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The Amazing Life of Walter R. Walsh

As a record-setting shooter, Marine officer, FBI agent and Olympic competitor, Walsh has led an interesting and amazing life.


”The late Bill Jordan and I used to catch up at the SHOT Show. We would stand in the aisle, right where we happened to meet, and talk (rather loudly, I recall) about the past year’s events. I remember one year, well more than a decade ago, when Bill was in the middle of some hunting story when he stopped talking and abruptly changed the subject. “You know, Bill, folks have sometimes called me a hero just because I wrote a book and some magazine articles and arrested a few folks who needed it. But do you know who my hero is?” I replied, “Who’s that, Bill?” He smiled and nodded over my shoulder and said, “That short, mean S.O.B. coming up behind you.” I turned around to greet Col. Walter R. Walsh.

At Walsh’s 100th birthday party, his family served three cakes: One had the seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the second, the seal of the United States Marine Corps; and the third bore five Olympic rings. Each represented a major achievement in Walsh’s life, and each could make a major story. For one man to be presented all three indicates just how special that person is.

Walsh, born in New Jersey in 1907, had an early appreciation for firearms, and he enjoyed shooting a neighbor boy’s smoothbore .22 at rats in the city dump where the Meadowlands is now. His father gave him his first rifle, a .22-cal. Mossberg, when he was about 12. He was serious enough about marksmanship by then that the rifle was shortly traded for a Remington Model 12. His first match rifle, acquired later, was a Winchester Model 52. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lying about his age (which was then 16), Walsh joined the Civilian Military Training Corps (CMTC) and received his first formal marksmanship training with a 1903 Springfield. In 1928 he joined the New Jersey National Guard, made its rifle team and attended the National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, that same year. Two years later, he shot in the Sea Girt Interstate Tournament and won both the rifle and pistol championships as well as the Governor’s Trophy for shooting the 1,200 yd. long-range service rifle championship with a perfect score, using iron sights. In 1932, Walsh won the Smallbore Wimbledon and American Legion Championships. A May 1932, American Rifleman advertisement for Western Cartridge Co. shows a very young-looking Walsh after winning the Leech Cup Match. In 1935 he became Double Distinguished. His achievements in both rifle and pistol shooting were to continue for more than six decades.

In 1934, fresh out of law school, Walsh joined the FBI in the first agent class to be armed, in his case with a Colt Official Police revolver in .38 Spl. His first assignment was in St. Paul, Minn., covering four states. After a short period he was transferred to the Milwaukee office.

Since many of the FBI agents then had little firearm experience, Director Hoover tended to call on his more experienced shooters for “heavy” arrests. Investigative work on the Bremer kidnapping case in St. Paul and Milwaukee led to the FBI’s interest in the Barker gang. The FBI learned that Doc Barker was in Chicago, so Walsh wound up there on special assignment. The Bureau didn’t have restrictions on personally owned guns, and Walsh acquired a pair of registered .357 Magnums (purchased through Frank Baughman, an FBI firearms instructor and designer of the famous S&W front sight) and a “tuned-up” Colt .45 ACP Government Model. They would come in more than handy. In November 1934, he and another agent found Baby Face Nelson’s body dumped in a roadside ditch after Nelson, a.k.a. Lester Gillis, died of his wounds in a previous shoot-out with FBI agents in rural Illinois.

On Jan. 8, 1935, Walsh and a team of agents were checking on a possible address for Doc Barker’s girlfriend. He and fellow agent Bill Smith spotted the girlfriend with a companion. It was him. Walsh bailed out of the 1935 Hudson (equipped with a one-way radio) and followed Barker, who tried to walk away. Walsh moved up behind him. Doc started to run but slipped on some mud and ice, and fell. Walsh stuck his .45 in Doc’s ear and declared, “Don’t move, Doc, or I’ll kill you.” Walsh had no handcuffs, but Smith arrived immediately with his. When Barker was searched, it was found he had no gun. When Barker complained that he had left it upstairs and “wasn’t that a hell of a place for it,” Walter told him, “No Doc, you were lucky.” Barker also complained about being arrested by a “damn baby-faced kid.” A search of his apartment revealed clues that resulted in locating Ma Barker in Florida. She and her son, Fred, were killed in a subsequent shootout there.

If the arrest of Barker wasn’t enough for one day, Walter found himself on another raid that same afternoon. Gangster Rusty Gibson and other gang members were located, and Gibson decided he wouldn’t give up. He put on a “bullet proof” vest and armed himself with a stolen Browning Automatic Rifle. Trying to escape out the back, he encountered Walsh, armed with a .351 Winchester Self-Loading rifle. As Walsh described it to me, “He shot high. I didn’t.”

In October 1937, Walsh found himself in Bangor, Maine. The Brady Gang had been reported in the area attempting to buy a Thompson submachine gun. The gang members were wanted for numerous robberies and murders, including that of an Indiana state trooper. Again, the FBI’s “heavy squad” was called. Walsh posed as a salesman in the sporting goods store where the sale was supposed to go down. He was armed with his .45 pistol and one of the .357 Registered Magnums. The gang was spotted in the area, and then-gang member James Dalhover entered the store. He was immediately arrested by Walsh and taken to the back of the store by other agents. Dalhover, after some prompting, answered the question posed to him by Walsh with, “My pals are right outside.” As Walsh approached the plate-glass front door and put his left hand on the door handle, he realized he was looking through the glass at gang member Clarence Shaffer. The two men fired almost simultaneously. The front door glass exploded, and Walsh was hit twice; once in the chest into his lung and once in his right hand, in which he held the .45. The bullet that hit his thumb also hit the pistol’s stock and magazine. Walter threw down the now useless pistol and, with the .357 in his left hand, fired through the front door. He put Shaffer down with fatal hits and went outside. Gang leader Al Brady had already been hit by agents as he got out of his car but started shooting and was still moving as Walter put another shot into him.

Decades later, I acquired a set of photographs from the Bangor Police Dept. taken immediately after the shooting. I dropped them on Walter’s lap without comment. He looked at them intently, one by one, until he came to one of a body on its back on the street. “That guy’s name is Shaffer,” he said. “I killed that S.O.B.”

In spite of his FBI schedule, Walter was able to continue his competitive shooting. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve in 1938 as a second lieutenant and represented its team, as well as the FBI, during the pre-war period. In 1940 he won the DuPont trophy as the best all-round shot in High Power, Long Range and Service Rifle, Centerfire Pistol and Smallbore Rifle. His was a record score that still stands today.

In 1942, Walsh went on active duty with the Marines. It was a soul-searching decision as the FBI needed agents, but he believed his duty was to the Corps. Because of his shooting experience, he was called on to organize and train the Marine Scout Snipers at New River, N.C. There was virtually no written record of the Marine sniper program in World War I, and he had to use a copy of McBride’s “A Rifleman Went To War” as his only reference—that, of course, and his by-then extensive shooting experience.

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15 Responses to The Amazing Life of Walter R. Walsh

Michael Langham wrote:
March 17, 2013

I first met Col. Walsh while shooting at Camp Perry in 1987. He shot next to me that year and while getting to know him during the matches it became clear what an extraordinary individual I had the good fortune to meet. We spoke for many hours even after the shooting had ended. I found him to be a humble warrior. A book or movie of his life experiences holds the possibility of encouraging many at all stages of life to become involved and provide leadership in continuing this great Nation as we know it. Major Kennedy, I hope that you are well.

J. Randolph (USMCR) wrote:
December 26, 2011

I, and Roland Hitchens (Capt. USMCR)met Col. Walsh Nov. 4, 2011 at the Headquarters Marine Corps birthday celebration for retired Marine Corps/FBI agents. He was 104 and hail and hearty, and I hope he still is.

Jeff Henderson USMC wrote:
December 25, 2011

Maj Mark Kennedy. Pls call me if you receive this. 240-832-2846. Merry Christmas.

Gerald Flynn Walsh wrote:
December 22, 2011

I have the great honor of being one of Col. Walsh's grandsons. He is a remarkable extraordinary man. He is the most humble and genuine person I have ever met, and seeing this article online gives me hope there will be more men like him in our world. Thank you!

Major Mark W. Kennedy USMCR [(]Ret'd[)] wrote:
November 20, 2011

I have had the great pleasure to have known Col. Walsh, during the time I was OIC of the USMC Pistol Team 1979-1983. Col. Walsh is one of the kindest gentlemen you will ever meet, but clearly a professional. Although, I never served under Col. Walsh, I did interview him with a tape recorder while I was still on active duty in Quantico, Virginia. That 2 hour tape recording is likely in the archives at Weapons Training Battalion, MCB, Quantico, Va. The recording event was a memorable experience, as was other conversations I had with him from time to time. There wasn't a Marine who knew Col. Walsh, that didn't pay him the utmost respect and was honored to be in his presence. God bless you Col. Walsh wherever you are and Semper Fidelis! Mark W Kennedy, Major USMCR (ret'd)

Tom Mackey Sr wrote:
September 06, 2011

Amazing person read his bio people like this come along a few times in a century. I would like to write him a letter and tell him how much he has inspired people. I would give anything to meet this legend. Tom

Mark Wyatt wrote:
May 28, 2011

Mr. Vanderpool I may have some information about Col Walsh's missing RM. I would love to talk to you about it. Thank you, Mark

Carl Bradley wrote:
May 14, 2011

Thank God that this country produces men like Walter R. Walsh, Bill Jordan, Charles Askins, Jeff Cooper, and many others, too numerous to mention. We owe our freedoms, and very lives to selfless men and women who don the uniform, the badge to lay it all on the line to keep America safe. God bless them all.

Marilyn Walsh Claycomb wrote:
January 27, 2011

If Mr. Walsh is reding this I would like to correspond with him. My grandpa had a colt pictol. It was made at the end or the beginning of 1900. My grandpa name was Thomas Woodson Walsh and he was born in Ft Spunky, Texas. He came with cattle drovers to Elkhart Kansas aat age of 4. He went on to homested a ranch north of Elkhart and it was known as the 1881. hanks for your time.

B. Clipson wrote:
January 18, 2011

Mr. Vanderpool, ever thought of writing a biography of Mr. Walsh? You already have your title: The Amazing Life of Walter R. Walsh. I'm sure there would be great interest/brisk sales for such a book. Thanks for a wonderful article on a tremendously impressive man. God bless.

Darren wrote:
December 01, 2010

What an amazing life story. Hell, his pre WWII life alone would make a great movie let alone what happened in WWII.

greg mizer wrote:
October 31, 2010

wow mr walsh is an american hero ! great ardical I have sent it to a friend.

remf wrote:
October 26, 2010

Thank you for a great article. More like this would be appreciated.

Martin Johnson wrote:
October 25, 2010

I met with Walter on Friday 10/22 and I am happy to report that he is doing well. I plan to take walter shooting soon at his request.

Martin Johnson wrote:
October 22, 2010

It is both an extreme honor and privilege to know Colonel Walsh. I will be meeting with him today. It is also a privilege to know the author and friend Bill Vanderpool, also a top shooter, instructor, FBI (retired) agent and gentleman.