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Colt's Derringers Abroad

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As metallic cartridges became more popular for personal protection arms in the 1870s, the Colt factory in Hartford, CT began marketing a series of small single-shot derringers, both domestically and for foreign markets. In Great Britain, this Colt line of handguns was distributed through a representative in Pall Mall, an upscale London business district. In order to be sold in the British market, the American-manufactured Colt products had to meet stringent proofing standards and received British proofmarks.

A recent donation to the National Firearms Museum represents an incredible group of London-marked Colt derringers, representing many factory variations in finish, casing and grip materials offered and includes two special braces of early Colt derringers:

• Cased pair of Colt Second Model .41 derringers, SNs 5476/8160 with British proofs

• Cased pair of Colt First Model .41 derringers, SNs 4289/1025 with British proofs

Colt's First and Second Model derringers were actually based on the No. 1 and No. 2 derringer models marketed by the National Arms Company of Brooklyn. Bought out by Colt, the single-shot design of these two models was improved and quickly returned to sale under the Colt marquee. Despite the best of Hartford's merchandising efforts, Colt's versions were not best-sellers and only slightly exceeded sales figures when National Arms did the marketing. Even a last-ditch alteration of the Second Model derringer to accept .41 centerfire cartridges met with limited success.

For the evolving overseas markets, Colt offered these smaller handguns in special casings. As an example, the exhibit Second Model set of derringers is housed in a traditional wooden case with the interior lid bearing the sales agent label. The First Model set represented in the museum display is mounted within a faux set of book bindings designed to resemble a pair of small leather bound books. With the shift to metallic cartridges, Colt handguns no longer needed to be cased with the varied accoutrements necessary with percussion ignition like bullet molds or powder flasks. Small recesses for stubby .41 rimfire cartridges were often built into the cases instead.

These two sets of Colt derringers are now represented in case 43 of the National Firearms Museum, as part of the "American West" gallery.