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Double down: game changer: what Remington's little two-shot .41 derringer lacked in power, it made up for in panache.

WHEN ONE THINKS OF GREAT FIREARMS INVENTORS, the names that most often turn up are John Browning, Samuel Colt and the brothers Mauser. Unless one is a particularly savvy arms enthusiast, Dr. William H. Elliot remains something of a cipher. This is really unfair, because in his lifetime he held more than 150 firearms patents and produced one of the most popular American handguns ever built, the Remington double derringer.

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AUSPICIOUS BEGINNINGS

Like Richard Jordan Gatling, Elliot, a New Yorker, trained as a dentist. It would be interesting to speculate on the connection between tonsorial expertise and gun acuity (Doc Holliday's another good example), but we'll leave that to the Journal of the American Dental Association. Let it suffice to say that when Elliot wasn't extracting teeth, he was coming up with some highly practical hideout pistol designs.

Elliot had an association with Ilion's E. Remington & Sons as early as 1861, when the company contracted to make his handy little ring-trigger .22 Short six-shot "Zig-Zag" pepperbox. In 1863 he followed this up with a duo of four-shooters, one in .22 Short and the other in .32 rimfire. The latter two pistols remained in the catalogs for a good number of years and enjoyed reasonable popularity, but they didn't really set the firearms world on fire.

Then in 1866, Elliot (and Remington) hit the jackpot by bringing out an easy-to-use, rugged, efficient-looking little .41 rimfire over/under.

The round itself, originally called the .41-100, predated Elliot's pistol by three years and appeared in derringers manufactured by the National Arms Company and Colt before being taken on by Remington. It was an odd little cartridge, almost as wide as it was long.

To say it was underpowered would be something of an understatement, as it threw out its externally lubricated 130-grain lead bullet at around 425 fps, producing an anemic muzzle energy of 52 ft-lbs and which could be defeated by a heavy overcoat, wallet or the traditional over-the-heart, projectile-stopping Bible.

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Still, .41 caliber sounded good from a marketing standpoint, and to be fair, at (very) close range, and if the victim was particularly unlucky, it could produce a nasty wound and even a fatality. Round and gun were made for each other, and to Elliot's and Remington's delight they proved to be something of a sensation.

CARRYABLE AND CLEVER

The double derringer (some prefer to use the original single-"r" Deringer designation when referring to the piece) was one clever piece of machinery. Measuring slightly under five inches long with a duo of three-inch stacked barrels, its rounded bird's-head grip, low-profile hammer spur and nonsnag spur trigger made it easy to draw from a vest, coat or trouser pocket, hatband, purse, garter, waistband or boot top. To load it, all one had to do was turn an underbarrel latch--located on the right side of the frame above the trigger--180 degrees forward.

The barrels could then be rotated upward and cartridges loaded in the chambers. The barrels were then closed, the latch returned to its rearward position and the gun could then be fired by simply cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger. Spent cased were ejected (on all but the earliest model) by opening the barrels and pushing back on a thumb-activated extractor located between the barrels on the left side of the gun.

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The hammer itself had a moveable firing pin, which--via a rotating ratchet wheel--fired one barrel every time the trigger was pulled. Because of the mechanism needed to operate the movement of the firing pin and the small grip, cocking the piece could be challenging, but by no means prohibitive. Additionally, the trigger pull was a bit stout (the one on our evaluation gun came in at over five pounds), but given that the gun had no triggerguard, from a safety standpoint this was certainly prudent. Speaking of safeties, the double derringer's, like many handguns of the time, consisted of a simple half-cock notch.

The gun's only real weakness was a rather frail hinge where the barrel attaches to the top of the frame. It could be easily broken or tweaked if the barrels were roughly handled during the loading or extracting procedures.

Sights consisted of a wedge-shaped front blade milled out of the topstrap and a notch on the top of the barrel hinge.

The Remington double derringer had one of the longest production runs of any commercial American pistol--1866 to 1935. Though the guns all look pretty much the same, most collectors recognize some five different variants. The first, of which less than 2,000 were made in 1866, had no barrel extractor and was marked on one side of the barrels' center rib "E. Remington & Sons, Ilion, N.Y." or "Manufactured By E. Remington & Sons, Ilion, NY" (rare), then "Elliot's Patent Dec 12, 1865" on the other.

A variation of the above, with the "E. Remington & Sons, Ilion, N.Y." marking and an extractor, was made between 1867 and 1868, and an incarnation of the same gun with the address on the top of the barrels came out in 1868.

Some 80,000 pistols marked "Remington Arms Co. Ilion, N.Y." on the top of the upper barrel were made between 1888 and 1911, and an additional 55,000 stamped "Remington Arms-U.M.C. Co., Ilion, N.Y." were produced from 1912 to 1935.

Serial numbers on Remington double derringers can be rather confusing, as they were not necessarily numbered sequentially, but rather in batches, accounting for duplication and many low numbers.

Initially advertised by Remington simply as a "Double-Barrel Breech-Loading Pistol," its standard finishes were blue or nickel (though some late guns made c. 1935 have a blue-grayish look), and grips were either checkered hard rubber or smooth rosewood or walnut. Of course, special-order DDs could be had with engraving, gold or silver finishes and pearl or ivory grips--the perfect gift for a bank president, politician or New Orleans madam.

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FIRING UP THE LEGEND

Movies and television have given us the impression that the Remington double derringer was the constant companion of Old West gamblers, gunslingers and barkeeps, and to a degree this is true. But it was also very popular with average citizens in the big cities of the East who just wanted that extra bit of advantage over lurking footpads and plug-uglies when venturing abroad.

Fortunately for the collector, there are still a lot of Remington double derringers around, and average, good-condition specimens can still be found at reasonable prices. Unfortunately for the shooter, regular-production .41 RF cartridges have not been available for some time, with the exception of a limited run of Brazilian-made ammunition offered by Navy Arms a few years ago.

The Navy Arms fodder itself is rather elusive, and despite its relatively recent manufacture, it falls into the "collector" category. Luckily, I was able to pick up a couple of boxes at a gun show a while back, though I ended up paying a buck a round for the stuff--and you can't even reload it.

I must admit I am a bit thrifty with this ammo, but no expense is to be spared when it comes to my readers. I bought a nice-condition (c. 1900) standard blued double derringer from Gutterman Historical Weapons Inc. (845/735-5174, www.19thcenturyweapons.com) with the express purpose of writing it up. As noted, the ammo was a bit harder to come by, but finally the two were wedded and the game was afoot.

I took the pistol out to my backyard shooting range and set up a target at seven yards, figuring that was about the extreme effective range of the little pistol. Unlike the originals, which were loaded with 13 grains of black powder, the Navy Arms cartridges are smokeless, as were later factory rounds. Recoil was sharp but not unpleasant, and despite the gun's rounded grip, it rolled very little in my hand. Aiming at the bottom of the target, the rounds hit four and six inches high, with, not unexpectedly, the bullet from the top barrel two inches above the one from the bottom barrel.

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The sights were easy to access and gave a pretty good picture, though their usefulness across a card table (or at close quarters in a lady's boudoir) is doubtful. The trigger pull, though stiff, was sure and crisp. If the ammo wasn't so darned hard to come by, I would probably shoot the gun a lot more, as it really was a lot of fun to touch off.

Alas, I was forced to limit myself to just four shots this go-around, as there are a bunch of other .41 derringers out there (including a cunning little Brown Mfg. "Southerner" I've had knocking about) that I would like to shoot and write about. I'm just not sure when I will happen across some more ammo.

One can certainly see why the Remington two-shooter enjoyed the popularity it did. It's handy, rugged and reliable, notwithstanding its lack of puissance.

Though production of the real article ceased some 75 years ago, the double-derringer concept has been resurrected over the years by such companies as Davis, Cobra, F.I.E., American Derringer and Bond Arms in calibers ranging from .22 to .45-70. So it seems that Dr. Elliot's concept is a lasting and, apparently, adaptable one.

PHOTOS BY LYNNE McCREADY
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:1561
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