The idea of a compact handgun that could easily be concealed, yet kill one's enemies at close quarters, has been around for a number of years. And a fellow from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the City of Brotherly Love, one Henry Deringer (one r, not two) was instrumental in coining this class of small pocket pistol's he designed in the early 19th century-the much loved, much feared derringer.
Deringer's front-loading blackpowder pistol varied in overall length, depending on barrel size (1 1/2 to 6 inches) and was chambered in .41 caliber. Muzzle loading guns then were large and cumbersome, anything but concealable-long-barreled muskets; blunderbusses with short, flared muzzles (forerunner of today's shotguns); and oversized dragoon's-the forerunner of today's pistols.
With the invention of the Philadelphia Derringer, a range of gentile pistoleros, from ladies to gentlemen of high rank could feel safe with this readily concealed weapon. And as the derringer fad grew, men and women of less dignified status-ladies of the night, itinerant gamblers, and yes, infamous assassins-were safe to pursue their less-than-polished trades. Whereas Colt's Single Action Army (SAA) .45 revolver made all rough and tumble frontier hombres equal, Deringer's tiny pistol made all urban dwellers equal-if only for that one shot in their short-barreled derringer.
The ladies-of ill repute or otherwise-might carry their derringer in a purse, or garter belt.
The men might carry their derringer up their sleeve, in their vest, or in their boot.
The possibilities were endless. The point: A concealable handgun was there as last resort.
Stage actor John Wilkes Booth used a Philadelphia Derringer chambered in .44 caliber on April 14, 1865, to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, used his fame as an actor to access the president's booth above the stage where the 16th president of the United States sat with his wife and guests, General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, enjoying a play, Our American Cousin. Booth mortally wounded Lincoln at close range with a single shot to the back of the head.
The Philadelphia Derringer percussion handgun was produced from 1852 to 1868. Early blackpowder versions were chambered in .31, .41, .44, .45 and .50 caliber, and metal cartridge versions and imitations run the gamut from .22 Short, .22 LR, and .22 Magnum to .357, .45 Colt and .44.
The .41 rimfire derringer had a muzzle velocity of about 400 fps as compared with today's modern .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) that boasts a muzzle velocity exceeding 800 feet per second.
Early derringers featured walnut furniture with modest hardware to elaborate, silver inlay and fancy engravings. Derringers were often sold in sets of two, in the event that one gun failed to discharge and were popular with civilians and military men. "What's that you got up your sleeve, Ace?"