A Brief History
On March 6, 1975, entranced Americans were glued to their television sets to watch the first mass public showing of the infamous “Zapruder Film” that depicted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. According to US Government reports, a single gunman acting alone, Lee Harvey Oswald, used a World War II surplus Italian bolt action rifle that he bought mail order. The 6.5×52mm caliber Carcano Model 91/38 cost Oswald only $19.95 (plus shipping) and it even included an attached riflescope! Today we take a look at 10 guns that will live in infamy. What others would you add to the list?
1. Lee Harvey Oswald’s Carcano.
Not exactly considered one of the finest bolt action rifles of World War II, the Carcano was cheap, though fairly effective anyway. Introduced in 1891, it fired a relatively modest cartridge of 6.5 mm caliber at a muzzle velocity of only 2300 feet per second, combined with a round nosed 162 grain projectile giving it a decidedly mediocre muzzle energy of well under 2000 foot pounds (1700 to 1800 foot pounds usually). Compared to the much more potent American .30-06 caliber M1903 Springfield rifle or its follow on the M-1 Garand firing a 150 to 165 grain pointed nose bullet at a velocity of 2800 to 2900 feet per second, the Carcano had only about 2/3 the muzzle energy (over 2600 foot pounds for the .30-06). Inconsistent quality of both the rifles and the ammunition made the Carcano one of the less accurate rifles of the 2 World Wars. Oswald got his military surplus rifle equipped with a scope via mail order, a method of buying guns no longer legal in the United States. Photographs of Oswald with his rifle and of law enforcement proudly showing off the recovered murder weapon (alleged murder weapon) made the 6.5×52mm Carcano Model 91/38 famous (or infamous) among the American public that prior to the Kennedy murder were virtually unfamiliar with the rifle type. Reviews of this model of rifle are mixed, with most critics finding them cheaply made and unreliable, while some others report the action to be ergonomic and easy to use. Expect to pay anywhere from $250 to $500 for one in fair condition today.
2. Son of Sam’s .44 Special.
The name David Richard Berkowitz (born as Richard David Falco) is hardly a household name compared to his better known nom de guerre, Son of Sam. During the summer of 1976 this maniac terrorized New York City with his Charter Arms Bulldog, a 5 shot revolver chambered in the .44 Special cartridge, a big bore that fired a 200 grain bullet at about 870 feet per second, giving it similar performance to a .45 ACP round. During his murder spree he killed 6 people and wounded another 7 until he was finally captured by police. He was convicted of the 6 murders and given 6 life sentences. Son of Sam was also known as “The .44 Caliber Killer” because of his chosen caliber, making him the dark side opposite of Police Inspector (fictional) Dirty Harry who carried a .44 Magnum revolver.
3. John Wilkes Booth’s Philadelphia Derringer.
The original derringer was the gun used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Funny thing is, the guy that gave his name to an entire class of firearms spelled his name with one “r” while the little pistol is always spelled with 2 “r’s.” One way to tell if an alleged antique firearm is an authentic “Deringer” is by looking at how the name is spelled. Booth used the little percussion muzzle loading single shot pistol to shoot President Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 caliber lead ball. Not terribly powerful, at such a close range and in a vital area such as the head, the little derringer was deadly.
4. Adolf Hitler’s Walther PPK.
Hitler is often used as the very example of what a bad person is (or was), and as such has tremendous notoriety. He had an engraved Walther PPK in 7.65 mm ACP caliber (.32 Auto here in the US) with his initials on the gun. It was this pistol that the evil little man used to kill himself with a bullet through his brain. Also a favorite of fictional spy James Bond, the Walther pistol is a must have for wanna be spies! While almost all the PPK’s you find today are in .380 ACP caliber, the original James Bond story had the super-spy carrying a .32 ACP chambered PPK. Either way, the pistols are handsome and effective, as well as elegant for the suave and debonair pistol packer. Definitely a prestige hand gun, various gun control measures led to the importation of a Frankenstein like cross between a PPK and a PP resulting in the PPKs, not to be confused with the real deal! Adolf Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with an engraved Walther PPK, lending a bit more mystery and mystique to this fine little pistol. (Please note that some sources list the “Hitler” pistol as a PP model rather than a PPK. If you know for sure one way or another, feel free to share the information with us and your fellow readers.)
5. Gavrilo Princip’s FN-Browning pistol.
The shots fired that started World War I were fired by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist that wanted to end the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s rule over Bosnia where Princip was from. A member of the terrorist group known as The Black Hand, Princip became part of a plot to assassinate the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne when the monarch was visiting the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in 1914. Princip used his FN-Browning Model 1910 (.380 ACP caliber) to shoot the Archduke and his wife, killing the royal couple. The assassination began the inexorable path to war for Europe and much of the world. Thus, Princip’s little pocket pistol was ultimately responsible for more deaths than any other pistol in history.
6. James Earl Ray’s Remington 760 Gamemaster rifle.
At about 6 pm local time on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray, a neer-do-well escapee from prison fired a single shot that killed Civil Rights icon and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.. Ray was later arrested after an extensive manhunt, said to be (at least at the time) the most exhaustive manhunt in history. Ray was convicted of killing King with a shot to the face that went down to the great man’s neck from across the street, using a Remington 760 Gamemaster pump action hunting rifle in .30-06 caliber. The rifle along with a pair of binoculars and marked with at least 2 of Ray’s fingerprints was found stashed nearby the scene of the crime. The assassination triggered rioting across the United States and shock around the world. The Civil Rights movement had lost its premier spokesperson. Ray had bought the rifle illegally, as being a convicted felon and fugitive both are prohibiting circumstances for the legal purchase of firearms in the US. Ray apparently used a fake name to make the purchase. Conspiracy theorists, including Reverend King’s family and this author, question the official account of the murder, which is that Ray acted alone, a most unlikely scenario! The thought that an escaped convict would commit such a monumental act without being put up to it by powerful forces is incredibly implausible. Whether it was with the connivance of elements of the US government or the White Supremacist movement, it certainly seems likely somebody was behind Ray’s murderous actions. That is, of course, if James Earl Ray was even the shooter! In any case, this heinous act is proof a typical deer hunting rifle is capable of deadly effectiveness as a sniper weapon and killers do not need “assault” style weapons.
7. Sirhan Sirhan’s .22 caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet revolver.
Robert F. Kennedy, Senator from New York, was running for the Democratic nomination for President in 1968 and looked like he would probably win the nomination and go on to become President when his life was snuffed out by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian, who though a Christian was highly opposed to Robert F. Kennedy’s unwavering support of Israel. Sirhan used a dirt cheap .22 caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet revolver to shoot Senator Kennedy in the back and back of the head with 3 little .22 Long Rifle bullets, ending the Presidential hopes of millions of Americans. Sirhan was sentenced to death for the murder, but his sentence was changed to life in prison, where he sits today at the age of 75. Another would be assassin, John Hinckley, used another cheap .22 Long Rifle caliber revolver to shoot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, a Röhm RG-14. Although Reagan survived, the bullet that hit the President was actually a ricochet off the Presidential car. Had it been fired directly into the President the 70 year old Reagan may well have died. The moral of the story is you do not have to use an expensive or especially powerful weapon to kill someone. Often, a cheap, low powered firearm will do.
8. Wild Bill Hickock’s Colt Navy model Cap and Ball Revolver.
Wild Bill was one of if not THE most famous of the Old West gunslingers, and his weapons of choice were the Colt model 1851 Navy cap and ball (muzzle loading) revolvers in .36 caliber. While he did own and carry other pistols in his storied career, it was the .36 Colt Navy most closely associated with the mustachioed macho man of the West. On July 21, 1865, a real life showdown resulting in face to face gunplay happened for the first time, the first of the classic duels we have come to know as a Wild West gunfight with Wild Bill using his beloved Navy revolver. Wild Bill Hickock, later one of the West’s most famous characters, was gambling in Springfield, Missouri, but not well. Hickock lost his money playing poker, and owed his friend Davis Tutt, also a Civil War veteran but from the opposite side. (Hickock was a Union veteran, Tutt a Confederate) money to repay loans. As collateral, Tutt seized Hickock’s pocket watch, a prized heirloom. Hickock, humiliated at the loss of his watch, warned Tutt to not wear it in public. Of course, things being what they are, Tutt flaunted the watch in public, enraging Hickock. Hickock called out Tutt in the classic television and movie Western gunfight, the 2 steely eyed gunmen facing each other on the city street, right at the town square. Each drew their pistol and fired, Tutt’s bullet missing Bill, but Bill’s finding its target, killing Tutt at the stunningly long distance (for a pistol fight) of about 75 yards! Bill was found not guilty (self-defense), but was later to be murdered while he played cards in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), in 1876, shot in the back by Jack McCall, a sore loser at cards. McCall used a Colt Single Action Army Model 1873 .45 Long Colt caliber revolver for his infamous deed, and later paid with his life for the murder. Hickock’s hand of cards when he was killed is even more famous than his Colt revolvers, 2 black Aces and 2 black 8’s, (known as “Aces and Eights), which has come to be known as “The Dead Man’s Hand.” (Hickock’s hole card is unknown.)
9. Machine Gun Kelly’s Thompson Submachine gun.
John T. Thompson’s masterpiece was one of the first effective submachine guns, and unlike most of its contemporaries, it used a .45 ACP cartridge, giving it a much heavier impact than the 9 mm guns made by other countries. In the hands of American gangsters in the Golden Age of Gangsters (1920’s and 1930’s) the Tommy Gun became the signature weapon of the prototypical gangster, none more so that Machine Gun Kelly. Famous for carrying his favorite firearm, the Tommy Gun, George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes was a Tennessee bootlegger and smuggler of illicit goods onto Indian reservations. In 1928 he was arrested and imprisoned for smuggling liquor onto a reservation in Oklahoma, resulting in a 3 year prison sentence. Kelly rejoined the crime world when he was released from prison, with his new Tommy Gun that was a gift from his girlfriend. Not a firearms aficionado, Kelly quickly took to the Tommy Gun and practiced with it until he became proficient. Kelly made sure to publicize himself among the criminal classes and became well known as Machine Gun Kelly. A 1933 kidnapping garnered a $200,000 ransom, but also an arrest soon afterwards. Upon being confronted by FBI Agents on September 26, 1933, Kelly uttered the immortal quote, “Don’t shoot, G-Men! Don’t shoot, G-Men!” Ever since, Federal Agents have been known as “G-Men.” (Politically correct people in 2018 would be quick to point out the sexism involved in that label….) Sentenced to prison in 1933, Kelly and his girlfriend were both given sentences of life in prison. The trial was notable for being the first American criminal trial in which cameras were allowed in the courtroom, the first big case solved by the FBI, and the first time defendants were transported to trial by airplane. Kelly spent the rest of his life behind bars, first at Alcatraz and then to Leavenworth when Alcatraz in 1951. He died of a heart attack in prison at the age of 59. Despite all his bragging and exaggerating about criminal exploits while in prison, Kelly was a meek and well behaved prisoner. Despite his fame and reputation as a hard nosed and brutal gangster, Kelly’s criminal career was greatly abbreviated by prison time and nowhere near as colorful as some of the other famous gangsters from the “Gangster Era.” The Tommy guns usually associated with gangsters are the Model 1921 and the Model 1928, especially when equipped with the 50 or 100 round drum magazine. Firing at a rate of 800 rounds per minute (depending on variant), a machine gunner could spray a ton of lead in a hurry. Thompson’s fine weapon came out too late for use in World War I, but attained fame or infamy via its use by gangsters both in real life and in Hollywood movies. The US and Allied militaries put the guns to good use during World War II, and an iconic photo of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill looking soooo gangsteresque in a pin striped suit and bowler hat cradling a Tommy Gun was used by the Germans in propaganda.
10. Beltway Snipers’ Bushmaster AR-15 type rifle.
Also known as “The Black Rifle,” the AR-15/M-16 family of rifles and carbines have become the most popular long arm in the United States, with perhaps more than 11 million in civilian hands! These handy rifles, normally chambered in the military 5.56 mm X 45 mm NATO round (.223 Remington in civilian parlance) are used with detachable magazines of 5 to 40 rounds, or specialty magazines of up to 100 rounds. They look just like the military M-16 and M-4 models, but the civilian versions are semi-automatic, while the military has full automatic (machine gun type) or burst fire variants. These rifles are incredibly seldom used in murders and other crimes, but when they are the public and media goes into a frenzy of outrage demanding they be banned. Some high profile shootings have occurred by gunmen using such a weapon, and today we use the sensational case of the Beltway Snipers as our example. Adult male John Allen Muhammad (age 41) and his teen aged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo (age 17), went on a crime spree that started in across the American South in 2002, a spree that left 7 people dead and another 7 people wounded in robberies and murders. The deadly pair then went to the Washington, D.C. area to begin a reign of terror by taking sniping type shots at random citizens, killing 10 people and wounding another 3. The motive for the shootings is not well established, as the perpetrators were not overly forthcoming about their motives. Some sort of general dislike of their own situation and with the general situation of the United States may have been a factor, perhaps with a religious aspect (according to Malvo) against an American seen as anti-Muslim. Another theoretical motive was the setting up of an extortion plot to get a terrified population to pay to have the shootings stop. Regardless of motive, Muhammad was sentenced to death and executed in 2009, while Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole, a sentence challenged in court because of his young age at the time of the crimes. The fact that these murderers used the much maligned Bushmaster AR-15 type rifle incensed the anti-gun crowd and resulted in the usual demands that this type of rifle is somehow more dangerous than other types. In actual fact, any sort of rifle equipped with a scope and steadied with a bipod from a secure location could have been used just as effectively, even a single shot weapon! Unlike some other mass murders where the gunman fires dozens of bullets at a time, the Beltway Snipers were firing one shot at a time. Despite the fact that any “assault weapons” as defined by gun control advocates are used in a tiny percentage of murders in the United States (all rifle types and long arms combined account for about 2% of gun murders), the AR-15 and its look-alikes are infamous and singled out for especially vituperative vitriol!
Question for students (and subscribers): What pistol or rifle do you think is the most notorious of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Francis, Mike. The Carcano Rifle: The Concise Reference Guide to Owning, Collecting, and Shooting the Most Infamous Weapon in History! Judge for Yourself After Reading Was This An Assassination Weapon, or Not? Mike Francis, 2015.
Johnson, Francis. Famous Assassinations of History. Outlook Verlag, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald’s $29.95 secondhand Carcano rifle, in the US National Archives, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.