Gordon L. Rottman
Today we’ll take a look at the firearms chosen by assassins and would-be assassins to kill presidents, other political notables, or significant public figures were of varied quality (local-level politician assassinations and celebrity murders are not addressed here). We’ll only cover up to 1912 inclusive of the Old West era. This might give you some idea of the effectiveness of close-range gunfire and the effects of bullet hits.
This is an excerpt (which covers up to recent assignations and attempts) of my The Big Book of Gun Trivia: Everything you want to know, don’t want to know, and don’t know you need to know. It’s available from Amazon only on Kindle for $5.38. The 500-page book has hundreds of articles on firearms trivia, facts, and myths ranging from the Old West to the present.
Many of the firearms used in these successful and unsuccessful attempts were actually poor choices, even if they may have killed the intended victim, and were effective only due to the extremely close range or luck. It certainly was not the skill of the shooters, most of who were not known for their shooting abilities or any realistic preparation on their part. In fact, what are considered some of the poorer weapons were the most effective demonstrating the variables of bullet effects and chance.
President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) Washington, DC; shot at twice resulting in two misfires on 30 January 1835 and emerged unharmed. (Jackson is reputed to have been involved in over 100 duels and was wounded several times. It was said he rattled when he walked. Research, however, has found he was in only 14 duels, killed only one man, and was wounded three times in combat and duels.)
Deranged, would-be assassin Richard Lawrence (1800-61) fired two small muzzle-loading, cap-and-ball pistols, one from within 13 feet (4 meters) and the second from pointblank range*—sources are in disagreement of the ranges, of which both misfired with only the percussion caps igniting. Research has not uncovered the caliber and make of the pistols. Lawrence was subsequently subdued by Jackson whaling his cane and aided by bystanders, including Congressman Davy Crockett (1786-1836). The odds of both pistols misfiring are said to be 1 to 125,000. They were test fired in the 1930s and both functioned. However, the odds were actually lower when it is considered that the make of pistols are said to have been vulnerable to moisture and the weather that day was extremely humid and possibly the cold affected the pistols (the actual January temperature is not known).
* Pointblank range is within 3 feet (1 meter)—arm’s length.
President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) Washington, DC; shot once at point-blank range in the back of his head on 14 April 1865 and died 15 April.
Assassin John Wilkes Booth (1838-65) fired one shot from a .44-caliber Deringer (no model or serial number) cap-and-ball pocket pistol*. He was also armed with a 7-1/4-inch blade hunting knife (often misreported as a “Bowie knife” with differing blade lengths, usually longer) intended for General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85), who was absent. An Army officer was slightly wounded with the knife. (One of Lincoln’s last official acts was to establish the Secret Service, mainly for anti-counterfeiting purposes, but from 1894 it would guard the US president.) Perhaps a score of innocent men throughout the East were lynched or shot in belief they were the fugitive Booth. Others were murdered because they expressed gratification with Lincoln’s death. Ironically, John Wilkes Booth can be seen standing near Lincoln in an 1861 inauguration photograph.
* The ball was actually .41-caliber to allow for a patch.
Secretary of State William H. Seward, Sr. (1801-72) Washington, DC; was slashed multiple times on the face and neck with a knife on 14 April 1865, at the same time Lincoln was assassinated. Seward recovered and is known for the purchase Alaska two years later.
Would-be assassin Lewis T. Powell (aka Lewis Paine or Payne, 1844-65), in league with the Lincoln conspirators, forced his way into Seward’s home, attempted to shoot Seward’s son at pointblank range with a .36-caliber Whitney Navy Model cap-and-ball revolver (six-round), which misfired. He pistol-whipped the son, made his way to the third floor, and attacked the bedridden Seward with a 9-inch blade Bowie knife inflicting several serious wounds. One slash penetrated his right cheek. A jaw splint deflected the knife away from his jugular vein. (Seward was recovering from multiple serious injuries received in a recent carriage accident.) Powell wounded three others in the house with the knife while escaping. He was captured three days later. Fellow conspirator David E. Herold (1842-65) had guided Powell to Seward’s home, but fled when hearing the commotion inside. He was later captured with John Wilkes Booth. Seward’s wife is said to have died the following June from the stress of almost losing her husband. Powell had served as a Confederate infantryman, was captured, escaped, joined the Confederate cavalry, and then did limited secret service work. He could be considered the only “professional” among the Lincoln conspirators and probably the only professional among all the assassins studied here.
Note: George A. Atzerodt (1835-65) was assigned by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson (1808-75) armed with an unidentified revolver and Bowie knife, but he balked when the time came.
President James A. Garfield (1831-81) Washington, DC; shot once in the chest (a second bullet grazed his sleeve) on 2 July 1881 and died 19 September of heart attack, pneumonia, and blood poisoning caused by unsanitary attempts to remove the bullet. (Garfield was the first president to speak on a telephone, his first words being, “Please speak a little more slowly” to Alexander Graham Bell, who later attempted to locate the bullet in Garfield’s body with an electric metal detector.)
Assassin Charles J. Guiteau (1841-82) fired twice with a British .44 Webley & Scott Bulldog snub-nosed revolver (six-round) at pointblank range. Guiteau later claimed he had not killed Garfield, but the president’s bungling doctors did.
Governor of Kentucky William J. Goebel (1856-1900) Louisville, Kentucky; shot once through the chest on 30 January 1900, election day, and died 3 February after being sworn in on his death bed. He is the only serving US governor to be assassinated.
Accounts are convoluted and conflicting with five or six shots fired from a .38-55 Winchester & Ballard Marlin Model 1893 lever-action rifle from a nearby building (range not provided, but less than 100 feet). Sixteen people, including the opposing gubernatorial candidate and the secretary of state, were eventually indicted, a rare instance of an actual conspiracy. It almost resulted in a state civil war. There were multiple trials and retrials with many suspects acquitted or turned state’s evidence. Henry Youtsey (1873-1942) was convicted and sentenced to life for the murder. Later Jim Howard was also convicted, but it has never been determined for certain who the actual assassin was.
President William McKinley, Jr. (1843-1901) Buffalo, NY; shot in the stomach with another shot grazing his shoulder on 5 September 1901 and died 14 September. (He was the first president to ride in a self-propelled vehicle, the electric ambulance carrying him to the hospital that fateful day.)
Assassin Leon Frank Czolgosz (1873-1901) fired two shots from a .32 S&W Iver Johnson Safety Automatic Hammerless revolver* (six-round) at pointblank range. (This assassination resulted in the Secret Service supplying round-the-clock bodyguards to presidents from 1902. From 1894 the Secret Service had provided only part-time security.)
* “Automatic” refers to it being an automatic self-ejector when the cylinder is broken open.
Note: Robert T. Lincoln (1843-1926, President Lincoln’s eldest son) is the only man known to have witnessed the assassinations of three presidents, his father, James Garfield, and William McKinley. After seeing McKinley assassinated he vowed he would never again appear in public with an incumbent president.
Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858-1919) Milwaukee, WI; shot once and wounded on 14 October 1912. The bullet was slowed by his eyeglasses case and his folded 50-page speech papers. With the bullet lodged three inches in his chest he declined attention and delivered the 90-minute speech first announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose*.” Blood seeped through his shirt during the speech. (T.R., by the way, an avid hunter, was the source of the name “Teddy Bear” as he had refused to shoot an old bear tried to a tree so he could have a “successful” hunt.)
Would-be assassin John F. Schrank (1876-1943) fired one shot with a .38 S&W Colt Police Positive Special revolver (six-round) from 6 feet (2 meters). (This was T.R.’s second presidential bid, which he lost—no sympathy vote was forthcoming.)
* “Bull Moose” refers to the 1912-16 Progressive Party.
Shout if you have any questions or comments.