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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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