The Eastern Airlines Colt Anti-Hijacker Revolver

Hijacking airliners was like an international sport in the 1960s and early 1970s. Political activists, criminals, folk legends (looking at YOU, D.B. Cooper, wherever you are), and more than a few psychos tried their hand at knocking over airplanes to further whatever goal they had in their twisted little minds. It never ended well, but it sure grabbed headlines. The peak was 1972, which saw literally dozens of dirtbags whip out a gun and play terrorist in the friendly skies.

What to Do?

The Federal Sky Marshal program had been a thing since 1968, but after the 1972 surge, Jonathan Edward Shields, security chief for Eastern Airlines, decided that Eastern should be responsible for its own security. Shields pushed for more intensive screening of passengers before boarding, a move that the airlines resisted because they were afraid passengers wouldn’t put up with the invasion of their privacy, costing the airlines business. Seems strange nowadays, but that’s what they thought.

Shields also advocated arming the pilots as an alternative to relying on Sky Marshals. One of his reasons for this was that a Sky Marshal took up a seat that the airline could otherwise use for a paying passenger, so there was at least a little bit of a bean counter in him. How the pilots were supposed to counter the threat of an armed hijacker while also flying the plane seems not to have entered into the equation. Seems to me that a setup like that only ceded more of the initiative to the hijacker. But what do I know?

Colt Airline Pilot revolver
Eastern Airlines turned to Colt to develop a special anti-hijacker revolver for their pilots.

Anyway, Shields approached Colt about designing a revolver for the pilots to keep in the cockpit. It couldn’t just be your average six-shooter, either, which Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons tells us about in this video:

Technical Problems

Shields identified some real concerns that would have to be overcome in the design. First, there was the fear of shooting holes in the aircraft or blowing out a window, which could be a problem at 30,000 feet. Actually, as Ian mentions, it isn’t as big a deal as it’s often thought unless you punch really big holes or take out multiple windows, but it was thought to be so in 1972.

Ian McCollum Colt Anti-hijacker revolver
Ian McCollum works his magic again to show us this rare firearm.

The real problem is that folks are packed in pretty tight on airliners, creating what Ian rightly describes as a “target-dense environment.” It wouldn’t be hard to accidentally shoot a passenger in a fluid situation involving keyed-up people whose firearms training would almost certainly be subpar. All while trying to fly the plane. Yeah, I know, autopilot. Whatever. Still a bad scenario. Plus, even if the armed pilot managed to hit the aerial desperado, the danger of an over-penetrating round hitting a passenger would be very real. At this point, I have to believe that the airline’s lawyers were starting to take notice of the gaping liability issues here.

The Anti-Hijacker Revolver — A Solution. Sort of.

But the Colt subsidiary of Colt Technik came up with a solution and Ian shows us an example of it. “It” is a revamped Colt Lawman Model V. They also used the Lawman Model III, but this one is a Model V. Since it’s an experimental thing, the barrel is still stamped “.357 Magnum CTG.”

Pilot revolver prototype
This anti-hijacker revolver prototype was built from a Colt Lawman Model V. Model IIIs were also used.

But this ain’t no .357 Magnum. Instead, the anti-hijacker revolver would fire projectiles made of, I kid you not, plaster of Paris. Yep, that same stuff we all used in elementary school art class to make whatever treasures we took home to our no-doubt proud parents. The idea was that the projectile would disintegrate on impact, though it allegedly packed enough punch to incapacitate anyone it hit. So, you don’t kill the hijacker, but you render him harmless, allowing the heroic passengers and flight attendants to deal with the miscreant at their leisure. Also, a missed shot wouldn’t kill any paying customers and there was no danger of over penetration or turning the plane into an airborne sieve.

Now, obviously, you can’t just pick up any old Colt revolver and shoot plaster of Paris rounds out of it. It’s just not done. So, Colt Technik designed a plastic cylinder pre-loaded with six rounds of the special ammo. Each chamber was fitted with a steel sleeve to hold up to the recoil. When the cylinder was empty, the shooter would pop it out and reload by putting in another pre-loaded cylinder. Pretty slick, actually. Kind of like a magazine, but not. Because of this, there was no ejector mechanism. No word on whether the cylinders could be reloaded by a qualified someone, but since the development never got that far, it doesn’t matter anyway.

The projectiles, (Ian hesitates to call them bullets, and I agree), were encased in a plastic sabot by which they engaged the rifling in the barrel. This was necessary because the rifling would cause the disintegration of the plaster of Paris before it could hit the bad guy, which might just be a problem. Because of their component material, the projectiles were also vulnerable to moisture, even ordinary humidity. So, the front of each chamber in the gun’s cylinder was sealed to keep everything dry until it was Huckleberry time (I’m a Doc Holliday fanboy. Sue me).

pilot gun pre-loaded cylinder
The anti-hijacker revolver featured a pre-loaded cylinder that would be switched out for a new one when it was time to reload. Note the steel sleeves in the chambers.

A Better Idea

As noted, this project, probably thankfully, never got past the prototype stage, so Ian’s example doesn’t quite have all the features, like the easily removable cylinder. Shields never went through with arming Eastern’s pilots, and the Sky Marshals continued to ride for free. By the mid-‘70s, the airlines recognized the need to tighten security at the airports and, surprise, surprise, nobody complained, though such measures seem quaint to us today.

As I said before, the lawyers had to be involved in this to a certain degree. This whole idea just screams “lawsuit” to me. That also seems to be the case when you look at the interesting handling protocols the pilots were supposed to use with the guns, had they ever been issued. Ian notes that, when not actively on flight duty, the pilot and co-pilot were each supposed to take one part of the gun. One would take the frame and the other the cylinder. They would only put it back together when they were in the cockpit and ready to fly.

Look, I think pilots are awesome and I often wish I could be one. One of my good friends is an airline pilot. But all that sounds like a lot of trouble to me, when you could just have a trained Sky Marshal worry about things while your pilots do what they are supremely qualified to do, like, I don’t know…fly the plane. Fortunately, Eastern Airlines saw it the same way and the anti-hijacker revolver project was scrapped. The prototypes were sold…for $9.95 apiece. Pretty sweet deal.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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