Fighting gangs from New York City in the 1950s used so many different weapons, but I want to zero in on zip guns, a weapon that every gang had at least one of, and sometimes more. Often times gang members were too poor to buy a hand gun so they used their ingenious know-how in constructing home-made guns out of rubber bands, a coat hanger and a car aerial. Sometimes zip guns were constructed from toy pistols that could be obtained from department stores. One person explained he made his from a toy derringer, a section of car antenna, a screw through a hole drilled in the hammer, and piano wire wrapped tightly around it all to keep it from exploding. The guns themselves were very inaccurate, and couldn’t really be counted on unless in very close quarters. Despite their inaccuracy, they were still dangerous and I was able to find a couple of times where a zip gun actually killed someone.
In addition to being inaccurate, zip guns were very dangerous, possibly more dangerous to the operator than the one being shot at. Sometimes the gun would explode in the shooter’s hand or backfire, blinding the shooter. One person I spoke to personally bandaged four zip gun bullet wounds. He recalled that “in one case when the gun was fired, the shell ejected back into the hand of the shooter and damaged his thumb.” The second time the “rubber band powered bolt was being pulled back into firing position [and] it released accidentally, firing the bullet into the gang member’s thigh.” The bullet passed entirely through so the entry and exit point were bandaged. In another identical incident, the gun fired as .22 caliber bird shot was being loaded. It lodged into the stomach of another gang member across from him. Alcohol was applied to the many wounds, and fortunately no serious damage was done. Even though they were notorious for being very inaccurate and dangerous, gangs were still packing zip guns in their fights and ambushes.
Some boys were very adept at making zip guns, even making them under the very noses of their teachers in shop class at school. The guns could shoot .22 caliber bullets, although nails and pins could also be used as ammunition. The New York Times had an interesting article on two brothers who were caught selling zip guns to a Bronx gang called the Bronx Sportsmen. At the moment of their arrest, the brothers admitted they were in the process of filling an order for twelve zip guns. Another boy they had sold a zip gun to – and who led the police to the gunsmith brothers – admitted to the police that he was intending to use the gun to kill a rival member of a gang. Unfortunately the article did not report how much they were planning on selling each gun for.
Obtaining ammunition for a zip gun was difficult but not impossible. If the person looking to buy the ammo looked old enough, bullets could be purchased at a sporting goods store, or, if that didn’t work, at amusement-arcade shooting galleries. One member from a Manhattan Upper East Side gang explained how he was able to get .22 caliber bullets at a shooting arcade without anybody noticing:
“Getting bullets is the tough part. Nobody’ll sell you no bullets. How’d I latch on to them? Man, I’ll tell you. You know them shooting galleries around Forty-second Street. Okay, you hang around until the dive is really hopping. Then you step up and hand out the bread for a couple of clips. Sure you have to shoot ‘em but if you’re hip, you fire real fast and slip a couple .22’s into your mit. Sometimes, if you play it cool, you can get away with a whole clip.”
And now a brief profile on someone who was obsessed with guns and paints an interesting picture on an individual basis…
Charles Bonnicci was white, 5’10” tall, weighed 180 pounds and had brown hair and hazel eyes. Both arms were heavily tattooed, the left having a large cupid double doll, and an eagle with a flag and the year 1959 inscribed under it. His right arm had his name Charlie in script letters and another eagle with a notation “Death Before Dishonor” under it. He lived in the Lower East Side in Manhattan on 205 Allen Street, in an area that was a hotbed of gang activity. Allen Street and the streets around it was where a Puerto Rican gang called the Forsyth Boys hung out. Even though Charles was white, this did not cause him any problems and he hung out a candy store on Forsyth between Stanton and Ludlow Streets. Supposedly he was a member of the gang, although he denied it. At the minimum he would have known who the members of the Forsyth Boys were and would have most certainly been familiar with the gang lifestyle.
Bonnicci was in trouble with the law numerous times for breaking into parking meters, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, possession of a zip gun and theft of two rifles. For whatever reason, Charlie was obsessed with guns and and was known to carry them with him “without any rhyme or reason.” Once, when he was asked to never return to the University Settlement House, a spot where gangs and other youth from the Lower East Side liked to hang out, he crashed a party while drunk and threatened everyone with a gun he had in his possession.
In 1958 Charlie had a .22 caliber rifle in his possession, but when his Mom found out about it she got upset and told him to get rid of it. To make matters worse, his little brother found it on a couple of occasions and was caught playing with it, which infuriated his parents (understandably so). Even though he was told to get rid of the gun, he took a hacksaw and sawed off the barrel and the stock to make a sawed off rifle. In this manner he was able to hide the gun from his parents and little brother. Over time he tried to sell the rifle but with no success. Finally in February 1960, a boy who had originally lived in the Lower East Side and had moved to Williamsburg, made it known he wanted to buy the rifle. Bonnicci decided to sell it for $10, and as he was meeting with some boys on South Third Street in Williamsburg, showing off the firearm, a policeman on foot patrol noticed the boys and how they suspiciously moved into a building to escape his attention. Moving in on them, he was able to arrest Charlie after a brief struggle.
Charlie admitted to the police he was trying to sell the rifle for $10, and although no gang name of the boys he was trying to sell it to was in the report, this was in the very epicenter of Phantom Lord turf, a very active gang from Williamsburg. In all probability he was trying to sell the rifle to the Phantom Lords who, according to their prior reputation, probably wouldn’t hesitate to use it on enemy gangs in the area, namely the Puerto Rican Hell Burners of the Italian Jackson Gents.