The Guns Of John Dillinger

The Arsenal Of Public Enemy Number 1
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John Dillinger was an inveterate career criminal who likely did more to promote the Federal Bureau of Investigation than any other single personality save J. Edgar Hoover. The youngest of John Sr. and Molly Dillinger’s two children, John was in trouble from the very outset. Dillinger’s first arrest was at age 19 for car theft. A year later he enlisted in the Navy and served aboard the battleship USS Utah before going AWOL.

Biography Ends At The Biograph

It was in jail Dillinger made the friends who would eventually facilitate his meteoric criminal career. He learned how to rob banks from the associates of Herman Lamm and cemented friendships with gangsters the likes of Pete Pierpont and Homer Van Meter. A month after his parole from the Indiana State Prison, he robbed his first bank, making off with a cool $10,000.

In a one-year span Dillinger and his gang robbed a dozen banks, becoming both infamous and wealthy in the process. However, with ill-gotten wealth and fame came the suffocating attention of Melvin Purvis and the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to today’s FBI. After shootouts, jail breaks, and girlfriends wooed and lost, John Dillinger ultimately found himself in Chicago where he met his gory end outside the Biograph Theater at the hands of Purvis and his fellow G-Men.

Throughout it all, Dillinger burned through a prodigious arsenal of weapons. He lost a pile of them when he fled the Little Bohemia Lodge in April of 1934. Each time he was captured or forced to leave in a rush, the cops ended up with a few of his guns. As America’s most recognizable professional criminal, the weapons he wielded defined his persona.


A gangster’s “tools of the trade,” John Dillinger’s firearms defined his outlaw persona.

The Thompson Submachine Gun

The Tommy Gun with its stubby 10.5″ barrel, Cutts compensator, drum magazine and graceful forward handgrip is inextricably linked with 1930s-era organized crime. Though John Taliaferro Thompson did not technically design the gun bearing his name, it was his force of personality ultimately bringing it to life. The original Thompson gun was contrived to get American Doughboys up and out of the fetid trenches defining the First World War. The original prototypes were ready for field testing mere days after the 1918 armistice.

With no handy wars to drive sales of the Thompson, the enterprising general marketed his weapons to Law Enforcement and civilian customers. Prior to 1934 automatic weapons could be freely purchased over the counter in America. However, because a Thompson submachine gun cost $175 new ($200 with the optional compensator) — nearly $3,000 today — sales were tepid.

The original 1921 Thompson sported a rate of fire of around 900 rounds per minute and weighed more than 10 lbs. empty. The subsequent 1928 version employed a heavier bolt assembly and a subsequent rate of fire of around 650 rpm. Both of these weapons were externally identical.

The Thompson fired from the open bolt via a pivoting hammer. There were separate fire selector and safety levers on the left side of the gun while the bolt locked to the rear on the last round fired. To get the gun back in action one need only swap magazines and squeeze the trigger. Nothing is faster, even today.

The buttstocks on these early Thompsons were readily removable via a pushbutton. Thusly configured, the Tommy Gun was actually quite concealable underneath a long coat. Twenty-round box magazines sold for $3 while a 50-round drum would set you back $5. In experienced hands the Thompson gun was a fearsome close combat tool.


The Winchester M1907 semiautomatic rifle was a remarkably advanced weapon for its day.

Winchester M1907

The M1907 was a remarkably advanced blowback-operated semiautomatic rifle produced by Winchester between 1906 and 1958. Chambered for the intermediate .351SL round, the M1907 was a prescient design. Nearly four decades later the GI-issue M1 Carbine filled a similar tactical niche.

The M1907 sports beautiful workmanship and a variety of advanced features. The gun feeds from 5-, 10- or 20-round single-stack box magazines and is actuated via a plunger sticking out of the front of the forearm. John Dillinger’s supervillain sidekick Homer Van Meter used an M1907 to murder Patrolman Howard Wagner outside the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Indiana, in June of 1934.

A San Antonio gunsmith named Hyman Lebman developed quite a following among Depression-era gangsters. His M1907 rifles included a muzzle-mounted compensator, a vertical foregrip taken from a Thompson submachine gun and a full auto conversion. John Dillinger, Homer Van Meter and Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis all made trips to his Texas gun shop to stock up on firepower. Gillis, his wife, and Van Meter even took Thanksgiving dinner with the Lebman family. Lebman always insisted he thought his well-heeled customers were wealthy oil men with an interest in firearms.

A humpbacked receiver defines the Remington Model 11 and Browning Auto 5. Old gangster-era
guns like this can be found cheap online; Will’s example cost him $240 via GunBroker.

Remington Model 11

The Browning Auto-5 shotgun, a personal favorite of its prodigious designer, was a long-recoil operated weapon wherein the barrel and bolt cycled backwards as a unit before separating to undertake extraction chores. The end result was a lightweight, reliable action configured via a series of bushings to accommodate either high brass or low brass shells. The modern Barrett M82 .50-caliber anti-materiel rifle operates via a similar system.

Right after the turn of the century Browning tried to sell this design to Winchester but couldn’t seal a deal. He then approached Remington, but their CEO died of a heart attack during negotiations. This eventually pushed Browning to FN in Belgium. Browning did, however, eventually strike deals with both Remington and Savage. The Remington Model 11 and Savage shotgun were functionally identical to the Belgium-made versions except the FN guns had a magazine cutoff the American variants lacke


The Whippit

A popular variant of the Remington Model 11 shotgun favored by Gangsters of this era was called the Whippit. As the Model 11 is a recoil-operated design, barrel length is not critical to reliable functioning. Gangsters would shorten the barrel and buttstock on Model 11s to make something more concealable. The name Whippit came from the rapidity with which such a weapon could be presented from under cover.

Dillinger’s gang used at least one Whippit chambered in 12 gauge. Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde fame wielded a 20-gauge version. Bonnie actually sewed a false zipper pocket into some of Clyde’s trousers to accommodate his Whippit during bank robberies.


The M1911 and M1911A1 pistols represented the state of the art in combat handguns during the gangster era.

1911 Pistol

John Browning’s 1911 autoloading pistol revolutionized combat handguns in an era dominated by revolvers. The M1911 design arose in the late 1800s. This single-action, semiautomatic, recoil-operated pistol fed from a 7-round magazine and offered unprecedented firepower.

The M1911 was available in both .45ACP and .38 Super. Hyman Lebman also produced a full auto version of the M1911 he called his “Baby Machinegun.” These machine pistols were fitted with extended magazines, a custom muzzle brake, and the foregrip from a Thompson submachine gun to produce a remarkably capable close combat weapon that was still quite concealable.


Colt Official Police

In 1908 Colt released a .38-caliber revolver called the Army Special. In 1927 the name was changed to “Colt’s Official Police” to better reach the American Law Enforcement market. This medium-frame double-action wheelgun was offered with 4″, 5″ or 6″ barrels in a variety of calibers. However, the .38 Special version saw the widest use.
The Official Police was meticulously well executed and featured Colt’s “Positive Lock” firing pin block safety. The Positive Lock safety prevented the firing pin from striking the primer unless the trigger was pulled. The sights consisted of a front semicircular blade and a corresponding groove cut into the top strap of the gun.

Dillinger’s Wooden Pistol

John Dillinger was captured in January of 1934 in Tucson, Arizona, and escorted back to Indiana to stand trial for the murder of East Chicago Patrolman Patrick O’Malley. Dillinger was incarcerated in the Crown Point Jail, a facility the local cops described as escape-proof. On March 3, 1934, John Dillinger disproved the claim definitively.

There have been several conflicting allegations regarding the gun in question. However, the most commonly accepted theory is Dillinger took a piece of wooden washboard, carved it into a rough gun shape using a pair of razor blades and blacked the resulting facsimile with shoe polish. Using this crude fake pistol Dillinger locked 23 jailers and trusties in jail cells, stole a pair of Thompsons from the warden’s office, walked out of the jail with no one being the wiser and then drove away in the Sheriff’s car. To add insult to injury, the jailers had to be freed with cutting torches as Dillinger absconded with the jail’s only set of keys.

John Dillinger was carrying a Colt M1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol like this one the night he was killed outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

Colt M1903 Pocket Hammerless

One night in July of 1934, 31-year-old John Dillinger was shot to death by agents. He was packing a Colt .32-caliber M1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol. The same gun was offered in .380ACP as the M1908. Despite the “hammerless” moniker the M1903 was indeed hammer-fired — the hammer was simply enclosed within the rear aspect of the slide.

The M1903 was a beautiful example of the gunmaker’s art. A single-action blowback design, the M1903 fed from an 8-round detachable box magazine and weighed 24 oz. empty. The M1903 featured a manual thumb safety in addition to a grip safety built into the backstrap. Around 570,000 copies rolled off the lines before production ended in 1945.

Common calibers used in Dillinger gang guns included, from left to right, the .32ACP, the .38 Special, the .351SL and the .45ACP.

End Of An Era

John Dillinger was a smart, resourceful, charming psychopath who averaged one bank heist per month during his yearlong robbery spree. During the course of his time as the country’s premiere motorized bandit, Dillinger and his cronies killed 10 men and wounded another seven. The Dillinger gang captured the imaginations of Americans ground down by the Great Depression and in so doing cemented their place in the history of America’s most nefarious criminals.

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