Back in the days of Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, the Derringer was a hot little gun. Outlaws and poker players tucked them into their vest pockets (or even under their hats) in case they had to quick draw, and saloon girls, the hookers of their day, stuffed them into their garters to fend off overeager clients. Some owners added gold and ivory trim to their pistols for extra style points.
It wasn’t the most overpowering weapon—some people have derisively referred to Derringers as “girl” guns and “little dick” guns because of their diminutive size and the fact that they can hold only a bullet or two. But the pocket pistols were easy to hide and even easier to operate, making them lethal and popular. John Wilkes Booth used a Derringer to kill President Lincoln.
Now, curiously, the Derringer seems to be having a mini resurgence: The itty-bitty gun is turning up in murders and robberies, in forums where criminals share tips, even on spring break.
In New York City earlier this month, three teenagers lured a Chinese-food deliveryman to a dead-end street, then one of them pulled a .32-caliber Derringer and killed the deliveryman in a botched robbery. In Florida last month, Gabriel Brown, a 34-year-old Special Forces sniper recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for a string of bank robberies, confessed to carrying a Cobra .380-caliber Derringer during the heists because, he said, it was less threatening.
Derringers are even popping off in places where you don’t expect people to be packing. A 19-year-old woman from Alabama was settling into her room last month during her spring break trip in Panama City, Florida, when a friend’s two-shot Cobra Derringer pistol discharged and sent a slug through her left calf.
Joe Green, a supervisory agent in the New York City Field Office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives until he retired in 2011, remembers admitting only a few Derringers into evidence every year. “There used to be almost none,” says Green, now a crisis management consultant. Compare that with the 97 Derringers recovered in New York in 2012. Nationwide, police recovered more than 2,000 Derringers from the streets in 2012, including almost 300 in California and almost 200 in Florida, according to the ATF.
Derringer is the generic name for a snub-nosed pistol, and a number of companies have made them over the years, often a variety of models and calibers. They’ve been around almost since the Civil War. Remington models were offered into the 1930s, even after the company went bankrupt, and in the ’80s and ’90s, American Derringer and Bond Arms started selling them and still do. They’ve also been kept alive in pop culture, with cameos in movies like The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner and Batman Returns, and props from rappers. (Eminem: “So to the parents of America, I am the Derringer aimed at little Erica to attack her character.”)
But it hasn’t had much of a presence on the streets in recent decades, and police aren’t exactly sure why more Derringers are turning up. It could be that, unlike most guns, Derringers can fire various ammo that won’t leave any shell casing traces, which is handy if you’re a perp. But the appeal of the Derringers could be the same as it was back in the day. “It’s smaller, obviously, and there’s a benefit if you’re going to carry a Derringer because it’s a lot less weight,” says John Lott, of the Crime Prevention Research Center, which educates policy makers on guns.
On gun forums and websites where gangster bravado mixes with “gat” talk, there’s plenty of Derringer chatter. On the website TheHoodup, IlDuce from Cicero, Illinois, talks about teaming up to take out a rival, and notes that he respects how easy it is to conceal the gun. “I will show up too. It now means he will have to take two fucks on at the same time, and he will be searched thoroughly to make sure he isn’t dick tucking a derringer!” Another commenter, Greasers712, likes that the Derringer doesn’t leave any clues at the scene. “No clips for me. Them guns leave evidence behind. A good ole .38 special will have them investigators heads spinnin.”
On a YouTube post depicting the Derringer being fired with its monstrous kick and ear-ringing blast, @knifecollector93 freely admits to being “a .45 guy” but says Derringers “should not be ignored” when it comes to lethal force at close range.
Cobray 45/.410 Double-Barrel Derringer
Uploaded By: metalmulisha4120
“You stick .410 up to your oppositions stomach and it WILL leave a perma-cavity bigger than the grand canyon,” he says.
Another gives his own shout out to the Derringer: “What a sweet assassination weapon. No bullets or cartridges to be found. Should be f-ing banned.”
At a time when lots of people are digging smaller things, perhaps it’s no surprise that they’re developing a jones for the Derringer. One convict, Mark Gregory Valdez, took things a little too far, though. Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said his officers did a body search of the Oklahoma inmate and turned up a small Derringer, loaded with one round. Where did they find it? In Valdez’s anus.
With additional reporting by Ryan Walsh