People’s 150-year long love affair with Derringers shows no sign of slacking off anytime soon. I get it; derringers are neat-o. They conjure images of the wild west, riverboat gamblers and tough-as-nails Ladies of the Night (with hearts of gold.) Tuck it up your sleeve, in your vest pocket or a lady’s garter and they are nearly irresistible.
The original Deringers (with one ‘r’) were muzzle-loading, large-bore pocket pistols made by Henry Derringer Jr. from Philadelphia. You only got one shot, but that shot was a pretty good one. They required a fairly large pocket as well, ‘compact’ being a relative term. Some over-and-under guns were made as well. Early examples were flintlocks, and later models used percussion caps. These guns were widely copied, as were his name and proofs, and Henry spent much of his later life in court fighting trademark infringements.
The first really small single-shot pistols seem to have been invented roughly two minutes after the invention of rimfire cartridges (or pin-fire on the continent) and judging from the numbers and variety that were produced there was a large market for such pistols. The term ‘Derringer'(with two ‘r’s) was not broadly applied to such weapons until Remington introduced their iconic over-and-under in 1868. These days if you say Derringer this is the gun people think of.
This was chambered in .41 Rimfire, which had a .41 caliber 130-grain bullet loaded on top of 13 grains of black powder. Not exactly a powerhouse- this round reportedly left the Remington at around 425fps and produced around 52ft-lbs. of energy. This seems to have been sufficient however; the gun remained in production until WW2, and ammunition was still made well into the 1960s. You can still, if you hunt around, find new ammunition occasionally but be prepared to pay a steep price for it.
The Remington remains the derringer that everyone copies; the mechanism is simple and easy to produce. Meant for arms-length last-ditch self defense, people still sell scads of them. They seem to have settled into two camps- cheap and unreliable or really expensive and reliable. You can find a Cobra ‘big bore’ derringer for about $125 if you shop around, but experience has shown you might not want to bet your life on it. Higher end derringers like the Bond start at an eye-watering $499, but they are at least very well made. There isn’t much in between as far as I can tell.
So what do you get for your money? A gun as large as a pocket automatic pistol, that is single action and holds only two rounds. If you buy a cheap one the barrels may be only roughly pointed in the same direction, and it’s anyone’s guess if it will fire when you pull the trigger. If you go the expensive route you’ll have a solid gun that you can count on… but it will still be single-action and hold two shots. Oh, and very likely it will be solid stainless steel, and thus rather heavy.
So what, if any, are the advantages of a Derringer over a pocket-auto? One is caliber; you can anything from .22 RF to .45-70. Currently .45 Colt/.410 seems to be a popular option. With current pistol-oriented .410 loads this would make for a very potent ‘GET OFF ME’ gun. With longer barrels and larger handles available it’s easy to imagine the .45-70 in the role of a compact ‘Howdah’ pistol, but this isn’t really in the realm of traditional derringers.
I actually carried Remington-pattern Derringer as a last-ditch back-up on duty. It was a Davis D32 .32 ACP derringer, and it rode in my right-front pants pocket. It cost me $69.99 brand new, had a cast zinc-alloy frame with steel barrel-liners. The upper barrel shot six-inches high/right at a somewhat optimistic seven yards, and the lower barrel shot a foot low and left. I eventually got to where I could put two hits center-mass (by knowing which barrel was going to fire and aiming accordingly) pretty promptly at that range. Shortly thereafter the gun started to experience light primer hits and became unreliable; putting several hundred rounds through it had stretched the frame. Arguably this is my fault; the gun is meant as a contact-distance self-defense weapon. Had I not actually tried to develop some sort of proficiency with it it could have served in that role indefinitely.
That’s what derringers as a class are really all about: extremely up-close and personal self-defense. If we disregard the cheap, unreliable guns as novelties or range-toys we’re left with some pretty expensive guns with grave limitations. The $500 entry price (and they go way up from there) gets you a relatively large, relatively heavy gun that can be difficult to manipulate, inaccurate beyond point-blank range and only holds two shots. Like the original Deringer they can be two very potent shots, but still.
For that kind of money you can get a compact automatic in .32 ACP or .380 ACP that is easier to use and gives you three times as many shots. With modern ammunition those will be be pretty good at the point-blank self-defense role. They will also reload faster and put subsequent shots into at least the same postal-code. In a rational world the derringer would have been left behind in the 19th century. So why are they still so popular? Because people’s decisions about firearms are not always rational. Derringers are cool, and for a lot of people that is reason enough. They don’t need to be the best possible solution because they are fun.
Then too the fact that there may be better options does not mean that they won’t do the job. With modern cartridges they will do the job better than the originals; even a .22 Magnum is going to be more effective than the .41 Rimfire. Ballistic tests have repeatedly shown that while they probably won’t expand they will penetrate deep enough to kill even from a very short barrel. Derringers are available in pretty much any service-caliber (though you might be out of luck in .357 Sig) so you can match it to the caliber of your main carry weapon.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule (or opinion!) I was recently at a gun store with a person buying their first pistol. I told him, “You do not want a derringer- but if you get one it should be one of these.” The gun I pointed at was a High Standard .22 Magnum.
These little guns were made for decades in .22 LR and .22 Magnum. There are quite compact, very flat and- most importantly- are double-action. Just grab-and-fire. The established method for using them is to lay your index finger along the side of the barrel and pull the trigger with your middle finger. Literally point-and-shoot. I found that even with very little training I could easily put two shots into the center of a target at two yards in under a second. While .22 Magnum might not be anyone’s ‘first-best’ choice for a self-defense cartridge taking a couple of them in the face is going to be pretty discouraging.
Another advantage is that the way the firing mechanism is designed they are one of the only rimfire guns that can safely be dry-fired, which is very useful for training. Price-wise they are the exception to the rule; neither very cheap or very expensive. Though currently not being made they tend to be available for around $300-$350, and they work well and are reliable. A local shop currently has several on-hand, and if I had the disposable income I would pick one up. Because, you know, derringers are cool.
The first, most important rule of a gun-fight is have a gun. There might arguably be better choices, but a derringer does meet that criteria, and sometimes it’s not practical to carry anything larger or more potent. Whether or not these technological relics have a legitimate place in modern self-defense we have made a place for them in our hearts, and for now that is sufficient to keep the breed alive and kicking… and did I mention Derringers are cool?