Films tell us gangsters used violin cases to carry guns. But what’s the history?

4 October 2019, 14:47 | Updated: 4 October 2019, 14:54

Sawed-Off Shotgun In Violin Case
Sawed-Off Shotgun In Violin Case. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

American gangster films have taught us that musical instrument cases happen to be a handy prop for concealing a gun. But is there any evidence this actually happened in history?

If American gangster movies are your jam, you might be familiar with the image of an enormous firearm tucked away inside a old-fashioned violin case.

Ever seen Léon: The Professional, where the young Natalie Portman’s character carries a violin case used to house Léon’s guns? Or Desperado, the 1995 thriller where Antonio Banderas’ character hides a load in his guitar case?

But it’s not just 90s gangster films: if you’re looking for a shrouded hiding place for a weapon, you don’t have to look far online before someone will suggest using the velvety interior of a violin case.

YouTube is full of step-by-step tutorials on how to custom-design a violin case for your own firearm, and the phenomenon features in plenty of video games (“What’s in my violin case? Violence!” the character Jinx jokes in the game League of Legends).

Concerningly, a boy in Skokie, Illinois was brought in for police questioning the other day for bringing a rifle, hidden inside a violin case, into a public library – it isn’t hard to see where he got the idea. It’s been reported nobody was threatened with the weapon.

When did people start hiding guns in violin cases?

1920s America brought us flapper dresses, the Prohibition era… and the Thompson submachine gun (‘Tommy gun’ for short), patented by the American designer, John T. Thompson. Also known as ‘Chicago typewriter’, the Tommy gun would become a symbol of the Roaring twenties.

Because of their relatively short length (they’re around 32 inches long), Tommy guns fit quite snugly in a small, wooden violin case.

Read more: This antique machine plays THREE violins at once >

Apart from being the ultimate mobster prop, carrying a Tommy gun in a violin case came about as a practical solution, in the 1920s, to needing to carry a firearm in public.

When people cottoned on, violin cases started to be used to hide all kinds of firearms – from machine guns to sawed-off shotguns.

From a practical point of view, musical instrument cases come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, making them the perfect prop for concealing any weapon you might be transporting (we’re not condoning it, obviously...).

But gangsters didn’t just use musical instrument cases...

... they used anything that was handy. Real-life gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone reportedly used to carry his shotgun in a golf bag.

Others would carry them in newspapers. “Due to the large size of certain US newspapers in the 1920s and the early part of the 1930s,” says Valerie Cormett in The Guardian, “Even a machine gun could be concealed relatively easily. Bullets could be fired from rolled up newspapers much more efficiently than from a violin case.

“I think Hollywood has a lot to do with this myth – a violin case is much more visually arresting than a copy of the Chicago Tribune.”

Read more: What’s so good about Stradivarius violins? >

The seemingly ‘glamorous’ image of the gun in a musical instrument case has really stuck around, and can be seen throughout popular culture today – whether in video games or homemade YouTube tutorials.

Jack Benny, the American comedian and violinist who died in 1974, used to tell the joke: “I was entertaining at the White House when the guard stopped me at the gate and asked me what I had in my violin case.

“I answered that I had a machine gun in there. The guard was relieved when I said, “for a moment I thought it was your violin!!”