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Deringers, Pepperboxes, and Other Small Firearms

Other stories in this website have focused on large handguns, rifles, and shotguns in the old west with special attention to firearms used by the Texas Rangers. However, in the research for his book on the early history of the Texas Rangers, Wilkins finds references to smaller handguns, notably the deringer, also being used used by Rangers. Wilkins describes one account of a Ranger with a pair of holster pistols as well as a deringer belt pistol (see Wilkins reference at the end of this story). Deringers came to be associated with deadly encounters ranging from dueling to their use by gamblers -- a deringer was also used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Another small firearm giving competition to Colt's revolving cylinder firearm was an inexpensive revolving barrel pistol manufactured by Ethan Allen which initially outsold the Colt revolver and remained a strong Colt competitor into the 1850s (see Flayderman reference at the end of this story). Whereas Colt's cylinder revolved, Allen's hand gun had six barrels that revolved. Referred to as a pepperbox, his first was a percussion model in .28 caliber, sometimes referred to as the "dainty" Allen pepperbox. In addition to the deringer, the above-mentioned Wilkins reference also includes mention of the use of an Allen revolving barrel handgun in combat by the Texas Rangers in 1840. The Allen pepperbox in fact was used in the Mexican and Civil Wars. It can be additionally noted that Allen had earlier received the patent for double-action operation of a percussion pistol, and virtually all of his pepperboxes were double-action models (see later paragraph).

The photo below shows an Allen pepperbox pistol which Flayderman refers to as an early transitional type made between 1847-1854 at the Worcester plant by Allen and Thurber, the latter his then business partner and brother-in-law. It is a fairly common 6-shot model in .31 caliber with a 3.25 inch barrel. The insert in the photo more clearly shows the six revolving barrel feature.

About the same time that Samuel Colt was given a patent for the revolving percussion cylinder (1836), Ethan Allen (no relation to the American Revolutionary hero) was granted a patent in 1837 for the double action operation of a percussion pistol. It was Allen, therefore, who made the first double-action gun made in America, a single-shot model sketched below referred to as Allen's "tube hammer" pocket pistol.

An interesting variant of that pistol was Allen's under-hammer model (the hammer under the barrel and just forward of the trigger). A sketch of that model appears below.

Henry Deringer probably made pistols prior to 1850 but his unique design did not become popular until 1852. Pictured below is the percussion deringer used to kill Lincoln, Deringer's small pocket version of his design in .44 caliber, almost 6 inches long."

Elderly at the time his design became popular, Henry Deringer spawned a number of imitators of his small pistol--from single-shot models to the over-under model that was made by Remington. The Remington double deringer, also known as the Model 95 double deringer, was made from 1866-1935. Flayderman estimates a production run of over 150,000 of this Remington model. The photo below shows a stainless steel, double deringer cartridge model in .38 caliber made by Cobra and patterned after the Remington Model 95.

References for story:

  • The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers, 1823-1845 by Frederick Wilkins, State House Press, 1996.
  • Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms...and their values by Norm Flayderman, DBI Books, 6th Edition 1994.