Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Little gun had amazing impact on history of westward expansion

If you’re interested at all in the Old West, you probably know from the title of this article what little gun I’m writing about that had an amazing impact on the history of the West, in fact on the history of our country in general.

Hint: It was smaller than its more famous cousin handguns like Colts, and much smaller than its distant cousin long guns like the musket, the famous Henry, the Remington, and the Winchester. You must think really small if you are to understand this particular gun.

That’s right. The Deringer. More specifically, I’m writing about the .41 caliber palm-sized Deringer pistol used by Actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth in the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Anyone familiar with the history of America before and after that period conventionally called “the Old West” is familiar with images of the almost toy-like firearm. But until I read a fascinating article by Phil Spangenberger in a recent issue of “True West” magazine, I had never thought about the significant role Henry Deringer’s tiny pistol played. The article, titled “The Mouse That Roared,” is an installment of Spangenberger’s regular column in the magazine.

(Pause for unpaid commercial plug — Have I told you before that you should subscribe to this terrific monthly magazine? Yes, of course I have. If you haven’t yet, go immediately to the “True West” website and they’ll be happy to set you up with a subscription. No lover of the Old West should be without one. End of unpaid commercial plug here.)

According to Spangenberger (a fine writer I would highly recommend), who’s an expert on firearms of the West and other related matters, the Deringer (his spelling and capitalization as used in the magazine) in its classical, miniature form that we all know from books, pictures, Western movies, etc., was perfected by Philadelphia arms maker Henry Deringer. Deringer manufactured a wide variety of weapons that fed the needs and wants of Westerners and Western expansion in the early 19th Century. But his name and reputation became most notably associated with this small gun.

Philadelphia Deringers were among the finest crafted of these small guns, setting a standard with actual rifling in their tiny iron barrels. As a defensive weapon of choice, the easily carried and easily concealed one-shot miniatures were found extensively throughout the California gold fields of the 1850s and, according to Spangenberger, “their accuracy at card table range was actually good.” The guns were so well made that other arms makers began creating replicas or imitations of the original, giving rise to a whole group of pistols given the misspelled name “derringers.”

The Deringer, therefore, was an excellent choice for Booth when he shot Lincoln and vaulted from the balcony to the stage and into his place in American history.

Which brings us back to the point of Spangenberger’s article and the point of my title above: The impact this single action by such a small weapon had on American history and particularly on the history of the American West. It was all in the fallout from Lincoln’s untimely and tragic death.

Lincoln’s sudden death as the War was ending is thought by many to have fueled the fires of a vindictive and overly harsh federal policy toward the Southern states following the War. (The Reconstruction Period, starting when the war ended and ending with the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, is a subject best left to another day.) Such rigid and oppressive policies literally prompted many Southern veterans and families to join the westward migration, shaping the culture and politics of the entire region.

Amazing, perhaps, that such a small firearm could have such a major impact on our history and on our present.

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