Pocket Pistols

by Michael Carrick

realistic illustration of a pocket pistor with a flintlock

Digital Art by Bob Gilman

The following animations are based on a .50 caliber flintlock pistol made by Philip Bond, 45 Corn Hill, London, sometime between 1794 and 1816.

Loading a Pocket Pistol

Firing a Pocket Pistol


One of the surviving receipts of the Lewis and Clark expedition reads, "May 21st 1803 Bot. of Robert Barnhill 1 Pair Pocket Pistols, Secret Triggers $10." Barnhill endorsed the receipt, "The within Pistols were delivered by me to Captn. Meriwether Lewis." Barnhill had a gun shop at 63 North Second St. in Philadelphia. His newspaper advertisement of January 1, 1803, lists his offerings of rifles and musket powder, buck shot, goose shot, English and Dutch fowling pieces, holster and pocket pistols, flints, powder flasks, shot belts, and more. Captain Lewis bought the pocket pistols.

It was the normal practice for gunshop owners to import pocket pistols from England and have their shop name engraved on the pistols, but the one shown here was made in London by some member of the famous Bond family of gunsmiths. Small pocket pistols weren't manufactured in America until Henry Deringer produced his eponymous pistols in the 1830s.

Judging from the thousands of specimens still available, these small pocket pistols must have been carried by a great many men and women in England and America. These small flintlock pistols, which were usually sold in pairs, were about six inches long, fired a single ball of .40 to .50 caliber, and could be had either with a normal outside trigger or a concealed trigger. Lewis chose the model with a concealed, or "secret," trigger. This feature made the gun more streamlined and less prone to snag when withdrawn from the pocket.

For loading, the barrel would be unscrewed and a powder charge and ball placed in a cavity in the breech. The ball would be large enough to fit snugly in the bore so that it wouldn't roll out of the barrel. After replacing the barrel, a small charge of fine powder would be poured into the pan, the frizzen lowered, and the safety pushed forward to lock the frizzen and hammer in the half-cock position. To fire, the safety would be retracted and the hammer would be cocked. The cocking of the hammer caused the trigger to snap down into the ready position.

At Camp River Dubois on March 30, 1804, Clark evidently loaded "a small pr Pistols" to display as a warning, should there be any trouble when the results of the court martial of Shields, Colter and Frazer were announced. (Shields and Colter relieved the tension by apologizing for their misconduct.) These could have been the pocket pistols with disappearing triggers that Lewis had purchased with government funds, or the horse pistols he had requisitioned from the armory. Or, perhaps Clark had his own pistols.

So far, historians have been unable to determine whatever became of the concealed-trigger pistols.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service Challenge Cost Share Program