At various times over the decades, a student would show me a tiny handgun that they would want to use for self defense. Usually they would be small autoloaders chambers for the .25 ACP cartridge, but sometimes a gun chambered for a round more suitable for self defense would crop up. I am speaking, of course, of a derringer.
The original concept is simple enough. Make a handgun as small as possible, but chamber it for a potent full sized defensive caliber. The perfect point-and-shoot instrument, shorn of any distractions, they are not intended to be used for any prolonged gunplay. If the attacker is within arm’s reach, then derringers come in to their own.
The person who had this flash of brilliance was Henry Deringer, an American gunsmith based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Come about 1825 or so, he started to offer handguns with extremely short barrels and minuscule furniture, but which would fire a ball of hefty and deadly caliber. These guns originally used a flintlock ignition system.
By all accounts, sales were through the roof in a very short period of time. Everyone, it seemed, who was interested in armed self defense was also interested in ultra-concealable guns that packed a good solid punch. Henry couldn’t keep up with the demand, and other gunsmiths very quickly started to copy his basic idea. Outraged that others were profiting on what was to be his only real contribution to firearm technology, Mr. Deringer took several to court. He always lost his suit, but the copycat gunsmiths started to market their creations as derringers, with an extra R in the name just so Henry would reconsider any lawsuits and leave them alone. Henry only had his one shop, and everyone else flooded the market with their knock-offs, so the bastardized name stuck and the family name of the true inventor was forgotten. Every time I type “deringer” the spell checker on my computer has a hissy.
The reason why Henry never won any of his lawsuits was because he really didn’t come up with anything truly innovative, he just figured out how to arrange things in a new an novel way. Flintlock guns had been in use for at least two centuries before Mr. Deringer, he just attached it to a really short barrel and a really small handle. He might have been able to make a legal argument that the makers of derringers were ripping him off if he had filed a patent or two when he started to market his deringers, but he never did. Apparently he did very well for himself making and selling his own teensy guns, but there was an awful lot of money he missed out on by not filing a few documents down at the patent office.
Derringers continued to be made and marketed over the past two centuries, with new firearm technology being incorporated as it became available. Flintlock derringers were supplanted by cap-and-ball versions.
When cartridge technology came about, well, why the heck not?
So are derringers serious self defense tools? Did I voice my approval to the students who said they wanted to use derringers as their main defensive arm? No, can’t say that I did. In fact, I actively discouraged them.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Nothing wrong with derringers as a last ditch, emergency self defense gun. The problem is that I deliberately chose people with no background in the shooting sports as my students. Desperate people who had a pressing need to develop safe and effective gun handling skills, but who had no idea as to where to start. I would give them as much training as I could, and insisted that they fire at least 500 rounds of various calibers before I was satisfied, but there is no substitute for experience. It seemed to me that such small guns were just a bit too easy to get turned the wrong way unless someone had a few years of going to the range under their belt.
Did I make the right decision? I think so, but I can certainly see where someone would have a different opinion.
I thought I’d post this small essay about the smallest of defensive handguns when I came across this page from the FBI website. The author discusses the methods used to authenticate the derringer recovered from the Presidential box at Ford’s Theater the night that President Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Boothe.
If you read the FBI file, note how the author keeps spelling Deringer capitalized and with one R. Obviously someone who wants to give credit where credit is due.
Nice article and a very interesting link. Speaking as an armchair gunslinger derringers have always struck me as the sort of firearm one would carry when it was the only one you could carry concealed or – entering the realms of Walter Mitty (aka The World’s Best Gun Salesman) – as a deep concealment weapon if one ever had the misfortune to be taken hostage.
I first recall a derringer in literature in Gavin Lyall’s 70’s thriller ‘Blame the Dead’ (Good read IMHO) it was modern reproduction of the Remington .41 derringer in .38 Special. Recoil & muzzle flash were described as something special.
And by coincidence recently finished the SF TV series ‘Timeless,’ rather fun IMO, which had a very different take on Lincoln’s assassination.