It’s a popular misconception that American Henry Deringer invented the pocket pistol. True, his name (misspelled) appears in the dictionary as the generic term for small single- or multiple-shot hideouts, but Deringers were far from the first-or even the best.
A good case in point is the subject of this month’s “Classic Test,” the British screwbarrel (also called turn-barrel) pistol. As soon as guns could be made portable, the effort to miniaturize them for ease of carry became a priority.
Wheellocks were a bit fussy and difficult to really shrink down and still maintain any chance of reasonable reliability, and while some were certainly well constructed, it took the flintlock to make the plan truly viable.
IMPROVEMENTS AND VARIATIONS
At first, standard sidelocks dominated. But as the internal boxlock was perfected, with its centrally mounted cock and mechanism contained within a pistol’s metal frame, it became an increasingly popular arrangement for small handguns.
Double- and even quadruple-barreled versions were offered, but they could be cranky and complicated to use in a tight situation, so the single-barreled “great-coat” pistol ultimately prevailed. Often sold and carried in pairs, the pistols were made on the Continent and in Britain.
Sizes varied, but most were in the 5 ½- to 7 ½- inch range. Calibers ran from fairly small to ridiculously large, but most guns were made with bores as large as possible while keeping within the parameters of easy handling and allowing for a frame size not to exceed the capacity of the average gentleman’s overcoat pocket.
Many were muzzleloaded with standard patch and ball and fitted with small ramrods for this purpose. Some clever chap eventually realized that one could streamline a gun even more by eliminating the ramrod pipes and channel.
Ultimately, a system was devised whereby a gun could be loaded by simply unscrewing its barrel with a key; pouring powder into a chamber, the capacity of which provided the optimum charge for the piece; then placing a ball that was slightly larger than the bore on top of the chamber and replacing the barrel. Neat, tidy and efficient, it was an arrangement that would give very consistent results. Keys were generally circular and slid over the barrel, engaging a slot in a stud at the breech, though some guns had integral folding handles, allowing them to be loaded without using a separate key, which could easily be misplaced.
(The screwbarrel concept goes back to the early part of the 18th century and was used not just in pocket pistols, but also in larger handguns. They were renowned for their accuracy because it was possible to get a very tight fit of ball to bore, reducing windage and thus allowing for a truer flight. These early versions had tapered barrels with muzzle rings similar to those seen on cannons.)
GETTING OFF A SHOT
Naturally, for such a pistol to be practical, it had to be able to be fired with a minimum of fiddling under stress. The most sophisticated of the screwbarrels, such as the example we’re going to look at here, employed a real belt-and-suspenders safety arrangement. The flintlock cock and steel (frizzen), being centrally mounted, provided for a sophisticated, extremely secure way to carry the gun loaded, ready for use, but also gave the bearer confidence that it wouldn’t go off accidentally during Lady Conyngham’s soiree and ventilate one of the parlour maids -or, worse yet, Her Ladyship or the owner of the pistol himself.
After the gun was loaded, the cock was pulled halfway back to rest in its internal safety notch. The pan was primed and the steel brought down to rest on top of the pan, held in position by a centrally mounted spring. Finally, a safety catch was pushed forward, the slot of which locked the cock even further and also allowed a pin to secure the steel.
To fire the piece, all one had to do was pull back on the safety catch and thumb the cock all the way back. This action also released a hidden trigger, which, prior to shooting, remained tucked up into the frame to make the gun more svelte.
Quality of these pistols varied in the extreme. Some of the Belgian variants (which would often have spurious English names on them to help sales) were quite crude, while elegant French and British examples were rated at the apex of the gunmaker’s art, heavily engraved and chiseled, decorated with gold and silver, and stocked with exotic woods.
THE GUN IN QUESTION
Our evaluation gun is an obviously superior piece, made by George Clough of Bath, Somersetshire, around 1820, the beginning of Britain’s Regency Period. It was a particularly apt place for the pistol to have been manufactured, as Bath was one of the favorite holiday destinations of Georgian high society.
Deriving its name from the early Roman baths (which are still extant and in an amazing state of preservation), it was a favorite watering hole and spa for those wishing to take the cure after indulging in the excesses of London. However, it appears much of the dissolution merely came along with the visitors (things could get downright rowdy and bawdy in the Grand Pump Room on occasion).
Messr. Clough is to be admired for setting up his establishment in this locale, as there would be no lack of patrons for his wares. He sold many different types of guns, and a customer could set himself up with duelers should a game of whist turn ugly, a large pair of traveling pistols for the perilous coach trip home to London or a brace of screwbarrel greatcoat pistols to protect him on his walk from the Assembly Rooms to his digs in the Georgian Crescent.
But we digress. Back to the test pistol itself. Measuring seven inches overall, with a two-inch smoothbore barrel, the frame is rounded, giving the piece a streamlined shape and eliminating some of the snag points inherent in a number of the slab-sided or sidelock models. Its bag-shaped grip is finely checkered and terminates in a fashionable silver lion’s head buttcap. The gun exhibits a considerable amount of engraving for such a small pistol -everything from stands of arms to floral and geometric designs. Proofmarks show that the gun had been OK’d in Birmingham. Both the frame and barrel are marked with the numeral “1,” indicating that it was one of a pair. Weight is 10 ounces. Without question, it’s a very nice fashion accessory for the man about town.
Caliber is .45 or “54 bore,” the latter term, at the time, being more popular in Britain when describing size, as there was some variance between English and Continental linear measurement whereby weight was more standardized. “Bore” indicates the number of round balls per pound and is still used today, primarily in shotguns.
LOAD AND FIRE
Our little popper’s chamber held 10 grains of Goex FFFg black powder-not a particularly hefty charge, but enough to push a 141-grain Hornady .454 round ball out at 360 fps. giving a muzzle energy of a rather meager 41 ft-lbs.
This is not exactly performance guaranteed to stop an erstwhile Jonathan Wild or Bill Sykes dead in his tracks, but the surprise factor-coupled with the effrontery of the would-be victim to resist being robbed -probably provided a good deal of psychological value. Most likely, though, a jab in the ribs with a sword stick or a good bop on the head with the silver knob of a cane would probably have been just as effective.
After some delicate adjustments with the small flint that was required to fit properly in the diminutive jaws of the cock, we got the little pistol to spark beautifully, and using FFFFg black powder for priming, ignition on the first eight or so shots was flawless.
After that. fouling and a dulling flint tended to slow down things a bit, and by round 20 or so the gun was failing about every other shot. Then again, in a confrontation it would have had to have been fired only once anyway, and assuming that the gun had been properly loaded and cared for in the first place, this degree of reliability would have been regarded as more than adequate at the time.
At the very close range the piece would have been employed (I reckon about five to seven feet), it was pretty hard to miss the target, and we were able to keep five-shot groups within an eight-inch circle with little difficulty. The pistol has no sights, and even if it did, the cock and steel would be in the way. The gun is strictly a point-and-shoot proposition.
These small flintlock greatcoat pistols had a considerable vogue in their day, and when the more efficient percussion lock became popular a few years later, the screwbarrel system was easily adapted to it, giving the concept a new lease on life -that is, until repeaters and the self-contained cartridge appeared. Then they rapidly became relics, ultimately consigned to the curio cabinet -or to be the subject of nostalgic articles such as this one by your most humble servant.