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The guns of Bonnie and Clyde 80 years later

This month marks 80 years since the crime spree of notorious Depression-era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde ended in a firestorm of law enforcement gunfire in rural Louisiana. Even now, eight decades after their deaths in the May 23, 1934 ambush, the pair are pop-culture icons.

A look at the guns of Bonnie and Clyde after 80 years
Clyde Barrow/Public Domain
Bonnie and Clyde posing with her "Whippet" 20 Gauge Remington Model 11 shotgun
Public Domain

To commemorate the anniversary of the duo’s fate let’s take a look at the guns used by Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker, and the lawmen who brought them to their end.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met in Texas in 1930. Bonnie, 19 at the time, was married to a man serving prison time (she never divorced). Clyde, 21 at the time, was not married. Their romance was interrupted when Clyde was sent to jail for burglary, was resumed when he escaped using a gun Bonnie smuggled to him, and was interrupted again when he was recaptured and returned to prison.

When Clyde was paroled in 1932 he embarked on what would become a famous crime spree with Bonnie, his older brother Buck (himself just out on parole), Buck’s wife Blanche, and other criminal associates.

The Barrow Gang were “motor bandits” who used automobiles to rapidly elude pursuit and confound investigators by moving from state to state across multiple jurisdictions. (This tactic was so effective that the FBI’s later authority to investigate crimes that crossed state lines was a direct result).

The gang roamed through the West, Midwest and South robbing gas stations, grocery stores and the occasional bank. In addition to cash the gang focused on stealing weapons. They graduated from stealing common firearms from sources such as hardware stores to looting automatic weapons from National Guard Armories. Clyde and the gang weren’t afraid to use those guns either. In about two years it’s estimated they killed 13 people, including nine police officers.

Bonnie and Clyde remained largely unknown until they narrowly escaped capture when the police raided a house the gang rented in Joplin, Missouri. The police thought they were raiding local bootleggers and were unprepared for the gang’s violent response and overwhelming firepower. Two of the officers were killed while the gang escaped essentially unharmed.

The gang did abandon most of their possessions, including poetry Bonnie had written about lovers who die as criminals on the run, and undeveloped film with pictures of Bonnie and Clyde posing and playing with their guns. This includes the famous photo of Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and a revolver (probably a Colt New Service .45) in her hand. Their fame exploded when newspapers published the photos and poems and the romantic legend of Bonnie and Clyde was born.

Although both Bonnie and Clyde likely enjoyed the attention their high profile made them a law enforcement priority while also making it harder for them to hide anonymously. After a short time they were reduced to living out of their car and camping in the woods to avoid being seen. The manhunt intensified after the gang killed one police officer in a botched robbery and later killed two more after a traffic stop.

Legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was charged with hunting down the gang after Clyde orchestrated a prison break in Texas. The state of Texas used that crime as justification for Hamer’s orders to pursue the gang across the country. Hamer recruited assistance from other enforcement agencies and tracked the gang so closely that he later said he was “living in his car always one city behind them.”

The end came the morning of May 23, 1934, when Hamer and five other law enforcement officers tracked Bonnie and Clyde to Bienville Parish, Louisiana. The pair were there so gang member Henry Methvin could visit his family. They did not know that Methvin’s father, Alvin, had earlier arranged for clemency for his son in exchange for information on Bonnie and Clyde.

The senior Methvin told Hamer when Bonnie and Clyde would be traveling on a specific dirt road and Hamer set up an ambush using Alvin Methvin’s apparently disabled truck as bait to get the pair to slow down or stop at a specific spot. At around 9:15 A.M., as the six lawmen hid in the brush, Clyde drove his stolen Ford V8 sedan into the ambush zone with Bonnie in the passenger seat.

There are several contradictory accounts of what followed next. There may or may not have been an order to halt. Clyde may or may not have pointed a BAR out the window. And, the exact sequence of how the law enforcement officers were positioned and armed and exactly who fired first is still in some dispute. What is known though is that Hamer’s ambush party fired an estimated 120 to 130 rounds from rifles, BAR’s, shotguns, and handguns at the car and the two occupants.

When the firing was done the car was riddled with holes and Bonnie and Clyde were hit around 50 times. When Hamer and the others opened the car they found an arsenal of weapons. Clyde had a BAR and a Winchester Model 1887 10 Gauge Shotgun within easy reach and reportedly was clutching a handgun with a second at his belt. Bonnie had a Remington Model 11 20 Gauge semi-auto shotgun that was cut down to “whippet” configuration next to her, a Colt Detective Special .38 Special revolver taped to her thigh, and a Colt Pocket Automatic in her purse. In all the car contained three BAR’s, 1,000 rounds of ammo in loaded BAR mags, 2,000 rounds of other ammunition, and 10 pistols, including seven Colt Model 1911’s.

While the ambush was controversial at the time, and remains so today, it must be remembered that the Barrow Gang had a history of choosing to rely on their superior firepower to shoot their way out when trapped by the police. In fact, several police officers had been killed in these situations after the gang had been given a chance to surrender. Hammer and his men had no reason to think Bonnie and Clyde would react any differently in this case and they certainly had the firepower to attempt to escape yet again. And, as Massad Ayoob pointed out in his 2009 American Handgunner article, “Besides there are no witnesses I can find who didn’t say that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were reaching for guns when the posse opened up on them.”

Bonnie and Clyde’s Guns

Model 1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) – These were stolen from National Guard Armories and were likely Clyde’s favorite gun. He probably appreciated the automatic fire capability of 500 - 650 rounds per minute along with the .30 – ’06 cartridge’s ability to penetrate barriers such as the steel bodied automobiles of the era. He would often shorten the barrels and stocks of his stolen BAR’s to make them handier.

“Whippet” shotguns – Clyde was evidently a fan of fast handling guns as shown by his propensity to cut down the barrels and stocks on his long guns. Photos show he had a shortened Winchester Model 1887 lever-action 10 Gauge shotgun (likely the one found by his body) and Bonnie is known to have a shortened 20 Gauge Remington Model 11 semi-auto shotgun, which befits someone of her small stature. (She was only 4’ 11” and 90 pounds). Clyde also had a Winchester Model 1897 pump shotgun, although not with the full Whippet treatment.

Krag Rifle – Clyde is seen in photos with at least one Krag rifle or carbine, likely stolen from the National Guard. I have yet to read anything about him actually using that weapon.

Colt Model 1911 pistol – Clyde is seen with Colt 1911 pistols in various photos and seven were recovered from the death car, including one on his body. It is likely they were all in the standard .45 ACP caliber, although some sources suggest he may have had at least one in .38 Super at some point.

Other Handguns – Other documented Bonnie and Clyde handguns include the Colt New Service .45 revolver Bonnie was photographed holding, .32 and .380 Colt Pocket Model autos, a Colt .38 Special New Army revolver with the “Fitz Special” cut down modifications believed stolen from a police officer, and a Colt US Army New Model 1909 .45 ACP revolver also taken off Clyde’s body.

The interest in Bonnie and Clyde has made documented guns extremely valuable. The Colt Detective Special revolver taken from Bonnie’s body and a Colt 1911 pistol taken from Clyde’s were auctioned off for over $500,000 in 2012. The guns had originally been taken as souvenirs by posse members before being sold to collectors. Earlier this year a .38 Colt Model 1902 pistol supposedly found by the funeral home in Bonnie’s clothes was auctioned for $99,450.

The Guns of the Hamer Posse

The six men of the Hamer Posse were armed with a variety of weapons with each man having at least one long gun and one handgun. Unfortunately, accounts differ on who was armed with what weapons. Here is a likely, although by no means definite, list of who carried what gun:

Frank Hamer (Texas Ranger/Texas Highway Patrol) – Remington Model 8 in .35 Remington with a “police only” 20 round detachable magazine (some sources list this as a 15 round mag). This semi-auto was the “assault weapon” of the era that filled the role taken by the AR carbine today in that it fired an intermediate power round, semi-auto, from a large capacity magazine. Hamer also carried a Colt Model 1911, either in .45 ACP or possibly .38 Super and very likely his prized Colt Single Action Army revolver in .45 Colt.

B.M. “Maney” Gault (Texas Ranger) – Likely a BAR or possibly a Colt Monitor (special police version of the BAR). He may also have had a Remington Model 11 shotgun loaned to him by Hamer.

Ted Hinton (Dallas County (Texas) Deputy) – Hinton wrote he was armed with a BAR, a five shot semi-auto shotgun, and two Colt Model 1911 pistols. He reported he emptied both long guns and at least one pistol.

Bob Alcorn – Dallas County (Texas) Deputy – Likely a Remington Model 8 or possibly a Winchester lever-action rifle. Sources differ.

Henderson Jordan (Bienville Parish Sheriff) – Jordan is reported to have either a Winchester Model 94 lever action rifle or a shotgun, depending on the source.

Prentis Oakley (Bienville Parish Deputy) - Oakley also had a Remington Model 8 semi-auto rifle, but with the standard five round magazine instead of the 20 round magazine. He borrowed this rifle from a local dentist.