April 17, 2015
By Joel R Kolander
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Concealed carry is a big topic in the firearms community right now. People discuss which calibers are best, which position is safest to carry, pros and cons of holsters, and any number of topics that, more often that not, end up involving a degree of subjectivity. However, concealed firearms as a whole are nothing new. They go back to flintlock ammunition systems and there would probably be matchlock versions if people didn’t have to worry about setting their clothes on fire when they carried.
Prior to calling them derringers, these pint-sized pistols were referred to as pocket pistols, muff pistols, palm pistols, and various other pseudonyms. Only the advent and popularity of the Philadephia Deringer (note the spelling with a single ‘r’) developed by Henry Deringer, did the term become a generic, ubiquitous, term for any small, concealable handgun. It also adopted a second letter “r” in the spelling, perhaps to differentiate it from the original antique Deringers guns.
While some of the earliest pocket pistols have have been flintlock, true Deringers were percussion style handguns produced from 1852 – 1868. Around 15,000 of them were produced in that time in a variety of barrel lengths, and factory records imply that they were nearly all sold in matching pairs. After all in the case of a missed shot or a misfire, one wouldn’t reload a Deringer, but simply draw a “fresh” one. The average price was around $15 – $20 for a pair, with embellished versions bringing higher prices. Not only would they spawn dozens of imitators, but the gun’s popularity would also inspire many gun makers to come up with antique derringers of their own design. This article will look at pocket pistols of several makers, in an attempt to show the wide variety produced to satisfy a voracious demand by the public.
This set of Deringers was featured in last week’s article regarding the Lincoln assassination, but it is also appropriate to include here. The pistols seen above are the style Deringers are most known for: the bird’s head stock, pineapple-style finial engraving on the trigger guards, and mounted with German silver. Both are some of the smaller Deringer designs, but the one appearing upside-down in this photo is also known as the “Peanut” Deringer for its extremely small size and only 1 7/8 inch barrel.
This Colt Third Model antique derringer is silver plated, features mother of pearl grips, and is possibly New York engraved. These tiny shooters were manufactured 1875 – 1912 and this particular model has a front sight for the optimistic user. It remains in very fine condition and quite attractive.
Here the stylistic references to the Philadelphia Deringer are undeniable. The checkering on the stock is nearly identical! Less than 10,000 of these Williamson antique derringers were made and this is one of very few to survive at all, let alone in this excellent condition. A fine maple stock holds a silver plated barrel and a gold plated, engraved trigger guard. These were produced for Williamson by the Moore’s Patent Firearms Co (which didn’t last long after being sued by Rollin White for patent infringement) and National Firearms Co. in the late 1860s.
It’s difficult to determine which part of this case is the most beautiful, the outside or the inside. The outside is a honey colored birdseye maple with a centered brass plaque, while the inside bears a velvet purple lining that must have been exceptionally vivid upon its creation. Please click on the link to this gun to see an additional photo of the case’s exterior. The gun itself is worthy of such a case. The Remington Type II (a.k.a. Model 3) antique derringer would have been made around 1888-1889 and still has its original nickel plating. Adding to its high condition are sharp checkering on the grips and nitre blue parts. Its low serial number of 413 adds to its collectablity.
Collectors find Marston antique derringers desirable for any number of reasons: their size, the “barrel selector dial,” the superposed triple barrels, and often some fine embellishments, as seen on the example shown above. Made between 1864-1872, this little pistol has antique ivory grips, silver plating, and most notably, engraving by renowned Master Engraver L.D. Nimschke.
The second of the Colt Third Model derringers in this article is a masterfully done piece. Its copious factory engraving was performed by Master Engraver K.C. Hunt, one of the finest Master Engravers of our time. I strongly recommend visiting the item’s listing to see even more angles of his incredible work. The frame having been left bare after the engraving shows a handsome brass, but under the grips and barrel the original nickel plating may still be seen. This is absolutely phenomenal work! With all this rich engraving, one might wonder where the artist signed his work. Wonder no more.
Showing that not only antique Deringers were copied, this Spanish pistol attempts to replicate the Sharps Model 2A four shot pistol in rather spectacular form. Gold inlays cover the barrel, floral engravings curls around the receiver, and it all ends in a sharp black hard rubber grip.
The advent of cartridge handguns spelled doom for the percussion, single shot, breech-loaded Philadelphia antique derringer. Multiple barrels came into play as did an endless number of designs, because while the Deringer did not live on, the popularity of small, concealable firearms certainly did. This Marlin Model 32, borrowing heavily from the early Smith & Wesson revolvers, is one example of how cartridge ammunition put more firepower into the hands of antique derringer users. Firing smaller, 32 long cartridges, gave users less “oomph” that the Deringer did, but it made up for it with the ability to take multiple shots at their target. Very stylish, this Marlin has a gold plated cylinder, “New York” style engraving, nickel plating, and the DeGress “Tiffany” style grips. Our describers say it best in this pistol’s official description, “This is a beautiful gun and belongs in a serious Marlin collection. This combination of grips and master engraving is rarely available especially in this condition.”
As you can see, with the huge selection of rarity, beauty, and fascinating designs, this could have just as well turned into its very own book. With any number of barrels, finishes, grips, sizes, calibers, embellishments to choose from, collecting antique derringers can be a highly personalized endeavor. As I’ve heard jokingly mentioned at several gun shows, “The best part about collecting antique derringers, is that you can transport a whole collection in a shoe box.” This same sentiment is often echoed by collectors who display their much larger, heavier guns. Looks like these pocket guns have put their diminutive size to yet another good use, even in the 21st century.
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