Wednesday, November 9, 2011
They may be small and sneaky, but they bite.
When you think of small, sneaky guns you think of derringers generally. They are compact, concealable, but deadly. The genre of diminutive handguns is named after a rather latecomer in the sneaky gun business. Henry Deringer produced single shot flintlock and later, percussion pistols from the middle 1820s to the Civil War. The name and guns of Deringer were imitated by copycats and a whole grouping of compact guns became known as derringers by collectors down to the present day.*
The need for practical small pocket pistols was met with flintlock pistols, sometimes called gentleman’s pistols and could be carried in the capacious pockets of men’s clothing from the 1720s onward. One of the most popular was a tiny copy of a “Queen Anne” pistol. These had screw off barrels that allowed loading from the breech and generally had no integral ramrod.
These small guns meant for a single shot with little capability of hasty reload. The only alternative was to make guns with multiple barrels such as a double barrel pistol much like a shotgun or a pepperbox style gun. Percussion guns allowed small copies of full size revolvers but in a tiny caliber such as the Remington-Rider Pocket pistol.
The short barrels of derringers precluded accuracy beyond the distance of a card table and heavy black powder loads couldn’t fully burn completely. They compensated by having a larger caliber than you would expect in such small gun, trading off mass of projectile vs speed of projectile.
Metallic cartridges, starting with pinfires and later with the venerable .22 rimfire (1857) opened up the possibility of rapid reloading. You could make small rimfires and that functioned like full-sized guns. The downside is that the caliber was also reduced. The post-Civil War era opened up to a bewildering variety of derringers and mechanisms. The uniting feature was their small, concealable size.
After the original Deringer, the Remington Double Derringer is the most recognizable with its double barrel. Over 150,000 were made from 1966 to 1935 in .41 caliber short. Interestingly Remington also made the Remington Zig-Zag Derringer, Remington Vest Pocket Pistol as well as some very small solid frame revolvers that are nearly derringer sized.
Other companies designed derringers or bought up patents to make them. For example the Moore’s #1 (1860 to 1865), later became National (1865 to 1870). Colt bought the design and made them as the Colt derringer from 1870 to 1890. This gun also could be turned around and used as a small knuckle duster (double sneaky). Also check out the William W. Marston three-barrel derringer, one model had a snap out minibayonet (sneakier yet).
By the 1880s small copies of full-sized pistols began to supplant derringers. Many were cheaply made and collectors often called “Suicide Specials” due to their cheap manufacture. With few gun purchasing laws, inexpensive and badly made guns could be bought for a dollar and change over the counter and by mail.
By the early 20th century, highly compact automatics in .22 and .25 pretty much ended the rule of derringers. They were not only small, but very quick to reload and much more rapid fire.
In my opinion, the ultimate modern 20th century sneaky gun is the Walter PPK introduced in 1931 and you just can’t beat the styling. This ends my sneaky gun trilogy post. See my other Sneaky Gun posts previously: Sneaky Guns I: GunCanes and Sneaky Guns Part II - Combinations
*note that original Deringers have one r and the generic name for the group is lower case with two r's.