It was just like Jimmy Cagney. I never seen nothing like it. That fellow just kept a-coming right at them two lawmen, and they must have hit him plenty, but nothing was going to stop that fellow.
– Robert Hayford, eyewitness to the “Battle of Barrington” (1934)
In late 1934, former Dillinger-Nelson Gang member Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis – “Public Enemy No. 1” at the time – was finally chased down by the Division of Investigation (the future FBI) north of Chicago, in what would become the “Battle of Barrington.”
The events that unfolded that day would put any action picture to shame – oddly, they have never been properly covered on film, despite several movie dramatizations. Neither Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson (1957), Mervyn Leroy’s The FBI Story (1959), Scott Levy’s Baby Face Nelson (1996), or Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) make a credible attempt at depicting what actually happened – with only Leroy even trying to stick to the most basic facts.
The best accounts of the “Battle of Barrington” can be found in John Toland’s book The Dillinger Days (1963), William Helmer and Steven Nickel’s book Baby Face Nelson – Portrait of a Public Enemy (2002), Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies – America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 (2004), and Stephen Hunter’s article “A Battle at Barrington: The Men & the Guns” in The American Rifleman (2017). However, these too err in some details. I’ll try to present an account here that is heavily based on the FBI reports obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and the subsequent press coverage of both the actual event and the trial of Chase. There were quite a few eyewitnesses, as the shooting took place near two petrol stations. At several points I come to different conclusions than my predecessors.
Round per Round
On the afternoon of 27 November 1934, “Les” Gillis travelled with his wife Helen Wawrynziak Gillis and his partner John “Johnny” Chase in a stolen 1934 Ford Model 40B V8 sedan (GURPS High-Tech, pp. 236-237) – not a Ford Model A – on US Route 12, the Northwest Highway. Their car was loaded with at least four long arms, several sidearms, a substantial amount of ammunition, and some camping equipment, since as Persons in Hiding they often stayed in tourist camps. They had been made at a hideout near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and were barrelling down the highway to hide in Chicago, where Gillis had grown up.
Shortly before 1600 hours, they were spotted near Fox River Grove, Illinois, by Special Agent Thomas McDade and Special Agent William “Bill” Ryan of the Division of Investigation who had been on an undercover wire-tapping assignment in a Ford Model A coupé but had been sent north to look for Gillis. The northbound agents noted the matching type of car and license plate as they passed the southbound car and pulled a U-turn to inspect it. Gillis immediately noted the agents’ suspicious behaviour and made a U-turn himself to check them out, then made another U-turn to position his car behind the agents’ – a classic chase (GURPS Action 2: Exploits, p. 31; Call of Cthulhu, p. 132). Gillis was a former dirt track race driver and by all accounts an excellent motorist, and he had the better car. While travelling at over 70 km/h or 40 mph, Gillis pulled alongside and motioned the agents to stop while Chase menaced them with a Colt R80 Monitor automatic rifle in .30-06 Springfield (GURPS High-Tech: Pulp Guns 2, p. 11; Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 62, 63-64) from the backseat. Gillis may have waved with a pistol.
Gillis carried a Colt Super .38 National Match semiautomatic pistol in .38 ACP (GURPS High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, p. 18; Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 37-38), while Ryan was armed with two Colt Super .38 semiautomatic pistols. Chase may also have had a Colt Super .38 semiautomatic pistol, although the Division of Investigation later asserted that he had a Colt Government semiautomatic pistol in .45 ACP, for reasons that become clear below. The choice of the .38-calibre model was no coincidence. That its powerful round was capable of penetrating the contemporary steel-lined bullet-resistant vests (High-Tech, p. 66; Investigator Weapons 1, p. 49) had been noted by Major Julian Hatcher already in his article “The New Colt Super .38 Automatic” in The American Rifleman (1929). By 1933, the Super .38 was the preferred choice of professional bank robbers like Edward “Eddie” Bentz, Thomas “Tommy” Carroll, John Dillinger, John “Red” Hamilton, Leslie “Big” Homer, Frank “Jelly” Nash, or Harry “Pete” Pierpont, as well as syndicated gangsters like Samuel “Sam Golf Bag” Hunt or Roger “the Terrible Touhy” Towey. The Division of Investigation followed suit after it armed itself in 1933 and acquired a number of the Super .38 pistols for those agents who preferred to carry it.
Still, even two of the pistols were no match against an automatic rifle, and the underarmed agents accelerated to get away. Chase started firing from the backseat with the R80 Monitor automatic rifle. He fired five shots – “almost simultaneously” but probably still semiautomatic rather than a short burst – straight through their own windshield (GURPS Tactical Shooting, pp. 30-31). The roar of the rifle with its powerful cartridge, short barrel, and Cutts compensator must have been deafening in the confines of the car (Tactical Shooting, p. 34; Investigator Weapons 1, p. 7), with Gillis being positioned beside the muzzle and his wife cowering below it in the foot well. Gillis fired his pistol out of the open side window, while Ryan returned fire with one of his pistols, firing seven shots – not an entire magazine’s worth – through their rear window (Tactical Shooting, p. 31).
Both Gillis and Chase missed, Gillis no doubt because he was firing with his left hand while holding on to the steering wheel (Tactical Shooting, p. 31), Chase possibly because his hollow-point bullets were mushrooming as they penetrated the windshield and were thus deflected sufficiently to miss. In any case, firing from a moving vehicle at a moving vehicle is never easy (Tactical Shooting, p. 31; Call of Cthulhu, p. 142). Ryan scored at least one hit – and it was a lucky one that penetrated the Ford Model 40B V8 sedan’s radiator and pierced the fuel pump (Vital Area hit location, p. B555) – not the water pump. This allowed the agents in their underpowered Ford Model A coupé to get away from their pursuers. Near Palatine, Illinois, they missed a curve and drove into a field. There they waited anxiously, guns drawn. McDade added a single Colt Police Positive Special revolver in .38 Special (High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, p. 11; Investigator Weapons 1, p. 41) to Ryan’s two pistols.
However, the bad guys never came. Gillis’ car and license plate had been spotted by two other agents, Inspector Samuel “Sam” Cowley and Special Agent Herman “Ed” Hollis of the Division of Investigation, who were northbound in Division Car No. 13, a 1934 Hudson Essex Terraplane-Eight sedan. Hollis made a U-turn and positioned them behind Gillis’ Ford. Due to the damage to the fuel pump, the criminals were losing speed rapidly and Gillis pulled to the side of the highway at Park Road, leading into the North Side Park in Barrington, Illinois. Hollis overshot, braked and skidded to a stop a short distance further down the highway. The cars were some 46 m or 50 yards apart. Gillis’ wife quickly hid in a drainage ditch, while Gillis and Chase took up positions behind their car (medium cover, DR 50 behind the engine, DR 16 at the rear, Tactical Shooting, pp. 28, 30-31; Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 15-16). Chase still held the R80 Monitor, which he fired over the hood of the car, while Gillis used an Auto-Ordnance Model 1921A submachine gun in .45 ACP with a Type C 100-round drum magazine (High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, pp. 28-30; Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 87-89) from the rear end of the car. Cowley in turn was armed with a Division-issue Auto-Ordnance Model 1928AC submachine gun in .45 ACP with a Type L 50-round drum magazine (High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, p. 29; Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 87-89). Cowley probably had fired already during the pursuit, as 13 spent .45 ACP cases were found inside their car. He exited the Hudson on the right side and jumped in the ditch to the side of the highway. Cowley also carried a .38-calibre revolver, probably a Colt Detective Special revolver in .38 Special (High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, p. 13; Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 36-37). Hollis had a Remington Model 11R semiautomatic shotgun in 12-gauge 2.75” (High-Tech: Pulp Guns 1, p. 23; Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 82-83). He exited on the left side and took cover behind their car. After emptying his shotgun twice and thereby presumably exhausting all his ammunition, Hollis drew his Super .38 semiautomatic pistol and retreated to the far side of the highway behind a wooden utilities pole (very light cover, DR 8*, Tactical Shooting, pp. 28, 29).
As the firefight evolved, Gillis, Cowley, and Hollis were mortally wounded. Gillis probably emptied a Type C 100-round drum magazine from the Model 1921A, leaving two Type XX 20-round box magazines fully loaded. Chase heard him complaining that it jammed. Shortly after the firing commenced, Gillis was hit by one – not six – .45-calibre bullet in his abdomen. The bullet went through the liver and pancreas (Vitals hit location, p. B399) – not his intestines. Gillis doubled over and clutched his stomach. He then sat behind their car on the running board and reloaded the weapons for Chase. Chase’s R80 Monitor probably jammed once or twice, since only half-full 20-round magazines were later found. In other words, Gillis took it from Chase and performed a Stoppage Drill (p. B407, High-Tech, p. 81, Tactical Shooting, p. 17), replacing the magazine. Chase later claimed that he only fired six shots from the R80 Monitor during the engagement, and then used his pistol. The Hudson eventually sported some 30 bullet holes. Finally, after about two minutes of shooting, the severely wounded and hurting Gillis had enough and stormed over open ground towards the agents, firing a Winchester Model 07 semiautomatic rifle in .351 Winchester (High-Tech: Pulp Guns 2, pp. 9-10) as he went, probably fitted with an extended 10-round magazine.
During his assault, Gillis took a full blast of buckshot in the legs from Hollis, eight – not 11 – big 8.38 mm (.33”) pellets in the lower left and right leg. He either staggered or fell down but rose again and closed the distance to the agents.
By that time Cowley had emptied his 50-round drum but apparently scored only one hit in the entire fight. Hollis fired 10 shots from his shotgun, which means that he succeeded in a complete reload of the internal magazine while fumbling with individual shotshells (High-Tech, p. 87, Tactical Shooting, p. 20) while under intense fire – no mean feat to remain cool under fire from clearly superior weaponry (Tactical Shooting, p. 34). He also only hit once, though.
Cowley was hit once by a hollow-point bullet to the abdomen while kneeling in the ditch, only fragments remaining in the wound. He remained conscious. The Division of Investigation believed that the fragments came from a .45-calibre projectile. However, hollow-points in .45 ACP were scarce and seldom used at the time, as both the Model 1921A submachine gun and the Government pistol were less than reliable with them. Further, the Division was trying to hang Cowley’s death on Chase, who was the only survivor and who had admitted having used a pistol but not a submachine gun during the shootout. While Cowley’s autopsy is inconclusive regarding the calibre used, it seems unlikely that the violent fragmentation of the bullet matches that of a .45 ACP round – it much better fits a higher velocity rifle round like the .351 Winchester. Further, it is definitive that Gillis used the Model 07 semiautomatic rifle for his assault, neither the Model 1921A submachine gun or the R80 Monitor automatic rifle – Chase stated that Gillis used “the second rifle” for his final assault, that is, not the R80 Monitor automatic rifle he had used at first. Also, eyewitness Robert Eiserman called it a “skinny gun,” a description that only fits the Model 07 rifle. Further, only the Model 07 matches the injuries suffered by Hollis. Gillis hit Hollis at close range with three .351-calibre hollow-point bullets, mortally wounding and knocking him unconscious with one bullet to the head (Skull hit location, p. B399).
Stephen Hunter claimed that Gillis used the R80 Monitor automatic rifle for the assault, as he did not believe the ‒ admittedly incomplete ‒ laboratory reports and did not heed the eyewitnesses, instead relying on a single detail mentioned in the FBI files: a “copper pellet found in the (Division) Hudson is believed to be only the casing of a bullet of .30 caliber.” From this he deduced that Gillis must have been standing close enough to the car that a spent case was ejected into it. However, this is a completely wrong interpretation. The copper “casing” mentioned in the report clearly does not refer to a brass cartridge case, but to a deformed copper bullet jacket, in other words part of a projectile. There is no wonder that one of these would end up in the car, as both Chase and Gillis had been shooting towards it.
Standing around in the open is bad tactics (Tactical Shooting, p. 8). However, sometimes you have to. Gillis was definitely aware of the severity of his wound and that he could not wait for the fight to drag on, so he advanced over open ground, suffering further injury but effectively stopping the fight and allowing them to escape.
Always bring reloads (Tactical Shooting, pp. 20, 79-80). Hollis carried at least one complete reload for his shotgun, but even 10 shots were not enough. Cowley must have figured that 50 rounds ought to do it, but in reality that’s not much in a full-automatic weapon. Also, you should always carry spares in case of jams or other problems that require a change of magazines.
Mortal wounds can still allow you to do a lot, as long as you don’t fall unconscious (p. B399). This, of course, is one of the reasons why people keep shooting at bad guys even after the first hits (Tactical Shooting, p. 16).