Dr Dabbs – The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
It is supposed to be tough to hit an aircraft in flight with a gun. Apparently some idiot in North Carolina did it with a deer rifle without even trying hard.

Never, ever underestimate the capacity of young men for stupidity. Testosterone is the most potent poison known to man. Even in small doses, this horrible stuff can indeed be lethal. 

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
The Boeing 737 is an undeniably big target, but it was moving really fast.

What Happened

At 5:25 PM on 31 December 1986, 30-year-old Barry Rollins of Brooklyn, New York, was sitting in coach aboard United Airlines Flight 1502 out of Wilmington, North Carolina. The Boeing 737 was traveling light carrying only sixteen passengers and five crewmembers. As the plane was on short final into Raleigh-Durham Airport, Mr. Rollins watched eagerly out the window. His plan was to catch a separate flight into New York City and make it to Times Square in time to see the ball drop for the New Year.

The plane was two miles south of the airport and roughly twenty seconds from touchdown. With the aircraft about 300 feet off the ground, a .30-caliber bullet pierced the bottom of the fuselage, passed through Rollins’ right thigh, and then lodged in the left side of his face. Rollins felt as though he had been struck with a baseball bat. Fragments of the round ended up behind his left ear.

The pilot landed the aircraft without incident. He had been unaware anything was amiss. Mr. Rollins was rushed to the local hospital where he underwent surgery and spent several days recovering. United Airlines covered all of his medical costs and flew his three brothers and two sisters in from New York to be at his bedside.

Poor Misled People

As you might imagine, the world pretty much came unglued over that. Wake County Commissioner Merrie R. Hedrick was quoted as having said, “It is just another in a long list of cases that point out to me that we need to do something about the county gun ordinances. It would certainly seem to me that if people were shooting that close by, it was just a question of when something would happen.”

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
Bless their hearts, most gun control advocates really don’t have a great grasp of the way the real world works. There are more than 400 million guns in circulation in America. Gun control might have worked 350 million guns ago, but that ship has sailed.

A point of personal privilege–Let that sink in for a second. Wake County Commissioner Merrie R. Hedrick actually thought that the way to keep people from shooting at passing airliners was to pass more gun control laws. Wow. That must be a fascinating place to live. In my world, the sort of idiot who might take a potshot at a passing airliner is unlikely to be dissuaded by yet more anti-gun legislation.

G. Eric Shuford, the president of the Sir Walter Raleigh Gun Club, had this to say in response, “Whoever perpetrated such an act should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Don’t restrict all the responsible hunters and responsible firearm owners because of one stupid act by one person.” That seems pretty logical to me.

The 1980’s were fairly tame, relatively speaking. When this event happened Osama bin Laden was 29 years old and not yet a raving homicidal maniac. Back then the androgynous singer Boy George could still actually shock people. It was, in short, a very different time. Special Agent Richards of the local FBI office said, “We’ve got so many wackos in the world, you never know. It would be a tragic thing. I just hope it doesn’t give any loonies out there an idea.”

The Idiot Who Shot A Plane

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
This is most definitely not Robert Proulx, the rocket surgeon who got bored while out hunting and tried to shoot down an airliner. This is, by contrast, some nice guy in Mississippi who killed a really epic whitetail buck. However, both episodes began with somebody wandering around in the woods chasing deer.

Robert Raymond Proulx was a 23-year-old unemployed construction worker who was out hunting at the time the airplane flew over. It’s tough to get your head around what possessed him to take a potshot at a passing airliner, but one of his buddies apparently anonymously ratted him out later. Proulx was arrested within a week of the incident.

When you shoot an innocent guy in a passing airliner it is tough to put a positive spin on that. Proulx knew he was doomed. Once the details of the case became apparent he pled guilty to the charge of damaging an aircraft. This got him out of the worse charge of using a firearm to damage an aircraft. I’m not a lawyer. I have no idea how the American legal system actually works.

Regardless, Proulx still faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a quarter-million-dollar fine. For his part, Proulx claimed via his attorney that the weapon had discharged accidentally. He actually said, “I was checking my rifle when it fired. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” Really? I was born at night, but not last night. That seems pretty thin to me. Apparently, the judge in the case was not swayed by this explanation, either.

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
As I see it, Robert Proulx made two big mistakes. The first was being stupid enough to try to shoot down an airliner with a deer rifle. The second is trying it while he had buddies around to rat him out.

What cinched the deal was Proulx’s rat buddy. He later testified that Proulx had actually been trying to hit the pilot. The man’s statement was, “He had committed the above-described act and that he had been aiming for the pilot.” It would have been far better had Proulx been drunk. As it was, he was just without excuse.

SEE MORE: Dr. Dabbs – Grand Theft Armor: The San Diego Tank Fiasco

All this legal stuff unfolded in February of 1987, some six weeks or so after the event. US District Court Judge Terrence Boyle presided over the sentencing hearing. US Attorney Peter Kellen said, “It was our belief that the defendant in this case was someone whose conduct was wanton and callous. We were not aware of any remorse or concern shown by the defendant for what he had done, and it was our position that an individual of this nature, in order to protect society, needs to be taken off the streets for as long as the law allows.″

In May of that year, Robert Proulx was formally sentenced to twenty years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $33,300 in restitution to the airline to cover the medical bills of the man he shot. Considering the poor guy had multiple surgeries and a substantial inpatient stay, that seems like a bargain. Nowadays in most modern hospitals 33 grand likely wouldn’t cover much more than your ghastly meals and those squeezie things they put on your feet.

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
I have some reliable information that this sucks. Robert Proulx apparently agreed.

The following year Proulx was growing weary of being in prison and appealed to have his sentence reduced. This appeal was rejected for being outside of some timely filing window. As I said, I don’t begin to understand the American legal system.

The Gun – A Winchester Rifle

News reports filed after the event described Proulx’s gun as a Winchester Model 74 in .30-30. The Winchester 74 was actually a semiautomatic tube-fed sporting rifle chambered in .22 rimfire. It was produced from 1938 until 1955. 406,574 copies were manufactured. I am fairly certain the gun in question would have been a Model 94. The Winchester 94 was the archetypal .30-30 lever-action deer rifle. Media types seem congenitally incapable of getting gun stuff right.

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
The Winchester 94 reflects what was arguably the apogee of lever-action deer guns.

The Winchester 94 was designed by John Moses Browning in, you guessed it, 1894. Those first guns were chambered in either .32-40 or .32-55 Winchester, both black powder rounds. In 1895 the Model 94 was offered in .30 Winchester Center Fire. This was the first commercially successful rifle chambered for a smokeless cartridge. Over time the .30 WCF became known as the .30-30.

The Model 1894 was produced by Winchester Repeating Arms until 1980 and then offered by US Repeating Arms under the Winchester banner until 2006. Well over seven million copies were produced. Newly-manufactured reproductions remain on the market today.

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
I realize this is the most powerful man in the world with control of 5,428 nuclear warheads. However, I’m not sure I’d trust this guy unsupervised with a firearm.

The Model 94 was the first sporting rifle to sell more than 7 million units. The millionth rifle was gifted to President Calvin Coolidge. Serial number 1.5 million went to President Harry S. Truman. The two millionth gun was given to President Dwight Eisenhower. If somebody gave a gun to our current President I’m not convinced that would end well. My, haven’t times changed?

The US government bought 1,800 commercial Model 94 rifles along with 50,000 rounds of .30-30 ammunition for use by ground troops during WW1. These rifles were marked with a “US” and the flaming bomb of the Ordnance Department. I rather suspect these GI-issue lever guns would be fairly spendy in collector’s circles today. The British Royal Navy bought another 5,000 of the rifles for use in shipboard security and mine-clearing operations. The French purchased 15,100 Model 94s, but their guns sported left-sided sling mounts and adjustable rear sights marked in meters. 

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
The Winchester Model 94 figured prominently in the John Wayne epic True Grit.

The Model 94 was offered with either a 20, 24, or 26-inch barrel. Magazine capacities for each of these configurations was 7, 8, and 9 rounds respectively. The 20-inch gun was the most popular. This version weighed 6.8 pounds and was 38 inches long overall.


I don’t know where you stand on the subject of prison as either punishment or rehabilitation. I’m typically a pretty forgiving guy. Jesus forgave me of a great deal, and I try to return the favor whenever possible. However, some people are just too dangerous to be allowed to wander about unsupervised.

A 20-year prison sentence for a 23-year-old is an undeniable life-wrecker. There’s no getting around that. However, shooting at a passing airliner is pretty extra special stupid as well. The fact that he connected is fairly impressive, I guess, but that still doesn’t seem like a terribly marketable skill, particularly in 1986.

Dr Dabbs - The Winchester Lever-Action Anti-Aircraft Gun
It typically takes some rarefied skill and dedicated equipment to hit an aircraft in flight with a firearm. Robert Proulx made it look easy.

With the gear down and the flaps set at thirty degrees, a Boeing 737 sports a final approach speed of 140 knots indicated. That’s about 162 miles per hour. Considering our hero fired at a slant range of about 300 feet and was apparently aiming for the cockpit he apparently just didn’t lead the plane far enough. The end result had he been a slightly better wing shooter would have been cataclysmic.

I never found out what happened to Robert Proulx. He should obviously be out of prison by now. He’d be about sixty today. Apparently, the man he shot, Barry Rollins, fully recovered. It was announced that he planned to seek civil damages, but an unemployed carpenter remanded to prison for two decades is likely not a terribly lucrative mark for a plaintiff’s attorney. Perhaps he sued the airline, but for what exactly? It hardly seems like negligence that you witlessly flew over a homicidal moron on the final approach into Raleigh-Durham. That just seems more like random testosterone poisoning to me. 

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  • John October 9, 2023, 2:44 pm

    Love your stories! My favorite highlight of the week. Keep up the great work; it brighten up our days.

  • PAUL BENSON September 9, 2023, 2:15 am

    Those first guns were chambered in either .32-40 or .32-55 Winchester, both black powder rounds.
    I’m assuming that was a typo since there is No 32-55 but there IS a 38-55!
    Otherwise, good article!

  • Bob W September 6, 2023, 5:03 pm

    Hey Dr. Dabbs, you ever think of writing a book? I don’t always agree with what you say but I always enjoy reading what you write. I also love all the stupid comments people leave after reading your stories. Thanks for another good one.

  • Tony Parrott September 6, 2023, 1:20 pm

    re: Robert Proulx, go look at offender lookup for the NC Department of Corrections. He has been a frequent flyer in the system for many years. Apparently, stupid abides.

  • Mac Hayes September 5, 2023, 4:10 pm

    It’s despicable to blame Proulx’s action on testosterone. Probably 99% of deer hunters are testosterone-heavy males, and it is totally unreasonable to even suggest that the male hormone made this one crazy SOB out of several million hunters do what he did. I sure hope he did his full sentence.

  • Karly September 5, 2023, 11:04 am

    Passing more gun control laws assumes criminals who habitually ignore laws will suddenly start to obey laws. Criminals love more gun control laws, it makes for more target rich environments. Gun confiscation is another doomed idea. Criminals tend to carry stolen guns. Confiscation will only affect the law abiding who have their guns registered somewhere. People who kill people really don’t need guns, knives have done that job for thousands of years. Politicians love to pass gun control laws. They do this to show the voters that they are doing something. Those who assemble demanding more gun control have little knowledge of guns and don’t own guns.

  • OldBeast September 4, 2023, 4:12 pm

    300 feet off the ground isn’t that much when you realize that’s your normal 100 yard shooting range! He still had almost half a minute until touch down, seems too low, maybe for the last 10 seconds. Explains how he actually hit it and how fast a plane moves when he was aiming at the pilot and hit halfway back. At the end of the day an idiot had the right to buy a rifle because well we all have a right to live as everyone else, the same can be said at the voting polls! The idiot in charge now is more dangerous than 1000 idiots with rifles! None of us can see into the future as what someone is going to do, it’s a cycle that never end. We will always have idiots, we will always have violent people who want to hurt others. I’m just afraid that one day we will wake up and not have the god given ability to protect ourselves from the criminals!

    • ejharbet September 6, 2023, 9:51 am

      I wonder if this cretin did the full 20? nowadays he’d post bail and reoffend perhaps successfully killing his next victim.

  • Manr S Lacasse September 4, 2023, 3:01 pm

    Dr. Dabbs Sir,
    Thank you sir, for the knowledge, the laughs, and even the occasional tear.
    I always look forward to reading an article when I see your name and you have never disappointed me.
    God Bless you and yours’s Dr.

  • kc jailer September 4, 2023, 1:43 pm

    Side note. I was a newly minted patrol shotgun instructor for my department when Joe Biden gave his famous “just fire two blasts in the air” advice. That caused a whole new block of instruction on why you never do that. There WAS a guy in SW Washington State who was found not guilty of reckless endangerment for doing just that. His successful defense was that the Vice President said it was OK.

  • paul I'll call you what I want/1st Amendment September 4, 2023, 1:00 pm

    maybe some “wide”body armor is in order…..effing liberal….

  • AK September 4, 2023, 12:22 pm

    The WInchester 92 was the apogee…the 94 a close cousin.

  • Jerry September 4, 2023, 10:53 am

    Years ago i read, readers digest, of a basque sheeper who asked the boss for a rifle. Boss figgert coyotes, and let him have an old 30-30. Military suit-types come by sometime later to ask who shot at their fighter jet, but further investigation showed by the bullet entry angles that the plane was stupid low and harrassing the sheep. Pilot recieved…disciplinary action…
    As for that airliner, ya caint fix stewpid, and sometimes ya caint stands back far enuff neither.

  • Frank September 4, 2023, 10:35 am


    Well, let’s all be thankful that pistols with stabilizing braces weren’t popular back then. If Proulx had been equipped with such dangerous technology, the damage he’d have wrought would’ve been unspeakable!!

  • Mark N. September 2, 2023, 1:05 am

    There’s no accounting for just plain stupid.

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