Gunsmith to the Gangsters

by Travis Johnson

When you’re heading down into the ghoul tunnels or about to mount that final, fateful raid on the vampire lord’s lair, you’re going to want a little more bang for your buck than you can find at your local sporting goods store. Sure, the judicious use of Preparedness and Network can tip the odds in your favour, but if you want something really special, you’re going to need to talk to an expert. You’re going to need Hymie Lebman, gunsmith to the gangsters – a real guy who really did supply some really nifty firepower to some really bad hombres back in the day.

Here’s Hymie

Hyman Saul “Hymie” Lebman (1903–1990) aka Hyman S. Lehman, could have had a respectable life operating his gun and saddlery store in 1930s San Antonio, Texas – and by many lights, he did. After all, Lebman swore to his dying day that he had no idea his best customers were some of the most notorious gangsters of the Great Depression.

Starting in June 1933, but possibly earlier, Lebman sold firearms to John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and more. Gangsters from all over the Midwest made the trek to San Antonio to sample Hymie’s wares – the gunsmith even hosted Nelson, his wife, and fellow outlaw Homer Van Meter for Thanksgiving of that year, which casts at least a little doubt on claims of ignorance regarding his customers’ trade.

After weapons traceable to Lebman began showing up at crime scenes, most notably at Wisconsin’s Little Bohemia Lodge after the shootout between the Dillinger Gang and Melvin Purvis’ G-men in April, 1934, the feds soon came calling. Lebman cooperated, supplying the authorities with a list of guns he’d sold to his criminal clients, which helped them run Dillinger and his boys to ground.

Hymie barely escaped prison himself. Although owning, making, and selling machine guns was perfectly legal at the federal level until the National Firearms Act came into effect on July 26, 1934, mere months after the battle at Little Bohemia Lodge, he ran afoul of a similar Texas statute and was sentenced to five years. On appeal, his second trial resulted in a hung jury thanks to a single holdout, and Lebman walked free. He continued to work as a gunsmith until 1976, when he retired due to Alzheimer’s disease, eventually passing away in 1990 at the age of 87.

But wait, did we say machine guns? And why were all these bank robbers beating a path to Hymie’s door?

The Baby Machine Gun

Lebman’s signature innovation wasn’t the first machine pistol but it’s impressive, nonetheless. Take a Colt 1911 semiautomatic pistol chambered in .45 or .38 Super (all the better for ploughing through police body armour) and convert it to full auto. A Cutts compensator on the muzzle and a Thompson SMG foregrip below helped control recoil, while an extended magazine made sure you didn’t run dry on the first pull of the trigger. The end result is compact, reasonably concealable, and capable of unleashing a staggering amount of firepower – just the thing for the gangster on the go.

Whether the first baby machine gun was a pet project or a commissioned piece for a client is hard to say, but once they started showing up in the criminal demimonde, they proved popular.  You can see one in action wielded by Stephen Graham’s Baby Face Nelson in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (in the Little Bohemia Grove sequence, naturally). Lebman did plenty of other work, such as modifying Winchester Model 1907 rifles for autofire, but the baby machine gun is his most famous creation.

Hymie Lebman in Your Game

Whether as ally, antagonist, witness, or victim. Lebman is a perfect fit for a Trail of Cthulhu campaign, especially one rooted in the criminal underworld. His most obvious use is as a quartermaster for the Investigators. A generous Keeper will simply point the players towards him; the less kind might employ Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s Correspondence rules and require a spend.

He slots neatly into The Fall of DELTA GREEN, too, with a little fiddling. Operatives in need of off-the-books munitions capable of making a Deep One rethink his life choices will be amazed at what the humble Texan can do with 1960s technology and a slush fund. Sure, he could just be an unwitting accomplice, but perhaps he’s on the conspiratorial hook – just how was the National Firearms Act rammed through with such perfect timing, and who was that lone voice of dissent on the jury?

A modern Night’s Black Agents game does have to contend with the fact of Hymie’s death in 1990, but that’s hardly a major obstacle in a game where the undead stalk the streets. As a Renfield, Lebman could be making weapons for the Conspiracy or the American Vampire Program, depending on who got to him first. For games set prior to 1976, buy him as a Contact with points from Network. And it goes without saying that Dracula Dossier Directors should have no problems connecting him to fellow Texan firearms fan Quincy Morris or one of his legacies.

Custom Firearms in Gumshoe

Even in the action-oriented Night’s Black Agents, GUMSHOE’s combat roles are deliberately abstract, and the weapons stats don’t lend themselves to endless tweaking. Handle custom weapons with Trail of Cthulhu’s Dedicated Pool Points rule, which gives the player a bonus pool of dice to employ when certain conditions are met. A fine custom rifle might confer a pool of four dice only usable at longer ranges, for example.

A baby machine gun confers four Dedicated Pool Points, with the catch that the player must spend at least two points per attack roll, modelling both the gun’s ridiculous rate of fire and limited magazine size. When your Firearms or Shooting pool hits zero, it’s time to pull out a new weapon – you’ve blown through your extended clips. Or swap earlier to conserve your points.

Of course, players tend to want to hold onto anything that gives them a combat advantage, which can affect game balance and challenge. The obvious solution is to simply not let them – there’s always a way to take their toys away. If they’re being particularly careful, you can always buff your bad guys and bump up the threat level when they start relying on tools over talent. And if you’re using the Heat rule from Night’s Black Agents, remember that running around blasting humans and horrors alike with a very unique gun is going to make your Agents much easier to track. Ideally you want custom weapons to be one scene wonders rather than permanent buffs – they should add fun and flavour to a climactic scene, and not be just a convenient way to burn through today’s roster of mooks.

And finally, Lebman’s guns (and unique weapons in general) make great clues. A one point investigative spend from Firearms or Shooting lets you know a custom gun’s provenance, which will put you on the road to Texas – or hell, whichever comes first.

Travis Johnson is a professional film critic and an amateur gamer. He started with Call of Cthulhu at the age of 12 and has been chasing that high ever since. You can find most of his work via Rotten Tomatoes, but he crops up all over the place.

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