The Derringer Pistol - America's Smallest Gun
On April 14th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind then U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, and shot him in the back of the head. His deadly weapon of choice was a Derringer pistol. Since that terrible day, the small gun began to be known as the "hitman's special". Yet the Derringer pistol conjures up ideas of the "wild wild west" and the mystique of this little gun continues to this day. First produced by gunsmith Henry Deringer in 1852, the single-shot pistol became so popular that several companies rushed to reproduce it. They dubbed it the "derringer" adding an extra "r" to the famed gunsmith's name. It stuck. The Derringer line of pistols is still being made today by a host of companies but the original design remains basically the same.
Henry Deringer -
Henry Deringer was born to be a gunsmith. He had his start on October 26, 1786 in Easton, Pennsylvania. His father was a colonial gunsmith who was known for making Kentucky rifles. At the young age of fifteen years, Henry Deringer became an apprentice to a firearms maker located in Virginia. He eventually moved back to the Philadelphia area and started his own gunsmith business. He was so good at what he did that he was often contracted out by the U.S. government. He later became obsessed with making the perfect single-shot pistol which could be used as a conceal and carry gun. He was intrigued by the idea of the element of surprise in self defense. He saw the advantage of carrying a palm-sized hidden weapon which could be produced when needed. With this in mind, Deringer produced a small cap lock pocket pistol in 1852. The Deringer pistol became immediately popular. It was accurate at short range and easy to use. It was most commonly bored in .41 caliber and it was less than six inches long.
The Derringer pistol most often served as a back-up weapon. It is still used in that capacity by some police departments today. Old west outlaws loved these hideaway guns, the element of surprise working in their favor. The Derringer was also called the "belly gun" because of its use in close proximity in old west fights. It's short barrel made it a convenient weapon when there was little distance between opponents.
It was also know as the gambler's gun. Gamblers, always on the lookout for those who cheated or wished to take their money would often keep a Derringer under their hat or in their belts for quick access. Lady gamblers, in particular, would surely have one hidden somewhere. The Derringer was also often referred to as the "lady's" gun. The fancy ladies of the old west would carry one in their drawstring purses or in their garter belts.
Television and Movies -
The Derringer pistol has been romanticized by both television and the big screen especially in westerns. How can anyone forget Yancy Derringer, the suave old west gambler who kept the small gun hidden under his hat (played by Jock Mahoney 1958-59). On the long-running western television series, Have Gun Will Travel, gun-for-hire Paladin carried a Derringer as a back-up gun. (Played by Richard Boone 1957-63). And in the 1965 to 1970 western series, The Wild, Wild West, secret agent James T. west carried a concealed Derringer up his shirt sleeve. When activated it popped out into his hand. (Played by Robert Conrad).
But it isn't in just the old television westerns that the demur pistol makes an appearance. In more modern TV, the Derringer was used by Grace Park as Sharon in Battlestar Galactica and by a security guard in Stargate SG1. It also showed up in the 1983 TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Fifteen Years Later Affair.
Seeing a Derringer pistol used by characters in movies is also no surprise. Gene Hackman as John wields the small gun handily in the 1995 movie The Quick and the Dead. It was used by Brion James as Leon Kowalski in Blade Runner (1982), by Tcheky Karyo as Fouchet in Bad Boys (1995), and by Monica Bellucci as Persephone in The Matrix Reloaded (2003). Even the anime genre has featured a Derringer most notably by the character of Nina in Monster (2004-2005).