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July 26, 2023

Pepperbox Revolvers and Pistols: The Rare, Historic, and Elite

By Seth Isaacson

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The pepperbox pistol’s heritage reaches back centuries, with the concept of guns using multiple revolving barrels to fire off repeated shots dating to the age of matchlocks. While pepperboxes represent some of the earliest revolving firearms, they really came into their own in the 19th century and were mass-produced as sidearms both in the U.S. and Europe.

The pepperbox goes back deep in firearms history, including flintlock revolving carbines like this extremely rare example from Nock in London - not to be confused with their more recognized volley gun. Available this August.

The Greg Lampe Collection offers a phenomenal and carefully curated assemblage of fine arms that cover a wide range of revolvers, pocket pistols, flintlocks, and well-documented martial long guns. The pepperbox pistol was the late Mr. Lampe's last passion in the fine arms collecting pursuit. The three rare, historically significant, and high-condition examples from Greg Lampe's collection that are offered in Rock Island Auction Company's August 25-27 Premier Firearms Auction, as well as several examples from other collections help provide an in-depth illustration of the genre's progression and innovation. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each model.

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What is a Pepperbox Pistol?

A pepperbox, aka pepper-box, is a multi-shot firearm containing three or more clustered barrels. Most are handguns, but there are pepperbox long guns as well. They were also sometimes called “pepper pots.” Their nicknames reference the visual similarity of the multi-shot barrel groups with pepper boxes and pepper grinders used for culinary spices.

This exceptional cased and factory engraved Allen & Thurber percussion pepperbox revolver from the Greg Lampe Collection is one of the finest examples of a classic Ethan Allen bar hammer pepperbox you will ever see. Available this August.

The Pepperbox Pistol in Action

The term 'pepperbox' goes back to their period of use, and Mark Twain explained satirized the common rotating barrel percussion pepperboxes of the 1840s-1850s in 'Roughing It' about his journeys in the 1860s:

He wore in his belt an old original "Allen" revolver, such as irreverent people called a "pepper-box." Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an "Allen" in the world. But George's was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers afterward said, "If she didn't get what she went after, she would fetch something else." And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow. 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.

Two exceptional pepperbox pistols for sale this August at Rock Island Auction Company. From the Greg Lampe Collection.

While Twain's quote is certainly entertaining, and there were instances to corroborate his observations, the pepperbox was widely used for a reason: they provided multiple shots in quick succession. Since most self-defense was close quarters, superb accuracy was less important, and the pepperbox offered much more firepower than the common single shot pocket and belt pistols of the period, which were often no more accurate.

Percussion Pepperbox Revolvers

While flintlock pepperbox pistols were found in numerous variations, the pepperbox really came into its own during the percussion era in the first half of the 19th century. The classic form of pepperbox firearms is generally seen as the double action only pepperbox revolvers.

This stunning example of a cased Allen & Thurber percussion pepperbox revolver has a desirable retailer mark from New York City gun dealer J.G. Bolen on Broadway. Available this August.

Most percussion pepperbox revolvers are relatively small caliber, generally around the .28-.36 caliber range. This was considered sufficient for self-defense, but these pistols often had less firepower than a .22 rimfire handgun. Pepperbox pistols were also generally smoothbore and did not have sights. Some rifled examples are certainly known as are some with simple sights. A few even have part of the hammer cutout so that you can look through the aperture to point the pepperbox at the target, but pepperboxes were not meant to be precision firearms.

While most pepperboxes had around five to six shots, this massive J.J. Herman Brevete percussion pepperbox packs an impressive 18 shots. Available this August.

There were manually revolved and single action versions, but most of these pepperbox revolvers were double action and automatically revolve when the triggers are pulled. The “classic” percussion pepperbox revolvers often have bar-shaped hammers on top of their box lock actions and have mainsprings that extend into the grip frames under the grips. Pulling the trigger raises the hammer and rotates the barrel group. When the trigger is pulled all of the way to the rear, the hammer drops down onto the nipple of one of the barrels.

This very attractive cased Robbins & Lawrence Co. Leonard’s Patent percussion pepperbox demonstrates another alternative to the popular bar hammer pepperboxes. The barrel group unscrews for loading, and instead of a rotating barrel group, it has a rotating striker, a feature that carried over into the metallic cartridge period. Available this August.

While revolver cylinders generally had the nipples on the back facing towards the shooter, pepperboxes generally have the nipples roughly perpendicular to the bore. When being carried, the hammer can rest between the nipples. Of these, the most famous are the Ethan Allen designed pepperboxes manufactured by his various partnerships from the 1830s into the 1860s.

Pepperbox pistols saw use on both sides of the Civil War.

Percussion pepperboxes were the main competitors of Samuel Colt’s famous revolvers for several years but became less common after the patent expired and more percussion revolver models entered the market. A revolver with a single rifled barrel and a shorter revolving cylinder was lighter and more accurate, but new forms of pepperboxes were introduced thanks to evolving cartridge technology.

Metallic Cartridge Pepperbox Pistols

The Rollin White patent gave Smith & Wesson control of the metallic cartridge revolver market in the late 1850s and 1860s. Pepperbox pistol designs allowed gunmakers a platform to work around the Rollin White patent, and new pepperbox pistols were introduced starting in the 1850s designed around mainly .22, .30, and .32 caliber rimfire ammunition.

This is an exceptional and very scarce documented Remington Zig-Zag derringer complete with the only known factory box. From the Greg Lampe Collection. Available this August.

While most percussion pepperbox revolvers were double action, most metallic cartridge pepperbox pistols were manually cocked single actions. The vast majority of rimfire pepperboxes were also rifled. Some of these, such as those by Jacob Rupertus, Bacon Arms Co., and Remington’s “Zig-Zag” pepperbox, still had rotating barrel groups. Many cartridge pepperbox pistols, however, employed hammers with rotating strikers instead of rotating barrel groups. Remington’s Elliott derringers were examples of this format and came in five-shot .22RF and four-shot .32RF variations.

A fantastic pepperbox pistol for sale this August, this presentation cased, factory engraved Tipping & Lawden Sharps Patent four-shot pepperbox pistol was manufactured under license in the United Kingdom. It is a truly phenomenal example of one of the most popular cartridge pepperbox designs. Available this August.

The most famous example of the fixed barrel group, rotating striker pepperbox pistol variety is certainly Christian Sharps’s four-shot pepperboxes. These were manufactured by C. Sharps & Co. c. 1859-1862, by Sharps & Hankins c. 1862-1866, and then again by C. Sharps & Co. c. 1866-1875. The barrels slide forward for reloading. Collectors recognize four distinct models based on their calibers along with numerous sub-models based on production variances. The Model 1 in .22RF is the most common. The Model 2 was in .30RF, the Model 3 was in .32 Short, and the Model 4 was in .32 Long. Licensed copies of these pistols were also manufactured by Tipping & Lawden in England and L. Ghaye in Liege, Belgium.

The Sharps four-shot pepperbox is one of the classic “gambler” or “gentleman” pistols of the American West. Professor Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes series used a Sharps pepperbox as a concealed sidearm in some films. Holmes and Watson both use one in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011), and a highly ornamented Sharps pepperbox also plays an important role in the recent mystery film “Death on the Nile” (2022).

This incredible cased and factory engraved Colt New Line .38 revolver with pearl grips is an excellent example of the spur trigger pocket revolvers that largely replaced the pepperbox in the late 19th century. Available this August.

Pepperbox Pistol Legacy

After the expiration of the Rollin White patent, pepperboxes were largely replaced by affordable pocket revolvers manufactured by numerous companies, including high-quality examples by Colt and Remington along with numerous smaller companies often producing cheap spur trigger revolvers commonly derided as “suicide specials.”

Pepperbox handguns largely faded away in the late 19th century, but arguably the famous Gatling guns and Hotchkiss revolving cannons continued the concept. The impressive Vulcan cannons used by the military today certainly recall these early repeating firearms but at an astonishingly high rate of fire.

A Norwich production pepperbox with the barrel cluster marked "ALLEN & THURBER NORWICH C-T" and "PATENTED 1837 CAST-STEEL," floral scroll engraved frame, acid etched nipple shield, and "ALLENS PATEN" marked bar hammer. Available this August.

Pepperbox Pistols and Revolvers for Sale

Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier Firearms Auctions are prime sources of more valuable and high-condition pepperbox pistols in the collecting pursuit. The exquisite examples featured throughout this article are available in the August 25-27 Premier Firearms Auction, and RIAC's Sporting & Collector Auctions offer a wide array of examples that are more attainable to all collecting aspirations.

This cased factory engraved Allen & Thurber PWorcester production pepperbox was manufactured circa 1847-1865. Available this August.

Compared to percussion revolvers and antique cartridge revolvers, pepperbox pistols are often quite affordable, and they are excellent collectibles thanks to the variety of designs to collect. Some pepperbox pistols have commanded incredibly high sales prices in recent years, demonstrating the continued interest in these fascinating repeating firearms.

Brownells showcases a John Rigby of Dublin pepperbox pistol at Rock Island Auction Company.

Subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction weekly newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos that describe the innovative world of 19th-century concealed firearms. From short-barreled versions of popular revolvers like the Colt SAA and Lightning  "Sheriff's" Model and to the Merwin Hulbert pocket pistol to the Derringer, the palm pistol, the cane gun, and other unique and extraordinary curiosities that have become gun collection must-haves today.

An extremely rare .32 caliber Colt Model 1877 Sheriff's Model "Rainmaker" with a 3 1/2 inch barrel and no ejector. Available this August.

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