These pocket-sized guns had some punch as well as multiple shots.
Sam Colt did not actually invent the revolver, but in 1836 he did patent the first revolver mechanism that worked when it was supposed to. After that, his Colt company, along with Smith & Wesson and Remington, led the way in producing multishot pistols in the United States. But others besides the big three also made revolvers, especially after Colt’s patents for cap-and-ball revolvers expired in 1857, and after the Smith & Wesson/ Rollin White patents for cartridge revolvers expired in 1869. And one of the strangest revolvers was James Reid’s “My Friend” knuckleduster, a unique pepperbox designed as a pocket hideout gun that also turned out to be an ideal frontier gambler’s “friend.”
Born in Belfast, Ireland, on April 9, 1827, James Reid was a successful “iron turner” (machinist) in the cotton mills of Glasgow, Scotland, when he immigrated to the United States in late 1856. In Jersey City, N.J., he started a prosperous machinery-making business that in 1861 he moved to New York City, where the 1862 directory lists it as the James Reid Manufactory. And, according to Taylor G. Bowen in his definitive book James Reid and His Catskill Knuckledusters, “Reid began making his first pistols at this time.”
In 1860–61 Reid made about 100 small single-shot, .22-caliber cap-and-ball pistols for inventor Rollin White (who had sold his cartridge revolver patents to Smith & Wesson). And from 1861 to 1865 Reid produced about 3,000 pocket-sized .22- and .32-caliber rimfire revolvers, including some 1,200 that could be used as either cap-and-ball or cartridge revolvers that technically didn’t infringe on the Smith & Wesson/ Rollin White cartridge revolver patents.
Doctors diagnosed Reid’s 9- year-old daughter, Annie, with an unnamed lung disease and advised him to move her to an environment with “cleaner air.” So in 1864 Reid moved 100 miles north to the village of Catskill in the Catskill Mountains, bought an old gristmill and for the next three years operated the mill while also setting it up as his new gun factory.
Reid had begun developing the My Friend knuckleduster at his New York factory, and at the end of 1865 he received a patent for it. Modern dictionaries define “knuckledusters” and “brass knuckles” as the same thing. But in his 1989 book Bowen expands the meaning: “The knuckleduster is best described as a pocket-sized handgun of sturdy build with the option of using the fist, which holds the weapon, to strike a solid blow on an assailant rather than shoot him, without damage to hand or gun.” (Pepperbox pistols consisted of elongated barrels that were joined side by side lengthwise and revolved together, whereas Colt’s revolvers consisted of a revolving cylinder with separate chambers that fired through a single barrel as the cylinder rotated.) So Reid ingeniously combined all of those components into a short-barreled cartridge pepperbox that was basically a revolver without a barrel, with a grip that was a brass knuckle. As such, the guns didn’t infringe on the Smith & Wesson cartridge revolver patents.
Reid’s first knuckleduster was a seven-shot, .22-caliber single-action “pepper box,” usually engraved. They were instantly popular, and between 1868 and 1882 he made 10,690 of them. His next most popular knuckleduster was a five-shot, .32-caliber rimfire pepperbox that was just like the .22 but larger. He produced about 3,100 of the .32s between 1870 and 1882. He also came out with a still larger five-shot, .41-caliber rimfire knuckleduster in 1870. Calling all of his knuckledusters the My Friend was a clever marketing strategy, and because of its pocket size and larger bore, Reid also gave the big .41s even more appeal by marking them J. Reid’s Derringer. But he only made about 150 of them before production was dropped in 1872, probably because they were too heavy to carry as a pocket revolver. The retail prices of all of Reid’s knuckledusters ranged over the years from $8 to $12.
Back-to-back economic depressions from 1873 to the middle 1880s hit Reid’s gun business hard. In 1875 he brought out a five-shot, .32-caliber rimfire knuckleduster with a 3-inch barrel added to it, but he made only 250 of them. In 1877 he made 100 more of them with a 1 ¾-inch barrel. And in 1883 he made about 360 “New Model” five-shot, .32-caliber rimfire knuckledusters with lighter-weight fluted cylinders before production was finally dropped on all knuckledusters. “By 1880 Reid’s entire workforce consisted of just his three sons, one old hand and a boy helper,” Bowen notes. In 1882 and 1883 Reid produced about 400 small five-shot, spur-trigger pocket revolvers in .32- and .41-caliber rimfire before all of his gun production finally came to an end.
Many of Reid’s knuckledusters found homes in the coat pockets of Old West gamblers, but when the popular pepperbox revolvers were used in a shooting or a fistfight, the newspapers usually only referred to them as “derringer revolvers.” In 1869 William Beck advertised the My Friend as one of the revolvers he sold at his Sportsmen’s Emporium in Portland, Ore. And Pittsburgh firearms distributor James Bown & Son, in business as Enterprise Gun Works since the 1850s, advertised the My Friend as one of the more popular pistols that they sold on the frontier. Reid’s small-caliber knuckledusters may not have packed the big punch that a .44- or .45-caliber Colt did. But they did pack a detriment to a gunfight or a fistfight: As an old-time wrangler, quoted in firearms historian Charles Worman’s classic book Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather, explained, “To the far Westerner there is nothing so humiliating as to be threatened with or shot by a small caliber revolver.”
In March 2012 one of Reid’s rare .41-caliber knuckledusters in unfired condition brought a whopping $35,650 at a James D. Julia firearms auction in Maine. But James Reid, inventive genius, died penniless, of heart failure, in Watervliet, N.Y., on May 28, 1898. He had gone back to working as a machinist at a local mill until three months before his death.
“It can be said that Reid’s invention of a simple protective knuckler was a humane answer to one of the great social problems of the post–Civil War era,” Bowen writes in his book. “Many years later a motto of his was quoted by [his grandson] Charles T. Reid, who recited, ‘Never shoot a man if you can knock him down.’ There is perhaps no better expression of James Reid’s philosophy, and it reveals a compassionate side of his character often overlooked amid firearm production statistics.”
And labeling his knuckleduster the “My Friend” was a brilliant Reid marketing ploy that apparently not even the flamboyant Sam Colt himself had thought of when he was promoting his own famous six-shooters.