. The Russians carried no first-aid equipment, but I was able to give Petroff something to prevent blood poisoning and a bandage to dress the wound. It is possible that I saved his life.
The grateful Russians joined our camp and our party and stayed with us for several days. I found them to be affable fellows, reliable hunters and first-class shots. We trekked back the two days' ride to the city of Harbin together, where the Russians lived too. They worked, they told me, at the Soviet Embassy. We parted on the friendliest of terms.
At about this time there fell a bitter blow to all hunters in China. The import of readymade shells was forbidden by the government—and no Chinese firm could make them. Reloading old shells would have been practicable—except that suitable gunpowder was almost unobtainable. This undoubtedly ended the sport for the amateur and weekend hunters, but we old hands solved the problem by using Mary Pickfords.
Gunpowder does not explode; it merely burns very fast, and it is the enormous expansion of the gases that drives the shot down the barrel. In the absence of proper powder, another fast-burning substance will do as well. Such a substance is cinema film. I was running the German movie theater, and I thus had contacts in the cinema world throughout Manchuria. As soon as a set of reels had made the complete circuit of 50 theaters they were—for the price of a small bribe—sent to me.
I would wash the film in warm water and brush off the emulsion. When dry, the film was cut into strips a yard long, and 30 or 40 such lengths would be sandwiched between two hardwood boards and squeezed very tight in a vise, leaving half an inch of film showing above the wood. A plane or a coarse file used on the projecting edges of the film would produce very fine shavings or chips: Mary Pickford Smokeless. I used to load the cartridges with a pinch of precious black powder to get speedy ignition, and fill up with 38 to 40 grains of Mary Pickford, the usual wads, shot and end cap. The result was ammunition that would kill anything in the Tayga.
It was, however, a tedious process, this home manufacture, and took up much of the time I should have been spending on my business: and I had other matters to attend to, even apart from market research for the Saxon firm which employed me. Once, when home in Germany on leave, I was approached by the German government: Would I be prepared to do a little intelligence work in Manchuria, reporting on the movements of the Russians, who were constantly trying to infiltrate? I said yes, and in fact I have for most of my life been active in intelligence work against the Communists: first for the White Russians, then for the Germans and lately for the Americans. I learned recently that Moscow has put a sizable price on my head.
But in 1934 the Soviet counterespionage organization was not what it is today, and I thought it unlikely that my activities should have attracted the attention of the Russians. I continued my friendship with Petroff, and when my birthday came in August I was delighted to receive a present from him, in gratitude for my help in the Tayga. It was a shiny red box of factory-made Russian 12-gauge shells. The goose-shooting season was about to start on the Sungari River, and I was glad to have them. Because I normally load my own ammunition, distrusting mass production, I decided to open one of these Russian shells to see just what sort of performance I might expect.
I lifted off the lid of the box, folded back the greaseproof paper and pulled out one shell at random from the middle of the box. I removed the end wad and tipped the shot out onto the table. But instead of the 1 or 1? ounces I expected, there were no more than a dozen pellets. What was anyone supposed to shoot with these, I wondered. I picked out the next layer of wadding and was surprised to find, instead of the powder I expected, a stick of yellowish substance of the same consistency as putty. I carefully removed it and found, underneath, perhaps 10 grains of black powder.