The primary goal of such pistols is to be of small size. This is why derringers are short-range weapons. Despite their small size though, derringers can be deadly weapons in close range. Also because of size and weight reasons, derringers are not repeating weapons, i.e. they have no mechanism to automatically eject a fired round and chamber a new one, like semi-automatic pistols do. Adding such a mechanism would increase the weight and size of the pistol. There are some double barreled derringer pistols, but they have a cam mechanism that alternates the pistol's hammer to strike either one barrel or the other.
The name "derringer" derives its name from Henry Deringer, a Philadelphia manufacturer, who became famous for his pocket pistol designs. The original pistol he made in 1825 was a single-shot muzzleloading weapon with a flintlock firing mechanism, which was the predominantly common firing mechanism of that time. The caliber of his pistols was pretty large.
Later Deringer models used the newly developed percussion cap technology. The user would usually carry them loaded with the hammer at half-cock. To use the pistol, the user would pull the hammer back to the full-cock position and pull the trigger. If the gun misfired, the user could pull back the hammer and try again, or switch to a second pistol. Most Deringers had front sight alone, some came with front and rear sights and some came with no sights at all. Since these models were designed with small size in mind, accuracy was not so good and neither was the reliability of the firing mechanism. Deringer models (and those of his competitors) were usually sold in matching pairs, but these days, it is very hard to find a pair of original Deringers. Typical Deringer models cost between $15-$25 for the pair of pistols. Some models were sold with elaborate engravings silver inlays and therefore cost more. Deringer models were originally very popular among military officers, but also quickly became popular among civilians and were wide spread in the Wild West saloons among professional gamblers and prostitutes.
Public Domain Image of a percussion lock Deringer pistol.
Because of their low cost, small size and easy availability, Deringer models (and their clones) had the dubious reputation of being weapons of assassins. The image of the percussion lock Deringer pistol shown above is of one of the most infamous ones around -- it belonged to John Wilkes Booth and was used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Due to the success of Henry Deringer's designs, he began to attract many imitators, some of who not only copied his patented designs, but also his logo as well! In fact, one of the lawsuits he won became a landmark ruling in trademark laws. Nevertheless, many unauthorized copies of his models flourished. Some of these copies misspelled the logo name with an extra 'r' as "Derringer" to avoid trademark restrictions and eventually, the misspelled version "derringer" became synonymous with this class of weapon.
Later derringer models made by other companies, switched to using more modern pinfire, rimfire and centerfire cartridges. In 1866, William Elliot, an employee of Remington, invented the first double-barreled derringer class pistol. This weapon was of .41 caliber and used rimfire cartridges. In keeping with the small size philosophy, the barrels were arranged one on top of the other. A cam mechanism was used to alternate which barrel would be struck by the hammer with each trigger pull.
To load this weapon, the barrels would pivot about an hinge located at the top of the weapon and two .41 rimfire cartridges could be inserted, one into each barrel. The firing mechanism was single-action, i.e. the user would have to cock the hammer manually before pulling the trigger for each shot. This model was manufactured between 1866 and 1935 and was extremely popular. In fact, when the word "derringer" is mentioned, most people think of the Remington Derringer model rather than the ones made by Henry Deringer.
Later models used centerfire cartridges and some also used a double-action mechanism (i.e. pulling the trigger cocked and released the hammer in the same trigger pull) instead. One particular model invented by Robert Hillberg and manufactured by COP Inc. was a four barrel version instead of two barrel.
Derringer class weapons continued to be manufactured well into the 20th and 21st centuries. For instance, the FP-45 Liberator we studied in the previous post is a derringer class weapon. These days, the Remington Derringer design continues to be manufactured by companies like Bond Arms, American Derringer, Cobra arms etc. in many calibers from .22 LR to .45 Long Colt. The three pictures below show models made by Bond Arms and American Derringer
Bond Arms derringer pistol (model "Texas Defender")
American Derringer made double action derringer pistol (model DA 38, which uses .38 special cartridges)
In the last picture, the reader can gauge the size of a typical derringer class pistol by comparing it with the human hand. Overall length of this weapon is 4.82 inches (or about 122.5 mm. long) Bear in mind that despite its small size, this pistol can use both .45 colt revolver and .410 bore shotgun cartridges.