50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
MODEL 95 DOUBLE DERRINGER
Like Levi jeans and Stetson hats, the term “derringer” has become a lexicon of frontier Americana. Originally, the name was derived from the popularity of the small percussion pistols made by Henry Deringer, Jr., beginning around the 1830s. But one of the many guns that generically took this gunmaker’s name has outlived the manufacturing span of any other “derringer” created before it or since.
Fittingly, it was America’s oldest gunmaker, E. Remington & Sons, that produced the Model 95—more popularly known as the Remington Double Derringer—a palm-sized, close-range defense gun that remained in production from 1866 until 1935. More than 150,000 Model 95s were produced in a remarkable 69-year span that saw the emergence of post-Civil War frontier America, the settling of the West, a World War, the roaring twenties, and the Great Depression, which indirectly had a hand in the eventual demise of the graceful over-and-under pocket pistol.
In a way, this is really the story about a brilliant dentist from Plattsburgh, New York, named William H. Elliott. By the 1850s, Dr. Elliott had already invented numerous dental devices, when he decided to focus his visionary genius on firearms. Before his career was over, he would hold the patents to no less than 50 different firearms, one of which would be the famous Colt Lightning slide-action rifle. The other notable gun would be the Remington double derringer.
Dr. Elliott launched his gun inventing career by setting up shop as Elliott Arms Co., with offices located at 404 Broadway, in New York City. However, being a firearms’ visionary rather than a manufacturer, he contracted with Remington to make his guns for him. On December 12, 1865, Elliott was issued a patent for a unique “over under” double-barreled derringer with a spur trigger and graceful bird’s head grip. The barrels pivoted upwards on a hinge and, when closed, were secured to the frame by a rotating lever on the right-hand side. The real key to this little gun’s design was a single oscillating firing pin built into the hammer. This fired one of the barrels with the first cocking of the gun, and then automatically positioned itself up or down, as the case may be, when the hammer was cocked again to fire the other barrel. Remington’s earliest catalogs listed it as its “Double Repeating Deringer Pistol,” a name notably longer than the 47⁄8-inch, 11-ounce gun. Later, Remington UMC box labels simply described it as a “Double Derringer,” with two “r’s” in the spelling to fend off any possible lawsuits by Henry Deringer, Jr., who was adamant about protecting his name.
Remington’s Model 95 came in a cardboard box, although presentation cases were offered for engraved and plated guns.
Unlike his earlier .22- and .32-caliber pepperbox-style guns, Elliott’s double derringer was chambered for the bigger-bored .41 Short, a rimfire cartridge that had been introduced, in 1863, by the National Firearms Company. The stubby little round contained 13 grains of black powder topped off by a 130-grain soft lead bullet. All of this combined to produce a muzzle velocity of 425 fps and a muzzle energy of 52 ft-lbs, or approximately one-tenth that of the soon-to-be developed .44-40. And although the Remington derringer boasted three-inch barrels, much of that length was taken up by the cartridge inside the tube. Still, there was just enough five-grooved rifling to give the bullet stabilization, if not accuracy.
In addition to its large caliber and small size, another factor in the tiny gun’s popularity was its equally small price tag. It initially listed for $8 blued; a fully nickeled version could be had for $.50 more. Engraved guns, although rare, were offered for $11, and rosewood, ivory or pearl grips were also extra cost options. The first guns were made without an extractor, but this was soon remedied with a push-type double extractor on the left side of the barrels. In all, there were three basic variations, with numerous sub-variations and barrel rib stampings, as well as hammer and extractor checkering differences.
The double derringer’s sights, befitting its low-powered chambering, were rudimentary at best, consisting of a token shallow notch over the hinge and a front sight that was part of the top barrel’s rib—then again, this was strictly a close-in self-defense weapon, with a practical shooting range that wasn’t expected to exceed the width of a Faro table.
Indeed, the little gun was immediately embraced by soiled doves, gamblers, and all manner of nefarious individuals who haunted the smoke-filled saloons and dark alleyways of eastern cities and frontier towns. Clandestinely carried in garter belts, vests, and armband holsters, the derringer could instantly turn a losing streak into a winning one.
Of course, not everyone who carried a double derringer was on the shady side of the law. Businessmen, sutlers, and folks who didn’t want to openly flaunt a large-framed revolver often opted for the vest pocket-sized Remington. In addition, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody found that the Remington derringer made handy and relatively inexpensive presentation gifts. He gave one such gun, factory engraved on the butt, to dime novel writer Colonel Prentiss Ingraham. Another derringer, suitably engraved and silver-plated, was presented by Cody to a William Fieldmer. And there are tales of double derringers being used by officers during World War I, as backup weapons.
The hinge was the weakest part of the gun and many are found broken today.
A rotating lever on the right side of the frame unlocked the barrels, which could then be swung up for loading and unloading.
Although the derringer could be deadly at point blank range, from a practical standpoint, its use was psychological at best. During one gunfight chronicled from the late nineteenth century, a gambler was shot in the forehead with a double derringer. Rather than penetrating the skull, the chunky bullet merely knocked the culprit unconscious. It is therefore worth quoting the late Frank C. Barnes in his Cartridges of the World, in which he writes, “The .41 rimfire Short is so underpowered as to be worthless for anything but rats, mice, or sparrows at short range. Fired from the average deringer [sic] at a tree or hard object 15 to 25 yards away, the bullet will usually bounce back and land at your feet.”
In addition to its underpowered cartridge, the double derringer’s weakest link was just that: The barrel hinges often cracked and today, buyers of original guns should check carefully for breaks or welds. Still, the derringer’s design remains timeless. Back in 1956, California gun dealer Hy Hunter reintroduced a Great Western double derringer chambered in .38 S&W. And a few years ago, the late Val Forgett, Jr., of Navy Arms produced a limited run of .41 rimfire ammo, some of which, I am told, was a bit too hot for the original guns to handle. Today, anyone wanting to recapture the wrist-snapping thrill of firing a double barreled handful of firepower can find double derringer-style guns by Bond and Cobra chambered for cartridges that include 9mm Luger, .38 Special/.357 Magnum, and .45 Colt and which are often effectively used for Cowboy Action side matches, as well as for concealed carry.
Throughout its colorful lifetime, the compact double derringer provided an unobtrusive feeling of security for its owners and its presence no doubt made many an antagonist back away. After all, no one likes looking down the open end of stacked .41-caliber muzzles, no matter how underpowered its cartridge may be.