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June 14, 2013

Unusual Firearms

By Joel R Kolander

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Here at Rock Island Auction Company we see weapons of all shapes and sizes, from impressive carriage-mounted Gatling guns to the smallest, cased ring guns. Huge specialized Barrett rifles designed for long distance precision sit on the same racks as your favorite plinking Ruger 10/22, while gorgeous Winchester lever actions rub elbows with Colt Peacemakers. We take all kinds here and this week’s post is to show that we mean all kinds. Prepare to feast your eyes on some of the unusual and unique designs that gun makers have designed over the years. Some you may have seen before, but some may be bring light to something that you never knew existed. We hope for the latter.

Pepperbox Pistol

The pepperbox pistol’s heritage stretches back as early as the 15th century. If one barrel is good, more must be better, right? It existed in a time before the invention of the bored-through cylinder, as a way to fire more than one shot without all that pesky reloading business. Muzzle loaders were still king at that time and eventually pepperboxes would be replaced by the Samuel Colt’s 1836 patent for a “revolving gun.” Pepperboxes have been made for all different types of firing machanisms: matchlock, wheellock, flintlock, percussion, pinfire, rimfire, and centerfire. Most pepperboxes would rotate automatically with every pull of the trigger (self-cocking), long before that technology was utilized by revolvers. Their downfall was brought about by several flaws in their design. The first being that all those barrels made the gun quite front-heavy and thus difficult to aim, even if aiming wasn’t the largest priority for this close range, self-defense handgun. It was also nearly impossible to aim due to the placement of the hammer on the center rear of the gun, taking the place of any potential rear sights. The last flaw of the pepperbox was that of potential chainfires. A chainfire occurs when the igniting of propellant in one cylinder unintentionally sets off the propellant in other chambers, firing them simultaneously. While, I secretly think that this would be rather fantastically devastating, it would only be so if your gun was on target. If not aimed properly, as these guns often were not, it would leave you with, at best, fewer additional shots and, at worst, an empty and not very heavy object to throw at your assailants. A chainfire could also explode the entire weapon, leaving you wounded with no weapons with which to defend yourself and a very upset attacker.

Five Double Action Pepperbox Revolvers

Triple Barrel Derringer

When it comes to firearms, two barrels seems to be the unwritten rule that few dare to breech. The derringer manufactured by W. W. Marston is diminuative to be so bold, but its number of barrels is not all that is unusual about this piece. There were only 3,300 of the little guys manufactured between 1864 and 1872, so its limited production number makes it a rarity. It also features 4 inch long, superposed barrels and 4 inches is a very odd length to have on a derringer of any make. The ornamentations, such as its factory engraving and ivory grips, of course always add to a gun’s collectability. However, my favorite part is on the right side of the pistol which show a tiny selector knob. It functions to select which of the three barrels will fire when the singular trigger is pulled. It’s a rather genius addition that prevents all barrels from firing at once, giving the user 2 additional chances should the first shot miss. It also avoided the use of a larger trigger mechanism and helps keep the gun small, as a derringer should be. In a gun that barely measures over 6 inches in overall length, I can only imagine the tiny mechanisms inside that determine which barrel will fire. Another interesting design aspect about this manufacturer, is in some models the left side of the barrels was flattened, without effecting the bore, and fashioned into a slide that would hold a flat dagger. Not only did the third barrel provide an extra shot, but also allowed for a sturdier dagger. With this tiny protector in your pocket, you were ready for all sorts of trouble!

Factory Engraved William Marston Triple-Barrel Derringer with Ivory Grips and Four-Inch Barrels

Duckfoot Pistol

You’ll get two guesses how this handgun got its name, but you’ll only need one. The duckfoot pistol is a type of “volley gun,” meant to fire all of its barrels at once. Volley guns are typically much larger and are little more than multi-barreled cannons; the duckfoot is the handheld version of this design. These handguns were used when the user would anticipate multiple assailants. It saw most of its use in prisons, aboard ships to repel raiders or mutineers, by bankers, and riot police. The angled barrels were designed to spread the damage. Arguably one would achieve the same effect at a distance with a modern shotgun, or in those days with grapeshot or canister shot, however none of those are so concealable as the duckfoot. Designs of the duckfoot vary wildly with different shaped barrels, different angles of said barrels, and bayonets for after the weapon was fired. The most popular option is the four barrel configuration, with none of the barrels pointing straight. Which brings us to its first design flaw: the fact that the gun will kill everyone around what you are actually pointing at. Also, after firing such a (hopefully) deadly volley, you were then still operating a flintlock pistol. Each barrel would then have to be individually loaded by measuring the powder, pouring the powder, placing a patch and ball, ramming the ball down the barrel, and priming the singular pan. Needless to say, this rather lengthy reloading sequence would be less than ideal when facing an angry crowd, likely composed of criminals, into which you have just fired a gun.

Cane Gun

Ah yes, the cane gun. When the foppish dandy of the mid to late 1800’s wishes to defend himself against the occasional ruffian or violent mongrel, he could do so in the style of the time with hisRemington Cane Gun. Keep in mind that the 1800’s were a period notorious for their crime and gang activity, especially in the state of New York, infamous for its Five Points neighborhood. Granted, Ilion, NY where Remington Arms was housed, is over 200 miles away from the city of New York, but no doubt Remington took the fashion cues and safety needs of the time and combined them into this deadly package.
At the time canes were carried as fashion accessories and as a status symbol, thus a man seen carrying one would not seem out of place. While normally, even a good sturdy stick would be a welcome companion on a evening walk, a cane gun would undoubtedly give an air of security to the bearer. Cane guns have been known to even carry a pepperbox pistol, dagger, and a combination of each. Remington made 2,300 of his cane gun, 1,800 were in the .22 or .32 rimfire caliber, and the rest being made as a percussion guns in .31 and .44 caliber. They were available with decorative grips that could be made out of several valuable metals and formed into a preselected shape of the buyer’s choice. The tip was often made of steel and could be “plugged” with a small piece of cork to prevent debris from clogging the barrel. Remington’s master mechanic, J.F. Thomas, held the patent on this device in 1858 and received its extension in 1872. This date range, combined with the fact that the patent did not specify the ammunition type (cartridge or percussion), ensured that Remington would be the sole U.S. manufacturer of the cane gun throughout its peak years and as its popularity faltered as the U.S. entered its bloody Civil War.

Remington Cartridge Cane Gun

Palm Pistol

These pistols were invented in 1882 by Jacques Edmond Turbiaux, a Frenchman who apparently decided that the derringers, pocket pistols, pepperboxes, and cane guns of the time were not enough in the realm of concealable firepower. The Pal Pistol’s primary feature is that instead of possessing a standard trigger, it was squeezed with the whole hand while the barrel protruded through the second and third fingers. It was originally a 7-shot, 8mm weapon called Le Protector, that would eventually be produced in a 6mm, 10-shot version. Not only was the gun concealable until needed, but it was even concealed as it was fired! Later the pistol would be produced in America as “The Protector Pocket Pistol,” or “the Chicago protector” by Minneapolis Firearms Co. and eventually by the Ames Sword Company of Chicopee Falls. That’s a lot of Midwestern cities for one sentence! Its primary shortcoming was similar to other concealable weapons of the time: it look way too long to reload. Though it utilized cartridges and not percussion or flintlock, the pistol had to be disassembled to be reloaded. Its other weakness was exactly that – it was weak. The 6mm version was smaller than today’s .22CB rounds, and the 8mm wasn’t much better. Despite their lack of “punch” these pistols enjoyed a lengthy popularity relative to other “gadget guns” of the era.

Minneapolis Firearms Protector Palm Pistol
The Palm Pistol is in a lot with a Sharps Model 2A Four-Barrel Pepperbox Pistol

Successful or not, one has to marvel at the ingenuity employed. These guns, and many more, were built with either a specific purpose in mind or attempted to improve a design before some innovation would inevitably replace it. The periods of “improvement” between successful designs can be some of the most intriguing moments in gun manufacture. They stimulate a fascination with the historical by evoking the names of men and companies, issued patents, stories of success and failure, and the national context surrounding those inventions. They also delve into the development of human ideas and progress. Showing how designs evolve is a glimpse into and how humans learn and think, step by step. It hearkens to our primal tool-making days and how problems are recognized and analyzed, then solutions proposed and implemented.

These are just a sample of the unusual actions and firing mechanisms that we see on a daily basis. Do you have an unusual weapon that you’ve thought about consigning? Click here for a description on how you can get started. Do you want to search for a specific, unusual firearm in our upcoming June 2013 Regional Auction? Just click that link and you’ll be taken directly to our “search catalog” page. Be careful though! With over 6,000 items you may catch yourself browsing for a long time.

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