Pocket Pistols Of The Old West

More Popular Than The Peacemaker?
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The Forehand & Wadsworth British Bulldog (bottom) was half the size
of a Colt Peacemaker and Bisley, but packed a .44 Webley double-action punch!

When we think of the wild and woolly west, most of us envision cowboys, lawmen and outlaws packing full-frame Colt, Remington and Smith & Wesson revolvers. In the wild regions of the west, packing a big-bore full-frame pistol was important but carrying a weapon in many growing towns and cities was prohibited. More often than not, weapons were smaller and hidden from view. Then, like now, a small pocket pistol was preferred and the public had plenty to choose from — good, bad and ugly.

Every gambler needed one: Two favorite old west pocket pistols, both the
Colt Lightning (left) and the Colt New Line (right) were offered in .38 Colt.

Popular Pieces

In counting the U.S. manufacturers’ production from Civil War to 1900, a conservative 2.5 million pocket pistols made it to desk drawers, nightstands, pockets and leg garters across America. This isn’t counting guns made without a manufacturer’s identification or production records. Amazingly, pocket pistols sold more than a ten-to-one margin to the wildly popular Colt Peacemaker!

While smaller percussion pistols had been on the market for decades, two partners named Smith & Wesson were working on a self-contained cartridge. After several failures, they developed a rimfire cartridge, which evolved into the joy of plinkers and small game hunters today, the .22 rimfire.

At the time, Colt held the patent on the revolving cylinder but the patent was about to expire. Smith & Wesson worked feverously on developing a revolver capable of using their self-contained rimfire cartridge with the new concept of a bored-through chamber. But, when they filed for a patent on their new concept, they found out a fellow inventor named Rollin White had patented the idea years before in a poorly conceived revolver design. Much to the delight of White, Smith & Wesson offered him a royalty to use his patent. A new day in firearms dawned.

The first series of Smith & Wesson revolvers used a tip-up barrel design. The cylinder had to be removed to load and unload. The barrel hinge was weak but adequate to handle the low energy of the .22 rimfire and even the newer .32 rimfire. Other manufacturers started producing pocket pistols, some well-designed and some of dubious quality.

Many outright copied S&W and stamped fake names and manufacturing locations to avoid being sued for patent infringement. Other companies didn’t know of S&W’s agreement with White and started making their own bored-through designs. In many cases, they were sued to stop production and all of their remaining pistols went to S&W. Many of these firearms can be found with the phrasing “Manufactured for Smith & Wesson.”

Some manufacturers circumvented Colt’s and White’s patents by designing pistols without a cylinder. Sharps sold a four-shot pistol in which the firing pin rotated to the barrel to be fired. Other designs incorporated a single barrel capable of swinging out or tipped up to load.

Smith & Wesson went to a more robust hinge in their top-break design.
When the top latch was released, the hinged frame opened and ejected the
cases automatically. Where S&W went, the competition followed.
Image: The Mike Short Collection

The Smith & Wesson Model 1 ½, 2nd issue was a weak, awkward
single-action .32 rimfire design but it filled the need from 1868 to
1875. Image: The Mike Short Collection

The Sharps Pepperbox rimfire had four barrels with a striker turning 90
degrees each time the hammer is cocked. This example is a Model 4.
Image: The Mike Short Collection

Design “Features”

Most pocket pistols were a small caliber, most often a .22 rimfire. But, there also were .30, .32 and .41. In most cases, the pistol designs were weak, and some were even unsafe. But they did work.

Spur trigger revolvers were the most common pocket pistol. The trigger is hidden in the spur when the hammer is at rest. When cocking the hammer, the cylinder turns to the following cartridge and the trigger pops out slightly. When fired, the trigger pops back flush with the spur once again. There isn’t a conventional trigger guard; in most cases, they sport a bird’s head grip.

Most early pocket pistols were bronze-framed or nickel-plated to protect against the corrosive nature of black powder.

As the demand for more powerful cartridges increased, changes had to be made. Smith & Wesson developed a more robust hinge, moved it to the bottom of the frame and improved their latch. The rest of the industry followed suit. Smith & Wesson suffered countless attempts to copy their designs, some legal and some not. Marlin, Manhattan, Ethan Allen, Iver Johnson and H&R all produced identical copies of S&W revolvers. Some are so close it takes careful inspection to differentiate them.

Colt had its share of pocket pistols from single-shot models to revolvers. As they moved away from their open-top designs, frames became much more robust. The Colt New Line was strong enough to handle the .38 Colt cartridge. In 1877 Colt started offering their first double-action revolver, the M1877. A major Colt distributor, Benjamin Kittredge quickly gave the smaller-framed revolvers catchy names; the .38 caliber “Lightning,” the .41 caliber “Thunderer,” and the ultra-rare .32 caliber “Rainmaker.” The M1877 looked like a scaled-down version of Colt’s popular Peacemaker and short-barrel models easily fit into a coat pocket. Police officers favored it at a time when many felt they should be unarmed and subdue badmen on their authority alone.

Pocket Pistols came in all shapes and sizes. From left to right, the
Remington Double Deringer, Sharps Pepperbox, Smith & Wesson Model
1 ½ Single-Action Centerfire, Remington-Smoot New Model No 3,
Colt New Line Centerfire.

Go Big

Not everyone wanted to bet their life on a small cartridge. Gambler and gunfighter Luke Short had a little larger pocket pistol — he carried a bobbed .45 Colt Peacemaker in a specially tailored hip pocket.

Luke Short had been the dealer at a faro game at the Oriental in Tombstone. Despite repeated warnings, gunman Charlie Storms kept moving his bet after the play. Short warned Storms again. Both men went for their guns but Bat Masterson stepped between the two gunfighters and defused the situation. Masterson escorted Storms back to his room to sleep off his drunkenness. It didn’t work.

At the Oriental Saloon, Masterson convinced Short to brush off his encounter with Storms. Short agreed and started to step back into the saloon. Suddenly Storms appeared and grabbed Short from behind, pulling him off the boardwalk while drawing his revolver. Short responded with lightning speed. He pulled his snub nose Colt and shot Storms point-blank in the heart twice, setting his shirt on fire. Only slightly slower, Storms fired his revolver a few times to no effect and was likely dead as his body hit the street.

The Short/Storms shooting brings one question to mind. Would Luke Short have lived to see another day had he been carrying a small spur-trigger pocket pistol?

While American gun manufacturers were coming up with the next big thing, a company across the Big Pond started its own revolution — Webley introduced their British Bulldog. While it came in smaller calibers, it also came in .44 Webley. It was indeed a pocket powerhouse. The .44 caliber model held five shots and could be fired single or double action. Smaller caliber Bulldogs held an impressive seven rounds!

Such firepower had people clamoring for more. To answer such great demand, American gun makers Wadsworth and Forehand started making high-quality copies. Other companies followed. So many Bulldogs were shipped across the Mississippi writer George Layman called it the “forgotten gun that really won the west”!

In 1887 Smith & Wesson came out with a design that would stay in production halfway through the 20th Century. The design was so different they called it the New Departure. The revolver came in .32 S&W and .38 S&W. Smith and Wesson also designed a .44 model but it didn’t get far from the drawing board.

The New Departure, also called the Safety Hammerless, was double-action-only. It didn’t have an exposed hammer to snag in pockets and had a palm safety, quickly earning it the moniker the “lemon squeezer.” Advertising called it an “automatic,” not because it auto-fed a new cartridge but because all the cases ejected out upon opening the latch. In many ways, it was the perfect pocket pistol.

The S&W Model 1 ½, 2nd Issue was popular in gambling halls and brothels
around the west. The original owner paid extra for the pearl grips.

Collecting

Finding old pocket pistols is easy. Finding them in good shape is another matter. Most examples are heavily corroded from use with corrosive black powder and most likely never cleaned after the initial firing.

Generally, pocket pistols are inexpensive to collect but popular models like the Remington derringer, the Sharps four-barrel pepperbox pistol and the Colt M1877 all command a premium. Engraving and pearl or ivory grips also increase the value. But, like all firearms, condition and originality mean everything. A refurbished gun is always valued less than an original gun in the same condition.

Bear in mind many of these guns were a weak design when new. Adding a century of rust and abuse makes many dangerous to shoot. And, most pre-1920 pocket pistols were made for black powder, not smokeless, so approach any shooting session with caution.

Here’s another “problem” — collecting pocket pistols is fun and most of us can afford it! Collectors love to imagine the history of a gun. For many, the fun is speculating what banker, gambler, wealthy socialite or even brothel madam carried a particular piece. Except in rare cases, we will never know, but it is one of the pleasures of collecting pocket pistols.

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