Frontier Pocket Pistols

There are many arguments for and against small-caliber pistols. This is as true today as it was 150 years ago. Indeed, the original .22 Short was an anemic little cartridge at best, but so many .22-caliber pocket pistols were being carried by men and women by the 1870s and 1880s that one has to admit to there being some accepted standard of minimal self-defense, and the .22 and slightly more potent .32 rimfire cartridges made a noteworthy contribution to early cartridge-loading concealed-carry firearms. And considering that these calibers have modern rimfire and centerfire counterparts today, both the .22 and .32 have had a very long history.

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Among the most interesting pocket-sized cartridge pistols produced after the Civil War were Remington’s compact spur-trigger models, Smith & Wesson’s .32-caliber No. 1½ revolver, the Marston three-barrel .22 (with the added benefit of a retracting knife blade), Remington’s over/under .41 rimfire, the five-shot Remington-Rider double action, and Christian Sharps’ .32-caliber four-barrel pistols. In use, a pocket pistol was quite unlikely to start a quarrel, but it was more than apt to end one!

When it came to small- and medium-caliber cartridge-loading pocket pistols in the 1870s, Colt and Remington were direct competitors, but Colt’s post-Civil-War .38-caliber pocket models—converted from percussion revolvers with the William Mason patent alterations to cylinders, frames and hammers—were the tip of the sword. Remington played its role as well with a more diversified line of small handguns, and between the two makers, almost anyone in need of a .32 or .38 rimfire or centerfire pistol suitable for discreet carry within a pocket or small belt holster could find what they wanted.

Pocket Remingtons

Remington took a very pragmatic approach to its early designs by utilizing a two-piece conversion cylinder for its small-caliber, five-shot New Model pocket revolvers. These were to become among the most prolific pocket pistols of the 1870s because, like Colt, Remington had a solid head start. Remington’s pocket models had been in production as percussion revolvers since 1865, thus there was nearly a decade’s worth already on the market when the company introduced the .32 rimfire conversion in 1873. The pistols were available with 3-, 3½-, 4- or 4½-inch barrels. More than 25,000 were produced, the majority either converted to or manufactured as cartridge-firing models, and the guns were often available with both the original percussion cylinder and the new cartridge cylinder, making it possible to switch back and forth. This was a big advantage over a comparable Colt pocket pistol, which, once converted, could not be switched back.

Remington also had its very small double-action, five-shot, .32-caliber Remington-Rider pocket model, a truly palm-sized pistol that could vanish in a vest pocket. They were considerably more limited in number, with a total production between 1860 and 1873 of approximately 2,000 guns, a good percentage of which were converted to fire metallic cartridges after 1873, again with the replaceable two-piece cartridge cylinder. If this has a familiar ring, the Remington two-piece cylinders are the basis for today’s blackpowder drop-in conversions.

Compact Colts

The cartridge-converted pocket pistol eventually became a staple of savvy lawmen, Pinkerton detectives and an endless assortment of desperados, but many leaned toward slightly larger five-shot, .38 caliber equalizers like the Colt Police, Pocket Model of Navy Caliber, and 1849 Pocket Model conversions. There were some 25,000 Colt pocket conversions manufactured from the early 1870s to the early 1880s. And mind you, that was at the same time Colt was manufacturing the Single Action Army, the New Line pocket revolver, the double-action Lightning and 1878 models, among others.

The first Colt pocket conversions, produced between 1873 and 1875, totaled around 4,000 guns, primarily the 1865 Pocket Model of Navy Caliber with either a 3- or 4½-inch, octagonal barrel. These were five-shot revolvers re-chambered for .38 rimfire ammo and a handful for .38 centerfire. The revolvers were simply made, did not have a cartridge ejector, and most did not have loading gates. It was a very straightforward design.

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The second-variation Navy conversion featured a cartridge ejector, a loading gate and was produced in both .38 Colt centerfire and rimfire versions, and in barrel lengths of 4½ , 5½ or 6½ inches. Most are distinguished by the use of William Mason’s patented solid S-lug, round cartridge barrel, which was a completely different design from the percussion-era barrels.

The 1862 Police was another of Colt’s great success stories, a distinctive percussion revolver with a partially fluted, partially rebated cylinder and an elegantly rounded 1861 Navy-style barrel. This compact, five-shot, .38 conversion was equally popular, and approximately 6,500 were produced between 1873 and 1875 in .38 rimfire or centerfire calibers. Interestingly, the majority of Police conversions, those built between 1872 and 1874, were assembled with round, rebated Navy-style cylinders and chambered primarily for rimfire cartridges. The original 1862 Police percussion cylinders had proven less adaptable to conversion than the round, rebated Navy type, which could better tolerate the higher pressures generated by blackpowder loads. Additionally, when the supply of original 1862 Police percussion cylinders was exhausted, it was easier and less costly for Colt to utilize one cylinder design for all pocket models. With few exceptions, the round, rebated Navy cylinder was used on all late-model pocket pistol conversions.

There was a third Colt version literally built up from massive post-Civil-War inventories of 1849 Pocket Models. These were combined with new barrels and cartridge cylinders also used on the Pocket Model of Navy Caliber. The original 1849 percussion model had been a favorite of miners and sod busters during the California Gold Rush and the most commonly carried backup gun among Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The 1849 also saw the largest production of any Colt percussion model, and it was even more interesting as a .38-caliber conversion. Unlike the .36-caliber percussion Navy and Police models, the 1849 had originally been a .31-caliber revolver. Yet when they were converted to fire metallic cartridges, the 1849-based pocket pistols were .38s just like the Police and Navy. This made them the most compact and lightest of all three conversions, and more reasonably priced owing to the simple construction and plentiful supply of 1849 frames. It became the longest-produced Colt cartridge conversion of the post-Civil-War era, with the distinctive-looking, five-shot, 3½-inch-barreled revolvers being sold well into the 1880s.

More Designs

Among Remington’s best small-caliber revolvers was the later spur-trigger Remington-Smoot New Models No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3. The first version was introduced in 1873 and based on the patent design by W.S. Smoot (Remington had a habit of hyphenating its name with that of its designers, such as Fordyce Beals and Joseph Rider, before Smoot). The No. 1 was a five-shot, .30 rimfire revolver with a barrel just under 3 inches. This was joined by the No. 2, which overlapped production and was offered in .30 and .32 rimfire, a far more readily available cartridge. The No. 3 is the most commonly seen example, as more than 28,000 were produced from 1878 to 1888. This was also the largest and most powerful, with a 3¾-inch, octagonal barrel in .38 rimfire and centerfire chamberings. The third model was the most distinctive in appearance and offered in two different grip configurations: bird’s-head and saw-handle.

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Remington later produced a New Model No. 4 in four different calibers: .38 rimfire, .38 centerfire, .41 rimfire and .41 centerfire short. Similar in appearance to the No. 3 bird’s-head model, the No. 4 had a cylinder arbor pin under the barrel, no ejector rod (all previous models had featured a manual ejector on the right side of the barrel), and a short, round, 2½-inch barrel. Sales of the No. 4 reached around 23,000 by 1888.

Oddly enough, the most successful of all the 19th century Remington pocket pistols wasn’t a revolver! The longest-surviving design from the early cartridge era was the .41 rimfire, double-barrel Remington Tip Up. Introduced in 1866, it remained in production up until 1935. The most successful gun of its kind, more than 150,000 were sold, and the basic design is still used today by contemporary manufacturers.

There was one pocket pistol even more successful than the Remington Tip Up, at least in production numbers—a four-shooter invented by one of the most famous rifle-makers of the 19th century, Christian Sharps. His magnificent little .32-caliber, four-barrel Pepperbox became one of the best-selling small pistols of its day. The standard models had brass frames and gutta-percha grips, but many were also handsomely engraved. The guns were loaded by depressing a release on the underside of the frame that allowed the barrel assembly to slide forward. You simply remove spent cases and reload, and then push the barrels closed. By 1874, more than 168,000 Sharps pistols in 23 different variations had been produced in calibers from .22, .30 and .32 Short to .32 Long rimfire.

From 1872 to 1885, vast improvements in firearms design finally brought a close to the percussion era and the conversion of Civil-War-era pistols, but not the need for small, concealable handguns. Colt and Smith & Wesson would continue to create new pistols to pack in pockets for the remainder of the 19th century and continue to do so to this very day.

For More Information

Remington; 800-243-9700

Colt; 800-962-COLT (2658)

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This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.

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