Situation: An attempted assassination turns into a giant cluster of confusion and malfunctioning weapons.

Lesson: Guns that don’t work can’t stop the people trying to kill you. Always have a backup plan in case the first plan fails. When the fight is over, some will get your story wrong.

Gunfights are hard to reconstruct.

Every witness has only their point of view from their particular angle. Tunnel vision and auditory exclusion — inattentional blindness and inattentional deafness — occur with witnesses and participants alike. Those who investigate may never get the stories of some participants because those people are dead. Some who talk or write about it later may selectively amplify “this thing” and deliberately overlook “that element.”

A classic example is the shootout between the Earp and McLaury factions in Tombstone, Ariz., near the O.K. Corral in 1881. To this day, historians debate exactly who shot who, whether Doc Holliday’s shotgun was 10 gauge or 12, and whether Wyatt Earp wielded a Colt or an S&W — and if the former whether it had a 7.5″ barrel or longer. The great 20th Century gunfighter and gun writer Charles Askins, Jr. maintained Wyatt Earp put bullets into all three of the men who died, while the late Old West historian Michael Hickey was convinced until the end of his life the only blood Wyatt Earp spilled that day came from Tom McLaury’s horse.

We offer you another famous shooting incident in which historians wildly disagree as to some of the guns used, who fired and who didn’t, and even dispute precisely what killed the only fatality in an exchange of gunfire that would ripple out into many more deaths in the events following the incident.

It was a gunfight that Mack Sennett, the creator of the “Keystone Kops” in the old silent films, might have choreographed. It appears three of the four firearms deployed in the incident failed to fire at some point, and the one thrown explosive didn’t land in the intended spot.

We now explore the death of one of the most wicked participants in the Second World War. Reinhard Heydrich was chief of Reich security at the time of his demise and also the acting governor of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and Moravia. Except for Adolf Hitler, few men were hated more during World War II than Heydrich. He was among the highest-ranking Nazis and a co-architect of the Holocaust, reporting only to Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself. Many called him “The Hangman” for all his genocidal murders. In Czechoslovakia, he was called “The Butcher of Prague” for his atrocities in that country. Hitler treated him like a favored son and said Heydrich was “The Man with the Iron Heart.” And one historian said of him, “He is a man of outstanding significance, a criminal mind of Luciferic grandeur.”

In the old days of the American West, it would be said of such a man, “That sumbitch needed killin’.” And that was precisely his fate. While the word “assassination” generally connotes a cowardly murder, in this case, it was deemed a necessary extermination of one of the world’s evilest human beings.

The Assassination: An Overview

Let me quote from my review of Giles Milton’s excellent book Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, which appeared in my blog “Ayoob on Firearms” at

“The year was 1942. The designated hit men, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, had been trained
by the British group Milton writes about, the Special Operations Executive. Milton relates, ‘Gabcik and Kubis were to be disguised as street cleaners and were to begin sweeping the road at a selected corner. Their explosives and arms were to be concealed in their dustman’s barrow.’ If (their) grenade failed to kill Heydrich, they were to shoot him ‘at close quarters (with small arms).’

“When Heydrich’s chauffeured vehicle passed them at close range, Gabcik whipped up the Sten and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened: The submachine gun had ‘jammed.’ An enraged Heydrich drew his pistol and ordered his driver to halt just as Kubis lobbed a grenade. Specially built by Churchill’s pet scientists for maximum power, the grenade hit by a rear tire but still exploded with enough power to mortally wound Nazi Germany’s chief mass murderer.”

Milton narrates what happened next.

“Kubis had been hit by the flying shrapnel, and blood was streaming into his eyes. Through a veil of blood, he saw (Heydrich’s chauffeur Johannes) Klein jump from the car and run towards him, pistol drawn. Gabcik had managed to avoid the shrapnel, but he was horrified to see Heydrich drag himself from the vehicle and level his gun. He was lurching forward, shouting wildly as he prepared to fire. Gabcik ditched his jammed Sten and drew his Colt, taking potshots at Heydrich from behind a telegraph pole.

“Kubis wiped the blood from his eyes, dodged Klein’s bullets and jumped onto his bicycle. Klein took aim once again and tried to bring down the fleeing Kubis with a hail of bullets. But his gun also jammed, enabling Kubis to get away …

“The situation was more desperate for Gabcik. He was caught in a shootout with Heydrich and risked being either shot or captured. But as he was ducking the bullets ­— suddenly — the unexpected happened. Heydrich staggered to the side of the road and collapsed in agony.
“Both of the Czech patriots escaped the scene. Heydrich died a few days later from sepsis due to shrapnel wounds from the powerful grenade created by Cecil Clarke, one of the scientists in Churchill’s elite unit. While the Nazis inflicted severe reprisals on the Czech citizenry, many historians believe that overall, Heydrich’s death saved more innocent lives than it cost.”

That was the general story. Now, let’s get into some details.

The Weapons

There is broad disagreement about the three handguns drawn during this incident but none about the one long gun that was deployed. Gabcik was unquestionably armed with a 9mm British submachine gun. It was compact enough to be easily folded or disassembled to hide from view until brought into action. The Sten gun, as it’s usually spelled, should probably be spelled in all caps as STEN because it’s neither a nickname nor a contraction but an acronym. The name pays homage to both the designers and the manufacturer.

Handgunner’s own Dr. Will Dabbs explains, “The word Sten was a portmanteau combining the last names of the gun’s designers, Major Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin, along with EN for the Enfield factory where it was designed. In its simplest form, the Sten gun had a mere 59 parts and cost $10 to build ($160 today, or about one-seventh the cost of a wartime Thompson).”

Regarding the three handguns, though, historians can agree on only two things. One is that the Germans were using German-made pistols, and the Czech freedom fighters, American-made semi-automatic pistols, only one of which was fired during that particular incident. The other is that the pistol fired by the one Czech, Gabcik, was a Colt.

Johannes Klein, Heydrich’s chauffeur and sole bodyguard, was the first to fire shots. Different documentaries and history articles have him shooting a Walther PPK, a Walther P-38, or a Luger.

Heydrich himself was seen to draw a pistol, stand up in his open-top Mercedes and take aim, and then pursue Gabcik for a short distance on foot before doubling over in apparent great pain. While some accounts have him shooting at Gabcik and missing, others have Heydrich not firing a shot. We’ll return to that matter shortly.

What pistol did Heydrich draw? Accounts by historians and documentarians again vary wildly. Some say a Walther PP or PPK; some say a Walther P-38, but most, including Wikipedia, insist it was a Luger.

The Nazis investigated this incident thoroughly and produced a detailed report. With typical Teutonic precision, one would presume it would have detailed these things down to the serial numbers. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find it. If any of our readers can lead us to a copy, please advise me via Handgunner’s editor.

Almost every source indicates the Czechs had been issued Colt Pocket Model autos, usually described as the 1903 model, which would have been .32 ACP as opposed to the .380 ACP Model of 1908. These guns were definitely out there in the European Theater, issued to some OSS operatives and among the handguns general officers of the U.S. Army were authorized to be issued. General George Patton, Jr. had a 1908 .380 which he rarely carried. The Allies’ Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, chose another option, the .38 Colt Detective Special, which he wore concealed as an early adopter of appendix inside-the-waistband carry.

However, in his authoritative book on the SOE’s operations such as this one, Giles Milton wrote, “If (their) grenade failed to kill Heydrich, they were to shoot him ‘at close quarters with their Colt .38 Super.’ ”

The assassination plan — the third, after two other plans had proven logistically impossible — was for the Czechs to ambush Heydrich in his open-top Mercedes convertible at a hairpin turn on what intelligence had established would be his route of the day, where his driver would have to slow to a crawl. If the plan was to shoot through an automobile, that was exactly what the Colt .38 Super was designed for! Introduced in 1929, its purpose was to shoot through auto bodies to defeat the “motor bandits” dominating crime stories in American newspaper headlines. Its pointy-nose copper jacketed 130-grain bullet at over 1,200 feet per second, with nine rounds in the magazine and a tenth in the firing chamber, would have been the right tool for the job. The Special Operations Executive group, which oversaw the assassination plan, had access to the advice of their elite commando trainers, William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes. Fairbairn had armed his Shanghai police earlier with the same platform, the Colt Government Model 1911, albeit in .45 caliber, and proven its worth in combat. For this assignment, the .38 Super version would have been perfectly logical.

The “Jam-O-Matic” Factor

Even the bomb-thrower screwed up a little bit: The grenade he aimed at the open cockpit of the Mercedes, had it landed where it intended, was powerful enough it could have instantly killed both Heydrich and his driver. Instead, it landed to the side, inflicting a long-term mortal wound. Because it was an anti-tank grenade, significantly larger and heavier than the fragmentation grenade an infantryman like Kubis would have been familiar with, it has been suggested the fault may have rested with the trainers for not giving Kubis enough practice time lobbing the heavy explosive.

Why did the STEN gun jam and never fire a single shot? Those who’ve seen the German government’s report say the Nazis attributed it to “panic” on the part of the Czech soldier, but that would be in keeping with Nazi propaganda theory that all but the Germans were incompetent fools. Most who have impartially studied this incident believe that, because to keep it from the eyes of occupying Nazi authorities, the STEN gun had been secreted in a container of rabbit food, some organic matter had gotten into the mechanism causing the malfunction.

By all accounts, when bodyguard/chauffeur Johannes Klein ran after the Czechs, shooting as he went, his pistol jammed. According to a majority of accounts, the magazine fell out. This would be consistent with clumsily, accidentally hitting the side-button magazine release on a PPK or a Luger. It would also be consistent with the butt-heel magazine release of a P-38 carried in a straight-draw hip holster being inadvertently activated by rubbing against the back of the driver’s seat, partially dropping the mag. Either would explain witness stories of Klein firing one shot before the pistol stopped working, which would require a tap-rack or a reload to get it back up and running.

Of all the guns deployed there that day, only Gabcik’s worked. His Colt ran flawlessly when he fired warning shots into the air to scatter pedestrians in the way of his flight on foot, and for the shots he fired that put Klein down and allowed Gabcik to finally escape on a passing tram. (Some accounts have him hitting Klein’s knee, some say the shin, and some say both.)

Which, as far as the guns, leaves us with Heydrich himself. What could account for the many witnesses’ observation that Heydrich pointed his gun at his assassin but didn’t fire a shot and the certainty that he didn’t shoot anyone at all? Some thought Heydrich did fire but bear in mind the three men with pistols were well apart from one another, and all were moving. Witnesses seeing them and hearing gunfire might well have been unable to see who was firing when and assumed that all were shooting.

The answer may be in the book The Hangman and His Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich by Nancy Dougherty. Biographer Dougherty intensively interviewed Frau Lina Heydrich. The Butcher’s widow was an apologist for the Nazis and a Holocaust denier, but she was also high in the Third Reich pantheon and had access to the inside stories from the official investigations of her husband’s assassination. With all that insider information, the late Nancy Dougherty ended her chapter on the assassination with this: “Afterward, the Gestapo discovered that the chief of Reich security had not bothered to load his gun.”

Who Or What Killed?

Here, theorists have created something murky. Regarding the proximate cause of Heydrich’s death, heroic Czech patriot Jan Kubis killed him with a thrown anti-tank grenade.

Some historians say medical malpractice killed Heydrich, whose cause of death was variously attributed to infection, sepsis and blood poisoning. That’s sort of “po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to.” However, Hitler sent his personal physician to treat Heydrich, and historians debate whether or not that doctor administered the proper antibiotics or waited too long to do so.

And some say poison killed Reinhard Heydrich. Theories have been put forth that botulism or other toxins had been implanted in the anti-tank grenade by British technicians. That has never been proven.

One can argue Heydrich’s own hubris killed him. Anyone with a functioning brain should realize that when you are the most hated person in the area you govern, you are a target for assassination. Other Germans — reportedly including Albert Speer, the industrialist “armorer of the Third Reich” — had warned him he should be in a bulletproof limousine and accompanied by vehicles full of guards, but Heydrich had blown them off because he thought the Czech peasants were undermenschen, cowardly lesser humans who would not dare challenge him. Part of the foreign matter causing the infection, which fatally complicated his wounds, was horsehair from the luxurious upholstery he had expressly ordered for greater comfort in his Mercedes, in which he liked to ride with the top down in the pleasant European spring. When Kubcik became visible to him with the jammed STEN, Heydrich could have seen no other opponents. All historians agree he expressly ordered his driver Klein to stop and engage when he could have let him follow his presumable orders and accelerate out of the kill zone to escape the ambush unharmed.


The Nazis hunted down those who killed their prominent monster, finally catching up to them at a cathedral in Prague where they had taken refuge. In a siege that lasted some six hours, the Czechs managed to kill 14 Nazis and wound another 21. Gabcik, a combat veteran, is presumed to have shared in that enemy death toll before the situation became hopeless. Gabcik then shot himself, presumably with the Colt, and Kubis died shortly thereafter from wounds inflicted by a German hand grenade during the siege. The Nazi revenge was of legendary proportion: The Holocaust Museum would later report, “An outraged Adolf Hitler demanded the murder of up to 10,000 Czechs as revenge for the attack.” The entire Czech village of Lidice was destroyed, one of the great atrocities of that war, with at least 340 innocent men, women and children murdered by the Nazis there alone.


Learn from your enemies as well as your friends.

If you think you might be in a gunfight, make sure you have operable weapons!

If you are the target instead of the shooter, often getting out of the line of fire will save your life more effectively than returning fire. The objective is to survive, not to kill your opponent; neutralizing the opponent is simply one option for achieving the objective of survival.

Never underestimate your opponent. The arrogant Heydrich thought he faced only one incompetent fool with an unshootable gun. In fact, he was up against multiple powerfully motivated combat veterans highly trained by enemy forces. There was backup he couldn’t see.

Consider potential “corollary casualties.” The plainclothes Czech commando team that took out Heydrich knew they were on something close to a suicide mission, and it pretty much turned out that way. Churchill and the other Allied leaders who approved the mission had to have anticipated the savage revenge the Nazis would take upon the innocent in places like Lidice. Their assessment of the English common law principle of the doctrine of competing harms — one must take the lesser evil over the greater evil — had convinced them killing Heydrich was worth the innocent deaths that would follow for the greater good.

I strongly suspect the price exacted at Lidice and beyond haunted the great Sir Winston Churchill and his peers to their dying days.

Partial Bibliography: Will Dabbs, MD.; Nancy Dougherty. The Hangman and His Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012;; Giles Milton. Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare;; Defense media network:; Charles River Editors. The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

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