Monday, December 7, 2015

The Guns of Helter Skelter

For two months in the summer of 1969 violence rode in the winds over Los Angeles, California. It started with the shooting of Bernard Crowe in a Hollywood apartment in the earliest days of July and ended with the stabbing death of Donald "Shorty" Shea near Spahn's Movie Ranch almost two months later. In between those two events eight other persons would lose their lives in a series of slayings that culminated in the infamous Tate-LaBianca or "Helter Skelter" murders on the nights of August 8-9. In its entirety the Tate-LaBianca case is one of the most complicated in the annals of crime. There were many different victims, killers, locations, dates, motives, methods of mayhem, and weapons involved, including many different kinds of guns. The recent MF Blog about Shorty Shea's guns made me think of all of the firearms connected with TLB, either directly or indirectly, and after some contemplation I came up with the following list. Herewith, then, in order of their chronological appearances that summer, is a catalog of the Guns of Helter Skelter.

The first gun in the series -- a .22 caliber nine-shot Hi Standard Ned Buntline revolver -- was the most important, because it was also the most widely used and deadly. In early July of 1969 Charles Manson shot the drug dealer Bernard Crowe with it in an act if self-defense while attempting to mollify Crowe after he was angered by being ripped off by Charles "Tex" Watson. That presumed fatal shooting set off the violent chain of events which eventually led to the murders on Cielo and Waverly Drives. The same revolver was used to lethal effect at the former address, where Watson used it to shoot and bludgeon three people to death. 

 The .22 caliber Hi Standard Buntline revolver used in the shooting of Bernard Crowe and the murders of Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, and Voytek Frykowski (Photo courtesy of

A nine-shot Hi Standard Buntline with the cylinder open

The origins of this particular firearm are murky. According to Vincent Bugliosi in Helter Skelter, "The gun, serial number 1902708, had been among a number of weapons taken from the Archery Headquarters in El Monte, California, during a burglary on the night of March 12, 1969. According to [Randy] Starr, he obtained it in trade with a man known only as "Ron." Manson was always borrowing the gun for target practice, and Randy finally gave it to him in trade for a truck that had belonged to Danny DeCarlo." (Manson implied in his 1986 interview with Charlie Rose that the "Ron" who was the source of this gun was then President Ronald Reagan.)

After the murders on Cielo Drive the gun was tossed out of the car window by the fleeing killers. It was found by a boy and turned in to the Los Angeles Police Department on September 1, 1969, but wasn't connected with the Tate murders until later, a cause of much subsequent  hand-wringing by Bugliosi over the Keystone Kops incompetence of LAPD.

In Helter Skelter Vincent Bugliosi used the search for the Buntline as another excuse 
to point out the incompetence of L.A. law enforcement.

If you want a Buntline today, this one should do.

The second firearm relevant to the sometimes savage summer of 1969 was used during an event which was sandwiched between the shooting of Bernard Crowe and the murders at the Polanski residence, namely the assault and murder of Gary Hinman at his home on Old Topanga Canyon Road on July 25-27, 1969. Although Hinman was beaten and stabbed to death, a firearm still figured in the overall occurrence. According to the January 27, 1970 police report of the incident: 

"On January 8, 1970, at the request of Sgt. Whitely, Homicide Bureau, Undersigned conducted an examination at 964 Old Topanga Canyon Road, Malibu, for bullets and bullet holes.

"What appears to be a bullet hole was observed in a wood upright portion of a cabinet under the sink in the kitchen. This piece of wood was removed for possible further examination.

"A bullet was recovered from the inside of the exterior wall immediately behind the sink. The bullet is 9 mm jacketed weighing approximately 126 grams and was fired in a weapon having six lands and grooves with a right twist and a land to groove ratio of approximately one to one.

"Bullets on file in this office with similar characteristics to the recovered bullet include those fired in Astra, Browning, Lugar [sic], Radon [sic], Star, and Walther semi-automatic pistols." (Thank you,!)

The gun used in that incident was in fact a 9 millimeter Radom automatic pistol loaned to Bobby Beausoleil by Bruce Davis to be used to help persuade Hinman to refund money due to Beausoleil as the result of a failed drug transaction. According to Danny DeCarlo, Davis purchased the gun at a gun store in Canoga Park about a month earlier.

A 9 mm Radom pistol

Radom automatics were military pistols designed and manufactured in Poland starting in 1935. After the German invasion of that country in the fall of 1939 Germany took over production of the weapon and continued to make them until the end of the war. Radom pistols have an excellent reputation and are regarded in firearms circles as one of the finest military sidearms ever made. If you want to buy one today you can, but it will cost you.

A current Internet ad for a Radom 

One gun I can't present here is the gun that was supposedly along on the night that Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were slain. Never accounted for before or since that night, the gun (according to Linda Kasabian during her trial testimony and Charles Watson in his book Will You Die For Me?) was wielded by Charles Manson during an aborted assault on the driver of a sports car on Sunset Boulevard. Manson also supposedly used this gun to cover the LaBiancas while Charles Watson tied them up (or, variously, while he tied them up himself). Linda Kasabian claimed to have seen the gun "on several occasions" that night but she was unable to give any kind of description of it, even as to whether it was a revolver or a pistol. One version of events says that this gun was buried on the beach by Steve Grogan. It has never been recovered.

But the guns that definitely were in the house at 3301 Waverly Drive that night were those belonging to Leno LaBianca himself. An apparent aficionado of the old west, LaBianca had an impressive collection of 19th century firearms that included several varieties of Colt-type Navy revolvers, a nickel plated 1858 model Smith & Wesson revolver, two Colt "Peacemaker" single-action revolvers, and a muzzle-loading dragoon pistol. Probably unnoticed by the killers, these classic guns were discovered in the house by police officers investigating the murders. Their value (and that of a coin collection and other valuables still in the house) was part of the reason that authorities were disinclined to believe that robbery was the motive for the killings.

Leno LaBianca's gun collection (courtesy of

A replica of an 1851 Navy Colt revolver

Internet auction for a genuine Navy Colt

LIke Bruce Davis' Radom, the next gun in this series also arose out of the Second World War. During the raid on Spahn's Movie Ranch on August 16, 1969 authorities recovered the infamous "submachine gun in its violin case" pictured in the book Helter Skelter. This weapon a Maschinenpistole (MP)-40, was discovered during the raid along with several long guns in a room that has been described as a "gun room" but was actually just the room that Danny DeCarlo was temporarily residing in with his guns. 

An assortment of Danny DeCarlo's firearms found during the August 16, 1969 raid on Spahn's Ranch

Danny DeCarlo's MP-40 as presented in Helter Skelter

The same gun during the August 16, 1969 raid 

Sometimes incorrectly referred to as a Schmeisser, the Maschinenpistole (MP)-40 was a workhorse of the German Wehrmacht during World War Two. After the war stockpiles of the weapons were distributed into the international gun world by the victorious Allies and some examples continued to be used in combat situations as late as the Vietnam War.

A beautiful example of a Maschinenpistole-40 submachine gun

If you thought the Radom was expensive, then don't even think about acquiring an MP-40. Even if you could get a license to own one the cost of buying a genuine wartime example is astronomical. 

Check out the price on this offering!

The next guns to be connected in sequence to the events of the summer of 1969 were the matching set of .45 caliber pistols belonging to Donald "Shorty" Shea, the complete story of which you can read here.

Shorty Shea's guns 

Guns figured in the immediate aftermath of the Hinman-Tate-LaBianca-Shea murders as well, most notably when they were used to propaganda effect in the 1973 Robert Hendrickson/Laurence Merrick documentary Manson. That film features several segments where Nancy Pittman, Lynette Fromme, and Sandra Good handle an assortment of long guns. And there is also a famous still photograph from the film of Steve Grogan holding a large caliber revolver of unknown manufacture.

Nancy, Lyn, and Sandy with shotgun and rifles

Steve Grogan and revolver

Other weapons later associated with persons and events connected to the so-called "Manson Family" include the .22 caliber Iver & Johnson revolver with which John Philip "Zero" Haught either intentionally or accidentally killed himself in Venice, California on November 5, 1969, and those used in the shootout at the Hawthorne Western Surplus store on August 21, 1971 (over one hundred firearms were ultimately involved in that incident!). But both of those events were separate incidents that occurred after the murderous Helter Skelter summer of 1969, and they did not directly reflect on the Tate-LaBianca murders and the acts of violence related to them (Crowe, HInman, and Shea) as did the girls' propagandistic posturing in Manson, and therefore they are beyond the scope of this post.