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The handguns of Eliot Ness and the untouchables: what guns did crime fighters use during the Prohibition Years?

When I was a kid growing up, one of my favorite TV shows was The Untouchables, starring Robed Stack as Eliot Ness, the leader of the real-life squad of Federal agents who took down the murderous Chicago gang boss AI Capone in one of the great law enforcement victories of the Depression years.

Even then, I read magazines like GUNS and knew Stack wasn't just an actor, but one of us, a certified pro-Second Amendment gun enthusiast. Indeed, he was more. Bob Stack was a former national champion clay bird shooter. It was good to see at least one actor on the screen who knew what to do with the guns the scriptwriters put in his hands.

Narrated melodramatically by Walter Winchell, The Untouchables seemed to shoot at least one bad guy almost every episode, with Stack as "Ness" leading the killing parade. The whole squad of Feds was armed with Colt Official Police revolvers, and if my memory serves, they were late model guns with the flattened, semi-ramped front sights produced from the mid-1950s to 1968.


All the TV Untouchables carded them in butt-up shoulder holsters of the Heiser and George Lawrence style, which actually were correct to the period. The choice of gun was more or less correct, too. Colt's Army Special was indeed the most popular law enforcement handgun of the first half of the 20th century, a .41-frame .38 Special whose name Colt changed (changing virtually nothing else) to Official Police in 1927. The Official Police was reportedly the first official service revolver of J. Edgar Hoover's fledgling FBI, and you don't get better "Federal law enforcement officer" creds than that from the history books.

The trouble is, Eliot Ness didn't carry one. Neither, apparently, did any other member of his squad whose choice of weapons made it into printed history.

Dick Special

In the same year, 1927, when Colt changed the name of the Army Special to Official Police, the company also shortened the barrel of their long-established small-frame 6-shot Police Positive .38 Special to 2", and dubbed the result the Detective Special. It was the smallest .38 Special revolver yet produced, and it became an instant hit among those who carded concealed handguns, including, of course, America's entire plainclothes law enforcement community, whatever stratum of government they served. I own a 1930-production Detective Special which, according to its official letter from the Colt's historian, was shipped directly to the New Jersey State Police to be issued to one of their detectives. Melvin Purvis, the most famous FBI agent of that period, carded a personally owned Detective Special most of the time--as did the real Eliot Ness.

Interestingly, the bad guys had also figured out the relatively new and high-tech Colt Detective Special was a pretty cool hideout gun when shootouts might be in the offing. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer noted in his report Bonnie Parker had one taped to her thigh when he killed her and her cop-killing partner in crime Clyde Barrow in Louisiana. In Eliot Ness' autobiography The Untouchables done with writer Oscar Fraley, Ness said of one thug he arrested, "From a hand-tooled shoulder holster under the left armpit of his dapper pin-striped suit, I lifted a snub-nosed .38 Colt revolver exactly like the one I had pointed at his diamond-studded belt buckle."


That thug was Capone intimate Frank Foster. Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle was infamously murdered in 1930, with such a .38 snubnose found next to his corpse. It turned out to be one of five Frank Foster had bought at a sporting goods shop on the Diversey Parkway. Capone tried to make it look as if Ness had shot the reporter with the gun he confiscated from Foster, and they apparently arranged for the evidence gun to disappear from the law enforcement evidence locker.

Things were looking bad until Ness contacted Major Calvin Goddard, the forensics ballistics pioneer who became famous in the Sacco/Vanzetti case during those years. He had given the evidence Detective Special to Goddard to take a sample to compare to bullets from unsolved killings, and Goddard still had the sample, which proved to be different from the Lingle death evidence, exonerating Ness.

Ness In Action

Historians debunked the TV show with all its shootings by Bob Stack, noting Ness himself never shot anyone and implying his reputation was overblown. The overblowing came from TV scriptwriters, not Eliot Ness. His autobiography indicates he did indeed use his Detective Special, he just didn't fire it into human bodies.


Warning shots were commonplace then. Ness told Fraley of a raid in which, "As I leaped from the truck before it even stopped rolling, one of (the perpetrators), a huge, grizzled man, started to reach for a gun in his shoulder holster. My Colt was in my hand, and as he made his move I triggered a shot over his head. His hand dropped away ..."

The use of the service revolver as an impact weapon, was common too, much as in the days in Old Tombstone when Wyatt Earp used his much bigger Colt to "buffalo" recalcitrant suspects. Ness said, "Picchi's hand darted under his coat and withdrew a revolver. But I had my gun out and smashed it savagely down on his gun hand just below the wrist. The pistol fell to the floor of the car, and the old hot anger welled up in me as I reached in, grabbed his coat collar and dragged him out of the car. He came out kicking, and after giving him enough room to stand up I brought my fist crashing down on top of his head. He went down."

Ness's flit would have still been holding the Detective Special, its butt protruding from the contacting heel of the hand, at the moment of that blow.

M1917 .45s

It was decades before expanding bullets made .38s powerful enough to be adequate manstoppers by modern standards, and WWI had proven hardball .45 ACP to be very decisive in that regard. At least one and probably more of Ness's team carried .45 ACP S&W or Colt Model 1917 New Service revolvers. Ness wrote gratefully of the stillness that evolved in a gang of criminals when one of his men pulled out such a revolver: "'Hold it just like that. This is a federal raid,' Cloonan bellowed, waving his 45-caliber Smith and Wesson. 'Everybody sit nice and quiet and nobody will get hurt.'" The command was obeyed.

Good, honest cops with good, honest handguns. The concept defined men so immune to huge temptations for corruption they became known forever as "The Untouchables."
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Title Annotation:HANDGUNS
Author:Ayoob, Massad
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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