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Petite and purposeful, antique derringer pistols have served as practical, concealable guns for over 150 years. The story behind the small side arm is one flooded with talented copyists, manufacturers, and trademark infringing versions of the gun. All the turmoil led to a lawsuit and landmark Supreme Court trial that helped establish precedent for the future cases. Antique derringer pistols go by many names due to copyright dodging manufacturers, but the original design was the Philadelphia Deringer created by Henry Deringer, Jr.
Henry Deringer, Jr. was born in 1786 in Pennsylvania to his gunsmithing father Henry Deringer, Sr. His father did business out of a shop in Pennsylvania and predominantly manufactured Kentucky rifles. In 1808, Deringer Jr. started his first apprenticeship at Virginia Manufacturing in Richmond. After he completed his time with the company, he moved to Philadelphia and began his own gun manufacturing shop. For the first almost 20 years of his business, he mainly worked on government contracted muskets and pistols as well as hunting rifles for civilians. He produced over 20,000 U.S. Model 1814 and 1817 flintlock muskets. It is said that Deringer manufactured 50,000 trade rifles after the War of 1812 and also produced trade rifles for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. The antique derringer pistol design is what many know Deringer for, but he did so much more in the gunsmithing community beyond that great achievement.
It was not until 1825 that Deringer decided he wanted to pursue a design for a small compact practical pistol. In the late 1840s, Deringer strayed away from martial contracts and started selling mainly civilian single shot percussion pistols and hunting muskets. For almost 20 years he sold a small quantity of pocket pistols as he made improvements on his antique Deringer pistol. He sold handfuls of the original flintlock muzzleloading Deringers through his shop, but it wasn’t until 1852 that the true percussion Philadelphia Deringer came to be and entered mass production.
During this same time, Deringer had almost completely halted production of long guns and switched over to the antique Deringer pistol market and other small varieties of pistols. As the California Gold Rush began, he saw the need for a concealable and simple pistol that pioneers could hide as they travel and use for effective protection. Beyond defense from potential highway men, Deringer’s pistols also found a niche in established cities back east and the growing boom towns out west. He took note the overwhelming success of the 1849 Colt pocket revolver and wanted to capitalize on the exploding market of small handguns.
The original Philadelphia Deringer was made in a style reminiscent of a Queen Anne’s pistol. The dainty percussion pistol’s stock was made of walnut with most examples showing fine checkering. The butt of the stock had a distinctive curve that ended with a forend cap that opened to store extra bullets. The furniture on the hand gun was made out of German silver with a plate embellished with floral designs and stamped “Deringer PhiladelA”. Even the hammer received the same floral engraving treatment. The barrel was made of iron, featured a “simulated” Damascus finish, and was rifled. The barrels length varied from 1 1/8 inches to 3 inches with the calibers ranging from .30 to .44 depending on the style of Deringer. The most distinct characteristic of a true Deringer is the 7 notches at the inside front of the barrel.
Deringer never patented his pocket pistol for it mechanically was nothing different from other pistols, the size of it was the innovation. For this reason, other firearm manufacturers knew they could copy the design as long as the name on the pistol and look of the gun was slightly altered. “Deeringer, Durringer, and Derringer” were common misspelling that were seen on copyist’s antique derringer pistols. The generic term “derringer” with an extra “r” and no capitalization came to categorize any pocket pistol that was not produced by Henry Deringer. Deringer was not pleased with the copies.
As demand increased for the pistols across the nation, Deringer contracted out official Philadelphia Deringer agents to distribute his guns. The agents would be supplied with a few hundred at a time, but sometimes production was slow. Deringer employees, Charles Schlotterbeck and his brother Frederick, left Deringer’s shop because of the “unseen potential” they believed he was missing in the small arms market. Fredrick Schlotterbeck opened up his own gunsmithing manufacturer called, “Slotter & Co.” in 1860 and started producing an antique derringer pistol very similar in style to his former employer’s. The company had inside information about the Deringer design and used it to start making counterfeit derringer pistols that were almost the same mechanically to the original. Schlotterbeck thought since there were no patents for the Deringer, his company could copy it and sell it to gun shops around the nation. He presumably made quite a living off this scheme because a few months after they went into business, Fredrick had enough capital to head west to San Francisco to expand the business and visit his brother who had started working for a gun shop in the area. While there, he poached sales of his gun at the same distributors that sold the original Deringers. The Philadelphia Deringer agent that leaped full-fledged into the Slotter & Co.’s gun scheme was Charles’ boss, Adolph J. Plate.
Plate was one of the original Deringer agents permitted to sell authentic Philadelphia Deringers. Plate was a business man and realized that Henry Deringer’s operation was not speedy enough to meet demand. The slow fulfillment of his Deringer orders meant a loss of profit for him and he was not willing to take the hit. He was no dummy when it came to knowing what people wanted and his customers specifically asked for true Deringers, not the knock-off antique derringer pistols. When Slotter & Co. approached him with almost exact copies of the original Deringer, he could not refuse the offer. The deal laid out that not only would Plate receive over 400 derringers in about a month, he would also be paying less than he did for the authentic ones with a much smaller delivery fee instituted. It was a win-win for him.
Shortly after the deal went down between Slotter & Co. and Plate, Henry Deringer started to see a decrease in orders around the nation, but especially from his west coast agents. Surprised by this, Deringer hired private investigators to go to his west coast distributors and analyze how the businesses were doing. In all actuality, Deringer most likely was thinking that the businesses were making less of a profit due to increased competition in the market, not exact copies of his gun, and that’s why orders slowed. But, when he learned the truth, he was livid. A few months after he sent out investigators, one came back with a pair of antiques derringer pistols quite similar to his with the marking using his name “Deringer”, but the gun also said “MADE FOR A.J. PLATE, SAN FRANCISCO”. In what would become a landmark battle for trademark law, Henry Deringer sued Plate for copyright infringement.
Deringer sued Plate for $15,000 and the case made its way to the Supreme Court. In November of 1863, the case was finally heard after three years of smaller court trials and torturous waiting periods. By that time, Plate had sold over 2,000 counterfeit Philadelphia antique derringer pistols to his customers and other distributors. Deringer, as stated before, had no filed patents on his pistol making for a trademark infringement suit. The fact that Slotter & Co. used his name “H. Deringer” on his pistol was a false representation of his trademark and brand. Unlike the other antique derringer pistol copyist who purposely changed the name, they blatantly infringed on his trademark and identity.
Plate was advertising and tricking people into believing that the antique derringer pistols were authentic when he knew they were not. That is where he sealed his fate, not only for the sale of fakes, but also for the deception of his customers and distributors in business with him.
Henry Deringer did make the mistake of never officially trademarking his name with the government which was the defense’s case in the suit since California had already instilled trademark registration laws for ownership of ideas and designs. The Supreme Court did take this into account when ruling by downgrading the penalty given to Plate. Instead of $15,000 Derigner sued for, Plate only had to give Deringer about $1,700 which would be about equal to his lost profits from the counterfeit sales. Plate was also instructed to cease sales of the fake antique derringer pistols. If you would like to read the court summary of this case, you can find it here.
The case has become one that is cited in lawsuits when it comes to damages received for trademark infringement. The judgement of paying the owner of the trademark the amount earned in illegal sales became common in this case and a few others at the time. Deringer’s win to defend not only his name, but his design. He owned the marks he placed on his design and the Court ruled that no one else could use them without permission. Truly, the antique Deringer pistol is a gun that made history not only in the firearms world, but in the legal world.
Lot 1144: Slotter & Company “J. Deringer” Infringement Evasion Percussion Pocket Pistol in “Peanut” Size. Sold for $1,265 in September 2018.
Plate continued doing business in his gun shop in San Francisco after the case, while Schlotter & Co. went back to producing antique derringer pistols after the case. Instead of using the Deringer trademark, they sought out another person in Philadelphia with a similar last name. John Derringer, a tailor and Civil War soldier, agreed that they could use his name for, what most assume, would cost them a fee even though this is not a documented. After the agreement, all antique derringer pistols produced by the company were called, “Philadelphia Derringers” and marked “J. Derringer”.
Deringer did not end production of his antique Philadelphia Deringer pistol until 1868 which is the same year he passed away. The antique derringer pistols produced by the other companies did not end with the Philadelphia, in fact, more companies started producing the pocket sized guns. To this very day, Remington and Bond Arms still make derringer pistols that are based off the original gun. The longevity and continued popularity antique derringer pistols is truly astounding and a testament to the small arm. Henry Deringer made a lasting impact on the firearm industry and his little pocket size pistol still finds its way into the hands and heart of firearm enthusiasts to this very day.
In Rock Island Auction Premier and Regional auctions, one can find a variety of both authentic and copyists antique derringer pistols. Our next sale is our June Region Auction, June 20-23. Be sure to take a look at our catalog to find the exact pocket pistol you desire.
Chapel, C. E. (2002). Guns of the Old West: An illustrated guide. Dover Publications.
Daily Alta California, Volume 15, Number 5005, 11 November 1863. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DAC18631111.2.9&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
Harmon, & B, J. (1873, January 01). Reports of Cases Determined in The Supreme Court of The State of California, July and October Terms, 1859, and January, 1860; Volume XIV (14) by John B Harmon – 1873 – from Weller Book Works ABAA/ILAB and Biblio.com. Retrieved from https://www.biblio.com/book/reports-cases-determined-supreme-court-state/d/726127474
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