Firearms have shaped the history of the world, from the surprising history of the M16 to the classic Brown Bess musket that helped free America from British rule.
Of course, there are darker moments where firearms have changed history. Firearms used in assassinations have changed history just as much as those wielded on the battlefield.
We wanted to take a look at some of these weapons out of a respect for history, and a respect for the power, and danger, of firearms in the wrong hands.
These are all fascinating firearms, both because of and beyond their use in assassinations.
At the end of each entry, we’ll tell you where you can get your own. Whether you’re just taken with a particular firearm or are building a slightly macabre collection, we’ve got you covered.
Abraham Lincoln – Philadelphia Derringer
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is arguably the most famous assassination attempt in American history. The story of what happened is familiar to most of us.
At noon on April 14, 1865, Booth learned the President would be attending the play Our American Cousins at Ford’s Theatre that evening. As an actor who’d performed at the theatre before, Booth was familiar to the staff and knowledgeable about the theatre’s layout and must have seen this as the advantage he needed to successfully take up arms against Lincoln.
That evening, Booth arrived at the theater to find that the guard assigned to the door to the President’s box was gone. Once through the outer door Booth wedged the door shut by wedging a stick between it and the wall. He then waited outside the inner door for the line that got one of biggest laughs of the show.
After the line was read Booth opened the inner door, stepped into the box, and shot Lincoln in the head from behind. Lincoln was laughing when he was shot.
A wounded Lincoln was examined by a couple of physicians in the audience before being moved across the street to a first-floor bedroom in the home of tailor William Peterson. Though Lincoln was clearly dying, he did not appear to be in pain. He passed at 7:22 the following morning. He was the first American president to be assassinated while in office.
Booth’s exact motives against Lincoln are unknown, but he was a vocal Confederate sympathizer.
The Murder Weapon
Booth used a .44 caliber Philadelphia Derringer to kill Lincoln.
Less than six inches long, the gun seems very small in comparison to the potentially massive impact it had on the course of history. The petite size of the Philadelphia Derringer made it a popular choice for concealed self-defense. It also made it easy for Booth to hide the gun as he made his way to assassinate the President.
It was also a risky choice, though. The Philadelphia Derringer only held a single shot, and Booth would not have had time to reload for a second attempt before he was subdued. He only had one chance.
The Philadelphia Derringer was originally sold in pairs, but Booth apparently only had one Derringer on him the evening of the assassination. The one Booth used to murder President Lincoln is now on display at the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. The location of the other is unverified, though Ripley’s Believe It or Not claims to have it in their museum in St. Augustine.
Though the Philadelphia Derringer was a very common gun, with 15,000 guns produced, Booth’s Derringer was rather unusual. While most derringers feature rifling with a clockwise twist, Booth’s had a counterclockwise twist.
This, along with the wood pattern, pit marks on the barrel, and a crack in the forestock came in handy in 1997, 132 years after Lincoln’s death.
After a career criminal claimed that in the late 1960s members of his gang had stolen the Derringer and replaced it with a fake, the FBI was called in to authenticate the gun. By comparing these features in historical photos with the actual gun, the FBI was able to confirm that the pistol at Ford’s Theatre is the real deal.
The Philadelphia Derringer hasn’t been in production since 1868, so if you want one of your own you’ll have to go with a replica. Pedersoli makes a high quality but affordable Philadelphia Derringer reproduction ($450).
Jesse James – .44 Caliber Smith and Wesson Model 3
Jesse James may not have been the political figure that some of the others on this list are, but his assassination was still a political scandal.
By 1882, James’s notorious gang, the James-Younger gang, had all but disbanded. James moved to Missouri with his wife and two children, intending to give up on crime.
Thinking he and his family needed protection, James invited the Ford brothers, Charley and Robert, some of the few people James trusted, to live with them.
What James didn’t know was that the Ford brothers had already secretly negotiated James’s capture with Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden.
The Ford brothers allowed themselves to become part of the James family’s daily routine, biding their time until an opportunity struck. One spring morning, however, Robert believed that James had become suspicious that the brothers were going to betray him. While James stood, unarmed, on a chair to clean a dusty picture, Robert pulled his gun and shot him in the back of the head.
The murder quickly became a national sensation and the brothers made no attempt to hide their part in it. They surrendered themselves to law enforcement and were charged with first-degree murder, indicted, and sentenced to hang. Two days later they were pardoned by Governor Crittenden.
The public saw this as a clear sign that Crittenden had conspired to murder a private citizen, causing a major political controversy.
The Murder Weapon
The gun most widely believed to be the murder weapon is a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolver, which was reportedly given by Ford upon his release to one of the jailors as thanks for his kind treatment. Like both James and Ford, the gun has had a tumultuous history.
Sometime after 1904, E. Stanley Gary purchased the revolver from the son of the jailor and had it etched with the words “Bob Ford killed Jesse James with this revolver at St. Joseph, Mo., 1882.” In 1952 the gun was purchased from Gary’s estate by a Smith and Wesson collector, who lent it to a Jesse James museum in Missouri in 1967.
The revolver was stolen from the museum in 1968 and vanished until 1993 when the gun was put up for auction by an anonymous American dealer via an auction house in Sussex. The gun sold for $160,000. The gun then came up for auction again in 2003 and sold for $350,000, breaking the Western historical firearms record.
If you want one of your own, but don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend, Taylor’s and Company’s New Model No. 3 Frontier ($1,094) is the choice for you.
John Lennon – Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special
This is the most recent assassination on our list, and the only one where the perpetrator is still alive. Despite the celebrity victim, it’s also the least dramatic.
On the evening of December 8, 1980, John Lennon was returning to his home at the Dakota in New York City with his wife, Yoko Ono. Mark David Chapman waited in the shadows of the building.
Seconds after Lennon passed, Chapman pulled a gun and fired five shots at Lennon’s back. The first missed, but two bullets hit the left side of Lennon’s back and two hit his left shoulder. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
The most unusual aspect of the assassination was Chapman’s reaction.
The building’s doorman took the gun from Chapman, after which the assassin simply took off his hat and jacket to show that he wasn’t carrying any more weapons and sat on the sidewalk. The doorman asked if he knew what he’d done, to which Chapman calmly replied, “Yes, I just shot John Lennon.“
When the police arrived, Chapman made no attempt to resist or flee. He appeared to be reading The Catcher in the Rye, a book that would feature heavily in the following court proceedings.
Chapman was sentenced to a life in prison without parole.
The Murder Weapon
Mark David Chapman used a Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special ($350), the only firearm on our list still in production today. Chapman’s Undercover, in particular, does not have the marked history of Booth’s Derringer or Ford’s Model 3.
Similar to the Derringer, the Undercover is petite, with only a 2” barrel, making it ideal for concealment. The obvious advantage is that the Undercover is a revolver, allowing Chapman to make five shots.
The Undercover, released in 1964, was Charter Arms’ first firearm and stood out from other revolvers in a couple ways. First, the design avoided the use of side plates, allowing the gun to fire high loads safely. The Undercover also included a unique safety device for the firing pin.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand – FN Model 1910
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is probably the most well-known assassination worldwide and is generally considered the immediate cause of World War I.
The assassination plot, which was part of a larger revolutionary conspiracy, actually went wrong in so many ways that the Archduke was only able to be murdered through sheer coincidence.
Six different assassins were placed around in different positions along the Archduke’s motorcade’s route in Sarajevo. The first two, one with an explosive and one with a gun, failed to act.
The third assassin, further down and across the street, threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car, but it bounced off, and instead detonating under the next car in the procession. It wounded at least 16 people, but the Archduke was unscathed.
The assassin realized he would be discovered, so he swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped into a nearby river. However, the pill was ineffective and the river was only a few inches deep. He was pulled from the river and beaten by the crowd before law enforcement took him into custody. The motorcade sped away too fast for any of the other three assassins to act.
The Archduke’s party arrived at their destination at the Town Hall and decided to cancel the rest of their plans in favor of visiting the victims of the bombing at the hospital. Meanwhile, Gavrilo Princip, the fifth assassin, and organizer of the plot decided to position himself at the beginning of the route to the next stop of Ferdinand’s original agenda.
When the Archduke’s party left the Town Hall, the driver began to drive the party to the next planned stop, rather than to the hospital. It was only because of this mistake, which required the car to stop and reverse down the street, that Princip was able to line up a pair of shots at the Archduke and kill him.
The first shot hit the Archduke in his jugular, and the second hit his wife in the abdomen. Both were fatally wounded and died within moments.
Princip used a Fabrique Nationale Model 1910 pistol, designed by John Browning. Princip’s Model 1910 is now on display at the Museum of Military History in Vienna, Austria.
This pistol is different from other Browning designed firearms of the time because Colt, who’d manufactured Browning’s other firearms for the United States, was not interested in the Model 1910. Therefore, this gun was only sold in Europe, by FN.
Our American readers may still recognize the Model 1910, though, because it’s one of the first firearms used by James Bond. The gun briefly makes an appearance in Dr. No, and is used with a suppressor to shoot Professor R.J. Dent.
For those of you looking for your own Model 1910, there doesn’t seem to be a great replica on the market. That doesn’t mean you’re out of luck though.
The Browning Model 1911 (starting at $600) has a similar compact size and feel to the FN Model 1910, and comes from the same designer, but has been updated for a more modern audience. Like the Model 1910 that killed Archduke Ferdinand, the Model 1911 is available chambered for .380.
Guns have shaped the world in a number of ways, from allowing settlers to tame the wild west to be the weapon of choice for assassins murdering presidents. Firearms have and will continue to have, a tremendous impact on our lives.
What other assassinations have turned the course of history? Let us know in the comments!
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No jack or Robert Kennedy?
Analysts and historians today are not what they used to be sadly.
Lee Harvey Oswald Used a Carnaco Bolt Action Rifle...
A really great article, but the picture entitled "Robert Ford with the Murder Weapon" clearly shows a Colt .45LC, and not a S&W No. 3...
Good eye! Picture caption has been edited.