There have been innumerable hidden weapons throughout history but the insight of Henry Deringer Junior (1786 – 1868) set the standard for small lethal pistols with his Philadelphia Deringer design.
Deringer Junior, was a first generation American born in Easton, Pennsylvania. He studied as a gunsmith with his German trained father and then mastered manufacturing while he apprenticed with the Virginia Manufactory in Richmond.
The Deringer family moved to Philadelphia in 1806 and later that year incorporated the Philadelphia Rifle Manufactory. Senior and Junior established the plant and Henry Senior began producing 2 versions of the Kentucky Rifle. Deringer was a supplier to the US Army and also produced an elaborate model for wealthy sportsmen, a silver and gold inlayed match pistol pairs and a couple of custom duelling guns. Deringer quickly became synonymous with quality and luxury.
Henry Junior’s second apprenticeship in Virginia in 1807-08 allowed him to develop the expertise to establish manufacturing in Philadelphia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the most venerated arms manufacturers, Richie, Nipple, Steinman and Watt apprenticed at that same factory.
As the Philadelphia factory became established it continued to win significant and lucrative US Government supply contracts for mass produced conventional firearms. Rifles, pistols, “Indian guns”, trade guns, fowling pieces, swords and muskets were all manufactured by Deringer from 1814 onward. Operations flourished in the shadow of the California gold rush and feverish westward expansion as well as the ramp up to and first shots of the looming Civil War.
In 1825, 39 year old Henry relocated next door to the Rifle Manufactory and focused his engineering skill, and now considerable wealth, on re-engineering his compact, flint-lock duelling pistol to the percussion cap system to create a simple, lethal and covert handgun. It was of course these models that would cement the name Henry Deringer Junior in the annals of gun history and the proceeding decades would see progressive new versions of this pistol find a home in a ready market.
Confronted with mounting lawlessness, citizens quickly sought the Philadelphia Deringers for self-defence. Paradoxically the ‘little hammer’ became a weapon of choice for frontline Calvary Officers in the Indian Wars. Not exactly a soldier’s gun to some. But with tribes like the Seminole utilizing superior ambush tactics, it was prudent for troopers and officers alike to carry at least one Deringer in your uniform.
The US Calvary was busy in the 1860s with Red Cloud followed by the Great Sioux War against the Cheyenne and the Lakota through the 1870s. This managed to keep the eastern arms manufacturing machine well occupied throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
100 years into the future Henry Deringer Junior would have been lauded as a marketing genius. In one calculated stroke he had created a new segment in the burgeoning 19th century gun trade; the concealed carry pistol came into being.
Prior to the Philadelphia Deringer, concealed weapons had been nefarious appliances. Ungainly sleeve rigs, obvious glove guns, cumbersome watch, ring and purse guns and nothing like Deringer’s diminutive brainchild. The clandestine, unisex, personal pistol, at the time seemed universally apt in an unlimited market.
Deringer’s patents were blatantly violated almost immediately. Every imitation produced sports the Derringer name, purposely misspelled, supposedly rendering the copyright moot. Derringer quickly became a generic name, applied to every prostitutes pistol and gamblers gun and Henry lost the value of his trademark, similar to the frustrations of Xerox and Kleenex of today.
Deringer’s pistols were counterfeited down to the proof marks and it kept his lawyers in infringement litigation for the duration of his life. Three years prior to his death, the California Supreme Court ruled in favour of the plaintiff in Deringer (Derringer) v. Plate (1865) 29 Cal 292. If you have ever endured a lawsuit, think of the compounded vexation of losing your own name. He had been vindicated, but who can gauge the toll.
Surprisingly, some counterfeits were well-made by known factories, which accelerated the evolution of the pistol from the rudimentary 1825 flintlock muzzle loader. Competitors colluded around the patented aspects of the design and adapted to provide improvements abetted by advances in gunmetal and ammunition.
The newer models boasted an expanded range of calibers, some bored for small shot shells in addition to ejectors for the `new metallic cartridges with smokeless powder`. This dramatically enhanced the big bore stopping power of these pistols to over 850 fps and further heated the market.
All subsequent models were built to match the ammunition of the era with pin, center and rim fire shells readily available. With each change the pistol became progressively more reliable as did the ammunition in the hands’s of mass production. Models of the authentic Deringer Pistol ran in production from 1852 to 1868.
Colt produced the Model 1 in 1855 after Deringers’ initial production run in 1852. These Colts were single barrelled with 4 models over the product life and kept pace with Deringer. Colt manufactured 63,000 Model 4 Derringers from 1870 to 1912. Samuel Colt astutely applied for British and French patents for all his arms designs while traveling in Europe in 1832 prior to receiving his US Patents in 1836. Colt had studied Deringer.
Sharps, Wesson, Marston, Starr and Williamson were a few of the more reputable gun makers who pursued the Derringer market segment and some brands remain intact.
In 1866 Dr. William Elliot, a Remington research employee devised the Double Derringer, super posed. Elliot is also the developer of the .32 rimfire, 4 barrel pepperbox (1861) which bears his name, the Remington Elliot. The modification provided a deadlier weapon during close encounters and commercial success ensued with 150,000 breech loading Double Derringer models produced up until 1937. And subsequently, the modern Derringers has morphed from muzzleloaders to current models compatible with rounds from.45 caliber bullets or .410 shot cartridges. A very sobering concept. With the very first concealed carry guns envisioned in 1825, Henry Deringer got it right –simple, small and secret.