Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pistols: Howdah Pistols

During the age of British colonial rule of India, English sportsmen would often hunt in the same manner of Indian kings before them (i.e.) riding on top of an elephant. The large saddle mounted to the back of an elephant is called a Howdah, and this is where the sportsman would sit in. Often though, when hunting dangerous game like lions, tigers or leopards, there was a chance that the animal could charge the elephant and climb up to the howdah and attack the hunter. In this situation, a rifle could not be effectively used. Therefore, there was a need for a shorter length, large caliber, multi-firing weapon designed to work at close ranges for defensive purposes. To fill this need, the Howdah Pistol was developed. In this post, we will study this unique weapon.

The first Howdah pistols were simply rifles with the barrels sawn down to a shorter length. The shorter length made the weapon easier to point and manipulate at close ranges and confined spaces. Since these pistols were really rifles originally, they used rifle cartridges of that era, such as .577 Snider or .577/450 Martini Henry cartridges. Sawing down the barrels was a quick solution, but not always a good one. One of the major issues was that shortening the barrels of a rifle would alter the center of gravity and affect the balance of the weapon. Therefore, some manufacturers began to design their own Howdah pistols.

The above images are of a Howdah pistol manufactured by a well known London-based manufacturer named Purdey. It was made during the the first half of the 19th century. This is a very high-quality weapon, judging by the fact that the barrels are of the type known as "damascus barrels", which were more expensive to make. The barrels have been browned to protect them from rusting. The wooden stock is of high quality walnut wood and features checkering (i.e. a fine grid of squares) on the grip. The lock is a double lock of the percussion cap type. Typical of Howdah pistols of that era, the caliber of the barrels is pretty large, with each one accepting a ball of 0.661 inches in diameter. The 7.5 inch long barrels are smoothbore (i.e. there is no rifling on the inside). It has two triggers, one to operate each barrel. The sights are rudimentary: it has only a small bead mounted as a front sight and no rear sights. However, for the ranges it was meant to be used at, sights aren't exactly needed. The weapon is extremely well balanced and relatively light. Since it fires such a huge caliber, recoil from this weapon is pretty high. However, recoil was not much of a concern for hunters of that era, because this was designed as a last ditch defensive weapon; and as far as the hunter was concerned, it was better to end up with a bruised wrist than be eaten up by a tiger or leopard.

Howdah pistols were made by several well-known firms of that era: Manton, Purdey, Rigby etc. They came in double barrel, four barrel or even three-barrel configurations. They were used in both India and Africa and carried by many British officers as well. At that time, revolvers were not very mechanically reliable and the .36 caliber Colt Navy revolver was considered too weak. The howdah pistol was considered to be the perfect solution to a charging tiger (or a charging native tribesman). As revolver technology improved though, the howdah pistol gradually became outdated and these days, the only howdah pistols one can buy are antiques or replicas of antiques.

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