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June 11, 2019

The Origins of Sharps Antique Derringers

By Danielle Hollembaek

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In the 1850s, the extreme popularity of antique derringer pistols swept the nation like wildfire. Henry Deringer, the man who made the first Philadelphia Deringer, created a small and concealable pistol for people to carry for protection. When searching for an antique derringer pistol for sale, one will notice that derringers are made by a number of different brands and manufacturers. Many people wanted to make their design number one and stick out among the rigorous competition. One man that took the idea into his own hands and became a favorite in the Old West for pocket sized guns was Christian Sharps

Sharp had been in the business of rifle making before he endeavored into pocket pistol designs. He started his career in Harpers Ferry, Virginia with John Hall’s Rifle Works. He patented his own Sharps rifle in 1848 and, interestingly enough, a year later in December 1849, he patented his first design for the antique derringer pistol he desired to create. Unfortunately, it was a poorly constructed and fragile design in need of some work before it could be sold commercially.

In 1850, Sharps contracted “A. S. Nippes” of Pennsylvania to manufacturer make his rifle and soon relocated to Pennsylvania. The Sharps rifle was popular, but he soon found himself needing to reach out to investors if he wanted to start manufacturing the gun on his own instead of contracting it out to other factories to produce. In 1851, the business “Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company” was formed with lead investor John C. Palmer as president and Richard S. Lawrence who took on the role of superintendent of manufacturing, while Sharps was master engineer. Sharps was making a small percentage off of each sale at one dollar a rifle when they were selling for $30 apiece.

Lot 1184: Scarce and Desirable Factory Engraved Sharps Single Shot Percussion Pistol Rifle.

In 1855, C. Sharps & Co. was formed to produce Sharps rifles and single shot pistols. Right around this same time, settler began going west as the country expanded and the demand for a small and concealable gun for self-defense arose. That when the antique derringer craze hit America like a storm. Sharps had been working to improve his original antique derringer for years at that point and hoped that he could patent the improvements and his own derringer design.

In 1859, Sharps finally started producing his Model 1A Sharps derringer. Despite being referred to as a derringer by many at the time and today, a Sharps derringer is more like a pepperbox in some ways. The Sharps was different from the traditional pepperbox because the barrel didn’t physically move but instead the firing pin that was attached to the hammer or connected to the frame rotated and then the fired the barrels one by one. People have called Sharps derringers by both names for years and this can make researching a pain at a times because some writers insist that the pistol is one or the other and will not call it by any other name. Whichever name you choose to call it by is fine. If you’d like to read about what makes a pepperbox a pepperbox for clarification, we have a blog on the pocket sized protection.

Distinct traits of a Sharps derringer include a four barrel cluster design. Using metallic cartridges, each barrel fired in sequential order at each pull of the trigger. One reason the gun was not produced when the original patent came about in 1849 was because of the lack of a cartridge made the gun almost impossible to use. The antique derringers were close range only guns lacking proper accuracy. A person would be lucky if they hit the target they aimed at even within a 20 feet of it. They were inaccurate little guns. The small derringer pistols were handy defense weapons, but one could not depend on the pocket pistol to do a large amount of damage.

Lot 2210: Tipping & Lawden Model 1 Sharps Four Barrel Pepperbox. Tipping & Lawden manufacturer a select number of Sharps pepperbox Derringers with permission from Sharps. This particular gun is for sale in our upcoming 2019 June Regional Auction.

The basic model consisted of four different types: the .22, the .30, the Sharps & Hankins, and the birdhead. Most of the models had different variations and special models with pearl grips and engravings, but those were the overarching designations for the types.

Lot 1112: Spectacular Factory Engraved Silver Plated C. Sharps Model 2B Four Barrel Pepperbox Pistol with Magnificent Raised Relief Carved Patriotic Pearl Grips and Factory Box. Sold for $9,775 in September 2018.

The first two models were made before produced 1862. In that year, William Hankins joined the firm and the company changed its name to “Sharps & Hankins.” Sharps, forever with his money struggles, brought on Hankins for funding, and his new capital funded an additional factory to make both rifles and antique derringer pistols. The other remaining models also began manufacturing under this partnership.

19th century gamblers with a Sharps Derringer between them. Courtesy of True West Magazine.

Sharps antique derringers became known as the “hideout pistol” by westerners. Contrary to popular modern belief, the prominence of pocket pistols as a gambler’s gun did not start with mobsters in the 1920s, the Old West arose the tradition. The gun was very commonly used by gamblers and tavern frequenters since they could slide it up their sleeve or in their pocket without the people around the being any the wiser. Western outlaws loved the concealability and carried the gun as an “extra” side arm. The gun is sometimes referred to as the perfect concealable pistol since it was about the same size as a pocket watch.

Around 85,000 Sharps antique derringers were produced from 1859 to 1868 in the various models. That is quite an impressive number considering the financial struggles and funding Sharps constantly lacked throughout his years in the industry. The production of his Sharps firearms didn’t end until his death 1874.

Sharp’s design did not fade into history when he passed. In fact, Sharp’s derringer design is one of the most copied of the antique derringer styles. Today, versions of the Sharps derringer still exist and are produced by Bond Arms and Remington predominately. In pop cultures, television series and westerns have featured the gun time and time again. The Reconstruction era set CBS Show, Yancy Derringer (1958-1959), had the protagonist’s gun of choice be a Sharps derringer. The 1999 film Wild Wild West featured two Sharps derringers in a scene, as well. In the 2011 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows film, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law used a Sharps derringer as there small arm. The gun has made quite an impression on the firearms world.

Lot 2229: Three C. Sharps & Co. Model 2 Four Shot Derringer Pistols. Available in our 2019 June Regional Auction.

Sharps antique derringer pistols for sale can be found in auction put on by Rock Island Auction Company year round. In our upcoming June Regional sale, we have quite a few lots featuring Sharps antique derringer pistols for sale, as well as other derringer varieties. Check out our catalog today if you are in the market for a classic pocket pistol.

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