The Guns of Bonnie & Clyde
We have passed the time in our country where we glorify our outlaws. That is only right, and not least … Continued
We have passed the time in our country where we glorify our outlaws. That is only right, and not least because most of our outlaws, historically and currently, were and are sociopathic, greed-crazed, lazy, or too stupid to make an honest living. Their stories, upon close examination, are dull, their illegal acts and murders notable only for the grief and loss they cause the innocent.
But we also have outlaws whose lives, sometimes equally grim, are windows into crucial times in our history, the very history that makes America the most vibrant, interesting, and often confounding countries on earth. Frank and Jesse James are good examples (at least for a proud son of the South like myself), because their violence and ruthless efficiency with weaponry personifies and makes real the era of the Missouri Border Wars, the Civil War and Reconstruction. We are who we are because of the struggles and injustices—on all sides—of that time. A James Gang Colt revolver, left over from that time of blood and vengeance and war, a time when we literally turned upon ourselves and slaughtered each other over ideas, is an object of fascination to almost anyone who loves history and guns, and the role that guns have and continue to play in our destiny.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the mythical lovers born into one of the hardest, most unjust times in our nation’s history, coming of age in a wasteland of failed banks and hunger and the very earth itself blowing away in suffocating clouds of dust, were not heroes. Far from it. They committed dozens of robberies, murdered storekeepers and simple citizens trying to save their property, and gunned down nine law officers. In the toughest of times, they made life tougher for almost everybody they came across.
But there are perhaps no two outlaws in American history who have captured our imagination so completely. They were hyperaware of their own hell-bent legend during their short years of banditry, photographing themselves endlessly—early masters of the selfie—in a worship of weaponry, hard-bitten youth and anarchic V8 freedom. They wore fashionable clothes and three-piece suits when many Americans were in rags. They drove at top speed in the newest of stolen cars while most of their families were plowing behind mules as raw-deal sharecroppers. They weren’t poseurs. They weren’t kidding.
As Barrow gang member WD “Deacon” Jones would say in a 1968 interview with Playboy magazine:
“I’ve seen that Bonnie and Clyde movie. The only thing that ain’t plumb silly the way they play it is the gun battles. Them was real enough to almost make me hurt. When I tried joining the Army in World War II after I got out of prison, them doctors turned me down because their X-rays showed four buckshot and a bullet in my chest and part of a lung blown away.”
The Barrow Gang was involved in five major gunfights with the law, always outnumbered. But not outgunned. One the day that Bonnie & Clyde were killed, these weapons were found in their car:
• Three .30-06 Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs)
• One sawed-off Winchester 10 gauge lever action shotgun
• One sawed off 20 gauge Remington Model 11 shotgun
• Seven .45 Colt 1911 pistols
• One .32 caliber Colt automatic pistol
• One .380 caliber colt automatic pistol
• One Double Action Colt Revolver
They also had 3000 rounds of various rounds of ammunition, plus 100 BAR magazines with 20 cartridges in each.
Many of Parker’s and Barrow’s weapons, and those used by law enforcement to take them down, are still with us, and on display at places like the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas—a must-see for any student of American history, or anyone who loves guns.
What follows is a close look at some of those weapons.
Editor’s Note: Hal Herring is the author of Famous Firearms of the Old West, which tells the fascinating stories of a dozen famous pistols, rifles, and shotguns that were instrumental in shaping America’s history.
Special thanks to Shelly A. Crittendon, Collections Manager, Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, for providing many of the photographs here.
M1918 .30-06 Browning Automatic Rifle
Clyde Barrow called it his “scattergun”—not in the traditional sense, in which “scattergun” refers to a shotgun, but because he used the BAR to scatter his opponents. From the beginning of his hell-bent robbery spree, Barrow’s plan was to gather enough firepower to attack the Eastham Prison Farm where he had been sentenced to hard labor and sexually victimized (until he killed his tormentor, an older inmate named “Big Ed” Crowder). The key to the plan was the overwhelming firepower of the BAR, which the Barrow Gang obtained by burglarizing National Guard armories in small Midwestern towns, among them Enid, Oklahoma and Platteville, Illinois.
On April 13, 1933, a five man team from the Joplin, Missouri police force, believing they were taking down a group of itinerant bootleggers, attempted to arrest the Barrow Gang where they were holed up in a garage apartment (there was much beer drinking in the hideout, and Clyde had unintentionally fired a round from the BAR while cleaning it, prompting a neighbor to call the police). The team was met with immediate full-auto fire from Clyde and his brother Buck’s BARs (some claim that Bonnie provided covering fire from a third BAR as the gang fled), leaving two of the officers dead.
Three months later, on July 18, small army of 13 law officers armed with Thompson machine guns and traveling in an armored car surrounded the Barrow Gang at the Red Crown Tourist Court near Kansas City, Missouri. The officers found themselves outgunned by the withering fire from the BARs during the ferocious and historic gunfight that ensued. The Thompsons, firing a .45 caliber bullet, were no match for the barrage of full auto .30-06 BAR rounds that were capable of penetrating trees and walls and steel at distances from face-to-face out to hundreds of yards. Platte County, Missouri Sheriff Holt Coffey and his 16-year old son Clarence were wounded but survived. (The Barrow Gang did not fare well, either—Buck Barrow suffered a bullet wound to the head that would result in his death a short time later. Blanche Barrow, Buck’s wife, was blinded in the left eye by flying glass.)
Pictured here is a cut-down BAR like Clyde preferred.
Four days later, Bonnie, Clyde and W.D. Jones were able, despite all being wounded, to hold off a posse of 50 well-armed men who tried to capture them at their campsite near Dexter, Iowa. Again it was the withering fire from the BARs that caused the posse members to halt their attack. This time, though, almost all the weapons the three outlaws were carrying, including the BARs, were abandoned in their headlong flight through woods and across creeks. They wasted no time in stealing more.
On January 16, 1934, Clyde orchestrated his plan to attack Eastham Prison Farm, putting the guards to flight with bursts from the BAR, and freeing gang members Henry Methvin and Raymond Hamilton, among other inmates. One guard was killed in what would go down in history as the “Eastham Breakout.”
The whereabouts of the three BARs taken from the car in which Bonnie and Clyde were killed, at least one of which was shortened for ease of handling in the cars (no small feat of gunsmithing), are unknown.
Chambered for the venerable and powerful .30-06 cartridge, the BAR is, of course, a John Browning design, created in 1917 for the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe who were fighting World War I. The idea was to have a powerful hand-held rifle for the application of “walking fire” or “marching fire,” a mobile rifleman fighting in and between the trenches that dominated the battlefields of the time. The selective-fire (full auto or single fire) BAR functioned superbly for that purpose, replacing the inferior French Chauchat and the English Lewis Gun, but as an air-cooled weapon with a difficult-to-change barrel, it had its drawbacks in protracted combat. The BAR weighs about 15.5 pounds unloaded and carries either a 20- or 40-round magazine, which, with a rate of automatic fire of about 550-600 rounds a minute, means that the ammunition in each magazine can be exhausted almost instantaneously. The BAR saw action on most of the battlefields from 1918 to the late 1950s and into Vietnam, but in the end, its “neither fish nor fowl” nature led to its being replaced by the M60— a full auto-only, belt-fed machine gun—a very different creature indeed, for a post-trench warfare world.
.38 Colt Army “Fitz Special”
The .38 Colt Army Special pictured here was found in one of the cars stolen by the Barrow Gang. This revolver was manufactured in 1924, and has a strange history—someone stole it from the car of Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas while Gonzaullas was working “cleaning up towns” during the East Texas oil booms of the 1920s. Gonzaullas modified his own revolvers into what are referred to as Fitzgerald Specials, or “Fitz Specials”— shortening the barrels to two inches, removing the front of the trigger guards (In Bill Jordan’s classic book No Second Place Winner Jordan says that this modification is done so that a shooter wearing heavy gloves can access the trigger more quickly) and filing off the hammers to keep them from snagging on clothing. The custom grips on this Colt are made from phenolic resin.
The Colt wound up with the Barrow Gang, and was left in the glovebox of a stolen car driven by Clyde Barrow and abandoned in the front yard of Clyde’s uncle Frank Barrow. Frank Barrow reported the stolen car to the Navarro County Sheriff’s Department, and it was impounded, but never thoroughly searched.
On May 6, 1930 (Clyde Barrow was actually in prison at the time), Sheriff Rufus Pevehouse of Navarro County, Texas, found himself without a working car after the town of Frost, Texas had suffered a deadly series of tornadoes. Pevehouse made his rounds of the disaster in the stolen car, and found the revolver in the glovebox. It was later identified by Gonzaullas as one of his “Fitz Specials.”
The Colt Army Special was first produced in 1908. At the time, law enforcement and the military were converting over to the hotter new .38 Special and leaving behind the anemic .32. As an official military sidearm, the Colt Army Special had an ill-timed debut—the .45 Colt 1911 Semi-Automatic (another John Browning design) was about to take the American military by storm. (The American public, including the lawless sector, was also enamored of the Colt 1911—when Bonnie & Clyde were killed, there were seven Colt 1911s in their car.) But the Colt Army Special was a dramatic success. Renamed the Colt Official Police in 1927, it became the standard issue law enforcement weapon. About 400,000 of them entered circulation until 1969, when Colt stopped producing them.
.30-06 Colt Monitor Machine Gun
Not one of the guns of Bonnie and Clyde, but one used to bring them down. This Colt Monitor, caliber .30-06, was used by Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton, who had known both Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and who joined Frank Hamer’s posse as the lawman who could positively identify them.
Hinton knew Bonnie from her work as a waitress at Marco’s Café in Dallas, and like many of the café’s patrons, he’d developed a crush on the petite and dramatic young woman. He had also grown up on the mean streets of the Devil’s Kitchen area of Dallas with the Barrow brothers, and worked with Clyde as a Western Union messenger. Hinton would write a book about his experiences during the 17-month pursuit of the couple, and his part in the ambush that killed them, after he retired from law enforcement in 1941. (Hinton wrote a book about the experience.)
Hinton borrowed the Monitor from a Texas National Guard Armory to use against the Barrow Gang. He had engaged them in a gun battle in Sowers, Texas, on November 21, 1931, and discovered that the .45 caliber bullets from his Thompson Machine Gun would not penetrate the heavy steel of the 1933 Ford V-8 that Clyde was driving.
When Hinton and the posse finally caught up with Bonnie and Clyde, the Monitor’s armor-piercing .30-06 rounds proved much more effective.
The Colt Monitor is the law-enforcement version of the military’s renowned Browning Automatic Rifle, specifically designed to address the well-armed and hyper-violent gangsters of the late 1920s and 1930s, and has been called “J. Edgar Hoover’s Weapon of Mass Destruction.” The BAR’s bipod attachment has been removed, a pistol grip added, and a unique Cutts Compensator installed on the barrel, and the barrel and gas tube has been shortened. Like the BAR that spawned it, the Monitor has a firing rate of about 550 rounds per minute. The Cutts Compensator, manufactured by Lyman Products Corporation, vents gases upward and helps to keep the weapon from rising during prolonged firing.
.32 Colt Pocket Hammerless Model M Pistol
The Colt Hammerless Model M was, with the Thompson Machine Gun, one of the all-time Hollywood favorite guns of the Depression Era, with seemingly every movie gangster, private eye, and femme fatale equipped with at least one of the iconic slim-profile weapons that was often called the “Art Deco handgun.” For once, Hollywood was reflecting a reality: The Colt Hammerless, Model M, went over like, well, gangbusters.
Between 1903 and 1945, a half million of these semi-autos were produced and sold, finding their way into the coat pockets of Army officers, backup holsters of law enforcement, a thousand gloveboxes of traveling salesmen and storekeepers, and into the pocketbooks of stylish young housewives like Gladys Hamer, wife of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who in 1934 would help end the Barrow Gang’s reign of robbery and murder. The Model Ms were also a favorite of the violent and the lawless.
The Colt Hammerless is not actually hammerless, but the hammer is concealed and protected by the slide so the pistol has a virtually snagproof profile for ease of presentation from a pocket or belt. It is yet another John Browning design, and Browning designed the .32 cartridge to fit it. The magazine holds eight rounds, offering impressive and rapid firepower for the time, even if the .32 cartridge is a bit underpowered.
12-Gauge Stevens Sawed-Off Double Barrel Shotgun
The external-hammer J. Stevens (this one is almost certainly a Model 235), made between 1912 and 1930, was an Everyman’s versatile hunting and general-use shotgun—it was cheap, strong, and fairly well-made—and had a place in wagons, farm trucks, barns and behind the kitchen doors of homes all over rural America.
This particular 12 gauge Stevens was converted, with quite a bit of craftsmanship by some Depression-era sociopath, to a fearsome and simple weapon. It was abandoned in a stolen car after one of the Barrow Gang’s chaotic bank robberies. Although the provenance of the weapon has it found in an abandoned get-away car after a bank robbery in Hillsboro, Texas (where the Barrow Gang killed store owner J.N. Bucher when he went for a gun during a robbery), there is no record of the bank in Hillsboro being robbed. The Barrow Gang robbed dozens of banks during their four-year spree from mid-1930 to May 22, 1934, though, and the Stevens is quite likely a Barrow Gang weapon. Here is a list of Barrow Gang robberies and just about everything else related to the outlaw couple.
An interesting bit of trivia: J. Stevens Arms and Tool Company started production in 1864 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, and marketed its first double barreled shotguns in 1876. J. Stevens is revered for introducing the first .22 Long Rifle cartridge to America, a round that, through its accuracy and affordability, changed the face of American target shooting, training, small game hunting, and, for most of us, the entire childhood experience with guns.
One might go even further and say that the affordable J. Stevens firearms have made more good American shooters than any other brand. Like most people I know, my first shotgun was a 20 gauge Savage-Stevens single shot, and it is still very much in use—my son just left with it in hand, this morning, to shoot gophers. Savage is the parent company of J. Stevens now, and still cranks out highly effective and accurate Everyman’s firearms.
Remington Model 11 20-Gauge Semiautomatic Shotgun
This is one of the sawed-off semi-auto shotguns that Clyde Barrow called his “whip-its” (this particular model is said to have belonged to Bonnie Parker). In at least one robbery, Barrow allegedly attached a 16-gauge version of the “whip-it” to his right arm with strips of rubber inner tube and wore his suit coat over it. The Remington Model 11 in this photo was taken from the trove of weapons found in the “death car,” the stolen 1934 Ford Sedan that Barrow and Parker were using when ambushed by lawmen near Gibsland, Louisiana.
The Remington Model 11 was the first autoloading shotgun made in the U.S. If you think it looks exactly like a Browning Humpback A-5, you are correct (although it lacks the magazine cutoff that Browning added when it took over production). The Remington Model 11 was invented by John Browning, who he would say much later that he thought it was his highest design achievement. Browning planned to sell the design to Winchester, but the Winchester company turned it down. Fabrique Nationale produced it, calling it the Browning A-5, in 1902, and Remington licensed the design and began producing it in 1905, continuing until 1947.
Winchester Model 1901 10-Gauge Lever-Action with Shortened Barrel
Yet another link in the endless quest for firepower, the Winchester Model 1901 was yet another design by John Browning, on request from the Winchester company, the all-time reigning king of the lever-gun. It carried a five-round tubular magazine.
The Winchester Model 1887 lever action shotgun preceded this model, and competed with the Spencer 1882 pump action for the title of the first reliable repeating shotgun ever made.
The problem with the 1887, beyond the unwieldy nature of the 8-pound beast, was that it came into full production just as the new and more powerful smokeless powder was becoming the norm. The action of the 1887, which was made to cycle and fire paper-hulled shells loaded with black powder, was too weak and loose to safely handle the new shells. The 1901 was a beefed up, tighter version of the 1887, and it proved popular enough—about 14,000 were made—but it was doomed by the popularity of the Winchester 1897 pump, and even John Browning felt the lever gun was inferior. Winchester offered the 1901 only in 10 gauge so it would not compete with the 1897 pump, and, despite its popularity in movies from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean to Terminator 2, the lever-action shotgun could mostly be found in small town law enforcement armories, or as a buddy of mine told me, over the door of a homesteader cabin in Montana, rusted a bit, and covered with dust (that one had the stock drilled out and filled with lead to soften the harsh recoil). The actual origin of Clyde Barrow’s Winchester 1901 is unknown—the Barrow Gang stole guns everywhere they went.
An interesting bit of historical trivia: In 1915, a Texas Customs Inspector named Marcus Hines volunteered with a group of Texas Rangers and ranchers to fight Mexican bandits who were invading south Texas as part of Plan de San Diego, a German-financed invasion meant to create discord in the U.S. before we entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Hines was armed with a Winchester Model 1901 10 gauge, and found the fighting, against a line of well-mounted Mexican horsemen shooting Winchester rifles, a bit too hot for his taste. He abandoned his precarious position behind a rain barrel and joined other members of his team behind a nearby rail line. One of the defenders told him, “We are sure glad you have brought that cannon alongside of us, because it has already deafened us from behind.”
Among the Texan defenders that day was 31-year-old Frank Hamer, who would, almost 20 years later, organize and lead the ambush that killed Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.