Philadelphia Deringer Build- Part 1

Recently I’ve been becoming re-acquainted with Black powder, loading .44 Colt and .44-55 walker cartridges with it. It’s a bit more work to clean the gun after firing, but honestly? It’s not that bad. These cartridges just work better with black powder; hardly surprising as that’s what they were designed for. This has been helped along by the fact that the new air evac/cleaning system at my local indoor range deals with the smoke quite effectively.

This got me thinking about building a muzzle-loading pistol. I’ve never done it before and I do relish a challenge. Since it is not legally a firearm by either Federal or State law it could even be a smoothbore. I have reamers for .251, .357, .375, .451 and .475 so there were options available for the caliber. But what to make?

The obvious answer was ‘something small’ as none of the reamers are long enough to do much more than four inches. A derringer perhaps? I tossed around a number of ideas, but eventually settled on a Philadelphia Derringer.

Typical percussion derringer, mid-19th C,

Around the middle of the 19th C. a Philadelphia gunsmith named Henry Deringer made a name for himself by producing small, large-caliber single-shot percussion pistol. Small being a relative term, of course. These .45-caliber weapons were designed to carry in an overcoat pocket, and they became popular enough that soon others were copying them, with the general type of weapon being referred to at first as a Philadelphia Deringer, and later shortened to simply calling any small pistol with one or two barrels a ‘Derringer.’ I’m not sure where the extra ‘r’ came from, but it was well established by the end of the Civil war.

I’ve never made a side-hammer lock before, but they aren’t rocket science. I’ll need to employ a number of techniques I’ve never used before, but that’s where the fun comes into it (…as well as the swearing, hair pulling and throwing things across the shop.)

The idea of boring a smoothbore is appealing; relatively easy to do, and working with a somewhat oversized block of steel would leave a lot of options. Sure, accuracy would suffer, but these were never meant to be more than a point-blank weapon to begin with. But, poking around the shop I ran across several bits of barrel cut off of percussion revolvers in the course of various cartridge-conversion projects. The one from ‘Thumper,’ my Colt Walker conversion, was suitably beefy. Using the cut-off barrel section would also allow me to produce a rifled weapon, which is better in a number of respects- not the least of which is that it would not be limited to round-ball ammunition.

These barrels have a .451″ bore, and I discovered a .44-caliber hollow-base bullet fits snugly in the rifling, opening the option of using a hollow-base Minie Ball. Better and better…

Typically the barrel of a percussion pistol (or rifle for that matter) is retained in the wooden stock by a tang extending from the back of the barrel being screwed to the wood, and a wedge passed through a lug on the bottom nearer the front. Another method, which I have chosen to use, is to have a screw pass through the bottom of the fore-stock to secure the front end of the barrel.

So, forst the easy bit. I cut a tang from the barrel itself, then did a little shaping with the belt-grinder and files. Next I ran a 1/2″-13 tap into the breech end of the barrel to secure the barrel-plug. I used a high strength 1/2″-13 bolt to create the plug.

Barrel with integral hood, a 1/2″-13 high-strength machine bolt and Red (Permanent) Loctite

I cut off the bolt on the bandsaw and used the bandsaw to cut a slot of a screwdriver. I applied the Loctite and screwed the plug in as deep as it would go, using considerable pressure to insure that it was firmly in place. There is at least 3/8″ of thread engagement, so I sincerely doubt that one could pack enough black powder into the barrel to blow the plug. The Loctite has an absurdly high sheer-strength; there is literally no chance the plug could unscrew itself.

Barrel with the plug in place. The end of the barrel will be cut to length later.

After the plug is cut and filed down I’ll weld a 1/4″-20 nut to the bottom of the barrel for the screw that passes through the bottom of the fore-stock. With the barrel then ready to mount it will be time to start on the stock.

I’m hoping to use a piece of century-old pre-blight American Chestnut for the stock; it’s a lovely wood with nice color. After that it’s time to make the side-plate and action.

So, that’s a start anyway. I’ll keep you posted as the build progresses.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 18 April 2019

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