If you watched The Highwaymen on Netflix, you may have noticed the use of the Colt Monitor. If you were not familiar with the name, don’t feel too bad. The Monitor is one of the rarest of all of Colt’s firearm designs.
Think of the Monitor as an “upgraded” B.A.R. modified and lightened for law enforcement use. It is referred to, in fact, as the first official “fighting rifle” of the FBI.
The Colt Monitor
by Mike Searson and David Reeder
Browning Automatic Rifle
One of the most iconic infantry weapons of the early 20th century was the Browning Automatic Rifle. Developed in 1918 it saw limited use in WW 1 and became standard issue to the US Army in 1938 as a portable light machine gun. The BAR saw extensive service in both World War II and the Korean War and even saw limited service in the Vietnam War. The US Army began phasing out the BAR in the late 1950s when it was intended to be replaced by a squad automatic weapon (SAW) variant of the M14 and was without a portable light machine gun until the introduction of the M60 machine gun in 1957.
Originally developed when mounted cavalry was still a thing, the BAR was heavy, with some variants weighing over 20 pounds. Spare ammunition, bipods, barrels, and other parts were intended to be carried via horses.
Some attempts were made to make the BAR more ergonomic such as adding a pistol grip, larger forend, and finned barrel. However, they still proved to be a bit heavy and, for the most part, unwieldy.
Colt Monitor Machine Rifle
In 1931, Colt Patent Fire Arms Co. attempted to address these shortcomings and introduced the Monitor Automatic Machine Rifle (R 80). Intended for use as a true shoulder-fired automatic rifle, the Colt Monitor eliminated the bipod and mounted a pistol grip and buttstock to the lightweight receiver. They also shorted the barrel to 18 in. and fitted with a 4 in. Cutts compensator made by Lyman.
Cyclic rate of fire was about 550 rounds per minute and the Cutts Compensator eliminated much of the recoil of the 30-06 Springfield round when fired on full-auto.
What was the Colt Monitor?
It was an evolved version of the B.A.R., but it was still a beast. Tipping the scales at 16 lbs. 3 oz. empty, the Monitor had a rate of fire of approximately 500 rpm.
Typically, the top of the receiver will be marked: “COLT AUTOMATIC MACHINE RIFLE/MODEL R 80 CAL. .30/BROWNING PAT FEB. 4. 1919/APR. 14. 1925, AUG. 4. 1925/COLTS PAT FIREARMS MFG. CO./HARTFORD, CONN. USA”. The raised area behind the ejection port is marked “COLT/MONITOR”. It is fitted with a blade front sight with an integral front sight protector and a tangent rear sight, similar to the Lyman/Thompson SMG sight, that is graduated 2-6 (200-600). It has an all blued metal finish with a walnut stock, forend and pistol grip plates.
Val A. Browning, son of John Browning, with the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) designed by his father, France, 1918. The BAR was one of the first practical automatic rifles. It was produced in record time and approximately 50,000 were made before the war came to an end, however they saw limited action.
The M1918, the most-used type of the BAR, was a selective-fire, air-cooled, gas-operated automatic rifle. It weighed less than 20 pounds, had a rate of fire of 500–650 rpm, was fed using a double-column 20-round box magazine, and chambered in the .30-06 Springfield rifle cartridge.
First issued in September 1918 to the AEF, the BAR arose from the concept of “walking fire”, laying down suppressive fire during an infantry assault in order to pin down enemy defenders. It was lighter than the German MG08/15, and also more reliable than the Chauchat. After the war, many countries began to use the BAR, even acquiring licenses to produce them.
It was the standard squad light automatic of the US infantry during World War II and saw extensive use in every theater of war. The US abandoned the BAR in the middle of the 1950s, though it was retained in reserve stocks for several years and survived in smaller countries until the late 1970s. (Colorized by @coloursofyesterday) Via @combatpix.Colt only produced 125 Monitors. From factory records it can be shown that 90 were purchased by the FBI3 , 11 were purchased by the US Treasury Department and the remainder ended up at state prisons, banks, security companies, and police departments.
Frank Hamer’s Colt Monitor
One of the more famous Colt Monitors was presented to retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer from Colt for his mission to track down Bonnie & Clyde. It bears the serial number C-103168. This was (supposedly) the one depicted in the movie.
This was one of the flaws in The Highwaymen movie. Whether or not Colt presented Hamer with a Monitor, he definitely did not buy one “off the shelf”. Because none of the 125 Monitors manufactured ever went to a civilian gun shop or sporting goods store, at least not in 1934.
The movie showed Hamer’s partner, Manny Gault using the Colt Monitor in the ambush of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Hamer actually loaned the Colt Monitor to Dallas Deputy Ted Hinton.
Hinton was a part of the posse because he knew and could identify on sight both Barrow and Parker.
Some sources say that Hinton borrowed the Monitor from a National Guard Armory, when in fact he borrowed the Monitor from Hamer. The Monitor was never a part of any United States military inventory, much less a Texas National Guard Armory.
If you can find one today that is transferable the price can range from $90,000 to $140,000 and one with a provenance such as Hamer’s would easily double that. You can see what’s available at Rock Island Auction, but you’re gonna want to ask for an increase in your allowance first.
Colt Monitor: The First Official FBI Fighting Rifle
Browning BAR & Colt Monitor
Brownells | From the Vault
1 Of course, it wasn’t just for law enforcement use. Some of the bad guys had them too. John Paul Chase used a Colt Monitor during the 1934 gunfight that ended the career of Lester Joseph “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis. Special Agent Herman E. Hollis and Inspector Samuel P. Cowley of the Department (later Bureau) of Investigation were murdered in that encounter (Hollis was killed on the scene and Cowley died shortly thereafter.
Cowley engaged, but he cannot have done too well, shooting from one racing automobile at another racing automobile on a ribbon of bouncing highway at high speed while the gangsters evaded—they tended to be superb drivers and Les was no exception—and answered in kind. They had three full- or semi-automatic arms: a Thompson in .45 ACP, a Winchester 1907 semi-automatic chambered in .351 Winchester Self-Loading (WSL) and finally, and most terrifyingly, a Colt Monitor, in high-powered .30’-06 Sprg., capable of shredding cars, “bulletproof” vests, most barricades and everything else on earth short of vault steel. But Chase, who was firing the Monitor, never scored the engine hits that would have put the agents out of the game.
On the other hand, the gun cannot have been easy to handle. Though built by Colt and called a “machine rifle,” it was a tactically modified Browning Automatic Rifle, meant for police work, prison guards and industrial security. Colt had built 125 of them in 1931. And as good as it was for law enforcement, it was maybe even better for law breaking. According to an FBI interview with Baby Face associate Joseph “Fatso” Negri, Les had sent two minions to New York to buy “this new machine gun, this new type.” You can readily see why: it was ideal for bank work. The Colt engineers had shortened the stock and barrel, attached a stubby pistol grip behind the trigger guard, enlarged the fore-end, generally lightened it to 14 lbs. and attached a swollen, 12-slot Cutts Compensator to cut down on the muzzle rise that unleashing 20 .30-’06s in two seconds must inevitably generate.
Battle at Barrington, Stephen Hunter: https://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/2017/5/4/a-battle-at-barrington-the-men-the-guns/
2 If you’re researching the Colt Monitor, you probably ought to read Ballou.
In 1931, Colt introduced a BAR specifically geared for the law enforcement community. It was a commercial Browning Automatic Rifle with a pistol grip, shortened barrel and an elaborate compensator. The first two were shipped to Charlestown Prison (later to become Bunker Hill Community College) in Boston, MA on March 25, 1931. (Serial No’s C-102792, C-102793). The official factory designation was R-80 and commonly known as the “Monitor”.
The FBI purchased approximately 90 Monitors and put them on display in a series of propaganda films depicting Mr. Hoover overseeing some of his agents firing (with tracer) at cars. The Monitor did its job well and soon the cars were chopped to pieces by the armor piercing .30-06. This was Mr. Hoover’s weapon of mass destruction as it put his men on equal footing with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde. The Monitor was the first official “Fighting Rifle” of the FBI.
Small Arms Review, J. Edgar Hoover’s WMD, James L. Ballou. http://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=1929
3 Early Dept. of Investigation training and courses of fire, to include the Colt Monitor.
This article first appeared in April 2019.
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