Before Lee Harvey Oswald's brief time in the public eye was cut short by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, his life was like a bad movie script: quixotic, curious, mildly entertaining, but not much worth watching.
An outsider who learned to shoot while in the Marines, the restless Oswald may have been the only man ever to defect to the Soviet Union and then move back to America. And whether you believe Oswald acted alone in shooting the president or had help from the CIA, Mafia, KGB, Cuban intelligence or some random dude on a hill, we do know Oswald bought this 6.5 mm Mannlicher Carcano rifle by mail order.
A few months later, on Nov. 22, 1963, Oswald fired it from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, killing President John F. Kennedy and wounding Texas Gov. John Connolly.
Murder weapons are usually returned to the families of their owners, and Oswald’s gun might have gone back to his widow, Marina. Anticipating this, Denver oilman and gun collector John J. King bought the rights to the gun from her, but never got his hands on it. The federal government successfully argued that Oswald had abandoned the gun at the depository, giving up ownership rights. It is now housed at the National Archives.
Many historians mark Kennedy’s assassination as the true “start” of the 1960s, with all the complications and craziness it brought for American culture. Among other cultural and political changes, this gun arguably led to a much increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Had Kennedy survived, many historians believe he would have wound down American military involvement in the former French colony.
Instead, Lyndon Johnson escalated the U.S. presence, and the Vietnam War continued another 12 years, leading to more than 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers and perhaps as many as five million Vietnamese military and civilian deaths on all sides during and after the conflict.
This Browning pistol, wielded in a Sarajevo street by a young Yugoslav nationalist, ultimately touched off the First World War, which devastated Europe and effectively ended the colonial era. Despite the massive impact of its use, if not for an Austrian Jesuit priest, the gun itself might have been lost to history.
Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serbian, used the gun to shoot Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. Their murders triggered a chain of confrontations, treaty obligations and military alliances that dragged most of Europe, the United States and significant parts of the rest of the world into war.
By the end of the war, 35 million people had died and the United States had become a major world power. A devastated Europe faced an arduous rebuilding process. The war’s resolution was a disaster too, creating the conditions that later led to the rise of Nazis in Germany, an expansion-minded ultranationalist Japanese leadership and the paranoid and murderous Soviet Union of Stalin.
After the shooting and Princip’s capture, police gave the gun and the Archduke’s bloodied shirt to Anton Puntigam, a close friend and the priest who administered last rites to Ferdinand and Sophie. When Puntigam died in 1926, the gun was offered to the archduke’s family, who declined. The weapon, with serial number 19074 remained stored in a Jesuit community house until 2004, when it was donated to Austria’s military museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum.
John Wilkes Booth literally had one shot, and he made it count, mortally wounding a war-time president and transforming post-Civil-War America. Using this .44 caliber derringer, the Confederate sympathizer fatally shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head on April 14, 1865, just days after the war’s end.
Though multi-shot pistols existed, Booth didn’t have time to find one before carrying out his plot. Booth, a prominent scion of a famed acting family, had hatched his scheme just that morning, when he’d gone to Ford’s to pick up his mail and learned the president would attend a play there that night.
As with so many other guns that changed history, this one’s story didn’t end with its fateful firing. Rumor has it that a crime ring stole the original in the 1960s, taking advantage of lax security at Ford’s Theater, which had become a national monument. The thieves allegedly replaced the original with a duplicate.
In 1997, the National Park Service and FBI attempted to resolve questions about the pistol, but could not. Whatever the truth of the gun’s current authenticity, post-Civil-War America would have been very different if Booth’s gun had missed or misfired.
So far the guns on this list are famous for who they killed, not who used them to kill. This gun is different. Gary Gilmore used it in two 1976 robberies to murder a gas station worker and a motel manager.
In 1977, Gilmore was executed by firing squad, the first convict to die after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after a five-year pause. Although not the first murderer to be sentenced to death after the ban was reinstated, Gilmore, a criminal since his early teens, demanded that the sentence be carried out as soon as possible.
When the state obliged, he told his executioners “Let’s do it,” and created huge cultural waves. The case inspired a book by his writer brother Mikal, "Saturday Night Live" skits, movies, plays, songs and possibly even some portion of Nike’s “Just do it” slogan.
Years later, Gilmore’s murder weapon had a second moment in the spotlight. The weapon had been returned to the store from which Gilmore had once stolen it. It was resold, and in 2006, that owner tried to sell it for $1 million on a site dedicated to murder-related memorabilia.
The owner, Dennis Stilson, ultimately withdrew the weapon from the auction when he learned that Utah law would require all sales proceeds go to a state victim’s fund. Stilson, who wrote a book about the gun, still has it.
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Nazi Germany may have been the first country to arm individual soldiers with automatic weapons (StG 44), but the Soviet Union changed world history with this AK-47. Pictured is the prototype, held by Mikhail Kalashnikov, the tank driver who came up with the idea while convalescing in a hospital during World War II.
The Soviet Union made its strongest Cold War argument with the AK-47, named for the year the design was locked down. (It would be two more years before a mass-produced version was widely distributed.) Since its debut 65 years ago, the AK-47 basic design has been licensed to dozens of countries, illegally copied in many more and relentlessly modified and updated. Its basic form factor has been modified into everything from a semi-automatic shotgun to a light machine gun.
Estimates suggest more than 100 million copies of the AK-47 have been created by its many makers over the past 65 years. Though Kalashnikov never made money directly from his design, he still benefited handsomely, retiring as a major general with virtually every major honor possible from both the Soviet and Russian governments.
His creation remains the most widely used gun ever made, and almost assuredly has killed more people than any gun type in history. And as no famous gun story is complete without a bit of mystery, Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Chivers, author of "The Gun," says that the so-called prototype is one of several, and fairly far down the development line. Still, it’s the one the Russians trotted out for the 60th birthday of the rifle in 2007.