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The Derringer: the smallest hand gun which is best known for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln

Marija Georgievska

A Derringer is generally the smallest usable handgun of a given caliber. The term “derringer” is a genericized misspelling of the last name of Henry Deringer, a famous 19th-century maker of small pocket pistols.

They were frequently used by women because they are easily concealable in a purse or as a stocking gun. The original Deringer pistol was a single-shot muzzleloading pistol and with the advent of cartridge firearms, pistols began to be produced in the modern form still known as a Derringer.

A flintlock muff pistol with a unscrewable barrel. Photo Credit

A flintlock muff pistol with a unscrewable barrel. Photo Credit

Such weapons, designed specifically for women, were called “muff pistols” due to their compact size, enabling them to be carried in a muff. The original cartridge derringers held only a single round, usually a pinfire or rimfire 40 caliber cartridge, with the barrel pivoted sideways on the frame to allow access to the breech for reloading.

The classic Remington design remained popular even with the advent of smaller, higher-powered cartridges, made possible by the use of smokeless powder, rather than the black powder used in the 19th century and before.

A modern double-barreled Bond Arms derringer. Photo Credit

A modern double-barreled Bond Arms derringer. Photo Credit

While the classic Remington design is a single-action, manufacturers have also made double-action derringers, including some four shot models, with the barrels stacked in a 2 x 2 block.

The Remington derringer design is still being manufactured; makers such as Bond Arms, Cobra Arms, and American Derringer all manufacture the over/under derringer in a variety of calibers, from the 22 long rifle to the 45 Long Colt. It is the smallest handgun that is capable of handling the largest ammunition.

Colt Deringers: on the right, 1st Model (1870–1890), and left, 3rd Model (1875–1912), all .41 rimfire. Photo Credit

Colt Deringers: on the right, 1st Model (1870–1890), and left, 3rd Model (1875–1912), all .41 rimfire. Photo Credit

 

Derringer by John Wilkes Booth.

Derringer by John Wilkes Booth.

The Philadelphia Deringer was a small percussion handgun designed by Henry Deringer and was produced from 1852 through to 1868. Because of its popularity, this pocket pistol design was widely copied by competitors, sometimes down to the markings.

Initially popular with military officers, the Deringer became widely popular among civilians who wished to own a small and easily concealable pistol for self-defence. Because of their small size, these hand guns were the favored tool for assassins. The most famous Deringer used for this purpose was fired by John Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

 

The most famous Deringer was fired by John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The most famous Deringer was fired by John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

 

A depiction of Lincoln’s assassination with a Philadelphia Deringer.

A depiction of Lincoln’s assassination with a Philadelphia Deringer.

Remington derringers often played critical roles in the exploits of James T. West in the American television series The Wild Wild West. Additionally, a single-shot Derringer was the concealed weapon of choice for Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen in Back to the Future Part III. And in one episode of the Simpsons, Bart and Nelson are portrayed as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

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The two start a bar room brawl on a Mississippi river gambling boat, in which the bar patrons fire comically weak Derringer pistols.