Two Criminals and The American 180 Submachine Gun: 1,200 RPM Rimfire Ripper

The American 180 was a drum-fed, selective-fire rimfire submachine gun originally intended for Law Enforcement applications. Note the empties pouring out of the bottom during this long burst.

It was November of 1974 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While the weather in such places as North Dakota and Illinois was already abysmal, the legendary Florida sunshine still kept things warm and cheery. This day, however, there was some serious mischief afoot.

In the early seventies, the Chevrolet Camaro was the archetypal American muscle car.

The names of the two bad guys have been lost to history, though I have read that they were originally wanted for burglary. We know that they were stopped by Officers Mike Gilo and Gary Jones of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department while driving a flashy Chevrolet Camaro. In 1974 the gas crisis had not yet castrated American muscle cars, so the Camaro still had ample spunk.

Everything fundamentally changed when one of the suspects produced a handgun and began firing at police officers.

Things got tense, and Officers Gilo and Jones retrieved their long guns. In a veritable fit of stupidity, the passenger side perp produced a handgun and fired. Shooting at well-armed police officers seldom ends well.

With 11 million copies in service, the Remington 870 is the most popular shotgun ever produced.

Officer Jones leveled his issue slide-action 12-gauge shotgun and cut loose with a load of buckshot. The resulting cloud of 0.33-inch lead balls tore up the hot rod but otherwise failed to connect. Officer Gilo, however, wielded something else entirely.

The American 180 .22-caliber submachine gun was a unique weapon marketed primarily to Law Enforcement users.

Mike Gilo hefted his fully automatic American 180 .22-caliber submachine gun, jacked the bolt to the rear, and took a bead on the car. Squeezing the trigger he unlimbered a fusillade of zippy little 40-grain lead bullets at some 1,200 rounds per minute into the vehicle’s rear window.

The American 180 Submachine Gun

The philosophical similarities between the American 180 and the WW1-era Lewis gun are obvious.

The American 180 was an open-bolt, selective-fire .22-caliber submachine gun loosely patterned upon the American-designed and British-produced Lewis machinegun of WW1 fame. The father of the American 180 was Richard “Dick” Casull. His original Casull Model 290 was a semiauto .22 rifle that fed from an enormous drum magazine located atop the weapon.

The Casull Model 290 was an exquisitely well-made firearm. The receivers were cut from a big chunk of steel, and the parts were hand-fitted. Original 290’s are coveted collector’s items today.

The 1960’s-era Model 290 was both expensive and cumbersome. Eighty-seven hand-built copies saw the light of day before the project died a natural death. Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos owned one. However, by the 1970s other manufacturers in the US and Austria took up and built upon the design.

The massive .454 Casull was a ludicrously powerful handgun.

Dick Casull was a gunsmith from Utah who also developed the monster .454 Casull cartridge along with the big-boned revolver that fired it. The .454 Casull was basically a grotesquely up-engineered .45 Long Colt round that developed nearly 2,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.

North American Arms mini-revolvers are undeniably adorable. These are the guns you can always have on you.

Casull along with Wayne Baker also pioneered Freedom Arms in 1978 to develop miniature single-action revolvers. Eventually, North American Arms acquired the production rights and covered the country in a thin patina of these adorable well-built compact stainless steel wheelguns.

Technical Details

American 180 drums come in a variety of sizes and mount atop the weapon via a sliding catch. This is the view of the drum from the bottom.

The American 180 SMG weighs 5.7 pounds empty and 10 pounds loaded with a 177-round drum. Original magazines carry either 165 or 177 rounds, though larger capacity drums of up to 275 rounds are still in production today. 275-round drums effectively occlude the weapon’s sights. However, E&L Manufacturing, the current producer of American 180 drums, includes an elevated front sight along with your first 275-round drum purchase.

The drum magazine spins as it empties. The American 180 ejects out the bottom of the receiver.

The American 180 bolt incorporates a series of grooves in the sides to channel crud out of the mechanism. The British L2A3 Sterling submachine gun features similar stuff. The body of the drum spins on top of the receiver as it empties, which is kind of weird.

The American 180 shares any number of common characteristics with the M1928 Thompson submachine gun. The detachable buttstocks on both weapons function similarly.

There is a captive screw underneath the forward aspect of the receiver that allows the gun to break down quickly into two handy components. The stock removes with the push of a button like that of the M1928 Thompson submachine gun. The bulky pan magazine produces a cluttered sight picture, but the gun is just a ton of fun on the range.

The spring-powered motor for the drum is removable and must be wound properly before use.

You can die of old age while loading these drum magazines. There is supposedly a mag loader available, though I’ve never seen one. The process really is spectacularly tedious and is best executed in front of some Netflix. A single common spring-powered motor (the detachable mechanical bit in the center) can be used on multiple drums.

This ungainly monster reflected the state of the art in laser sights back in the day.

The American 180 was originally designed to be used in conjunction with a primitive bulky helium-neon gas laser designator. These early laser sights were enormous contraptions that ran about two hours on a single set of batteries. Oddly, there was also the option of operating the sight off of wall power. That would, of course, presuppose an exceptionally cooperative target.

This is the result of a single fifty-round burst fired from twenty meters.

A single .22LR round isn’t particularly awe-inspiring, but twenty of them in a single second will absolutely rock your world. Even at 1,200 rounds per minute recoil is inconsequential, so the gun is easy to control. The original marketing literature claimed that the American 180 would munch through concrete walls, car doors, and body armor. To eat through body armor with a full auto .22 necessitates a remarkably open-minded miscreant. The gun’s manufacturers claimed that you could place the contents of an entire 165-round magazine within a three-inch circle at twenty yards in the span of eight seconds. Wow.

Trigger Time

All civilian-legal automatic weapons are getting pretty long in the tooth. The last transferable machinegun was produced in 1986.

I found the gun to be finicky. However, the youngest civilian-legal machinegun in the registry is some thirty-four years old by now. None of these things were designed to last for generations.

The safety is a rotating lever on the right side of the receiver. The fire selector is an unmarked pushbutton located behind the safety. Pushing the peg to the right sets the gun on full auto.

The spring-driven motor for the drum magazine has to be tuned a bit. Too little tension and the gun chokes. Too much and the gun chokes. Get it just right, however, and the American 180 is every bit as cool as you might think it would be.

The non-reciprocating charging handle is located on the left aspect of the receiver.

Burst management requires a bit of discipline, but the onerous loading cycle serves to motivate. Given an adequately expansive piece of paper, you really could write your name with the thing. Take your time and hold your protracted bursts on a single spot, and the American 180 will indeed eat through some of the most remarkable stuff.

Both of these guns cycle at about 1,200 rounds per minute. The tiny little subgun on the left is an RPB MAC-11 in .380ACP.

Running the gun intimates an element of precision that is likely illusory at best. The lack of over-penetration in urban areas, when compared to centerfire offerings, was one of the biggest selling points for the gun. However, a gun that cycles at 1,200 rounds per minute is the stuff of nightmares if wielded in a slipshod fashion in a congested area. Truth be known this might not actually be markedly more hazardous than a 12-bore chucking buckshot, but both guns do demand a lot of practice for safe employment.

The Rest of the Story

A quick two-second burst chewed the back window out of the Camaro.

Though the 12-bore failed to connect, the 180 reliably did the deed. Officer Gilo unleashed a 40-round burst that took all of two seconds. These forty little rimfire bullets chewed through the back window of the car, and the car crashed in short order.

For certain narrow applications like neutralizing armed felons at close range in an automobile the American 180 was a superb tool.

One of the bad guys was already toasted, his critical bits thoroughly rearranged courtesy the prodigious swarm of little 40-grain slugs. His partner in crime fled the scene but was apprehended soon thereafter sporting an unhealthy collection of small caliber bullet wounds of his own.

The American 180 is a controllable little bullet hose. The backstop in this photograph is 65 feet tall and safe.

In the 1970s there were apparently not quite so many lawyers as is the case today. In an era wherein folks sue cops over some of the most inane stuff, I suspect a .22-caliber machinegun that rips along at twenty rounds per second would likely not satisfy any modern Law Enforcement agency’s risk management department.

Ruminations

The Utah Department of Corrections used the American 180 for a time as a prison weapon.

The American 180 was produced for a time in Utah and was formally adopted by the Utah Department of Corrections. The Utah DOC bought quite a few laser units as well. When wielded from a guard tower at their state penitentiary I suspect these puppies reliably kept the cons in line.

The American 180 inspired the Slovenian MGV-176 that became a fairly popular combat weapon.

The Rhodesian Special Air Service used a few of these weird little weapons operationally in Africa. A similar gun produced in Slovenia and titled the MGV-176 was purportedly fairly popular in the sundry wars that took place thereabouts.

There’s really not much an American 180 will do that a decent 9mm subgun might not do better, but it was undeniably novel.

It’s tough to imagine what the American 180 might bring to the table that a proper 9mm subgun might not, but it is nonetheless a thought-provoking concept. I personally wouldn’t be comfortable relying upon the cumbersome drum feed system in an austere environment.

Most of the commercial American 180 submachine guns went to Law Enforcement users.

The company’s marketing efforts focused on LE sales, and I recall their advertisements in gun magazines back in the Dark Ages. Like all legal machineguns, transferable examples command a premium these days. Many of the guns available to civilian shooters today were traded out of LE arms rooms as departments grew weary of them.

There was even a quad mount designed for the American 180 that produced some 6,000 rounds per minute. The gun’s advocates envisioned such a rig for perimeter defense.

The American 180 is one of the most unusual combat weapons ever imagined. Under controlled circumstances as our hapless Florida burglars discovered, the American 180 can indeed be devastatingly effective. At this point, however, the American 180 is little more than an historical footnote and recreational range beast.

With the stock removed the American 180 was almost compact. The bulky top-mounted drum prevents the gun from being readily concealable.

Loading drums would befuddle Job the prophet, and the gun eats ammo like a monkey after Sugar Babies. However, you’d be hard-pressed to conjure a more delightful way to turn .22 rimfire ammo into noise. Novel, unique, and oddly effective within its admittedly narrow applications, the American 180 is an artifact of the golden age of gun design.

Sound suppressed Austrian-made American 180 submachine guns were procured by the Rhodesian SAS during their sundry bush wars. There is at least one documented instance wherein a pair of these weapons was used to successfully engage FRELIMO terrorists at close range during an operation in Mozambique in 1979.

Technical Specifications

American 180 Submachine Gun

Caliber                                     .22LR/.22 Short Magnum

Weight                                     5.7 pounds empty/10 pounds loaded w/177 rounds

Magazine Capacity                  165/177/220/275

Length                                     35.5 inches

Barrel Length                           8/18.5 inches

Action                                     Blowback, Open Bolt

Rate of Fire                              1,200 rounds per minute

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Ej harbet September 26, 2020, 11:53 am

    As cumbersome and finicky as they are,id love to have one with a couple pallets of 40gr solids. It’d be fun for training your trigger finger to control full auto weapons. And as long as I had a good backup to transition to itd be good for unpleasant people problem solving as well.

  • JCitizen September 23, 2020, 1:42 pm

    I used to have an SOT back in the day, and I got to shoot another dealer’s full auto version; and quite frankly you have a tendency to underestimate the recoil – it is basically a rocket engine that spits lead, so it can feel like holding a fire hose – just on the edge of controllability!! I saw them chew through the thin part of a railroad rail segment, and was gobsmacked it could do that! They had to hold it still so all the bullets would hit in an area about the size of a silver dollar, and after a full drum it had chewed a tiny hole through the steel. This guy had been experimenting with armor piercing 22 ammo, so I don’t know if it was lead bullets or not.

    Eventually I bought my own semi-auto version, and it was an older Austrian make that had the same quick change barrel as the full auto version. It was sensitive to the brand of ammo you used, so actually that was more important than the winding tension. It liked the old subsonic ammo, so I now buy subsonic 22LR ammo for it to get good reliability. If one were allowed to put a bolt bounce dampener on the bolt, I think it would shoot the high power ammo fine, but the BATF doesn’t allow that, because they claim it is the first step in making it full auto!! Ridiculous I know!

    The guys at E&L manufacturing are a great bunch of fellas, and they have made an aluminum bottom for the newer plastic magazines that make them more reliable, especially for the high velocity 22 ammo. In the old days, Federal red and white ammo was the best 22 LR for this gun, but now I think anything Remington in sub sonic is way better, and maybe the high velocity Golden Bullet comes as close to reliability on older AM 180’s, as you are going to get. I’ve killed thousands of prairie dogs with this rifle, and it is extremely accurate with the bull barrel! I had to use riser blocks sold by E&L to clear the new full sized magazines, but generally the barrel gets so hot, it is time to change the barrel too. I love hunting with this gun! Using a bipod I can Kentucky windage bullets onto prairie dogs from up to 300 yards, with the wind behind me. Someone used to make a special 22 rifle scope that does this for you, but I never could afford it, and had to use a LOT of windage to hit from such a distance, but because of the tremendous accuracy of this rifle, it can be done!

  • Frank September 21, 2020, 12:14 pm

    Great Story, Thanks.

  • Frank September 21, 2020, 12:11 pm

    I know personally of a NJ PD that traded several1928 45 thompson SUB in prime condition for several UZI’s Ouch!!

  • ebd10 September 21, 2020, 12:11 pm

    I heard a rumor that these were used in the Philippines in the 90’s. I suspect that short range jungle encounters would be a more appropriate environment for these.

  • Roger J September 21, 2020, 11:32 am

    E&L tuned mine up and it fires 1340 rpm. And the ‘mag loader’ is actually a tray that sits atop the drum to arrange the ammo for easy loading.

  • Joe Bhe September 21, 2020, 10:41 am

    Dr. Dabbs – thanks again.

  • Ron Hickman September 21, 2020, 9:17 am

    In the photo of the ‘rear window’ of a Camero, you can see the steering wheel, rear view mirrow and windshield wipers. What’s up with that? And, I’ve shot a few junk cars with .22 and they would glance off a windshield at that angle.

    • John Dee September 22, 2020, 10:39 am

      I wondered too but looking more carefully the bullet holes are from inside the car. Coming from rear window entry…

  • Bob September 21, 2020, 9:16 am

    You state that the massive .454 Casull WAS a ludicrously powerful handgun, I’d suggest that it still is!
    Interesting article though.

    • Ej harbet September 26, 2020, 11:57 am

      Once you 500 magnum.,,,,,lol

  • Old Puff September 21, 2020, 8:43 am

    I got to see one chew a car up in action at a demonstration by the Fayetteville Arkansas PD in 1976 when I was 20 years young. They fired several drums. It was bad ass

  • Penrose21 September 21, 2020, 7:24 am

    I had the fortune to visit the factory in SLC in the early 80s. They had films of the 22 cal rounds penetrating both body armor and lexan. The theory was that each successive round arrived at nearly the same spot before the energy of the previous round dissipated. This allowed the 22s to penetrate completely through after about 20 or 30 rounds had been fired.

    One of their films also demonstrated someone firing multiple short bursts in a crowd of volunteers with balloons interspersed all around and between them. Because of the non-existent recoil, it was easy to hit balloons and miss the friendlies! But he was a pretty good marksman…

    They also offered an “assassination” briefcase which contained a very short-barreled, stock-less, grip-less version of the 180 with a suppressor and a trigger release in the briefcase handle. Because of the horizontal attachment of the magazine, it could easily fit sideways in a regular size briefcase. The ad video showed a DEA agent (actor) on a drug buy using it to take out a couple of dealers who were drawing their weapons, thinking they were going to steal the “buyer’s” money in his briefcase. Have to admit it was pretty cool.

    Unfortunately the owner of the factory got arrested allegedly because he pre-numbered a bunch of 180s when the 1986 ban was announced. I felt really bad for him as he had invested so much in his factory and production facilities only to have the government destroy his livelihood with the stroke of a politician’s pen.

    • Ej harbet September 26, 2020, 12:01 pm

      Too many “consent” to this government of by and for the elites. It changes when our consent ends

  • Frank S. September 21, 2020, 6:53 am

    I can understand some concern over the drum magazine getting dirt and grime in the top, but Lewis guns were used in the trenches of WWI effectively. Looks like the 180 has more of an open area, but under most conditions it shouldn’t be hard to keep most crap out of it. A shorter version for house-to-house operations would be perfect for an interdiction team — not so much worry about over penetrating walls and such — unless you hold it on one spot for too long! That’s pretty much how the A-10 30mm Gatling cannon chews up tanks… that and the dense makeup of the projectiles.

  • Bad Penguin September 21, 2020, 6:46 am

    WANT!!

  • Will Drider September 20, 2020, 5:55 pm

    Excellent! I hadn’t heard of this unique MG that relied on rate of fire to compensate for a lack of ballistics in the individual cartridge. The weight vs recoil is icing on the cake. Even though all ammo was much cheaper in 70’s you still couldn’t beat the collective power for less than one cent a round? Poor mans Lewis gun – Hell yeah!

  • Mark N. September 20, 2020, 2:10 am

    That picture shows the front window of the Camarro. You can see the steering wheel. What is amazing are the straight lines caved by those flying little gnats.

    • wayne wright September 21, 2020, 6:24 am

      you are right. but this car has been used for target practice and shot at from the passenger side. the trash on the wiper blade shows it to be sitting for a while. don’t think it is a camero either. Poetic license ???

    • Bad Penguin September 21, 2020, 6:58 am

      Glad someone else caught that, Windshield glass is different than rear and side windows. Its tempered glass with a layer of adhesive plastic inside of it to keep it from shattering. That and the glass angle are the reasons bullets are deflected by the glass.

    • Scott September 21, 2020, 11:56 am

      Guys, the bad guys’ car in Florida that is the subject of the police chase that started the article is the one that had its REAR window shot out. The photo of the car windshield was just used for demonstration purposes. Hang with us here…

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