- Hang them on the wall;
- Lock them in a safe deposit box;
- Stage duels with your friends (?); or,
- Assassinate President Lincoln — twice.
OK, that was in pretty bad taste, but the gun the President was murdered with was a sibling to this set, from the same Philadelphia gunsmith, Henry Deringer. The Booth gun — which was probably also one of a pair, originally — was very similar to these, but more up-market, inlaid with silver.
This rare pair is for sale by Ancestry Guns, LLC, in Columbia Missouri, via GunBroker. One wonders what stories they could tell about their travels between Henry Deringer’s Philadelphia premises almost two centuries ago and their current way station in Columbia, but whatever travels they have had don’t seem to have done their appearance any harm.
They’re remarkably well-preserved, well-finished little guns. In the side views above, the octagonal profile of the barrels isn’t obvious, but you can see it below.
As Holt Bodnson wrote in Guns magazine, “The contours of Deringer’s barrels are complex and pleasing to the eye.”
The very limited corrosion around the lock and the nipple suggests that the members of this pair were very seldom fired. Lock and barrel are both marked with Deringer’s name and city, over 100 years before this became a legal requirement. It was, instead, a mark of the maker’s pride.
That pride paid off as many smiths and shops copied the Deringer pocket pistol, but to avoid a trademark lawsuit misspelled the name, “derringer.” Thus Henry gave his name, with the insertion of an extra “r”, to be applied to any small pocket pistol with one or two barrels.
As it happens, the Booth Deringer in the possession of the National Park Service — a very similar pistol to this pair — was the subject of an FBI investigation in the 1990s, due to charges that sometime in the 1960s, a Boston burglar pilfered the pistol and placed a ringer Deringer in the place of the original.
One hundred and thirty-two years after the death of Lincoln, this pistol was again an item of interest in Washington, DC. In June 1997, the U. S. Park Police and the National Park Service contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a request for assistance in examining the Deringer pistol used by John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The authenticity of the pistol, which is displayed at the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in Washington, DC, was drawn into question during the adjudication of a New England estate belonging to a member of a burglary ring that operated throughout the northeastern United States between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. Members of this ring had allegedly replaced the original Booth pistol with a replica pistol in the late 1960s, at which time the security system at Ford’s Theatre was much less sophisticated than that in place today. Curatorial records of the Booth pistol were unable to resolve the issue of authenticity, and the FBI Laboratory was subsequently assigned to determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether the Deringer pistol displayed at Ford’s Theatre is the same pistol pictured in historical photographs pre-dating the 1960s.
The FBI’s forensic experts ultimately concluded that the pistol in the hands of the Park Service in 1997 was the exact same pistol as the one photographed circa 1930, and the burglar had been lying. (It may be that the burglary ring was really a fraud ring, and sold some unscrupulous collector a faked Booth Deringer. You can’t con an honest man, they say). Do Read The Whole Thing™ at the FBI Archives, because you’ll also get a refresher in the Lincoln assassination, and a capsule history of Henry Deringer’s guns, of which this is an excerpt:
The Deringer pocket pistol achieved its greatest popularity during the mid-1850s and was a favorite of civilians seeking a compact, easily concealed firearm for use in personal defense. Although the Deringer pistol was somewhat limited by its single-shot capacity, its light weight and small size gave it a distinct advantage over bulkier, unconcealable alternatives, and the limitations of its firing capacity could be circumvented by carrying two pistols, which were sold as pairs for approximately $22 to $25 during that time period. The Deringer pistol’s ubiquity, success, and infamy as a deadly weapon is apparent in its association with a number of prominent California murders that took place during the 1850s, as well as its later use in the assassination of President Lincoln. The latter homicide ensured the permanent notoriety of the Deringer pistol while simultaneously finalizing the incorporation of the word “derringer” into the American lexicon as a common noun denoting a concealable, short-barreled nonautomatic pistol. Notably, the use of the noun Deringer refers to a pistol manufactured by Henry Deringer, whereas the use of the noun derringer (sometimes spelled Derringer) refers to a pocket pistol of any make.
As the Deringer firearms were each hand-made, there might have been profound consequences forensically:
Because each paired set of Deringer pistols included a bullet mold specific to the caliber of the two matching pistols, loss of this mold virtually precluded the proper fit of ammunition for the paired set.
Unfortunately, the forensic scientists were disappointed to learn that the bullet removed from the brain of President Lincoln had corroded in the intervening 132 years, to the point that they could draw no direct conclusions confirming the bullet as fired from the Booth gun.
Now, this pair of Deringers comes without that important bullet mold, but since they don’t seem to have been fired much (if at all) in the last 150 or so years, it would be rather unwise to shoot them. Particularly with the starting bid set at $7,500.