In 1947, the American Motorcycle Association wrote an article in an attempt to distinguish between the law-abiding clubs of motorcycle enthusiasts that made up its base and the outlaw gangs that were making headlines for violence. In that article, they stated that 99% of motorcycle clubs are made up of law-abiding citizens and only 1% are criminals. Of course, America’s outlaw biker gangs latched onto this as proof of their elite status, and to this day, biker gangs proudly describe themselves as 1%ers. From drugs to prostitution to murder for hire, outlaw biker gangs wreak havoc all over the U.S. and much of the world. This list includes the biggest, most violent and most organized biker gangs in America today. They are the most violent 1% of the 1%ers.
The world’s largest and most famous motorcycle gang, the Hells Angels, was founded in 1948 when World War II veteran Otto Friedli convinced leadership from several smaller gangs to solidify into one. The club gets its name from the bomber squadron one of the founding members served in during the war. Despite common mischaracterization by media, the over 3,000 bikers in the HAMC are not engaged in any organized criminal activity. Rather, members are law-abiding motorcycle enthusiasts who joined to organize fundraisers, parties and to be around like-minded individuals. (Lol.)
In actuality, the HAMC is one of the largest and most widespread criminal enterprises in the United States. Chapters in all 50 states coordinate to traffic firearms, manufacture and distribute drugs, run prostitution rings and even carry out contract murders. The Hells Angels are the most well-known and perhaps even mainstream MC in the world, but make no mistake, HAMC members have been tied to murders on every continent on the planet except for Antarctica.
The Outlaws Motorcycle Club, or American Outlaw Association (A.O.A.), is perhaps the oldest continually running motorcycle club in America. The A.O.A. was founded in 1935 and is the longest-standing rival of the Hells Angels. Whereas the Hells Angels are more prominent the West, the Outlaws are more dominant in the East, especially in Florida. The two do, however, have frequent disputes over territory. Many of these gangs are defined by their opposition to each other, and the Outlaws are no different. One of their favorite phrases is in the form of the acronym “ADIOS,” which stands for “Angels die in outlaw states.”
Aside from the usual prostitution, gun running, drug smuggling and drug dealing, the A.O.A. has been involved in numerous incidences of violent confrontations with other gangs and grisly murders of their own members for misconduct, like the time an Outlaw member was thrown from a hotel balcony in Daytona Beach. The Outlaws also feature a strict moral code, which involves protecting the club’s skull-and-piston logo from being misused, mandating that members ride at least a 1,000cc bike and labeling women property available for exchange to other members for goods.
The Mongols, who were named after Genghis Khan’s empire, are characterized by their opposition to the Hells Angels more than any other gang. In fact, the club was founded in 1969 by a group of Hispanic Vietnam veterans who were denied initiation into the Hells Angels club because they weren’t white. Today, most Mongols members are either Hispanic or Native American. The Mongols are the only gang on our list who aren’t in the FBI’s list of largest 1%er clubs, called the “big four,” since they don’t have the national and international reach of the other MCs here.
What they lack in numbers and chapters, however, they make up for in violence. The Mongols’ power is centralized in Southern California, where the Hells Angels also have a strong hold. This means that, in addition to the racketeering, drug manufacturing and sales, and prostitution that almost all gangs do to make money, there have been numerous turf-war incidents between these two gangs. The most famous of these was the 2002 River Run incident in Laughlin, Nevada, where a dispute left two Hells Angels shot dead and one Mongols member stabbed to death.
The Pagan’s MC was founded in the 1950s in Maryland, and they have a very strong presence in the eastern U.S. Like all outlaw motorcycle clubs, the Pagan’s MC makes most of their money by producing, trafficking and selling drugs, especially methamphetamine, PCP, cocaine and heroin. The gang uses a series of smaller motorcycle gangs and street-level drug gangs to sell their product and to take on a lot of the risk associated with the drug industry.
Like any gang, the primary focus of the Pagan’s MC is to make money, so most incidences of violence are against rival gangs over turf disputes as opposed to against regular citizens. According to the New York Post, the Pagan’s MC New Jersey chapter has almost doubled in size in recent years, which has brought on a corresponding spike in violence. Authorities say that more violent acts, in the form of drive-by shootings, arson and assaults, have been committed by the Pagans in the last 18 months than in the previous 10 years.
The Bandidos are one of the largest 1%er clubs in the world, with a total membership of around 2,500 guys. Formed in Texas in 1966, the Bandidos are now truly a worldwide criminal organization with chapters in over 20 countries. The ATF lists the Bandidos as one of the big four outlaw motorcycle gangs and asserts that they make their money through drugs and arms trafficking, prostitution and money laundering.
The most infamous incident of Bandidos violence in recent memory is the 2015 Waco Texas shootout. In the parking lot of a restaurant and bar, where bikers were meeting for a political protest, Bandidos members got into a fistfight with members of a smaller gang. Given the sheer number of bikers in the area, the fight quickly escalated into shooting between multiple gangs and the police. When the dust had settled, nine bikers were dead and 18 others were wounded. Waco police arrested a whopping 177 people for the incident and were able to convict nobody.
Although biker culture is down in popularity from its peak in the 1980s, incidents of violence, such as the 2015 Waco shooting and New Jersey’s rising wave of Pagan-related violence, are proof that 1%er gangs are still alive, well and dangerous. Although their criminal elements are brutal and distasteful, America’s 1%er gangs are often lionized by popular culture. Granted, all gangs are to some degree, but biker gangs especially seem to captivate people. To many who may feel trapped in a rut or neutered by society, outlaw bikers represent freedom from societal norms and even the law.
Although they’re dangerous criminals, bikers preserve the rugged, self-reliant and anti-establishment character of the famous outlaws of the American West. The fact that these gangs are now present and active worldwide speaks to the unique impact American culture has had on the world—for better and for worse. While this doesn’t excuse the damage they do, as a red-blooded American guy, I can at least partially understand their allure.