Derringers – Not A Fan

Henry Deringer was an American gunsmith who came up with a pocket pistol for self defense in 1825.  It was an amazing collection of innovations, a clear example of a flash of brilliance.

flintlock derringer

I know what you, modern reader, is thinking.  “Yeah, so it is a derringer.  So what?

Mr. Deringer’s sole act of brilliance was to take an extremely short barrel chambered for a large bore, man-killing bullet and mate it with teensy tiny furniture.  This created a gun which might be doll sized, but which still packed a devastating punch.

The time for the idea had clearly come, as the public bought these guns as fast as Henry could churn them out.  This brought Mr. Deringer considerable economic success, but counterfeit versions of his gun started to be produced at an amazing pace.  Henry sued some of the gunsmiths who would build copycat versions of his invention right down to his proof marks, arguing that they were just cashing in on his fame.  He won enough court cases that the copycats started to call their works “derringers”, with an extra R.  Since the copies outnumbered the authentic by several orders of magnitude, and so made a much greater impact on the public, we now refer to Henry’s invention by the mangled version of his name.

But don’t cry for Henry.  As I mentioned before, he made out pretty good and died with cash in his pockets.

This basic idea of tiny guns made for ultra-concealment has proven to be amazingly durable, and the basic design has been constantly upgraded.  It only took a few years before Henry dropped the original flintlock mechanism for a percussion cap ignition system, placing derringers at the cutting edge of firearm technology at the time.

percussion cap derringer

The demand for such guns has continued into the present day, with double-barreled versions chambered for the .38 Special cartridge being particularly popular.

38 caliber derringer

38 caliber derringer in hand

The popularity of the design has also led to some trends that, frankly, I find to be a waste of money.  As something that is intended to be carried discretely tucked away, never to see the light of day unless in the gravest extreme, why bling it up?  But people shell out the cash for pretty derringers all the time.

blue 38 caliber derringer

engraved derringer

It also doesn’t seem very practical to me to ruin the main advantage of a derringer, which is to have a very small gun for extreme concealment.  But there are those who look to buy derringers with longer barrels.


Hey, it is their money.  Who am I to say that they shouldn’t use it to get that they want.  Like I never spent my hard earned on something over the top simply because I thought it was neat?

But I digress.  Back to the practical aspects of derringers.

So these small guns have an obvious, historically proven use as a self defense tool.  Even so, they are the only class of guns which I actively discourage my students from purchasing.  To understand why I do this, you have to keep my niche as a self defense instructor firmly in mind.

I exclusively accept violent crime survivors as students, but I also focus on those who have had no exposure or experience with firearms.  I also specialize in the elderly and disabled, people who are operating with reduced physical capabilities.


The cornerstone of effective self defense for many of my students is safe firearm handling.  This can be difficult if it is hard for new shooters to determine where, exactly, the small barrels of a derringer are actually pointed.  It is extremely easy for the muzzle to cover a part of the shooter’s own body, as well as innocent people around them.

Added to that is the fact that most of my elderly students are suffering from arthritis to some degree, and manipulating such a small weapon can actually be painful for them.

And, need I even mention, that accuracy and the distance where aimed fire is possible drops significantly the shorter the barrel of the gun?

bad guy firearm training

So, in conclusion, I think extremely small handguns like derringers are a bad idea for those just stating out.  Besides, I’ve discussed options to carry a larger gun in a concealed way before.  No reason why someone needs to restrict themselves to a tiny gun with extremely limited firepower.

6 thoughts on “Derringers – Not A Fan

  1. The main reason that derringers were a credible weapon in the 19th century was that they didn’t have antibiotics. Any penetrating wound in the trunk, especially the lower trunk, was nearly certain to cause a slow and very painful death from peritonitis or sepsis.

    They were unlikely to kill instantly; they just didn’t have that kind of oomph. But the fear of being “gutshot” made a derringer a credible deterrence.

    In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, peritonitis and sepsis are much less of a threat. They can still kill, but they mostly can be treated. As such, a derringer is no longer anything like as much of a deterrent.

  2. Interesting!
    By co-incidence an 1880s example of a tiny pistol turned up on the Antiques Roadshow a couple of days ago (around 41 minutes here).

  3. Purely an armchair gunfighters perspective here, but I think Derringers are kinda cool.

    On my wedding day I was walking among the guests in my shirtsleeves and a fancy waistcoat, and I recall thinking that a glass of bourbon and a Derringer up my sleeve would be just perfect.

    (Okay in R/L mixing guns and alcohol is a bad idea, and selecting a defensive firearm ‘cos it’s “cool” is another bad idea.)

    Coming back to the reality of my armchair, I agree with James that the “blinging” Derringers doesn’t really appeal. Okay it’s their money, but it’s a defensive weapon and not a fashion accessory.

    And really carrying a Derringer as a your primary defensive arm is not a good idea. Unless it’s the only arm you can conceal of course, or as a third gun in case you’re kidnapped. Getting into Walter Mitty territory perhaps, but still a role for which, IMHO as a armchair gunslinger, a Derringer would fit.

    Modern day:

    Or variations on a classic:

    But for a first choice, I guess there are better (& cheaper) options.

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