The term “derringer” is a generic misspelling of the last name of Henry Deringer, a famous 19th-century maker of small pistols that fit inside a pocket. Many copies of the original Philadelphia Deringer pistol were made by other gun makers worldwide. In addition, the name was often misspelled. Eventually, this misspelling—derringer—soon became an alternate generic term for any pocket pistol.
Deringer metal nameplate
Along with the generic phrase, palm pistol, derringer was used by Deringer's competitors in their advertising. Today, that is the spelling most often used to describe any of the small pistols, including single-barrel, double-barrel, or the three- or four-shot palm size pepperbox guns. The term "derringer" became a genericized misspelling used by many who reported about the assassination of American president, Abraham Lincoln. The weapon used to kill him was a concealed Philadelphia Deringer.
Philadelphia Deringer used by John Wilkes Booth
The original Deringer pistol was a single-shot pistol developed by Henry Deringer. His original Philadelphia Deringer was a muzzleloading, caplock, single-shot pistol he introduced in 1825. Approximately 15,000 Deringer pistols were manufactured. All were single barrel pistols with back-action percussion locks. They typically used .40 with rifled bores and walnut stocks. Barrel lengths varied from 1.5 to 6 inches. The hardware was commonly a copper-nickel alloy known as German silver.
Left side of Philadelphia Deringer
Many copies of the original Philadelphia Deringer pistol were made by other gunmakers worldwide, but they did not have the rights to the Deringer name. They often used the misspelling, derringer, which soon became an alternative generic term for any pocket pistol. Deringer's competitors also used the generic phrase "palm pistol” in their advertising.
With the development of metallic cartridge firearms, pistols began to be produced in the modern form. They were still known as “derringers.” Derringers are also generally the smallest usable handgun of a given caliber. Easily concealed in a purse, pocket, or secured to a thigh using a garter, they were frequently used by women. They were also known as “muff pistols,” because their compact size allowed them to be carried in a muff.
Remington Model 95 Double Derringer
Many Western or other historical writers refer to a double barrel derringer, also known as an over-and-under derringer. These were first manufactured by Remington.
While maintaining the compact size, the Remington derringer design doubled the capacity by adding a second barrel on top of the first. The barrels pivoted upwards to reload. Each barrel then held one round, and a cam on the hammer alternated between top and bottom barrels. This pistol became very popular due to its ability to hold two shots. The Remington derringer was sold from 1866 to 1935.
Remington Model 95 Double Derringer with Pearl Handles
However, it is important to note, although this gun, like many of the pocket-sized pistols might have been known generically as a derringer, its official name was a Remington Model 95 Double Derringer. Designed by William H. Elliott on December 12, 1865, and manufactured by Remington Arms, it could not legally use the Deringer name. It went with the generic term, derringer, as part of the pistol’s official name. This pistol achieved widespread popularity.
.41 Short caliber rimfire bullet
The original cartridge derringers held only a single round, usually a pinfire or rimfire .40 caliber cartridge, with the barrel pivoting sideways on the frame to allow access to the breech for reloading. Once they moved to rimfire, almost all derringers used the .41 Short caliber rimfire bullet.
The Remington derringer was in .41 Short caliber. The .41 Rimfire Cartridge was first introduced by the National Arms Company in 1863. The bullet was also known as the .41 Short. At about 425 feet per second, the .41 Short bullet moved very slowly. (In comparison, a modern .45 ACP travels at 850 feet per second.) It had a muzzle energy of 52 foot-pounds force (71 J). The bullet could be seen in flight. Within about a six-foot range, such as at a casino or saloon card table, it could easily kill. When shot at a target farther away, the bullet lost much of its effectiveness.
Colt Deringer-Right: 1st model 1870-90, Left: 3rd model 1875-1912 all .41 rimfire
Colt also developed and sold three versions of derringers. Sometimes, the Colt pocket pistol is referred to as a Colt Deringer.In both of my recently published books, Abilene Gamble and Indianapolis Justice, much of the mystery behind the death of the villain, Wilfred Osprey, involves a derringer used at the crime scene. It was identified as a “Remington Model 95 over-under Derringer.” Since this came out in courtroom testimony, I needed to be precise in naming the type of small pistol used which left one bullet in the wall next to the doorjamb, and one bullet missing. This was what sent me down the research rabbit hole of learning the difference between a Deringer and a derringer.
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To better appreciate the story, you will want to read these books in order.