Though excellent and much-loved modern examples are still produced, two-shot derringers have largely been supplanted by small, polymer-frame, DAO pistols beginning with the Kel-Tec P32.
It’s known that firearms can serve for a long time after they’re no longer cutting edge. Flintlocks held on long into the percussion era. During the American Civil War, plenty of cavalry units, especially local militias, turned up with single-shot pistols despite Colt’s revolvers having been on the market for a while by then.
A single-shot, muzzle-loading pistol still does what it was originally intended to do. It’ll poke a .69-caliber hole in its target as effectively today as ever before. Still, that must have been small comfort to the unfortunate who found himself armed with one in a swirling cavalry fight against multiple revolver-armed opponents.
Similarly, the cap-and-ball revolver lingered on long after the dawn of its cartridge-firing replacements. Legendary gunwriter Elmer Keith, born in the last years of the 19th century, got his first pistol in 1912 at the age of 14. It was a .36-caliber percussion revolver, and he learned to use it from some of the old guys in town who’d shot them for blood back in the Civil War.
By their lights, a soft-lead, .36-caliber round ball over a heavy charge out of that 7.5-inch barrel had plenty of oomph, but Keith was off to cartridge guns as soon as he was able, and for good reason: They’re simply more efficient and easier to use. The blackpowder revolver’s day had passed.
Checking the internet, I’m told that the definition of “obsolete” is “No longer produced or used; out of date.” Percussion revolvers and single-shot muzzleloaders don’t meet the first half of that definition. They’re certainly still produced, and someone’s probably using one this very minute to produce smoke clouds at my club’s range.
The second part of the definition is the one that matters, though. Few people would argue that they aren’t out of date. Absent some very narrow and unusual reason, no thinking person is going to select a black–powder pistol for self-defense over the other choices available to them in the handgun marketplace of 2021.
Which brings me to the meat of this column …
In the late 1990s, Kel-Tec introduced its P32 pocket pistol. It was slim, reasonably reliable, held 7+1 rounds of ammunition in a detachable magazine, unbelievably light and chambered for a round that, while no powerhouse, was originally designed as a military-service-pistol cartridge.
In the decades that have followed, it’s been joined by a host of spinoffs, copycats and competitors. These pistols are uniformly tiny enough to fit in the palm of a grown man’s hand, weigh less than 10 ounces and can be carried concealed without much effort in just about any setting this side of a nude beach. They carry six or more rounds and can be loaded with effective, high-quality, modern defensive ammunition.
I personally have a derringer and a five-shot .22 LR Mini-Revolver and, in light of these newer choices, I have to say that I struggle to find a niche for them. Their biggest weakness is the necessity of thumb-cocking the hammer for each shot. In the relaxed environment of the range, this isn’t that big of a deal. Thumb it back and let ’em fly, right?
A single-shot, muzzle-loading pistol still does what it was originally intended to do. It’ll poke a .69-caliber hole in its target as effectively today as before.
It’s after taking classes like those offered in Craig Douglas’ Shivworks curriculum or watching the growing number of videos of private citizens deploying handguns in self-defense that I began to have qualms. Sure, in some of these instances the good guy or gal has ample warning to draw their handgun and engage in the fight. It’s the ones where they don’t that give me pause.
You see instances where the defender has to deploy their gun one-handed too often. Sometimes, it’s because they’re holding something in their off hand and reflexively avoid dropping it (our hind brains tell us to grab on tight when startled, so we don’t fall off the tree branch). Other times it’s because they’re herding a family member with that hand. Then there’s the problem that Douglas refers to as IFWA, short for “In-Fight Weapon Access.”
If you’re actually entangled with your attacker, fending them off with one hand, is it possible to draw a gun from a pocket—a gun so tiny that you only have a one- or two-finger hold on it in the first place—and, in the middle of the tussle, compromise your grip on it to thumb cock it repeatedly without dropping it? Sure, it’s possible. People sometimes win poker hands by drawing an inside straight, too. It’s not the smart bet, though, especially when there are better alternatives that don’t require you to perform this feat of dexterity under pressure.
I do enjoy my derringer and my teeny, little single-action revolver. I enjoy my percussion-cap revolvers, too. But in a world where I have a Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 380, I tend to leave the derringer for fun at the range with the cap-and-ball guns. Not everything has to continue to have a tactical niche to justify its existence. It’s OK to have something just because it’s cool.