Little Gun Had a Big Impact on the History of the American West

Gary Speer asked:

Fans of the Old West can probably guess from the title of this article what “little gun” I’m referring to. That’s right. I’m talking about the derringer (more properly, the “Deringer”), and 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.

If you’re familiar with the history of America before and after that time we call “the Old West,” you’ve probably seen lots of images in books and movies, and perhaps even live replicas, of this toy-like firearm. It may have looked toy-like, but it was extremely lethal. According to writer Phil Spangenberger, an expert on weapons in general and guns in particular, the Deringer (his spelling and capitalization) had been around many years in America but was perfected by Philadelphia arms maker Henry Deringer in the mid-1800s. 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 was notably associated with this small gun.

Philadelphia Deringers were among the finest of these small guns, setting a high standard with actual rifling in their tiny iron barrels. As a defensive weapon of choice, Spangenberger said the easily carried and easily concealed one-shot miniatures were found extensively throughout the California gold fields of the 1850s and, he says in a recent magazine article, “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 known by 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 impact this single action by such a small weapon had on American history, 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 Civil War was ending is thought by many to have fueled the fires of a vindictive and overly harsh federal policy toward the Southern states in the decade 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, even vindictive, and oppressive policies literally prompted many Southern veterans and their families to join the westward migration, shaping the culture and politics of that entire region of America.

Amazing that such a small firearm could have such a major impact on our history and on our present national culture!
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