in Charleston Meets the Maker of Mini Pinfire Pistols

During our journey to find out What are guns to Charleston and Charleston to guns? we saw examples of hunting, recreation and competition shooting, but we also learned an unexpected answer: artistry. Thirty miles northeast from downtown is Daniel’s Island, home to Charleston Mini Gun Works, an enterprise that specializes in making miniature pinfire pistols.

mini pinfire pistols

You can probably deduce what a miniature pinfire pistol is by its name, but allow me to explain anyway. It’s a gun the size of a quarter and fires pinfire cartridges that are about the size of an ant. Small. Tiny. Itty-bitty little things.

Charleston Mini Gun Works is one of the many projects of Ron Phillips, a retired engineer, lawyer, and patent attorney. He not only makes mini pistols, but also designs and builds mini cars, mini battleships, mini cannons, and now he’s working on a mini rifle. He was gracious enough to let into his workshop and tell me about the craft, the people, and of course, the guns of this mini world (too much?).

Phillips began telling me the roots of miniature arms. The creator of the original miniature pistol was watchmaker Franz Pfannl in Austria in 1899. Because of their meticulous construction it only seems fitting that a watchmaker was the first to create these tiny machines.

Besides from the obvious, the guns have moving parts and function exactly like a normal size gun. They were originally designed as charms that women would wear on a necklace or men would wear as cufflinks. But what they were never really intended to be a concealed-carry weapon. In fact, a lot of the early models weren’t even chambered. But now, many of them are the real deal like Evander Holyfield. And the only reason they function now is so they function, period. But it’s kind of like a firecracker. They just pop and then they’re done. They use blank cartridges and blanks can still be dangerous, so they’re also not toys.

It’s a challenge to make something that small work. They’re simply for collecting, decoration and appreciation.

Many collectors belong to the Miniature Arms Society, whose mission statement says their goal is to ”promote and encourage interest in making and collecting scale miniature replicas of arms and armor of all kinds, with an emphasis on artistic beauty and craftsmanship.”

Most of them are beautiful too. I was able to peruse some of the Society’s journals at Phillips’ workshop and in it showed mini M14s, 1911s, Colt Peacemaker, etc, etc. And they weren’t all pinfires. In fact, pinfire minis are actually a niche collector’s item in this market. Many fire 2mm rimfire cartridges.

What makes the pinfires so unique, especially for miniatures, is that the pin that ignites the powder inside the shell sits on the side rather than behind. It has to be driven down like a nail into wood. Today most guns have a linear design (hence the name centerfire). In order for a pinfire to work the cartridge has to be positioned so it sticks up and sits directly under the hammer otherwise when the hammer falls it would either miss and/or damage the cartridge. Either way it wouldn’t ignite.

Much like old watches, the construction of these items is fascinating. The mini 1911s have mini magazines, the mini Peacemaker revolvers have tiny cylinders that actually rotate, and Phillips’ pistols are hammer fired and have break-action barrels.

What’s unique about Phillips’ pistols is that they are original designs, not replicas. You could see attributes from other models like a blunderbuss barrel and flintlock-pistol frame. Also, Phillips said that many of the earlier models were built with stamped metal, so they could be mass-produced. His are all hand-made and cut.

Making a gun is hard enough, but making a miniature version seems crazy to me. Especially how Phillips makes his.

First he starts with a sheet of tool steel, which is a mixture of carbon or alloy steels and is treated for increased hardness.  He cuts the frame and hammers out the design with a machine used to cut armor plates for tanks.

Then he’ll cut the barrels from a long steel rod and then shape and blue them.

Once all the pieces are cut he brings them to his workshop where, under a magnifying glass, he begins to mill and drill the frame so the wooden grip panels can be attached and the pins can poke through and hold it all together. The hammer is merely tapped for a pin.

Phillips said he likes to do about five at a time and then he collects the pieces until he has enough to assemble them. And then when someone orders one, he pieces it together and sends it off in a case with a mini plaque and a tiny bottle of cartridges.

The tiny bottle is the only thing he doesn’t make.

So What are guns to Charleston and Charleston to guns? In this sense I’d say the key word is craftsmanship. Whether you recognize it or not, there’s a beauty and elegance behind a well-made firearm that most anyone can recognize.

Look at a Hi-Point and then look at a Glock. Tell me, which one is more attractive? We shouldn’t just appreciate what these machines can do, but we should appreciate its aesthetic beauty.

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