THE PHILADELPHIA DERINGER ~ A Little Gun That Changed History

 The Philadelphia Deringer is a small percussion handgun designed by Henry Deringer and produced from 1852 through 1868. The term derringer is actually a misspelling of the maker’s last name. Kind of like kleenex (with a small k), the term derringer is now used to describe any pocket-sized pistol.

The original Deringer pistol was a single-shot muzzle-loading pistol. That means you had one ball of lead backed by the power of a measure of black powder. No multi-shot shootouts with this little beauty. Subsequent models were made to use the new cartridge type ammunition–aka a bullet–but a derringer never held more than two shots.

Derringer often refers to the smallest usable handgun of a given caliber. They were frequently used by women, because the size made the pistol easy to conceal in a reticule on slipped into a stocking garter. Derringers are not repeating firearms. The original cartridge derringers held only a single round, usually a .40 caliber cartridge. [.40 refers to the diameter of the bullet, in this case .40” or 10.16mm.] The barrel pivoted sideways on the frame for reloading.

The famous Remington derringer, sold from 1866 to 1935, was designed with a second barrel on top of the first. This meant two shots instead of one, without much more weight to carry around. On this two-shot pistol, the barrels pivoted upward for reloading.

If you plan to use this pretty little thing, keep in mind that the bullet moved very slowly–about half the speed of a modern bullet. It could actually be seen in flight. Still, at close range, such as at card table or in a stage coach, it would be deadly.

Another thing to consider, should you want a character to carry a derringer: it took a lot to load and prepare the pistol. I’ll let you read for yourself.

“For loading a Philadelphia Deringer, one would typically fire a couple of percussion caps on the handgun, to dry out any residual moisture contained in the tube or at the base of the barrel, to prevent a subsequent misfire. One would then remove the remains of the last fired percussion cap and place the handgun on its half-cock notch, pour 15 to 25 grains of blackpowder down the barrel, followed by ramming a patched lead ball down onto the powder, being very careful to leave no air gap between the patched ball and the powder, to prevent the handgun from exploding when used. (The purpose of the patch on the ball was to keep the ball firmly lodged against the powder, to avoid creating what was called a “short start” when the ball was dislodged from being firmly against the powder.) A new percussion cap would then be placed on the tube (what today would be called a nipple), and the gun was then loaded and ready to fire. (The half-cock notch prevented the hammer from falling if the trigger were bumped accidentally while carrying the handgun in one’s coat pocket.) Then, to fire the handgun, a user would fully cock the hammer, aim, and squeeze the trigger. Upon a misfire, the user could fully re-cock the hammer, and attempt to fire the handgun once more, or, equally common, switch to a second Deringer. Accuracy was highly variable; although front sights were common, rear sights were less common, and some Philadelphia Deringers had no sights at all, being intended for point and shoot use instead of aim and shoot, across Poker-table distances. Professional gamblers, and others who carried regularly, often would fire and reload daily, to decrease the chance of a misfire upon needing to use a Philadelphia Deringer.”

And how did this little pistol change history? It was the weapon used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865.

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20 thoughts on “THE PHILADELPHIA DERINGER ~ A Little Gun That Changed History”

  1. Such a a little thing to cause such a horrible event.

    That being said, how come antique guns are so much prettier than today’s models?

    Have a great Friday the 13th everyone. I can say that because it is my grandson’s second birthday 🙂

    Peace, Julie

  2. Hi Julie,

    I so agree that antique guns were, in a lot of cases, beautiful. They were handmade works of art. The finest woods, hand-turned barrels, handcut cylinders and workings… There are still some beautiful guns made, but most are assembly line created, which removes the artistry.

    Happy Birthday to your grandson!

  3. okay–you’ve got to be kidding me? i would have totally killed myself with the thing–i mean seriously–it would have exploded–i just know it

    my goodness–no wonder there were so many gunfights…i guess you were much less likely to get hit in those days

    and you could seriously see it moving?? how far did it go? 20 ft?
    crazy and interesting
    thanks for sharing!


  4. Wow, how such a little thing could wreak such havoc. I agree with Mary…I kinda like learning about guns, even though I was too tired on our wagon train trip to try out the rifle/paper plate event. This was terrific information, Tracy. Thank you! oxoxo

  5. Tracy, I love reading about the various guns that were used in the 1800’s. I always find a morsel of information that I didn’t know. Such as the bullet moved so slowly it was visible in flight. Wow! I also wasn’t aware that it was the derringer that killed Abraham Lincoln. That’s so sad.

  6. Wow-another gun…I’d still prefer that Chicago Palm pistol-that didn’t seem quite as dangerous, all though I do like looking at them. With a bullet that moved slowly if you were on the other side of it you could get out of the way.

  7. Happy Anniversary P and P! As a friend said to me this morning, you obviously don’t suffer from Triskaidekaphobia!

  8. Great info. You would need to hit your target the first time—-by the time you got re-loaded you would be

  9. Tabitha–and Linda and Amy,
    I took that nugget of research to mean, if you were watching the bullet fly past in front of you, you’d be able to track it with the naked eye. I’m not sure about the distance–I’ll have to do some digging.

  10. My pleasure, Vicki.

    Julie, I’m going to have to add “Triskaidekaphobia” to my vocabulary–not that I can use it more than 2 times a year. lol

    My usual morning radio show had lots of “reasons” why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky. One was about the HMS Friday. I’m going to have to research that one and share it with all of you.

  11. Thanks for an interesting post. Another example of something we think of as simple being anything but. It’s a gun. You pop a bullet in, point it and pull the trigger. The older ones shown are pretty little guns. The craftsmanship in older weapons is to be admired. The reliability, not so much.
    Like so many things there certainly was much more to it. I never would have thought about having to shoot two caps to dry out the gun before loading it to use. When you consider all the things that could go wrong with it, I don’t think I would have wanted to rely on it to save my life.

    Happy Anniversary, Petticoats and Pistols. May your 4th year be spectacular.

  12. Speaking as one who has loaded and shot black powder gun, I would have never survived because I was much too slow. My husband always said if it ment my life I would have become faster. I found that I enjoyed the costumes and the contests more than I did the shooting so became an observer instead. I also sewed and knited some of the clothing for black powder shoots.

    I love reading about the old guns and always learn something new.

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