A Brief History
On May 23, 1934, bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down by law enforcement. For a change, the lawmen had the upper hand as far as firepower goes. In the 1920’s and 1930’s gangsters had been arming themselves with automatic and semi-automatic weapons and out-gunning the police, with the police mostly armed with .38 caliber revolvers and sometimes 12 gauge pump action shotguns. On numerous occasions then and even in the 1970’s and 1980’s the police were woefully under-armed, but that is changing now. Here is a list of some of the favorite gangster guns of the 1920’s and 1930’s (and by gangsters, we mean hardcore criminals, not the junkie holding up a liquor store).
10. Colt Police Positive .38 S&W/.32 Long Colt (also fired .32 S&W Long and .32 Short Colt).
A common under whelming police revolver of its day (1907-1947) this revolver was commonly used by police, and therefore the public assumed it would be good for them, too. With a barrel length of as little as 2 ½ inches, the gangsters could use it as a concealed weapon or in its full sized mode as a main sidearm. In .38 caliber the muzzle velocity was around 767 feet per second which gave the 158 grain bullet marginal stopping power, but about double the energy of the .32 caliber version.
9. Colt 1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP.
Born 5 years after the Colt 1903 (Captain Obvious Strikes!) except this time in a bigger caliber, the Colt 1908 sent a 90 grain bullet out at 1000 feet per second, making it somewhat more effective than the .32 ACP, although the guns were basically the same size. Thus, gangsters could have a little more potent firepower at no increase in size of their pistol.
8. FN 1900/Colt 1903/Savage 1907 .32 ACP.
Introduced in 1899, this semi-automatic pistol had all the advantages of an automatic with its greater capacity and faster reload than a revolver, and the flat shape was easier to hide on the body than a revolver. Sending a 71 grain bullet downrange at 1017 feet per second, the .32 ACP was probably better than the .32 revolvers that were commonly used by police and possibly better than the .38 S&W or .38 Short revolvers. An intermediate gun, this pistol was not a tiny hideout gun, and yet was smaller and easier to hide than a .45 or .38 Super automatic. In Europe, this caliber was the most common police caliber for many years.
7. FN 1905 Vest Pocket/Colt 1908 Vest Pocket .25 ACP.
Flatter and more compact than the derringer of old, these small semi-automatic pistols could easily be hidden in a vest pocket! Or any other pocket, or your sock, inside your hat, you name it. This pistol was used mostly as a hide out gun for back up purposes or when carrying a larger pistol was impractical. (Note: Ian Fleming originally had his James Bond character armed with a .25 Beretta before the movies gave him a Walther PPK.) Firing a 45 grain bullet at 815 feet per second, the anemic little round was only good at close range and against no barriers in front of the target. Still, it was better than nothing and was widely used.
6. Smith and Wesson M&P .38 Special.
Introduced way back in 1898, this standard police revolver was a six shooter that sent 158 grain bullets along at 770 feet per second. Designed to be an improvement over the .38 Long Colt, it was found to be less than impressive as a man stopper in the Philippines, leading to development of the .45 ACP. Still, it became a common gun of gangsters and an even more common gun and caliber for the police. (The evolutionary improvement of the .38 Special was the .357 S&W Magnum introduced in 1934 as the most powerful pistol cartridge of its time, which of course gained many gangster converts that wanted to have bragging rights to the most powerful handgun. The .357’s came late in the gangster era and did not have the massive distribution of these other guns. It could propel a 158 grain bullet at about 1400 fps.)
5. Sawed-off Shotgun.
Usually in 12 gauge and firing double ought (OO) buckshot (.33 caliber balls, 9 per shot), this was normally a pump action shotgun providing 4 to 6 shots. Of course, single and double barrel shotguns were also cut down for concealment and ease of use in automobiles as well, with the thunderous boom and 9 balls coming at you providing a lot of intimidation as well as firepower.
4. Browning Automatic Rifle .30/06.
The BAR was a full sized military one man machine gun firing the powerful military .30 caliber Springfield cartridge. Able to zip through car doors, bullet proof vests, walls and medium sized trees, this was a fearsome weapon used by the most serious of criminals. It was a favorite of Clyde Barrow, and one was used to take down Clyde and Bonnie. Because of its large size (16 pounds and 47 inches long) it was common for the bad guys to cut down the stock and the barrel to make it easier to get into and out of cars with it. Unless you had one too, you were out gunned. Having a 20 round magazine that could be rapidly changed helped overwhelm opponents.
3. Colt M1911 .38 Super.
All the same advantages of the M1911 in .45 ACP but with a .38 caliber bullet screaming at 1300 feet per second (130 grain bullet). This was close to 250 fps faster than the .38 ACP round that preceded it in Colt automatic pistols, fast enough to penetrate any bullet proof vest of the day. From 1929 until the .357 S&W Magnum appeared in 1934 the .38 Super was the fastest pistol bullet, something every self respecting gangster could appreciate.
2. Colt M1911 .45 ACP.
Lobbing big fat bullets at about 750-800 feet per second turned out to be surprisingly effective as a man stopper, and the rapid reload capability of a semi-automatic pistol with quick change 7 round magazines gave the gangsters a considerable edge over the police armed with the .38 S&W, .38 Long Colt, or .38 S&W Special revolvers. There were no speed loaders in those days, so reloading was even slower in the revolver then than now, and the .45 was far more effective against people.
1. Tommy Gun.
Originally called the “Annihilator,” and then renamed “The Thompson Submachine Gun” invented by John T. Thompson and built by Auto-Ordnance Company, the models M1921 and M1928 were the ones commonly used by gangsters. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 was the work of this weapon, spitting out bullets at the rate of 850 rounds per minute for most of the M1921’s and 720 rpm for the M1928.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite type of gun? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Gorenstein, Nathan. Tommy Gun Winter: Jewish Gangsters, a Preacher’s Daughter, and the Trial That Shocked 1930s Boston. ForeEdge, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by C. Corleis of a Thompson Submachine Gun, Model 1928A1, stored in a violin case, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.