If you were to do an internet search any day for “Lebman saddles for sale,” you would probably find a number of saddles that are available to be used as working saddles, held as collector’s items or as family keepsakes. They were made in a San Antonio saddle shop a few blocks from the San Antonio River on Flores Street. The former location is now a restaurant, but for many years, it was a busy store for leather goods.
Hyman Saul Lebman established the business. Mr. Lebman was born in Odessa, Russia in 1903 and died in 1990. During his working years, he ran the business himself. Mr. Lebman also became an expert at modifying and refining rifles and hand guns. One of his creations was a version of the famous Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol that was modified to accept a hand grip and a longer magazine. It was also changed to allow it to be fired automatically. A device called a compensator was also to the end of the barrel to help stabilize the gun during the rapid fire sequences. It allows the gases to escape upward and helps to keep the weapon from rising, its natural tendency. A second major weapon that the company modified was the Thompson submachine gun. For a number of years, the Colt Thompson submachine gun could be widely and easily obtained. It too was modified in the shop to allow it to accept a larger magazine, among other refinements.
Mr. Lebman’s work with weapons was highly regarded, violated no laws that had by then been enacted, and reportedly was sought after by all sorts of customers, including those in law enforcement, but also bank robbers of the 1930s. These reportedly included John Dillinger, Lester Gillis (also known as “Baby Face” Nelson) and others. According to an Associated Press article on April 30, 1934 in the Pampa (Texas) Daily News, Mr. Lebman testified that various individuals had bought modified weapons from him. Many had used aliases and presented themselves as wealthy oilmen or sportsmen. As the investigation progressed, Mr. Lebman was able to identify photographs of wanted individuals. According to another Associated Press article in the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle of May 1, 1934, Gillis/Nelson used the name “Jimmie Williams” to negotiate with Mr. Lebman and the person who called himself “Wayne Huttner” was actually a former Dillinger and Gillis/Nelson gunman named Homer Van Meter. Another article of May 1, 1934 in the Corsicana (Texas) Semi-Weekly Light clarified the charges to be connected to the “receiving, concealing and retaining of a stolen government pistol,” a stolen Colt 1911. The same article referenced a possible connection between this case and the alleged murder of a San Antonio detective named H. C. Perrow by Tommy Carroll the previous December. Carroll was an ex-convict who was allegedly in San Antonio to purchase weapons from Lebman when he was noticed by detective Perrow and other officers. After the officers spotted him in a taxi, Carroll bolted from the vehicle and left on foot. The officers followed him and cornered him in a downtown alley. An exchange of gunfire ensued in which detective Perrow was mortally wounded and Carroll escaped and fled the state. Carroll was later killed in a shootout in early June, 1934 as he returned to his car in Waterloo, Iowa.
The United States Congress passed the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then known as the Department of Investigation, began to close in and attempt to apprehend members of the gangs. Mr. Lebman, however, was charged under an October, 1933 Texas law that attempted to stop the trading and ownership of weapons such as these. Some recovered weapons were traced from the manufacturer to vendors and then on to Lebman by serial numbers and sales documents.
Mr. Lebman’s testimony and his signature modifications aided authorities in apprehending the criminals after the weapons had been used in connection with commission of crimes and in confrontations with law enforcement authorities. Within about two years, Dillinger, Gillis/Nelson, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Machine Gun” Kelly and many other associates (some of whom had owned weapons modified by the shop) had either been killed or captured by the FBI.
According to an article in the McAllen, Texas Monitor on August 4, 1935, Mr. Lebman was initially convicted and sentenced to five years in the Texas prison. The conviction was reversed on appeal and a second trial ended with a hung jury. A third trial was considered, but the case against him was dropped in the 1940s. The San Antonio shop eventually stopped selling firearms, and Mr. Lebman and a son continued to operate the business as a saddle, leather goods and western wear shop until it finally closed in the 1990s.
Mr. Lebman is buried in Bexar County, Texas. Some of the weapons modified by him are believed to be in the possession of the FBI in its weapons collection and are not displayed. Others are privately owned or in museums and, like Lebman saddles, are considered to be collector’s items.
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