They were the longest-lived of all the Old West handguns.
In 1850 Henry Deringer produced his namesake gun, a big-bore, back-action-lock, single-shot, cap-and-ball pocket pistol. The unique design became so popular in the West that dozens of competitors and outright counterfeiters copied it, often calling their versions “derringers” (with two “r’s”) to avoid a lawsuit. After the Civil War, E. Remington & Sons manufactured a small, two-shot pistol that the company called a “deringer” (with one “r”) in early advertising. But as far as present-day terminology, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms notes, “Either spelling is permissible, acceptable and correct.” In a 2008 book called Dr. William H. Elliot’s Remington Double Deringer the four authors explained they used the one “r” spelling to honor Henry Deringer. But no matter how you spell it, this popular double-barreled Remington pistol became the most iconic cartridge derringer of the Old West.
William Harvey Elliot, born in Leicester, Mass., on April 23, 1816, practiced dentistry, wrote articles about it and invented dental instruments, but he was more interested in developing new gun designs. He was living in Ilion, N.Y., when he received his first gun patent, for a pepperbox pistol, on August 17, 1858. It was about this time that percussion firearms were being replaced by guns that would fire breech-loading, self-contained cartridges. In May 1860 Dr. Elliot’s original design evolved into a six-shot .22 Short caliber cartridge pepperbox now known as the Remington Zig-Zag Deringer. E. Remington & Sons produced it in 1861 and 1862, while Elliot’s own Elliot Arms Co. marketed it. The Zig-Zag, in turn, evolved into two other multibarreled “pepperbox” pistols with a rotating firing pin that fired stationary barrels instead of the barrels themselves revolving—a .22 Short caliber five-shot and a .32 Rimfire caliber four-shot. Also produced by E. Remington & Sons, they are now more commonly known as the Remington-Elliot Deringers.
The basic design of Elliot’s legendary double derringer grew out of his desire to produce a “repeating” pistol that could shoot a larger man-stopping caliber than his .22- and .32-caliber pepperboxes. At that time in the evolution of the self-contained cartridge the .41 Short Rimfire was the most powerful pistol cartridge that had been developed. But that caliber would have made Elliot’s pepperboxes too large to be the kind of concealed pistol he wanted to make. So he settled for a spur-trigger, bird’s head–gripped, two-barreled, over-and-under “repeater,” with a firing pin that moved up or down for each barrel each time the hammer was cocked. A small lever on the right side of the frame released the barrels so that, hinged at the top rear of the barrels and the top of the frame, the barrels pivoted up and back to load or unload the gun. In later production a simple sliding ejector was added to the left side of the 3-inch-long barrels.
The little pistol with the big punch came in either blued or nickel finish. At first the grips were walnut, but after about 1888 they were made of black rubber. Prices ranged from $6.50 in the beginning up to $9.50 after the turn of the century. And gold or silver plating, engraving, and pearl or ivory grips could be added at extra cost.
Remington manufactured the derringers from 1866 to 1935 without a major change except for a handful made with 4-inch barrels and a spelling change from “deringer” to “derringer” after the company went bankrupt in 1888. Altogether about 150,000 were produced. This production run of 69 years makes the Remington-Elliot double derringer the longest-lived handgun of the Old West period, beating out the fabled Colt Single Action Army, made from 1873 to 1940, by two years.
Out of the hundreds of double derringers that are known to have Old West history, one, Serial No. 5181, resides in the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. It is nickel-plated, ivory-gripped, engraved and inscribed from Buffalo Bill Cody to Colonel Prentice Ingraham, one of the dime novel authors who helped create the legend of Buffalo Bill. Another double derringer, this one silver-plated, pearl-gripped and engraved, bears the inscription Wm. Fielder from Buffalo Bill. Fielder was an Indian agent friend of Cody.
A third—nickel-plated, walnut-gripped and engraved—is inscribed with the name of James C. Fargo of Wells, Fargo & Co. James Congdell Fargo’s brother William was one of the company’s founders. A fourth, Serial No. 4851, is plain and nickel-plated, bearing ivory grips on which is inscribed Sen. J.P. Jones/Gold Hill Nev. It is accompanied by a matching spear-point bowie knife with ivory grips carved with the same inscription. John Percival Jones was a deputy U.S. marshal in California and in 1868 went to Nevada, where he served as a U.S. senator for 30 years.
An article in the August 10, 1872, Army and Navy Journal speaks glowingly of the Remington, noting, “The weapon is especially designed as a defensive one…its convenience for the pocket…and its certainty of execution in cool hands—we do not know of a rival to the ‘Double Deringer.’” Author Irvin Anthony writes melodramatically about the gun in his 1929 book Paddle Wheels and Pistols: “For the gambler’s service was invented the derringer. This was a short, double-barreled pistol. It fired a heavy slug of a bullet from its rimfire copper cartridge. The bore was .41 caliber, well on its way to a half-inch diameter. Thrust at one across a pile of money, which had tempted eager hands to seize it, the effect of a derringer was tonic. On more serious occasions it defended the gambler’s life from a murderous attack of some player whose losses had turned his head. A glance at a derringer’s ugly snout had a tendency to check an uplifted knife in mid-air, or to make a haste-flushed face turn ashy white.”
And in his 1881 book On the Border With Crook, Captain John G. Bourke tells a story that illustrates one reason a powerful pocket pistol was so popular on the frontier. In 1870 Tucson, according to Bourke, former U.S. marshal of Arizona Territory Milton Duffield tangled with town tough “Waco Bill.” After Duffield knocked him down with one blow, Waco Bill started to pull a revolver from his holster. Bourke, tongue in cheek, ends the story this way: “In Arizona it was not customary to pull a pistol upon a man; that was regarded as an act both unchristian-like and wasteful of time—Arizonanas [sic] nearly always shot out of the pocket without drawing their weapons at all, and into Mr. ‘Waco Bill’s’ groin went the sure bullet of [Duffield].”
Early filmmakers discovered the menacing look of Elliot’s double derringer, and it appeared in many Hollywood Westerns. Designated in later years as the Model 95, it remained so popular during World War II that many GIs carried it as a backup gun. Eventually, William Harvey Elliot received more than 130 patents for improvements and inventions of firearms. He died a wealthy man on March 27, 1895.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.