Deringer Pistol

Derringer Pocket Pistol. From the Lincoln Assassination to John Dillinger.
Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Today, the Deringer Pistol isn't difficult to identify.  It's a household word.  It's one of the smallest pistols in the world, with the exception of the extremely tiny Swiss Mini Pistol--an amazing curio in itself.  For the most part, a Deringer is a very small pistol that will easily fit in the palm of your hand, or a pocket.  It's a little more difficult to pin down exactly what a "Derringer" is.  Gunsmith Henry Deringer started operations in 1825, but the gun that made his name famous--if not the man himself--would not go into production until 1852.  In 1825, Henry Deringer converted an old flintlock dueling pistol to a percussion firing system, and cut down the barrel, effectively inventing the type of gun we now call the Derringer.  The original Philadelphia Pocket Pistol designed by Henry Deringer was produced from 1852 to 1868, and was sold in pairs, not unlike the dueling pistols he'd previously produced.  It was a single-shot, single-action percussion pistol, meaning that you only got one shot.  To offset this limitation, the original Deringer was sold in pairs to allow users to have a backup for a second shot.  At the time, the price for a pair of Deringers was about $25.  While many considered the Derringer to be a "backup gun", it had its own backup--a second Deringer.  This small pistol gained widespread popularity, especially after the introduction of breech-loaded self-contained cartridges, and soon began to be copied on a large scale and in many variations.  Using the original name "Deringer", the copies were also referred to by many using the same name.  Eventually, misspelling of the name (using two "R"s instead of one) became the general name of any very small pistol.  This generalization of the proper name "Deringer" was further solidified after the Lincoln assassination (next paragraph), and today, either "Deringer" or "Derringer" refers to just about any small pocket pistol, regardless of who makes it.  

Derringers were favored by just about anyone who needed discreet protection or stealth in the form of a small, concealable pocket pistol.  For this reason, it is also why actor John Wilkes Booth used an original model Philadelphia Baby Deringer in his assassination of president Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14 1865.  This is by far the most famous--and infamous--act ever carried out using a Derringer-type weapon, but there were others.  During the 1930s depression, the famous bank robber, John Dillinger was dubbed by the FBI as "Public Enemy Number One", and once in 1934 (shortly before his death) when he was arrested in Tuscon,Arizona, had a Remington double-barrel Derringer .41 caliber pistol hidden in his sock.  While Dillinger may have been a thorn in J. Edgar Hoover's side, there were plenty of other career criminals to keep him busy during the lean years of the great depression. 

Deringer Pistols

A famous stage stunt called "The Bullet Catch" was performed using any one of the old percussion Derringers. You wouldn't want to try this with a later model Derringer that takes self-contained metal cartridges.  (at this point it doesn't matter if you use the name Deringer or "Derringer")  Bascially, they would pour a little powder into the muzzle, then pack it down with a patch and lead ball on stage, making sure that the audience saw it.  The secret was in the lead ball itself.  It was intentionally undersized, and when the performer was handing the pistol to a volunteer from  the  audience, butt-first, the ball would fall out into their closed palm.  The volunteer would then take aim at the performer and pull the trigger.  The performer would then make a show of "catching" the bullet, and then display the one in his palm to the thrilled audience.  In effect, the volunteer was unknowingly firing a blank at the performer.  It was considered a dangerous stunt because one could still receive a fatal wound from the powder charge and the cloth wad at close range, and there was nothing to stop the volunteer from dropping a lead ball or other item into the barrel.  

The original Philadelphia Deringer pocket percussion pistols had an unreliable caliber and bore size.  Sold in pairs, they also came with a bullet mold, specifically made to form a bullet that was fit to that weapon.  There were variations and inaccuracies in the machining process that would not always ensure that a bullet molded with a mold sold with one set would work with a pistol from another set, even though they were supposed to be of the same caliber.  In fact, there are so many different calibers of Derringers out there, both old and new that I don't have time to detail them all.  In addition, there are so many different models of Derringers that I won't even attempt to name them either.  I'll just highlight some of the more  notable ones.  There is a very small pistol that fires .45 ACP cartridges, called the Semmerling that was produced in the 1980s for government and selected military personnel.   It's small enough to be lumped into the Derringer category.  There is also the famous breech-loading four-barrel C O P Derringer that is capable of firing four .357 magnum cartridges, and a Derringer for just about any caliber that you can think of.  Today, they are usually larger bore pistols, but retain the small pocket size.  There are Derringers in single action, double action, single barrel, double barrel, and the variations continue.  The popular small and concealable pocket pistol is still made and sold today by many different companies. 

Firearm Type: Small Pocket Pistol (various kinds)
Nation Of Manufacture: USA
Manufacture Dates : 1852-Present
Variations: Original Philadelphia, COP, vast number of others 
Ammunition: Produced in just about every caliber known to firearms
Wars: Mostly Civilian Use, Used in the 1865 Assassination of Lincoln
Recent Prices at Auction for Originals: US $1,000-$2,500 

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Interested in an authentic blank-firing replica 1866 Deringer pistol?
We also have a non-firing Replica of the Philadelphia Deringer used by John Wilkes Boothe in the Lincoln Assassinaiton.