The Pepperbox Pistol
By Danielle Hollembaek
Small, inexpensive, and effective for self-defense are three characteristics that made the “pepperbox” revolver highly desirable in the civilian market during the early to mid-1800s. Pepperboxes came in all shapes and sizes, with the most widely produced being .32 caliber, double action 6-shooters. The thought of being able to fire multiple shots without reloading was an innovation for the time and helped this firearm conquer its competition. The revolver gained its name because of its striking resemblance to a household pepper grinder.
The idea of revolving barrels to fire off shots was not new in the 1800s. Early records show matchlock pepperboxes existed as early as the 15th century, with mention of them in all ignition systems popping up throughout history. European firearm producers adapted the flintlock pepperbox design in the 1790s. The cylinder required manual turning to line up the next round unlike the automatic indexing in the Allen & Thurber pepperbox. But what makes the percussion pepperbox different from a regular revolver? On a revolver, there is one barrel and a rotating cylinder to cycle each round. With the pepperbox, there were multiple barrels, each with its own chamber, that made the gun a unique addition to the cylinder gun family.
The company that famously made breech loading pepperbox revolvers was Allen & Thurber. A man named Ethan Allen, unrelated to the Revolutionary War hero, opened a shoemaker tools and blade manufacturing company in 1831 in Massachusetts. He used his knowledge of metal work to extend his business into the world of firearms. Allen patented the double action mechanism that rotated the cylinder with the pull of a hammer on percussion firearms in 1837. That same year, he partnered with his brother-in-law, Charles Thurber. This was only a year after Samuel Colt received a similar patent for single action revolvers. By 1838, the double action pepperbox revolver was born and selling like hotcakes.
Unlike other firearm producers of the time, the pair ignored the push to sell to the military knowing that their firearms would not have overwhelming appeal to government entities, so they went straight to the civilian market. It became a popular handgun among the general public because it was much less expensive than the scarcely available single action civilian Colt Walker or the Colt Paterson revolvers which were available at the time. Often referred to as “the gun that won the East,” pepperboxes were a concealable and inexpensive option and offered high capacity to civilians for protection when heading out West. During the Gold Rush, settlers would carry this sidearm for general protection from hostile travelers or highwaymen along the way. In the era of the pepperbox, most civilians were looking for weapons for defense. The double action ability of the pepperbox made it easier to shoot from the hip since you did not have to pull back on a hammer. The simplicity and rapidity was important when firing at a close distance.
Due to the overwhelming success of the firearm, Allen & Thurber decided to move operations to Connecticut in 1842 to expand to a larger facility. Between October 1846 and March 1848, around 10,000 pepperbox revolvers were manufactured. Allen & Thurber started to produce the pepperboxes at a cheaper rate by eliminating all engravings and percussion cap shields in order to keep costs low. Changing the rifled bore barrel design of the original gun to a smooth bore also cut costs at the expense of accuracy. As the gun gained popularity, experimenting with the number of barrels became popular among other gun manufactures. A scarce number of 4 and 5 shot pepperboxes were created, but never popularized.
Remington dipped its toes in the pepperbox market with its Zig Zag Derringer, in production from 1861-62. Less than 1,000 were produced in its short life span, but the sidearm became quite popular with gamblers for its easily concealable nature and usefulness in close range encounters. In the late 19th century, a small amount of pepperboxes were adapted for pinfire cartridges. People liked the idea of keeping a small pocket pistol on them at all times.
The pepperbox was only effective at close range, and even then, it was not very powerful. A popular story about the gun and its lack of firepower involves Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart who was shot in the chest with a .36 caliber Allen & Thurber pepperbox. The bullet was lodged so deep in his chest that he could hardly feel it and it remained in his body for the rest of his life. Though, it is believed that the pepperbox was loaded with light, or perhaps old, powder since a shot at close distance should have permanently injured or killed General Stuart. General Stuart made a rapid recovery with one doctor documenting that within a few days, he was already feeling better.
Another famed story of the Allen & Thurber pepperbox comes from Mark Twain. The acclaimed author lamented in his novel Roughing It about the common problems he had with pepperbox revolvers. He was bewildered with how incredibly hard the gun was to shoot accurately and said of its reliability,
“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 round about, but behind it.”
A chance of a ‘chain fire’ was a common concern with any percussion revolver. The hammer slamming the cap and igniting it could cause more than one round to go off via an errant spark, making for a dangerous situation. This happening to a pepperbox is less risky than with a traditional revolver, however, since each bullet has its own barrel for release and rounds are not stored in a cylinder. If more than one barrel went off, they would fire without any obstructions. To prevent multiple firing shots, early production pepperboxes were made with a percussion cap shield.
Markings are scarce on the gun, with the Allen’s patent address on the barrel. That makes identifying the gun’s age and authenticity a bit harder depending on the condition of the firearm. Many pepperboxes saw tremendous use, making a mint condition one uncommon in the modern day.
Like many firearms of the time, the pepperbox saw a demise shortly after its rise. Right before the Civil War, the popularity of common revolvers from Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson rose due to their improvements in power, accuracy, and user-friendly advancements which surpassed the pepperbox revolver advantages. The increased use of cartridge guns further eliminated the want for pepperboxes.
The pepperbox revolver was a transitional firearm that helped mold the revolvers we know and love, making them collectable and interesting to collectors today. From their miniature size to their interesting firing mechanism, these guns are nothing short of fascinating. Rock Island Auction Company is offering a variety of pepperbox revolvers in our upcoming February Regional Auction. Take a look at our catalog and bid on your own piece of evolutionary revolver history. The live auction is happening February 14 through 17, and you can place your sealed bids now. Pepperboxes are just one of the many unique firearms up for grabs next month.