The Truth About Derringers

Derringer Henry Deringer

courtesy news-antique.com

By BLoving

I spotted a customer leaning over the glass case displaying the pocket-sized .380s of various makes. Asking her what sort she was shopping for, she indicated a Taurus PT738 TCP. “I’d like to see that derringer right there” she said, tapping on the glass and pointing at it.

My tongue twisted in my mouth as it struggled with the desire to blurt out a technical correction. Instead, I smiled and un-clipped the keys from my belt loop to open the case.

Thinking about it now, I find it quaint that the term “derringer” is still widely known enough in the twenty-first century that it can still be used (incorrectly) by even the uninitiated first-time gun buyer.

The term ‘derringer’ can only be accurately applied to a certain category of pistols.  All derringers fire from a fixed barrel. They may have one, two or more barrels set together and may fire in either single or double action, via a hammer or striker.

They are typically small enough to conceal easily in a pocket, may or may not have rudimentary sights and are absolutely never semi-automatics or revolvers.

Derringer Henry Deringer

 

Derringer Henry Deringer

Derringers: Colt Thuer No.3 .41 RF (top), High Standard DM101 .22 WMR (below)

Derringer Henry Deringer

 

Derringer Henry Deringer

Not derringers: Ruger LCP .380ACP (top), North American Arms Mini-Revolver .22 LR (below)

While small, concealable pistols have existed since the flintlock age, the derringer pistol wasn’t a thing until the mid-1800s. In 1852, Henry Deringer (yes, one ‘r’) of Philadelphia began focusing his rifle-making business toward the production of percussion-fired pistols of full-sized caliber small enough to slip into the generously large pockets fashionable in men’s outerwear of the day.

These pistols quickly gained a reputation for being well-made, concealable and were typically bored for .41 caliber, though calibers of .33 to .50 weren’t unheard of. Given the perfect combination of percussion ignition, large caliber, small size and good quality, the Philadelphia Deringer was an immediate success.

Derringer Henry Deringer

Replica Deringer from the author’s collection. Kit-built .45 caliber from Connecticut Valley Arms when he was sixteen. Note the tiny two-finger grip.

Proving that any publicity is good publicity, Deringer’s guns sold very well after one was used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre in 1865. So successful were Deringer’s guns, they were soon copied by other gun makers across the nation.

According to arms historian William Reid, “One New York trader went so far as to advertise himself as an ‘imitation Deringer Pistol Manufacturer.’”  To get around patent and copyright laws, many copies were sold as Derringer Pistols (with an extra ‘r’) and that spelling has stuck to this day.

Derringer Henry Deringer

Ford’s Theatre Booth’s Deringer National Historic Site, Washington, D.C.

The invention of the integral metallic cartridge spelled the end for the Philadelphia Deringer, however. Taking its place were numerous examples of small, single-shot, breech-loading pistols from a variety of manufacturers.

Derringer Henry Deringer

Remington Derringer. .41 Rimfire

Remington did them all one better when they introduced a two-barreled, over/under derringer in .41 rimfire in 1866.  The pistol sold very well until Remington discontinued it in 1935 and set the pattern for almost all two-shot derringers since. Its lines are evident in cheap clones like the Cobra Derringer and even the exemplary Texas-made derringers of Bond Arms.

Derringer Henry Deringer

Bond Arms Snake Slayer. .45 Colt/.410 shot shell

“The most useless gun I’d ever actually WANT to carry” – said by the author to a customer.

If two shots are better than one, more would be better still. So some gun makers have added more. In 1859, Sharps made a four-barreled piece in .41 RF that worked well.

Derringer Henry Deringer

Derringer Henry Deringer

Derringer Henry Deringer

Sharps Derringer .41 RF (top), COP 357 .357 Magnum (middle), Standard S333 Volleyfire .25ACP (bottom)

This idea has continued to the present day in pistols like the COP 357. Most recently, Standard Manufacturing introduced (but hasn’t yet released) the S333 Volleyfire, a six-shot derringer that fires two .25ACP loads with each trigger pull.

Some things just never go out of style. While the pocket semi-auto is here to stay, there will always be a demand for something simpler for folks who just want something that works when they need it.

 

comments

  1. avatar neiowa says:

    two .25ACP loads with each trigger pull
    = .50cal? instant vaporization.

    1. avatar Nigel the expat says:

      Some politician somewhere is completely okay with that math. 😉

    2. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

      Actually I think it’s more like .25 x .25 = .0625.

  2. avatar Texheim says:

    Where the 6.5 at?

    1. avatar Nigel the expat says:

      Give it a bit, I am sure Heizer would be up to adding that to their insane rifle-caliber derringer lineup. 🙂

  3. avatar Ogre says:

    “…cheap clones like the Cobra Derringer…” One day at a gun show, I decided that I wanted (not needed) an over-under Remington derringer clone. In case. I looked at some Bond Arms models and was put off by their prices. Then I saw a Cobra over-under in .38 Spl for $165 and decided it was what I wanted in what is essentially a desperation gun. Since then, I’ve taken it to the range a couple times and cycled some target and self-defense ammo through it. It went bang every time and gave me no problems reloading. I also learned there are Cobra interchangable barrels for different caliber choices that will fit my derringer’s frame. And not break the bank. So, every now and then it goes for a ride in my pocket loaded with lead wadcutter ammo. I’m pretty happy with it. Let the snobs think it is beneath them, and go spend hundreds more on a Bond Arms derringer.

    1. avatar jwtaylor says:

      “and go spend hundreds more on a Bond Arms derringer”

      Have. Will. Will again.

      But I say any gun that you are just going to take out a couple of times on a rare occasion need not cost much, and if you are happy, yay, good for you.

      I’m chasing a bit of a quick draw dream (proving to be a fantasy) with my Bond Arms 45/410, so I’ve likely got at least 500 rounds through it. I expect it to go far past that. I’ve seen these guns wear out firing pins before anything else on the gun wears out. That’s many thousands of rounds later.

      1. avatar Ogre says:

        JW, to each his own. I appreciate your opinion, and I wish you luck in attaining your need for speed with your Bond Arms derringer. Read your piece about your visit to the Bond Arms factory – what did you think of their 9mm semi-auto Bullpup? Looks intriguing. Not as if I actually need one…

        As to my el-cheapo Cobra .38 Spl, it is a true desperation gun when I carry it (sometimes as a backup for my primary EDC) and I adhere to the standards that made Old West gunmen deadly: 1. Deliberation, 2. Accuracy and 3. Speed. In other words, I’m never going to be Quickdraw McGraw with it, but in case of need I hope to be calm enough to get it out in time to take an accurate shot (or two) and get the hell out of Dodge. Otherwise, it’s just fun to have.

        1. avatar jwtaylor says:

          “Read your piece about your visit to the Bond Arms factory”
          Not my piece, I didn’t go there.

          But I have shot the BullPup and reviewed it highly positively. I’m in line for the longslide version as soon as it hits production, and the silencer to go with it.

    2. avatar the ghost of ironicatbest says:

      When ironicatbest had s .38 derringer he reloaded for it and reversed the wad cutters, it made a nice hollow point.

      1. avatar Big Bill says:

        Ironicatbest understands, I will assume, that HBWCs are only one type of wadcutters, and are not often used except at low velocities, because the hollow base tends to deform at higher velocities (higher pressures).
        Most wadcutters have a flat or slightly beveled base.
        When I reloaded, I cast my own lead bullets for .38 and .41 special, often wadcutters and semi-wadcutters. Usually I used a hard lead. I would often fire a few jacketed bullets at the end of a range session to clear most of the lead from the barrel.

    3. avatar Esoteric Inanity says:

      This one would wager that Cobra probably provides better customer service than Bond Arms.

      Earlier this year Esoteric Inanity picked up one of their limited edition “Dragon Slayers” in .45C/.410 for around $500. The gun appeared to be a quality piece with beautiful rosewood grips. After around 40 rounds of .45 Colt “cowboy” level Winchesters and several shells of .410 birdshot, the right grip panel completely split down the backside.

      Five emails and two phone calls later to Bond Arms, this one has yet to hear back from them, and it’s been nearly six months. It’s unacceptable for any business not to at least address their customers issues. Esoteric Inanity was neither rude(at least not in emails 1-4) or demanding, but merely wanted to know if the warranty would cover the issue and where he might acquire another of those limited edition grips or some other replacement.

      Bond Arms does make a quality gun, however, but if one needs to get something fixed, in this one’s experience it’s an effort in futility.

  4. avatar Gator says:

    Nice article. Very interesting stuff!

    1. avatar Art out West says:

      I don’t have any use for a Derringer. LCP or J-frame work just fine for deep concealment.

      Derringer would make a fun toy however

  5. avatar Gun Owning American says:

    Is that 25 legal to own?

    1. avatar The Rookie says:

      I wondered about that at first, but apparently it’s not a NFA item. Because it fires the two rounds simultaneously, instead of one right after the other, the ATF has ruled it (the Volleyfire) isn’t a machine gun.

      1. avatar Big Bill says:

        Attempting to make sense of any ATF decision is an exercise in futility.
        Reading the definition of an automatic weapon in the law tells me that if more than one round fires with one activation of the trigger, it’s automatic. It does not make a distinction between simultaneous and sequential fire.
        Yet, the Arsenal AF2011-A1 is legal. And, apparently, this one will be, too.
        And now we have the bump stock fiasco. Ban it because it makes a semi-suto rifle into an automatic rifle?
        Where’s the consistency?
        Without consistency from the agency tasked with determining the meaning of a law,the law is meaningless.

  6. avatar MIO says:

    Ya can’t really blame her for calling it a derringer because some are larger than regular pistols. I know it’s hard to not get hung up on technicalities but the larger battle is making sure they have the right gun for the job, the right ammo for the job and training.

  7. avatar Geoff "Mess with the Bull, get the Horns" PR says:

    “Not derringers: Ruger LCP .380ACP (top), North American Arms Mini-Revolver .22 LR (below)”

    The NAA mini is *not* a Derringer, while the 2-shot High Standard is?

    Exactly how so?

    1. avatar jwtaylor says:

      The NAA is a revolver. A revolver and a derringer are mutually exclusive. It must fire from a fixed barrel.

      1. avatar Jonathan-Houston says:

        Meh. Close enough for casual conversation.

    2. avatar oliver says:

      I’ll go out on a limb here and opine that the broader definition of a derringer would be a small pistol with one or multiple barrels with immovable ie, fixed, chambers, not just fixed barrels. The NAA has a fixed barrel but rotating chambers, so its a true revolver. If the barrels and chambers were one rotating unit then I believe it would be referred to as a pepperbox. This is all off the top of my head so happy to be corrected.

      1. avatar jwtaylor says:

        Yup, the key there is firing from a fixed barrel. The NAA fires from a rotating cylinder.

      2. avatar Bloving says:

        Correct. A handgun with a fixed barrel or barrels is a “pistol” (And possibly a derringer if it is pocket-sized). A handgun with a fixed barrel but a rotating set of chambers is a “revolver”. And finally a handgun with a rotating cluster of barrels is a “pepperbox”… or possibly a Gatling gun (*mind swirls with the possibilities*).
        🤠

        1. avatar Ing says:

          Wow…I never thought of it that way before. A Gatling gun really is just an oversized pepperbox. No, the ULTIMATE pepperbox.

        2. avatar Junior says:

          I think the ultimate pepperbox would be the minigun.

  8. avatar jwtaylor says:

    I always thought derringers were cool toys. But earlier this year I watched Garret Martin, the World Champion Derringer shooter put two rounds into the target in under a second.
    But get the conditions. He was not expected to perform. We were there to shoot the new BullPup. I picked regular, off the shelf .38SPL+P rounds bought from the Range at Austin. When the buzzer went off, he drew and fired 2 rounds into a single silhouette target at 7 yards. It was under a second.
    We did the same thing, but drawing from the table, with his hand on the gun when the buzzer went off. Both rounds hit in HALF a second.
    It sounds like 1 round going off. You can’t see his fingers move. You have to watch it a few times to be sure he even shot twice. I posed it on my IG and got a whole lot of DMs saying it must be fake. It’s real.

    Now, how many of you can draw your EDC pistol and put two rounds into the target in under 1 second at 7 yards? How may can table draw and do the same in 1/2 a second? On demand. Every single time? Not I. Yet.

    1. avatar Bitter says:

      Yet…I like that.
      I get so hung up on different types of guns and “carry systems” that I rarely train with just one gun.
      I am working on improving my mind set so I can truly become proficient with my chosen carry gun and be fast and accurate with it rather than worrying over caliber and power and capacity.

      1. avatar jwtaylor says:

        I hear that.
        Unfortunately, my shooting has declined since I became a writer for TTAG. I used to shoot 500 rounds a week with the same 2 or 3 guns, for years. Now I shoot 500 rounds a week, but each week with different guns. I’ve gotten familiar with a very wide range of firearms, but my shooting with my EDC guns has definitely diminished.

        1. avatar Chris T from KY says:

          I are so lucky. I wish I had the resources to shoot 500 rounds a year!!!

    2. avatar LarryinTX says:

      JWT, shouldn’t such a testimonial include the make of gun he was shooting?

      1. avatar jwtaylor says:

        2.5″ Bond Arms Derringer in .38SPL.

    3. avatar Rusty Chains says:

      With my EDC .45 when I was in my 20s, turn, draw, and fire. Single round into large metal peanut jar lid at 7 yards, repeatable on demand. My eyes and my speed have deteriorated a bit since then, and I no longer believe in the magic of the. 45. On the plus side my usual carry 9mm holds twice what the .45 did, and weights less full than the .45 did empty. Even my holsters work better and weigh less.

      Times change and equipment improves with technology.

  9. avatar the ghost of ironicatbest says:

    Ironicatbest has owned two cheap derringers, neither one were very accurate. With the modern small pistols there is really not much reason to own one. However there’s just something cool about them and ironicatbest would like to have another one. He wouldn’t get a Bond Arms though, to expensive, big and heavy for what they are.This was a very good article, lots of history, informative more about guns and less about governor’s.

  10. avatar Spectre_USA says:

    Ha! What a flashback! I fired the High Standard DM101 .22 WMR back in 1976, and it was a hoot at dusk, and shot flames out of each barrel.

    Man, now I got an itch to find another one, 40 years later.

    A fine first entry to the contest, good job!

  11. avatar jwtaylor says:

    BLoving,

    Thanks for the great entry. You’ve set a high bar!

  12. avatar Oscar Cannington says:

    The NAA revolver is not a derringer, but IMO the NAA minis, especially the .22mag versions like the Pug, have rendered the derringer obsolete.

  13. avatar Ahil925 says:

    I’ve wanted a Bond Arms derringer for awhile (because they look cool and are made in Texas), but I can’t justify the price for what would be a range toy of limited ability. I thought about getting a cobra, but their reputation isn’t good and they look uncomfortable to shoot. I missed my chance to get a DoubleTap for under $200 too. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see if any of those new crop of 4 barrel guns ever becomes cheap enough to tempt me.

    1. avatar Gralnok says:

      Go for a Cobra. If they are anything like the Davis Derringers, they will be cheap and fun. My Davis rattles a bit, and keyholes all shots, but it’s still fun to shoot.

    2. avatar GeneG says:

      I am too tight with my money to buy a Bind Arms derringer, so I bought a Cobra 380 Guardian derringer and could not be happier! It is fun to shoot with very little recoil. I don’t burn through a bunch of ammo in a short amount of time bevause the derringer slows you down when loading and unloading. I did sand the contact points of the trigger and hammer to give it a lighter trigger pull and scrulpted the front of the trigger to make it more confortable. I enjoy my Cobra derringer a lot more than I do my Ruger of Smith semi autos. I grab my Cobra derringer when I want to have some fun. I do not carry. I do not have a CCW nor do I ever plan to. I don’t want to lose my temper and get in trouble. I’ve been known to do that. So for now any handgun I own is just for fun or home defense.

    1. avatar RA-15 says:

      Cool jam. I’d like to know what idiots gave that jam a thumbs down ? That boy could play like a mo-fo. Thanks for the video !!

    2. avatar Chris T from KY says:

      Frankenstein!!!

  14. avatar RayS says:

    A friend had a COP – nasty shooting .357s out of it. And it weighs a ton. Unique gun tho.

    1. avatar Serpent_Vision says:

      Heavy enough that it was more comfortable to fire .357s out of it than .38s out of a 2-shot DA. Unfortunately, no one seemed to make a holster for it, and the combination of heavy weight and very rounded corners made it slip easily out of a pocket, so there was no secure way to carry the thing.

  15. avatar RA-15 says:

    Great history on Derringer type pistols. Thanks.

  16. avatar M10 says:

    What ever happened to American Derringer out of Waco, TX? I’m not a fan of the blocky trigger guard on the Bond design.

    Also, I wonder why NAA doesn’t make models in other rimfire calibers besides .22

  17. avatar DrDKW says:

    30+ years go, I picked up a predecessor to the Cobra, a tiny chrome 22 Davis derringer with ‘rosewood’ grips for $60, NIB.
    Fired it a few times. It’s a fun little toy.
    Speaking of toys, I got a Nichols derringer cap-gun as a kid, at a local drug-store for $2. It was a very realistic replica, just about the same size as the Davis, and opened up like a real one, with a little ‘cartridge to insert a cap with. Later, my little brother got hold of and it disappeared
    Many years later, I tried to find one like it on eBay and nice ones, in the original package, were selling for about what I paid for my Davis!

    DrDKW

  18. avatar Gerard says:

    Evan Marshall has said that 38 snubnose revolvers are ‘modern derringers’. They are a perfect balance between size, weight and controllable power.

  19. avatar Gralnok says:

    I liked the idea of a derringer, and like an above commenter, I was turned off by the cost of a Bond Arms derringer. They may be built like tanks, but I can’t justify the cost when I could buy a full size pistol for just as much. Then, I found a little Davis Derringer at a gun show for $50. Chambered in .22mag, it’s a fun little toy that, when loaded with ratshot, would likely make any menacing small to medium critter think twice about attacking me while I walk my dog. Ratshot would also be a painful distraction if shot into the face of a carjacker. Yes, I know, I have a full size gun to deal with the threat, but in a suburban environment, or at a stop light, I’m pretty sure it would either make the perp think twice about his/her actions, or give me a few more seconds to get my main pistol out and ready. Also, it puts out a lovely little fireball at night.

  20. avatar Chris T from KY says:

    This is great information for my library. Thanks!

  21. avatar mike1842 says:

    I carry my Bond Snake Slayer in a custom IWB holster from Ten8 Leather. Rides very comfortably. Also have a 4 round ammo slide to complete the rig. I looked at my threat level and where my greatest risk and determined that a Bond was enough to keep me safe.
    And I was lucky, my wife bought mine for my birthday.

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