Two of Bonnie and Clyde’s guns are up for auction at RR Auction in Amherst, NH…but not the ones that dedicated collectors might hope for.
The weapons in question are the .38 Colt Detective Special (“squat gun”) Bonnie Parker had strapped to her leg and the .45 Colt M1911 in Clyde Barrow’s belt, both taken from the scene by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a member of the posse that ambushed and killed the couple on the road in Gibsland, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. (Hamer, incidentally, claimed to have been in more than 100 gunfights during his law enforcement career, and to have killed 53 men. His son, Frank Hamer, Jr., was also a Texas Ranger, and provided the statement that authenticates the handguns on the RR Auction site. Also on auction at RR Auction are Bonnie’s cosmetic case, Clyde’s Colt Army Special (a modified “Fitzgerald Special”), his Elgin pocket watch, a letter by John Dillinger, and some really, really, really weird stuff from Capone.
But lovers of historical firearms know that Clyde Barrow’s favorite weapon was the Browning M1918 Automatic Rifle, or BAR. This bulky .30-’06 rifle was a selective fire weapon, meaning it could be fired single shot or full automatic. Because of the weapon’s size, Barrow famously modified his Browning, chopping down the stock and the barrel. You can see such a modified BAR in the Michael Mann film Public Enemies, where it is ahistorically placed in the hands of the historical gangster Homer Van Meter, a member of Dillinger’s gang. (Dillinger did not use the chopped-down BAR). According to user Mauser at the Internet Movie Firearms Database, the following is an actual historical photo of a chopped-down Barrow M1918 (it’s missing the magazine):
The Browning Automatic Rifle was an infantry weapon designed for World War I and deployed by the US military only late in the war — hence the “M1918,” or “Model 1918” designation. It was meant to replace the despised French Chauchat and Model 1909, which were prone to frequent malfunction. (The Chauchat may be one of the most hated weapons ever used by the US military).
The BAR was intended to be fired on full automatic by an advancing infantryman with the weapon slung over his shoulder, in a kind of suppressive fire that is called “walking fire” or “marching fire.” In military science, “suppressive fire” is fire that “degrades the performance of a target below the level needed to fulfill its mission.” In other words, rather than trying to hit the target, it makes the enemy troops keep their heads down so they can’t stop the squad from advancing.
The BAR was not ideally suited for doing this on the battlefield, for a couple of reasons. First was the powerful .30-’06 round, which remains a standard rifle cartridge to this day. It’s a popular hunting round and the standard for the US Army’s M1 rifle and its successor, the M14, as well as many other military weapons. But the .30-’06 has a fair amount of recoil — especially when fired on the run. Second, John Browning gave the BAR a rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute — good — but equipped it with a 20 round box magazine –bad. Twenty rounds does not last long when one is laying down suppressive fire and glorping across a muddy stretch of No Man’s Land. The BAR can’t use a belt like some other light machine guns (which would probably make the weight prohibitive for walking fire anyway), and the Browning Automatic Rifle could not use a 50-round drum, as could the .45 Thompson.
But while the BAR made it into service in the Great War, it was the Thompson that went into production too late for military contracts. This led Thompson to unload his inventory by advertising the thing in magazines as the ideal weapon for ranchers to shoot coyotes. Bootleggers and bank robbers also found it a great way to take care of unwanted pests.
Having shot a Thompson on full auto, I can say that the weapon’s reputation for jamming is well earned; they jam like holy hell if you ease up on the trigger even for the whisper of an instant. Emptying the drum might seem like a good idea if someone was shooting back at you. The Thompson became known as the “Chicago Typewriter,” but I’d wager that more memos got written with it in Hollywood than in Chicago. It was not with the BAR but with the Thompson, in The Godfather, “They shot Sonny on the Causeway. He’s dead!” In the Coen Brothers’ brilliant and oft-forgotten Miller’s Crossing, Denholm Elliot’s Irish gangster memoed rival gangsters with the Chicago Typewriter using, shall we say, vivid language. “Fuck off,” he tells them, basically, “Never interrupt an Irishman when he’s listening to ‘Danny Boy.'”
The BAR, on the other hand, ended up remaining in US military service through World War II and the Korean War, but it was used as a light machine gun or squad automatic weapon, not to provide walking fire. In the US military, today’s squad automatic weapons are essentially just beefed-up versions of the AR-15, essentially the M-16 or the M-4 but with increased capacity and a heavier barrel to support fully automatic fire without overheating.
But back in the 1930s, “suppressive fire” has a lower threshold of effectiveness if you’re, say, a bank robber shooting at local cops with .38 revolvers or FBI agents who aren’t legally entitled to carry weapons. In this context, Barrow found the BAR effective, especially since the .30-’06 rounds he was able to steal from National Guard armories in the Midwest could reportedly pierce the heavy steel doors of 1930s automobiles. For this purpose, one of Barrow’s BARs was used by the 90-pound Bonnie Parker to pin down law enforcement officers in a shootout in Joplin, Missouri.
Incidentally, you know that caliber I was talking about? That’s right, .30-’06. Now, if you’ve read this far you probably already know this, but in case you don’t: It’s pronounced “thirty-ought-six. In this case, “ought” is an antiquated way of saying “zero,” and it was a “thirty caliber” round developed in 1906. If you are, say, a writer, and can learn only one thing about firearms, this is a pretty good thing to learn, though the difference between “9 mm” (a common pistol round) and “.9 mm” (a copyeditor’s shooting offense) would also be worth learning. The thirty-ought-six is quite possibly the most common U.S. hunting and military rifle round of the twentieth century — unquestionably so prior to about 1970, and it remains standard. So you can imagine my annoyance when, listening to an audiobook about hunting safaris in Africa, I was subjected to the narrator’s repeated insistence on calling it a “point-three-oh, point-oh-six.”
Ouch. Let Tom Waits explain it to you, and sing you out while he’s at it: