By Will Dabbs, MD –
The American public devoured the stories like a starving man devours food. The Great Depression had devastated the American economy and most everybody was poor. Today’s “poor” sport inexpensive, government-subsidized cell phones. The poor of that day did not eat. Out of conditions of unimaginable despair and deprivation ordinary Americans thirsted for release. They found it in moving pictures and larger-than-life tales of the motorized gangster.
Prohibition birthed a massive trade in illegal alcohol, and the resulting organized crime changed the American landscape. Illegal drinking establishments called “Speakeasies” sprang up all across the country, while the trade in bootlegged booze to keep them in operation skirted law enforcement and netted millions. Along the way, the archetype of the renegade outlaw created some of our nation’s most notorious criminals.
John Dillinger was the apex predator. Sporting movie star good looks and enough narcissism to keep him seeking the spotlight despite the suffocating net of law enforcement, Dillinger courted fame as he amassed ill-gotten wealth. The American public couldn’t get enough.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were variations on a theme. These two misguided miscreants also cruised the countryside leaving a trail of robberies, murder and mayhem in their wake. Bonnie and Clyde, however, offered some-thing Dillinger could not. The story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow included a component of illicit sex. In the puritanical years of the 1930s, this was reliable newsreel gold.
Bonnie Parker was married when the famous duo began its two-year crime spree, just not to Clyde. Bonnie had married at 15, only to have her ne’er-do-well husband, Roy Thornton, end up in jail. Bonnie was still wearing his wedding ring on the day she died in a hail of law enforcement gunfire. By all accounts, Bonnie initially just went along for the ride.
Clyde Barrow, by contrast, was a classically hardened criminal. Barrow was really a product of the Texas prison system. Raised in abject poverty, it was a great improvement when his dirt-poor farmer father could finally afford a tent in which to house his family. Before that time they lived sheltered underneath the family wagon.
Barrow was first arrested at 17 for stealing a rental car and then a turkey. In fairly short order he subsequently cracked safes, robbed stores and stole yet more cars. While in prison, Barrow committed his first murder when he used a lead pipe to crush the skull of a man who had sexually assaulted him. Such sordid experiences warped the young man irrevocably.
Clyde convinced a fellow inmate to remove two of his toes with an axe so as to avoid the hard labor in the prison fields. This ad hoc surgery left him with a limp that would follow him for the rest of his days. Unbeknownst to him, his mother had already successfully secured his release effective six days after this self-inflicted injury.
Most of the public’s perception of Bonnie and Clyde stemmed from images found on an undeveloped roll of film abandoned by the couple after a narrow escape from law enforcement. These pictures were subsequently developed and showed a playful couple clowning around with the lethal tools of their nefarious trade. These widely distributed images subsequently became iconic. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty meticulously replicated their tone during the 1967 biopic about the couple titled, appropriately enough, Bonnie and Clyde. One fundamental component of these pictures was a certain unique gangster shotgun.
Raw Material—The Remington Model 11
John Moses Browning originally began work on what would ultimately become the Remington Model 11 shotgun in 1898. The design first drew breath as the Browning Auto-5, the world’s first successful autoloading shotgun. Of all his many-splendored firearms designs, Browning was said to have been most enamored with this one.
Sporting a long recoil action, wherein the barrel and bolt recoiled as a single unit before ejecting a spent shell and feeding a live round, the Auto-5 was originally intended to be a Winchester product. Winchester failed to meet Browning’s contractual demands, so he took the design to Remington. The untimely death of the Remington CEO in mid-negotiation drove Browning to take his shotgun to Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. Original Belgian-made Browning shotguns still command a premium.
Remington eventually did secure the rights to produce the gun, and they rolled out of the Remington factory from 1906 until 1947. The primary difference between the Remington and FN versions was the lack of a manual magazine cutoff. Remington sold thousands of the guns to the military as well. While most of these weapons were used for guard duty and antiaircraft training, a few were indeed used in combat during the Second World War. Remington produced the Model 11 in 12-, 16- and 20-gauge.
The Whippit Treatment
All of the Model 11 shotguns captured from the Barrow gang had been shortened to make them more readily concealable. The long recoil action was not dependent upon gas pressure for operation, so it was one of the relatively few autoloading designs to offer reliable operation independent of barrel length. Bonnie purportedly sewed Clyde a special set of trousers with a breakaway pocket along the right leg. Clyde could run the barrel of his whippet into the pocket and then present it quickly from under cover when desired. The term “Whippit” dates back to the American West and references a short shotgun that may be whipped out from underneath a long coat.
The Browning design actually incorporates two recoil systems. The primary system manages the recoil of the gun and resides within the forearm. Various combinations of interchangeable bushings best optimize the gun for various loads. The second mechanism telescopes into the stock and serves to return the bolt into battery after the primary system has cycled the barrel. It is the geometry of this second system that governs how short the buttstock may be pruned.
Creating a Monster
Particularly if your proclivities run to machineguns or weapons with a known criminal provenance, rarefied American gun collecting is not for the poorly funded or faint of heart. The nickel-plated Colt .38 revolver that was taped to Bonnie’s thigh when she died at the hands of law enforcement went for $99,000 at auction in 2014. However, if you just want to approximate that era without getting too nuts about it the outlay need not be substantial.
The Auto-5 was produced for 98 years, and the overall number of these guns in circulation is in the millions. While pristine Belgian-made examples cost a holy fortune, a domestically produced Remington beater is dirt-cheap. In the case of the gun used in this article, it began as an unwanted and unloved entry on Gunbroker.
Bonnie’s personal gun was a 20-gauge, but original 20-gauge Model 11s are unusual and consequently expensive. I settled for a 16. Somebody somewhere once put the gun away wet and it rusted as a result. In an effort to resurrect the high-mileage sporting piece it was subsequently reblued, ruining any collector’s value it might have had. As a result, I landed the gun for a cool $230 shipped to my C&R FFL.
Clyde didn’t use sophisticated machine shop tools and I wanted the authentic experience on this piece, so I cut the barrel down to 18 inches and a little change using a cutoff wheel on my table saw. I taped an old towel across the tool bed to keep from scratching the barrel. Cut it a time or two near the muzzle to get comfortable with the process before making the final chop. So long as the barrel remains longer than 18 inches and the overall length exceeds 26 inches you do not incur any federal registration requirements.
With the barrel pruned, I then dressed the cut end a bit with my Dremel tool. A little attention from my drill press and a hand tap installed a new bead front sight. Some red Threadlocker will keep this appendage in place forever. I used a grinding stone on the Dremel to dress the threaded base of the front sight from the inside of the bore.
Chopping the stock is even easier. Remove the stock and mark off the location of the near end of the recoil spring assembly. Back up just a smidgeon from there and prune the stock on the table saw. I fabricated a new buttplate from workshop scraps, affixed it with wood screws, sanded everything smooth and touched up the ugly spots with dark wood stain.
The end result is a decent facsimile of Bonnie Parker’s Whippit that set me back $230 and a couple of hours in the workshop. The gun looks cool and functions fine. It is not a chore to keep your rounds on a man-sized target out to fifteen meters or so, even firing from the hip. The autoloading nature of the design ensured that the gun offered prodigious close-range firepower.
On April 1, 1934, a pair of motorcycle cops of the Texas Highway Patrol stopped to investigate a car stopped on the side of rural Route 114 outside Grapevine, Texas. Assuming the car might belong to a motorist in need of assistance, these two lawmen approached the vehicle without suspicion. A brace of outlaws suddenly leapt from the car and caught the two officers in a hail of gunfire.
Grievously injured, both men fell to the ground. A slight young lady subsequently emerged from the car with a cut down shotgun and shot each of them at close range, killing them both instantly. While the legends surrounding Bonnie and Clyde have been bedecked with a bit of Robin Hood fluff, they were, like all of their gangster ilk, really reprobate cold-blooded killers.
Bonnie and Clyde died in a law enforcement ambush less than two months later along a rural road in Bienville Parish in Louisiana. Barrow was found to have suffered 17 entrance wounds. Parker had 26. Among the dozen or so guns discovered in the vehicle, Bonnie’s signature 20-gauge Whippit shotgun was found on the floorboard next to her lifeless body. Such a gory end befitted two of the worst of the Depression-era American outlaws.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N8 (October 2017)|