Gun Library ArticleDerringers
Pictured: The Remington .41 caliber Double Derringer pistol, confiscated from gangster John Dillinger when he was arrested in Tucson, Arizona on January 25, 1934, six months before Dillinger was fatally gunned down in Chicago. It sold for $95,600 in a public auction conducted in Dallas, Texas on July 25, 2009, a few days after the 75th anniversary of Dillinger's death. (UPI Photo/Heritage Auction Galleries).
Henry Deringer was one of the most famous and ingenious gun inventors of the 19th century. His Philadelphia Derringer was a small pocket pistol that was widely copied and manufactured. Many people were attracted by its small size and easy handling; Derringer became known worldwide for having designed and produced the first single shot muzzle-loading pistol that was so small. He opened a new era for the American gun history and even though misspelled with two "r"s, the name of Deringer started to be put on every small pocket pistol.
Born in Pennsylvania of 1786, Derringer learned the secrets of being a gunsmith from his father, an experienced and dedicated gun maker. He started his own company and came up with the small percussion handgun that was going to make history. The 1800s were golden times for Derringer and his pocket pistol; the gun had been copied and re-copied by so many companies that everybody started to associate the term of pocket pistol with Derringer. Even in the years that were about to come, derringer became a generic term for small pistols. The reason why everyone preferred so much the small pocket pistols designed by Derringer was because it was easy to conceal and extremely accurate on short distances. There are certain legends that tell how women preferred especially to carry a derringer in their purse or hidden in their stockings.
When Henry Deringer conceived his more than famous pocket pistol, he hadn’t the slightest idea of how popular it was going to become. Without being a repeating firearm such as revolvers were, the derringer had many other advantages, firing rim-fire cartridges and barrel pivoted sideways for easy reloading access. It was certainly an innovative pistol and it didn’t take long for other manufacturers to add their own improvements. Remington studies carefully the small pocket pistol that Derringer had invented and decided that it could be improved by adding another barrel and also if it was chambered for the 41 rim-fire cartridge. These modifications were present in the Remington derringer that managed to gain even more popularity, especially at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century.
His pistols were sold to civilians for protection purposes (especially women as the legends say) and also to military forces. Unfortunately, there was another category deeply interested in the small size and easy concealment, the one of assassins. The history of American firearms was deeply affected by the killing of Abraham Lincoln with a Derringer by the man that was John Wilkes Booth. The derringer that he used was to remain in history as the single most famous small pocket pistol ever used.
The 1872 derringer pistol was chambered for a .22 short caliber cartridge, had a nickel or gold frame for gun collectors and a single-blue 8’’ barrel. Made from zinc alloy and hardwood, it was especially preferred by those who wanted a small gun, concealed in the pocket of their trousers. Even if Colt and Remington started a competition with Henry Deringer, his guns maintained their popularity and reputation for quality and performance.
Another 1871 derringer is just as famous, the .31-caliber black powdered version. Fitted with a black frame and a gold barrel, it is one of the finest small pistols ever made. The finish is incredible, the materials are zinc alloy and hardwood and plenty of accessories were made to go along with it. There are hand-crafted presentation cases, made only from the finest wood and with velvet on the inside. There are wall plaques especially made for gun collectors and enthusiasts, unique items indeed!
As for other legends connected with the Derringer name, there are some that give detailed accounts of gamblers and various outlaws. Somewhere around 1850s, they all preferred to use concealed weapons upon attack and so did other citizens for protection purposes. Derringers were usually carried in pairs and they had incredible precision for the small guns that they actually were. And when in 1856, Henry Deringer came out with a new and improved small pocket pistol, the demand grew even more. The new model had this time been fitted for metallic cartridges and was much more efficient than its predecessor.
Soon after, new loading mechanisms were implemented for the derringer and that included the 1861 breech-loading of Daniel Moore. His model was the same small-pocket pistol, with a single barrel and chambered for a .41 rim-fire cartridge but the loading system was different. It attracted the attention of the National Arms Company that decided to buy the newly improved derringer. And as it was clear that more improvements were going to be added to the original derringer, the year of 1870 brought a patented barrel with a side-swinging mechanism. It was the invention of Alexander Thuer and it managed to maintain the popularity of the derringer until the start of the 20th century, when the first automatic pistols were released.
Even if the automatic pistols managed to replace and take over derringer’s popularity, in the second half the 20th century the original 1872 derringer was released once again on the market. Chambered for the .22 short cartridges, it was affordable and had many attractive features. And as there were many collectors interested in the derringer’s return, other models were re-introduced for production in the years to come.
Today, the term of derringer is associated with any small-size pocket pistol. The first model that Henry Derringer designed had remained in history, being easy to handle and conceal, accurate at short distances. The features of the original derringer were considered particularly attractive by other manufacturers and they soon started to produce their own models. Widely used in the American Civil War and during that period, the derringer had made history not only under the name of Henry Derringer but also under the one of Colt or Remington. Special models were made for gun collectors, plated with gold and they remained as unique firearms.
Still, no matter the history and the various models of derringers, there isn’t one more famous than the derringer used by John Booth to murder United States President, Abraham Lincoln!