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By Dallen Rose
A few weeks ago, while researching weaponry for a game I’m building, I stumbled across a fun new addition to the armory: the Allen & Thurber pepperbox pistol.
The Allen & Thurber pepperbox wasn’t a military firearm, nor was it glamorous or elegant. It was a practical, affordable tool, which explains both its immense popularity and the fact that very few people today would recognize one if they saw it. (You can see it in a Forgotten Weapons video here.)
From the 1830s through the 1850s, it was probably the most popular handgun in America, due to its reasonable price (about $10 new) and the ability to fire six shots before reloading. If you needed a not-too-expensive pistol that could be carried in a coat pocket or waistband or kept handy in a drawer while you went about your daily business, this was the gun of choice.
Pepperboxes are an interesting species of firearm. Once very common, they’ve largely faded from common knowledge. I had heard the term before, but it wasn’t until seeing Logan Metesh’s article about the strange little knuckleduster pistol (technically also a pepperbox) that I connected the word with the gun it describes. In the revolvers we’re familiar with, the chambers rotate to align with the barrel. A pepperbox, however, is a multi-barreled gun in which the lockwork rotates the entire assembly to align each barrel’s chamber with the hammer in turn.
While there were various configurations, the typical Allen & Thurber pepperbox had six un-rifled barrels and was fired by a flat, elongated hammer atop the pistol. The great majority were produced in .32 caliber, with a minority in .36 (and other, smaller calibers too). Its popularity declined as the more reliable and powerful metallic cartridge revolvers came into their own, but it was manufactured in dwindling numbers well into the 1880s.
In his memoirs of the California gold rush, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) described a friend’s Allen pepperbox this way:
Simply drawing the trigger back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world…
It was a cheerful weapon—the “Allen.” Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once and then there was no safe place in all the region roundabout but behind it.
Twain may have exaggerated for comic effect, but there is truth in the description.
The Allen pepperbox wasn’t a long-range weapon by any stretch. It was more like a belly gun — meant to be used for self-defense in dire emergencies, when an attacker was closing in. Although rare, it was possible for a spark to flash from one percussion cap to the next, igniting anywhere from two to all six charges virtually simultaneously. It would have been a hell of a surprise for people on both ends of the gun.
Despite its relative obscurity, the Allen Pepperbox played a significant part in American history that few are fully aware of. It’s not “the gun that won the West” or the subject of a pithy “God made men, Sam Colt made them equal” kind of slogan. But it was part of a single pivotal encounter that shaped the future of the west.
In June of 1844, Joseph Smith — the founding prophet of the Mormon religion — was at the jailhouse in Carthage, Illinois, awaiting trial along with his brother Hyrum, Willard Richards, and John Taylor. To be clear, although the four were in custody, they hadn’t exactly been jailed. A local militia group had sworn to kill Joseph and anyone they found with him, so he and his three counselors sat in a second-floor guardroom, awaiting a law enforcement delegation to escort them to the courthouse.
The upstart religion had a tumultuous relationship with its regional neighbors. To put a complex situation in a nutshell, mobs had been raised against the Mormons on several occasions, and homes and property on both sides were destroyed in an escalating sequence of aggression and retaliation. One of these episodes had led to the religion’s leaders turning themselves over to the law for trial, at which they expected to be acquitted.
But a local militia had other ideas. Violence was brewing again.
Earlier in the day, a few of Joseph’s friends had visited the jail, bringing letters, news, and food. It was a rainy morning, so they wore long coats. In their coat pockets — unsearched by the jailers — were two pistols. One was a single-shot pistol of unspecified make, and the other an Allen pepperbox in .32 caliber.
The Allen’s owner pressed the little pistol on his prophet, saying, “Here, you may have use for this.” Initially Joseph declined, saying that Mr. Wheelock might need it for his own protection on the way home, but eventually accepted the offer.
The single-shot pistol went to Hyrum, who protested, “I hate to use such things, or to see them used.” Joseph replied, “So do I. But we may have to, to defend ourselves.”
Those were prophetic words. Later that afternoon, the anti-Mormon militia overwhelmed the jailers and stormed up to the second-floor guardroom.
Hearing a commotion in the hall, Hyrum approached the closed door just as they fired a volley through it. He fell backward to the floor, struck by a musket ball just below his left eye. Joseph leapt to aid his brother, who exclaimed, “I am a dead man!” and lapsed into unconsciousness. A few seconds later Hyrum Smith was dead, his pistol still unfired in his pocket.
Meanwhile, Willard Richards and John Taylor were valiantly trying to hold the door against the assailants. Taylor used his sturdy walking stick to great effect, knocking the muskets away as they were thrust through the partially open door. Joseph then rushed to the door, stuck the pepperbox pistol around the door jamb, and emptied it at point-blank range into the mob.
A chain-fire might have been useful at that point, but instead the pistol suffered a more common malfunction. Only three of the six barrels fired.
Severely outnumbered, Joseph and his remaining companions couldn’t hold the door for long. When the assassins burst into the room, he made a desperate bid to escape through the window. He was shot several times in the attempt and fell dead to the ground outside.
In the end, the borrowed Allen pepperbox — that “cheerful weapon” of self-defense — was not up to the task. Against a dozen enemies or more, armed with muskets, it never could have been.
Joseph Smith’s Allen pepperbox pistol now resides in the LDS Church History Museum, along with Taylor’s walking stick and Hyrum’s pistol, in downtown Salt Lake City.
Known to friends, family, and the internet as Ing, Dallen is a marketing writer by day, a designer of roleplaying games by night, and a gun enthusiast at all times.
I quite enjoyed this one – your storytelling skills in developed in tabletop have served you well here. I admit I’m a bit tucked in to the D&D mythos to expand to westerns (no gunpowder allowed in our campaigns), but you’ve got me thinking that a pepperbox would make a fine addition to the safe and perhaps a thoughtful BUBUG or at least a nice BBQ Gun.
I also find it curious that a church whose founder was shot by a mob and driven to what was essentially Mexico would also prohibit firearms at their university’s flagship campus and in their chapels.
Nice write up. Well done.
I wondered as I started to read, “Will he quote Twain on the Pepperbox?” I was not disappointed, I had never heard that Smith and his companions were armed. Thank you for the entertaining and well-researched article.
I think the Twain quote is mandatory. Every pepperbox article I’ve read has the same one. It’s so well-used I thought about not including it, but you really can’t go wrong with Mark Twain. Besides, I didn’t want to risk violating any sacred unwritten rules.
My life with guns began with a blackpowder rifle. There’s just something about them I like, the way they force you to slow down and carefully consider each step in the process of loading and firing them. The Pepperbox is no stranger to me – I’ve lingered over every article I’ve ever seen that mentions them.
I’m not sure how enthusiastic I am about buying any of the replica pepperboxes I’ve seen for sale from time to time, but if I run across a bargain it will probably have a home in my collection simply for the novelty factor.
As I understand it, the trigger pull was double-action and the weight of the six rotating barrels made hitting a target at any kind of distance a matter of luck.
Good write-up, now I’m off to search the ‘net for what a working replica will set me back (if I had the money).
The way they’re designed a chain fire in a pepperbox would not be as nasty as a chain fire in an 1860 colt army. Smith needed a duckfoot pistol.
Ha! Moist nugget… Just like old times. 🙂
Smith was in just about the only situation where you’d really *want* a chainfire — so of course he didn’t get one. But hey, if he had survived we probably wouldn’t have Utah now. Destiny, I guess.
I hadn’t heard of a duckfoot pistol before. (Googled it just now, mistyped it as cuckfoot. Awkward…) Those things are wicked. Might’ve been hard to get one past the guards, though.
Twain also had this tidbit about the “First Rule…”
Don’t meddle with old unloaded firearms. They are the most deadly and unerring things that have ever been created by man. You don’t have to take any pains at all with them; you don’t have to have a rest, you don’t have to have any sights on the gun, you don’t have to take aim, even. No, you just pick out a relative and bang away, and you are sure to get him. A youth who can’t hit a cathedral at thirty yards with a Gatling gun in three-quarters of an hour, can take up an old empty musket and bag his mother every time at a hundred. Think what Waterloo would have been if one of the armies had been boys armed with old rusty muskets supposed not to be loaded, and the other army had been composed of their female relations. The very thought of it makes me shudder.
– Advice to Youth speech, 4/15/1882
That is fantastic! “Cathedral at thirty yards.” Leave it to Twain to not only surpass the worn-out “broad side of a barn” but to vastly improve upon it.
Thanks for posting that!
Great article. I really enjoyed it. Plus the quote made me remember how much I really enjoyed reading Twain when I was a kid.
Good stuff, but I’d care to see some production numbers and load data/ballistics. I mean, I could guess the latter, but maybe the real info is not what I’d expect.
Nobody knows how many of these things were made. They weren’t serialized or tracked in any way. We just know there were a *lot* of them out there and the company did very well producing them for a good 50 years.
I’ve never seen any load data or ballistics on these. And I really want to know, because it’d be very helpful for my game. Right now they’re just in a generic “probably weak sauce” category.
There’s a Hungarian dude on youtube that puts up vids under cap&ball. He’s heavy into black powder weapons. If he doesn’t know about pepperboxes maybe he can point you in the right direction.
Sweet! I’ll go look that guy up.
A .32 ACP shell casing works as a powder measure with fffg black powder in .31 cal.
Trigger pull is like 20#.
These guns were produced on semi-automated machinery in Massachusetts, primarily.
I never had much interest in pepperboxes because I had only seen little 3 1/2″ barrel ones in photos and I am a hogleg revolver kind of guy. But then I was at a black powder range and this older couple were there (in 1850’s period costume, no less) with a little collection of bp firearms. Turns out they were Crimean War buffs. Thanks to Flashy at the Charge and a couple of other books I’ve read, I know a little, so we had a good conversation. Well, the lady reaches into their case and pulls out a big honking Cooper ring-trigger .36 “dragoon” pepperbox with, I believe, 6″ barrels and my heart skipped a beat. Of course, they were never military issue, but she assured me that several British officers carried them in the Crimean War as private firearms. They took turns loading and shooting six rounds each, did a quick clean and asked if I’d like a go. Not being a complete fool, I jumped at the chance. Heavy trigger pull, very loud report, plenty of smoke, but fortunately there was a cross breeze on the range, and the recoil wasn’t bad at all. Accuracy…well, let’s just say it was great fun to shoot and leave it at that. No misfires and no chainfires out of the 18 rounds fired. Mind, this was not a replica, but a circa 150 year old piece. I was very curious about where they acquired it, how much it set them back, etc, but when people don’t volunteer that kind of info, I bite my tongue and mind my business.
Pepperboxes aren’t all just the dinky little riverboat gambler gadgets that I used to think- there were big heavy hogleg versions as well!