Belly Guns- Concealed Carry in the Old West

I’m not sure where the term ‘Belly Gun’ came from, but it was a slang term for a hide-out gun in the Old West. Some have suggested that it meant the guns were intended to be used when you were ‘belly to belly,’ but the fact that these guns were often equipped with reasonable-length barrels and sights casts doubt on this notion. Initially at least this seems to have indicated a use for a gun rather than a type. After the Civil War the term seems more and more to have referred to short-barrelled firearms, and by the 20th C. it seems to have been firmly fixed as referring to a snub-nose revolver.

In point of fact any hideout piece meant to be employed with stealth and surprise was termed a ‘Belly gun,’ and many of them were not revolvers. I’ve seen reference to a Hammond Bulldog, a single-shot pistol chambered in .44 Henry Rimfire, as a person’s ‘Belly Gun.’ Certainly in modern terms though, this term is now applied almost exclusively to revolvers.

There have actually been revolvers intended for concealed carry for about as long as there have been practical revolvers. The original Colt Patterson was a .28 caliber revolver, and was quite svelte enough to be carried concealed. Being underpowered, fussy and rather fragile it was not a commercial success.

After Colonel Walker’s commision for 1000 Walker Colt horse pistols, the first new commercial endeavor Colt undertook was the .31 Caliber ‘Baby Dragoon,’ a small .31 caliber revolver intended from the outset as a concealed self-defense pistol. This was followed immediately by the 1849 .31 Pocket Model, which incorporated mechanical improvements and a loading lever, and the ‘Wells Fargo,’ an 1849 with a short barrel and no loading lever. The 1940/Wells Fargo line became the best-selling Colt percussion revolvers, with over 300,000 produced between 1849-1873.

Colt’s popular .31 Pocket revolvers. Top is the 1848, middle is the 1849 Pocket Model and bottom is the Wells Fargo.

Smith & Wesson jumped into the game in 1857 with their Model #1 revolver, chambered in .22 Rimfire (which we now call .22 Short) and shortly thereafter with a .32 Rimfire. These were not short-barrelled guns as such, but they were quite svelte and easily concealed under the clothing of the time.

S&W Model #1
S&W #2 Army in .32 Rimfire

Both the Colt and S&W concealable factory revolvers of this era were rather anemic, and some people wanted something with a bit more punch. This led to chopping the barrels off of Colt Navy .36 caliber revolvers. Early Mormons were notorious for this, and they came to be referred to as ‘Avenging Angels’ or ‘Mormon Avengers.’ When the 1869 Army .44 was introduced this treatment was applied to them as well. Judging from the numbers of surviving examples this appears to have been widely done, but not necessarily common.

Colt ‘Avenging Angels.’ Top: 1851 Navy, middle gun is based on an Army revolver, and the bottom gun is based on a Pocket Police .36

Remington cast it’s hat in the ring in 1857 with several percussion revolvers, including Remington-Beals single-action models and Remington-Rider double-action percussion revolvers ranging in caliber from .31-.44. These included several pocket models, which were available in .31 and .36 caliber, and all of the early Rider revolvers were intended as pocket-guns. The did introduce a variant of the 1858 using the Rider double-action mechanism in 1863 that was a belt pistol.

Top: Remington-Beals pocket model Bottom: Remington-Rider Double-Action pocket models. The top one has been converted to fire metallic cartridges.

After the Civil War metallic cartridges began to supplant percussion guns. S&Ws monopoly on the bored-through cylinder expired and others, including Colt began to introduce pistols and revolvers that used metallic cartridges. Initially these were conversions of percussion revolvers, but in 1871 Colt introduced their first solid-frame, purpose-built cartridge revolvers, the House Pistol and Cloverleaf (so named due to it’s four-shot cylinder) chambered in .41 Rimfire.

Colt Cloverleafs in .41 Rimfire

By 1885 a bewildering variety of small cartridge revolvers were being marketed, all intended to serve the concealed carry market. All the big-name makers offered pocket revolvers, and ‘British Bulldog’ revolvers were imported both from Britain and Belgium. In the US Forehand & Wadsworth made their fortune on their domestically-produced ‘British Bulldogs.’ Colt did market their 1873 in an ejectorless model, which were available with very short barrels, but it was increasingly rare to see cut-down versions of full-sized belt revolvers.

Any and all of these might have been used as, and referred to, as Belly Guns. Of course just covering these would be the subject of a book- or more likely multiple books!

In the early 21st Century Cowboy Action Shooting competition has sparked a renewed interest in the ‘Belly Gun,’ but since of all the vast majority of period revolvers only Colts and Remingtons are normally available as reproductions they are based entirely on cut-down versions of those guns. As long-time readers will know I make a good few of these myself, usually in the form of cartridge-conversion guns.

Pietta 1851 Navy, converted to .45 Schofield and styled in the fashion of an ‘Avenging Angel’ 
Bulldog Revolvers and a Webley RIC in .450 Adams (top left) Top Right: A British Lion revolver in .450 Adams. Middle-Right: A Forehand & Wadsworth ‘British Bulldog in .38 S&W Bottom-Left: A Belgian bulldog in .32 S&W. Belly Guns, one and all.
The Belly Gun that never was- ‘Bulldogged’ Remington 1858s. The top gun is a six-shooter in .44 Colt, the bottom gun is a five-shooter in .45 Colt.  These conversions have become somewhat popular in recent years.

Another ‘Belly Gun,’ this one based on an 1860 Army, with a ‘long cylinder’ conversion to .38 S&W

So the western Belly Gun is alive and well in the modern era, but with scads of more practical options it’s all for fun now. I’m fine with that; I enjoy my modern guns and amenities. But every so often it’s nice to take a step back…

Michael Tinker Pearce, 20 January 2019

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Uncle Hosea’s Little Darling

H.C.Lombard pistol with a modern quarter for size comparison.

In 1860-1861 Hosea C. Lombard manufactured these elegant little pistols and ammunition in a second-floor factory in Springfield. Unfortunately the factory burned down in 1861, and he never resumed production. It’s estimated that during this time fewer than 1,000 guns were produced.

He did continue to live at a boarding-house in Springfield, until his militia unit was called up to move to Washington, DC. early in the civil war. He took ill during the war and had to be sent home, but recovered in time. After the war he met his landlady’s sister, and they married. He subsequently spent time as a fireman and worked at Smith & Wesson before eventually becoming a famous lawman.

What does all of this have to do with me? His landlady was my several times great grandmother, and marrying her sister made him my several-times great uncle. There’s a lot more to this story- when is there not?- but those are tales for another time. All of which brings us to this little pistol. A knowledgeable collector friend came across it, and knowing of my connection to Lombard, gifted it to me. This left me speechless, and very, very grateful.

So, let’s talk about this pistol. As far as I have been able to find out it has no model number or name; it appears to be the only model they produced. It’s a tiny thing; though made of brass and steel is weighs only eight ounces. The length of the barrel is 3-1/2″, the overall length is 6-1/2″ and excepting the grip it is only 1/2″ thick. The grip appears to be Rosewood, the barrel is steel (or iron) and the receiver/frame are brass.

The gun is chambered for .22 Rimfire, which we now call .22 Short. This cartridge used a 29-grain heel-base lead bullet over 4-grains of Black Powder. It was quite an anemic cartridge by modern standards, but having been introduced by S&W only three or so years before this pistol was made it was state-of-the-art at the time.

The gun is a simple single-action design, with a safety notch to prevent the hammer from riding the rim of the cartridge, which would make it possible for the gun to fire if dropped. To operate the gun you pull the hammer back until it engages this notch, then press the button on the bottom of the frame just ahead of the trigger.

This allows the barrel to be swung to either side to open, allowing a cartridge to be placed in or removed from the chamber. There is no extractor or ejector of any kind; fingernails or the edge of a knife had to do. Note the slot on the breech face- this is to allow clearance for the case rim, and may have been intended as a safety measure should the case-head blow out. An unlikely event, but it was still early days for rimfire ammunition.

The barrel is rifled, with four lands and grooves with what appears to be a 1 in 24″ twist rate.

There is a brass front sight and the rear sight is a groove on the hammer-spur, so it is only usable when the gun is cocked; which of course is the only time you need it.

The top of the barrel is engraved, ‘HC Lombard & Co. Springfield, Mass. The barrel appear to have a lacquered finish and the brass frame has a lovely, uniform patina. While there is slight side to side movement in the barrel, overall the tolerances are very tight and the finish if very high-quality. The Rosewood grips have darkened with age but have a lovely grain and figure. The serial number 657 is stamped under the right-side grip panel.

The case shown is not original to the gun, and it’s prevenance will remain a mystery. I doubt that it is contemporary to the gun, but anything is possible.

The introduction of the .22 Rimfire cartridge opened the door to very small guns that were not necessarily miniatures or ‘toys.’ While the bullet from a .22 Short is quite capable of killing a human being the shot would need to be placed most carefully. That being the case guns of this sort tended to be a last-ditch weapon; most likely to be used at near-contact distance. A weapon such as this one might have been carried in a discreet pocket-holster or boot-top, either as a back-up to a larger gun or as ‘a gun to carry when you aren’t carrying a gun.’

Another potential use for this pistol would be as a parlor-gun shooting Flobert BB-Caps. These were short cartridges loaded with a lead ball and no gun powder; they relied on the primer to propel the ball. These are relatively quiet and comparable in power to a pellet rifle, and firing at a target over a simple bullet-trap was a popular after-dinner activity at fashionable parties. One imagines that making wagers was very much a part of this…

So, what are my plans for this delightful little pistol? I’m in the process of procuring some BB or CB Caps; the gun is in excellent mechanical condition and I cannot imagine that such low-powered ammunition could possibly hurt it.

I also plan to copy the pattern of this gun, but rather than a reproduction mine will be an approximation. There is no evidence that this gun has ever been further apart than having the grip removed, and I am certainly not going to dismantle it. I will focus on the appearance, dimensions and apparent mechanical details like the lock-button. The insides? It’s a simple mechanism; I’ll wing it.

I will also take liberties with the materials- modern brass, and some small changes to accommodate this softer metal like a steel plate inset on the breech-face. I’ll also chamber it in .22 LR for convenience. Anyway that is for a future blog post…

This is a wonderful gift that I will treasure always, and I fully intend to pass it, and it’s Tinker-made companion, down to my heirs one day.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 5 January 2019