A Condensed History of the Philadelphia Deringer

The word Derringer, with a double “r”, has become a generic name for pocket pistols.

Henry Deringer, with a single “r”, is best known for inventing and giving his name to the Deringer pistol.

He was born in Easton, Pennsylvania on October 26, 1786. His father, Henry Deringer, Sr., was a gunsmith, but he sent his son to Richmond, Virginia to apprentice with another gunsmith.

After serving his apprenticeship, Henry moved back to Philadelphia and set up shop on Tamarind Street in 1806.

He mostly produced military pistols, muskets and rifles. His specialties were fine sporting rifles and dueling pistols.

In 1825, he designed the first of the large caliber, short barreled  pistols that would lead to considerable wealth and fame for himself. For guns of his own design, he adopted the newer percussion cap technology, putting his weapons on the modern cutting edge. He never claimed a patent for his notorious pistols, not intending them as something special. The public bought them as fast as he produced them.

Further development and copying of his designs resulted in the Derringer, with the double “r”, pistol that was generically manufactured by other companies.

Deringer died in 1868 at the age of 81 and is buried in Laurel Hill cemetery in Philadelphia.

The original Philadelphia Deringer was a single-shot, muzzleloading, percussion cap pistol introduced by Deringer in 1852. In total, approximately 15,000 Deringer pistols were manufactured. All were single barrel pistols with back action percussion locks, typically .41 caliber with rifled bores and Walnut stocks. Barrel lengths varied from 1.5” to 6”, and the hardware was commonly a copper-nickel alloy known as German Silver.

Because of their small size and easy availability, Derringers sometimes had the dubious reputation of being a favored tool, of assassins. The most famous Deringer used for this purpose was fired by John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. Booths’ Deringer was unusual in that the barrel rifling twisted counterclockwise(left-handed twist) rather than the typical clockwise twist used on most Philadelphia Deringers. Today, Booths’ Deringer is displayed as part of the Ford’s Theater Museum Collection protected in a secure glass case, directly underneath the theater where Booth fired that one shot that changed the course of history.

An expanded history of the Deringer can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/derringer.

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