Underneath our post Palm Beach Zoo Tiger Kills Keeper: It Should Have Been a Defensive Gun Use, TTAG commentators theorized what pistol they’d carry as a zookeeper working around tigers. A couple of clued-in pistoleros recommended the Howdah pistol, a firearm about which I knew nothing. So I surfed the web for the 411 on the Howdah, of which I’ll share with you. Let’s start with a particularly well-written entry at wikipedia.org . . .
The howdah pistol was a large-calibre handgun, often with two or four barrels, used in India and Africa from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and into the early twentieth century, during the period of British Colonial rule. It was typically intended for defence against tigers, lions, and other dangerous animals that might be encountered in remote areas. Multi-barreled breech-loading designs were later favoured over the original muzzle-loading designs for Howdah pistols, because they offered faster reloading than was possible with contemporary revolvers, which had to be loaded and unloaded through a gate in the side of the frame.
The term “howdah pistol” comes from the howdah, a large platform mounted on the back of an elephant. Hunters, especially during the period of the British Raj in India, used howdahs as a platform for hunting wild animals and needed large-calibre side-arms for protection from animal attacks. The practice of hunting from the howdah basket on top of an Asian elephant was first made popular by the joint Anglo-Indian, East India Company during the 1790s.
These earliest howdah pistols were flintlock designs, and it was not until about 60 years later percussion models in single or double barrel congfiguration were seen. By the 1890s and early 1900s cartridge firing and fully rifled howdah pistols were in normal everyday use.
The first breech-loading howdah pistols were little more than sawn-off rifles, typically in .577 Snider or .577 [above]/450 Martini–Henry calibre. Later English firearms makers manufactured specially-designed howdah pistols in both rifle calibres and more conventional handgun calibres such as .455 Webleyand .476 Enfield.
As a result, the term “howdah pistol” is often applied to a number of English multi-barrelled handguns such as the Lancaster pistol (available in a variety of calibres from .380″ to .577″), and various .577 calibre revolvers produced in England and Europe for a brief time in the mid-late 19th century.
Even though howdah pistols were designed for emergency defense from dangerous animals in Africa and India, British officers adopted them for personal protection in other far-flung outposts of the British Empire. By the late 19th century, top-break revolvers in more practical calibres (such as .455 Webley) had become widespread, removing much of the traditional market for howdah pistols.
The traditional market for the Howdah pistol may have disappeared — or not, given how less developed countries still use guns from hundreds of years ago — but there’s a market for reproduction guns.
Davide Pedersoli makes the engraved Howdah Hunter [above] and Howdah Hunter Kombo. The Hunter is available in .50, .58 and 20 gauge. The Kombo chambers 20X.50. A genuine Howdah will run from $1600 to $3500 and up. Cabela’s sells the more “practical” repro Davide Pedersoli Howdah Hunter 20-Ga. pistol for $550 (pith helmet no included). Bonus! Howdah enthusiasts can also buy a funky looking shoulder stock.
A Howdah pistol is not a gun to be f*cked with. Here’s a video rife with safety violations that shows you exactly how not to handle one.
New or old, a Howdah pistol seems a bit finicky for a modern day zookeeper. But one thing’s for sure, even if you don’t have a tiger by the tail, shooting this beast will make you think you do.