Thursday, December 10, 2020

A Deringer is a derringer

By Suzanne Norquist

I was writing about a feisty, old west heroine who carried a pistol in her pocket, a derringer, of course. When my critique partner asked if I spelled the word correctly, I looked up the answer. And, in that research, I found all kinds of fascinating history about pocket pistols.

They have been around since the eighteenth century. One common type was the Queen Anne pistol, named after the Queen of England. It fit in a coat pocket or a woman’s hand-warmer muff.

Keep in mind that pistols of the day were black powder weapons, meaning the powder and bullet were dumped in the chamber separately. With only one shot, the user hoped it didn't misfire.

Over the years, gunsmiths improved on the design, manufacturing their own version of the tiny weapon. In 1825, Henry Deringer designed the original Philadelphia Deringer. Notice the spelling; it was his name, capital "D", one "r." 

Again, it was a single-shot, black powder weapon. This means my heroine needed to load the powder and bullet before putting it into her pocket. The Deringer was smaller and easier to use than its predecessors. It fit in the palm of a hand. Because it was notoriously difficult to aim, the shooter must be close to the intended target.

The Deringer became popular with women, professional gamblers, and assassins. Some gamblers would shoot and reload it every day to ensure that the powder stayed dry and the weapon was in good working order. Deringers were usually sold in pairs because of their single-shot capacity and their propensity to misfire.

All this led me to wonder if it would be effective against a person at all. Apparently, it is. In 1865, a Philadelphia Deringer was used to assassinate President Lincoln. The picture above is the actual weapon that was used.

It wasn’t the first time someone tried to kill a U.S. president with a Deringer. In 1835, Richard Lawrence attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson, but the weapon misfired. Lawrence pulled out his second pistol, and it also misfired. Then bystanders tackled him. I’m surprised John Wilks Booth didn’t select a more reliable weapon.

The newspapers reported Lincoln’s assassination with a typo. Deringer was spelled with two ‘r’s. Soon derringer became the term for any pocket-sized handgun.

Gun manufacturers jumped on the derringer bandwagon with similar models and improvements. New metallic cartridges ended the messy business of loading with black powder. Some of the early bullets moved so slowly that they could be seen in flight.

Remington Arms manufactured a double-barrel derringer, one on top of the other. This gave the user two shots instead of one.

The Sharps 22 Pepperbox had four barrels.

Tiny pocket pistols are called derringers today because of a widely reported event with a typo. Think about that next time you are editing something.


“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in Thimbles and Threads 

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

For a Free Preview, click here: 

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.