Improvised Firearms (Zip Guns) – Like Grandpa Used to Make

    Closely associated with ‘juvenile delinquency’ of the 1950s, ‘zip guns’ were often fabricated by youngsters who could not afford to purchase or were forbidden from owning the genuine article. A mechanically inclined youngster might upon obtaining ammunition, most often widely available .22 rimfire, find that such rounds will fit into a section of suitably sized steel tubing, often a section of the salvaged car radio antenna. From then on it is a simple matter of fabricating a means of striking the rear of the cartridge while ensuring the entire assembly is held firmly together.

    Such weapons, while being extremely crude are just as capable as inflicting a lethal injury upon a close target as a conventional pistol. Due to bullets tumbling due to lack of rifling, injuries inflicted can potentially be worse. Because of their ease of construction and requiring no tools or expenses, knowledge of how to make zip guns quickly spread from street gang to street gang culminating in fairly standardized designs being adopted. Zip guns would sometimes be produced as a group effort, often making use of a school workshop resulting in better precision and reliability through the use of superior materials and machine tools.


    The Original Ghost Guns

    Although most of these may be extremely crude, such zero-cost disposable pistols became a serious concern for authorities at the time, often being used to seriously injure and sometimes kill. The emergence of cheap commercially produced handguns may have contributed to the eventual fall in the number of improvised weapons being encountered towards the late ’60s, perhaps coupled with the decline in creative hands-on skills of teenagers.

    Zip gun carried by a gang member. (El Passo Times, 1950)


    One of the most common (and reliable) methods of constructing a zip gun is to attach a door bolt to a wooden handle having a barrel made from a section of steel tube securely taped to it. Elastic bands are tied around the handle of the door bolt to act as a striker. The weight of the heavy door bolt behind the cartridge prevents it from flying back too fast and rupturing upon firing, a factor adding to the user’s safety. Where commercial ammunition was difficult to obtain, a common method was to obtain .22 starting pistol ‘crimp’ blanks and combine them with an airgun pellet to produce a round with similar power to .22 short.

    A zip gun made using a section of car aerial antenna and a door bolt seized by Hartford police. Courtesy of Springfield Armory Museum.


    Zip gun held at the ATF Firearms Reference Collection.


    A .25 caliber zip gun recently seized by police harks back to the classic door bolt types of the 50s.

    Another simple model which according to police reports at the time began turning up in large numbers in New York City used nothing more than a length of car radio antenna, a nail, a rubber band and two pieces of tape. The large nail slides into the back portion of the antenna tube and the tip is filed to the correct shape to successfully set off a round of .22 rimfire. Alternatively, the metal shaft of a screwdriver may also be used, the chisel edge already being well suited. A slot the length of a .22 cartridge is filed across the middle of the antenna tube to allow loading of a round into the oversized front ‘barrel’ section. A heavy rubber band is cut and both ends are taped at the front of the tube, the middle looped around and tapped to the back of the nail head in order to provide enough force to strike the cartridge. When fired the cartridge often jams in the rear of the slot and will take impressions matching the nail and the tubing.


    Below is an FBI bulletin describing a similar zip gun which was seized in San Antonio, Texas in 1964:

    Another trend often employed was the use of a house key to serve as a hammer. The use of one is out of convenience as it requires little to no modification, already having a pivot hole in place and a suitable striking surface.

    House key type zip gun diagram, B.Koffler.

    A zip gun constructed using a length of car antenna and a house key seized in New York City, 1959.

    Modification of a nail gun power charge with added lead projectile.

    Perhaps the most common type of zip gun is a modified toy cap gun. Usually, the barrel obstruction is removed and a section of car aerial tubing glued or taped in place as a replacement barrel liner. The hammer would be sharpened to a point and elastic bands wrapped around the front of the frame and hammer to provide enough power to fire off a cartridge.

    A .22 revolver and an improvised zip gun made from a cap gun handed in by two ex Brooklyn gang members in 1957.

    The excerpts below show that such crude weapons have none the less proven deadly on occasion:

    Above: 07 Oct 1967, Chicago, Illinois: A homemade zip gun under a parked car where it was found after the fatal shooting of James Butler, 15 during a fight between teenage gangs. Bettmann/CORBIS

    An adapted toy pistol seized by Connecticut State Police, 1961. (Springfield Armory Museum)

    A zip gun photographed in December 1961. The description notes that the barrel is a section of car radio antenna with a bore diameter of .25. The hammer is formed from steel strip stock.

    Zip guns in prison

    Being held in the most restrictive and controlled environment which society has provided, didn’t stop these inmates from fabricating potentially lethal firearms from innocuous pieces of scrap.

    A display of zip guns, a shiv and lead-weighted baton confiscated from a New York prison in 1950.

    The zip guns above were confiscated from inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. A was discovered on an inmate during a routine shakedown. B has a barrel made from a small pipe, a hammer made from a horseshoe nail and made use of a razor handle. Along with gun C It was used during an attempted prison break. D is a 20 gauge shotgun pistol constructed from a bedpost and scrap lumber and was used during a prison break in which a guard was wounded and two inmates killed.

    The former warden of the Indiana State Prison, Leo Jenkins, holds one of several improvised pipe pistols made by inmates. Guns made using heavy pipe and plumbing fittings can be just as strong and reliable as commercially made weapons. (Photo: David Truby)

    An almost identical pipe pistol seized by Indiana police made entirely from items purchased at a hardware store. The grip holds an extra .410 shell.


    Improvised ‘slap’ guns made from a length of threaded gas pipe and an end cap drilled for a roofing nail. The weapons are fired by slapping the back driving the nail against the cartridge primer. Confiscated by Philadelphia state police. (Photo: David Truby)

    Recently Improvised street guns have started to make a comeback. In a news report this month Winnipeg police reported that the number of improvised firearms seized went just from three in 2016, six in 2017 to over sixty last year in 2018. Many of these were reportedly made from bike parts. No matter how many new laws are enacted to restrict the possession of firearms, a criminal is just a step away from walking into a hardware store and assembling one of these.