Zip Guns

The term "zip gun" as used in this bookindicateseither acrudehomemade firearm or a conversion of a blank pistol, tear gas gun, or cap pistol to a firearm.6 In the United States, zip guns had their peak of popularity in inner city areas during the juvenile gang wars of the 1950s. The quality of these weapons was extremely variable, with some so crude as to be a greater danger to the firer than to the intended victim. The simplest zip gun seen by the author was a metal tube in which a .22 Magnum cartridge was inserted. It was fired by striking the protruding base of the cartridge with a hammer. This weapon was used to commit suicide.

The zip guns of the 1950s in the New York area generally were constructed of a block of wood, a car antenna (the barrel), a nail (the firing pin), and rubber bands (to propel the pin). Most of these weapons were chambered for the .22 rimfire cartridge. The "chamber" was generally oversized, resulting in bulging and splitting, i.e., bursting, of the fired case. As the round was usually a low pressure .22 rimfire cartridge, injury to the firer was uncommon. The firing pin was often too long and too sharp, leading to piercing of the primer when the weapon was fired. The barrel was an un-rifled tube, often of greater diameter than the bullet. Thus, when the zip gun was fired, gas leaked out the ruptured case, the perforated primer, and around the bullet as it began to move down the barrel. This resulted in a very low muzzle velocity to the projectile. Because of the lack of rifling, the bullet was not stabilized and on leaving the barrel would almost immediately begin to tumble and lose velocity. The initial low velocity combined with the inherent instability of the projectile made the zip gun an extremely short-range weapon.

Cap firing conversions were more sophisticated zip guns. Cap pistols are made of light metal castings held together by rivets. Conversion to a firearm was made by inserting a piece of car radio antenna or similar metal tubing in the barrel and providing a firing pin. The firing pin usually was made by inserting a nail or screw into the hammer or by filing the hammer to a point. If the hammer fall was too light, it was strengthened by wrapping rubber bands around the frame in back of the hammer.

Blank firing pistols were also converted to lethal weapons by reaming out the barrel and altering the cylinder's chambers to accommodate live ammunition. Such a weapon at contact range may produce a characteristic soot pattern. Figure 4.12B shows such a case.

Zip guns were most commonly encountered in poverty-stricken areas where there were restrictive firearms legislation, as these weapons could be easily manufactured with inexpensive materials, few tools, and limited skills. In the 1950s in New York City, they were often manufactured in high school shop classes. The increased mobility and affluence of the population, combined with the ready availability of inexpensive handguns, has resulted in the disappearance of the zip gun from the crime scene in the U.S. The only exception appears to be conversion of tear gas pens to firearms. This still retains some minimal popularity, perhaps because these devices do not immediately appear to be firearms and can be carried openly without eliciting suspicion.

This picture is not the same in all countries. Thus, Book and Botha report widespread use of zip guns in Zululand, South Africa. The design and materials used vary widely. Three-quartersemployno triggerutilizingonly a sprung hammer that is drawn back and released. The great majority of these weapons fire 12-gauge shotgun shells due to their relatively low chamber pressure and widespread availability.

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