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Flashback: The Deringer

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You may have seen this firearm spelled one of two ways: Deringer or Derringer. No, this isn’t an issue of historical standards on spelling, rather a distinction between a genre of gun and the original maker.

Henry Deringer was a gunmaker out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Many people know him by the infamous pocket pistol that bears his name, which was used by John Wilkes Boothe to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. However, Deringer’s history as a gunmaker shouldn’t be defined by that alone.

Early in his career, Deringer had a reputation for making all types of firearms, including contract muskets for the U.S. government. It was his pistol invention, though, that put him on the map. There were many variations on his Deringer pistol, but in general, they were single-shot percussion handguns of at least .41 caliber.

They also were notably back-action, meaning that the operational parts of the gun are located behind the hammer. Variations included barrel lengths, engraving styles, size, and grip shape; the firearms were produced in the 1850s through the 1860s.

This pistol became so popular that there were many copycats, birthing the colloquial name “derringer” to describe pocket pistols in general.

However, some makers, such as Slotter & Company went to the trouble of hiring someone with the same name and spelling as Deringer’s last name to use it on their firearms. Deringer didn’t take out a patent on his firearm, which spurred on these copycats, but he did become famous for a lawsuit with the maker AJ Plate, setting a precedent for the legitimacy of trademark law even in the absence of a patent.

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