Reid’s “My Friend” Knuckleduster Was Designed
For Extremely Close, Personal Defense.
By Holt Bodinson
I don’t know if it’s proper to call a handgun “enchanting” or “endearing,” but every time I look at James Reid’s curious, little “knuckleduster,” those adjectives come to mind. It is so individualistic, so different and so imaginative, just the sight of the knuckleduster brings a smile to my lips. And to actually hold it and shoot it, well, that’s the icing on the cake.
You might ask, “What spark in the mind of its inventor lead to the idea of blending ‘knucks’ with a revolver?” It’s an interesting story indeed. It’s inventor, James Reid, was born in 1827 in Belfast, Ireland, where he grew up working in his family’s successful woolens factory. As a young man (and being Protestant), Reid relocated to Scotland, where he took up the machinist trade. In 1857, at the age of 30, he and his family immigrated to the United States, New York City specifically, where he established the James Reid Manufactory, a combination machine shop and foundry to service local business needs. However, it wasn’t long before Reid began building single-shot derringers and revolvers.
It is said the spark that may have lead to the design of his knuckleduster was the Civil War draft riots of 1863. Looking down from the second story of his Manufactory on the streets of New York City, swarming with 20,000 to 30,000 rioters, it may have occurred to Reid a rugged, highly concealable weapon, combining non-lethal physical force—as well as lethal firepower—might be just the ticket for an urban gentleman in tumultuous times.
By December 1965, Reid had received a patent for his knuckleduster as an “Improvement In Revolving Fire Arms,” based partially on the claim, “My invention is applied to a series of short barrels mounted on a center-pin… I form the handle with a bow behind the trigger-shield so that the implement may be held securely in the hand and used for protection after the barrels may have been discharged, or before it becomes necessary to use them.”
At street fighting distances, Reid’s knuckleduster proved deadly indeed.
The patent drawings show the knuckleduster grasped with the little finger inserted through the hole in the grip, and the remaining fingers wrapped around the cylinder-barrel. It’s an odd grip. First, because in a clenched fist, the knuckles of the second and third fingers deliver the main blow. Secondly, with the little finger through the hole in the grip, it is impossible to transition smoothly to a firing grip. With the fourth finger through the grip hole, however, you can deliver quite a metal-backed blow as well as being able to transition immediately to a firing position. The patent lawyer may have had a reason for the illustration of the little finger grip, but I can’t fathom it.
By the time he received the knuckleduster patent, Reid had relocated his family and Manufactory to Catskill, New York, where the Catskill Creek could be tapped for water power. Reid was continually haunted by the existence of the Rollin White Patent, licensed by Smith & Wesson and giving S&W the exclusive right to manufacture a revolver having a bored-through cylinder that could be loaded from the rear. Reid’s revolvers certainly infringed on the patent as did the knuckleduster. Two factors may have worked in Reid’s favor. One, his overall production was small, and secondly, when S&W licensed the patent, they insisted Rollin White, not S&W, defend the patent against infringement—an expense that White was not always willing to accept.
The original patent and the majority of the production of Reid’s knuckledusters are represented by the two knuckledusters pictured here. The cylinder-barrels hold seven .22 Shorts and are bored smooth so that the actual barrel portion forward of the Short cartridge is 3/4-inch long.
“MY FRIEND” will be found stamped on the upper or lower frame straps (above),
and sometimes both. Removing the left-hand-threaded cylinder pin (below) allows
the gun to be quickly disassembled for loading or unloading.
Stop! Wrong Turn
The cylinder revolves on a removable center-pin. To load the knuckleduster, the center-pin is unscrewed from the frame, allowing the cylinder to be removed and loaded. There is one important hitch to the process. The cylinder revolves in a clockwise direction. The center-pin sports a left-hand thread to keep things tight as the cylinder rotates in the same direction. Looking at the center-pin from the front of the frame, the center-pin must be unscrewed in a clockwise direction. Not surprisingly, you will find knuckledusters with damaged center-pin tabs some ham-fisted chap managed to wring off or ding up in the opposite direction. Our brass-framed knuckleduster pictured clearly exhibits a beat-up tab.
The center-pin has another vital function. It serves as the ejection rod to remove spent cases.
The frames of the knuckledusters are either brass, iron and silver or nickel-plated. If there’s any question, the material of the frame can readily be determined by a simple magnet test.
To protect the hand when used as a cudgel, the hammer of the knuckleduster is a smooth birdhead design. To facilitate cocking the hammer, the top strap of the frame is deeply dished-out in front of the hammer to give the thumb plenty of leverage room. The trigger is sheathed by the frame, and protrudes just enough when the hammer is cocked to be tactile and tactical.
Both of the knuckledusters pictured here feature a mechanical safety Reid later discontinued as both expensive and unnecessary. The sliding safety can be seen mounted to the frame just below the cylinder. When the tit of the slide is pulled to the rear, a .22-caliber plug is pulled into the bore of the barrel positioned at 6 o’clock. With the plug in place, the cylinder can’t rotate and the hammer can’t be cocked. Another safety feature built into the design is the hammer nose rests between chambers when not cocked.
The Reid knuckledusters were nicely engraved with a floral scroll. Apparently, the engravers enjoyed a high degree of artistic license since only two motifs seem to appear regularly on most guns—the sunburst motif at the muzzle end of the frame and the shield pattern on the bow of the grip. My thought is the knurled or checkered shield on the bow may have some tactical value as a “flesh-grabber” when a punch is thrown. One thought about the various engraving patterns seen is the engravers were free to choose their lines to cover-up pits and tiny casting flaws in the frames.
The frames carry the markings “MY FRIEND” on the left rear of the bottom cylinder strap and/or “MY FRIEND PATD. DEC. 26, 1865,” on the left side of the top cylinder strap. The serial number is stamped on the bottom of the grip bow, and the last 2 digits of the number are stamped on the center-pin tab, trigger, safety-latch and cylinder face.
The knuckleduster design was popular enough that Reid was urged to field models in .32 and .41 rimfire, which he did. The .32 caliber models are not uncommon. The .41 caliber models are rare. Toward the end of the production period (1868-1882), Reid experienced a number of financial reversals, which prompted him out of desperation to build knuckledusters with 1 3/4- to 3-inch barrels. The gambit was not successful.
It is estimated that the total production of .22, .32 and .41 caliber knuckledusters was somewhere in the vicinity of 13,000. Of that amount, 10,690 were the small frame, .22 caliber models.
How does a knuckleduster shoot? The one fragile element of the design is the mainspring, which is folded into the grip in the form of a “?” mark, so I don’t advise owners to exercise the little beauties much. Loading the nickel-plated model with Aguila’s primer-powered “Colibri” ammunition and taking aim at a B-27 target at 8 feet, I can easily and consistently score head shots, plus the lightweight 20-grain projectiles don’t tumble. Reid’s Knuckleduster is both “enchanting and endearing!”
Holt found, by using the ring finger (above) instead of the pinky, the
knuckleduster could readily be transitioned between a striking blow
and firing (below).
James Reid and His Catskill Knuckledusters
by Taylor G. Bowen (OP).
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