Hideouts & Sneaky-Guns: Concealed Carry In The Old West


By Jesse L. Hardin

Illustration & Photography by Jesse L. Hardin




The following is the first in a series of in-depth articles on the firearms of the Old West, their history and lore, and the remarkable men and women who carried them... excerpted from Jesse’s full-color book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts (www.oldgunsbook.com).

Whether for daily “dressed-down” carry or as a “backup” piece in case one’s main arm failed, pocket guns were a common and defining element of the Old West.  Rifles have always been more powerful, more accurate, and more effective at long ranges, and no firearm is more deadly than a scattergun.  The main advantage of a hand-held firearm, then as now, was its relative light weight and convenient size, making it more likely to be actually carried when the rare occasion arises to put it to use.  As well as how much easier it was to hide.

Concealability has been a factor in gun choice for as long as European Monarchies and U.S. city councils have sought to restrict them.  Gun control laws that were long a reality in the American East, soon spread to the quickly settling West.  No less a notorious shootist than Wild Bill Hickock was a strict enforcer of an antigun ordinance in his days as Sheriff, clubbing anyone senseless that didn’t immediately turn his in upon arrival in town.  The number one option for men was a leather lined pocket with a medium to full sized arm, thus the term “pocket pistols.”  But specially scaled down models made it possible to sneak some degree of protection even in Summer dress.  While lacking the knock down capabilities of their bigger brothers, these “belly guns” made the difference whenever a partying miner found himself suddenly needing to protect his hard earned gold dust, or a school marm (teacher) needed to defend her honor in the face of an amorous and aggressive drunk.  Many of the situations calling for active self defense occur when least expected, and not always in the most obvious places and situations.  At such times both the Henry hanging inside on the wall or the shotgun stashed under the buckboard seat are likely well out of reach.  The gun that counts most, then, is often the one that’s carried every day– on foot and on horseback, at work and at play.

For scantily clad saloon girls and bare armed faro dealers this would have meant derringers and other tiny, easily secreted pistols often referred to as “stingy guns.”  Many of these were anemic .22’s, one of the smallest of which being the miniscule Remington Vest Pocket “saw-handled” single shot.  Early multi-round .22 caliber derringers include the two round American Arms Wheeler model, the five-shot double-action Remington-Elliot’s “ring-trigger” design, the extremely rare Reid “My Friend” with its revolving cylinder and no barrel, the Bacon “pepperbox” and Sharps models with four fixed barrels and a rotating firing pin.  Only slightly larger were the host of single-shot breech loading derringers chambered for the moderately more powerful .41 rimfire cartridge.  These generally featured barrels that either pivoted downward or rotated to the side for loading.  The acknowledged progenitor of this type is the Daniel Moore, patented in 1861.  Others followed, including Colt’s National, #1  and #2 models, the Wesson, the Charles Ballard, the John Marlin “Victor” and “XL’S,” the Stevens, the Allen, and the so-called “Southerners” made by Brown Manufacturing Co. and Merrimac Arms.  Loaded with a 130 grain conical bullet and stuffed with 13 grains of black powder, it could barely achieve 400 feet per second velocity out of the typical three inch long barrel. 

Even Henry Deringer’s original percussion pocket pistol had considerably more penetration and knockdown power than the .30, .32 and .41 rimfire breech loaders that followed (now collectively thought of as “derringers”– a misspelling of Henry Jr.’s name).  These lilliputians nonetheless contributed to an owner’s sense of security, and no doubt their brandishing alone was enough to calm escalating disputes.  After all, no one wants to be shot, even by an underpowered round.  And the terror of being wounded was justifiably all the greater in the West of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, with it’s paucity of doctors, questionable hygiene, and failure to fully appreciate the importance of sterilization when it came to dressings, hands and medical tools.  Many deaths by gunshot were the result of subsequent infection, rather than the size or location of the wound.  A .41 RF that barely penetrated would still carry into the body minute pieces of germ laden material from the clothes one wore, and the spectre of a long painful illness and feverish death would have made all but the most cavalier debater reconsider his more provocative arguments.

According to Capt. Joseph Bourke one 1880’s Arizona lawman packed as many as ten small derringers secreted on his person at a time.  Believe that or not, anyone with a soft spot for early Wild West Show entertainers, Western pulp fiction, movies or television serials has some idea of how these pip-squeak backups might save the day.  In his sunset years Buffalo Bill Cody often relied on an ivory stocked, nickel plated Remington over and under .41 derringer with amateurish engraving.  The character Paladin on “Have Gun Will Travel” packed the same under the skirt of his revolver holster.  Special agent James in “The Wild Wild West” had a similar Remington rigged up on some kind of mechanical device inside his shirt cuff, and he could cause it to spring into his hand on command.  They make it easy to imagine some hero, with his hands in the air and an empty holster on his hip, suddenly turning the tables with a firearm the size of single Colt Peacemaker grip.

Fiction was matched by reality in at least one dramatic event, a surprise shootout at a peace conference between Modoc war chief Captain Jack and U.S. General Canby.  The Indian warrior shocked everyone by suddenly pulling out a hidden revolver and shooting the General in the head.  When another Indian, Schonchin pulled out his own weapon, onetime Indian agent A. B. Meacham wounded him and brought him to the ground with a shirt pocket .41.

There have also been some fascinating arms created solely for the purpose of disguised carry.  Some of the most fascinating are revolvers disguised as handbags or “wallets.”  Imported from Europe or hand made by tinkerers in the good ol’ U.S.A.,  they were made of cloth covered metal, and could be set off by a hidden trigger.  No doubt the women who bought them liked to imagine the surprise of a robber– who after asking a woman for her money bag, gets either a bullet in the belly or at least the scare of a life!  Other clever oddities included single shot pistols that could double as “brass knuckles” once fired.... plus revolvers with built in folding knives, and even pocket knives that “go boom.”

Cane or walking-stick guns replaced walking-cane swords the backup of choice for 19th Century English gentlemen.  The earliest were muzzle loaders, later models usually fired a single rimfire cartridge, and eventually rounds as powerful as the .410 shot shell found there way into these orthopedic aids and symbols of taste and class.  Particularly interesting are the British made air-canes marketed at the turn of the century through various New York distributors.  The reservoirs were refilled using an attachable stirrup pump, took a long time to charge, and fired what was usually a .32 caliber ball with far more force than you might think.  Every cane type included a muzzle cap to keep dirt and debris out of the barrel, and the results could be dramatic if someone ever forgot to remove it before firing.

A few canes undoubtedly found their way West, especially following Remington’s introduction an American made model.  Available in either .22 or .32 RF, they could be purchased with either plain, ivory, carved claw-and-ball or dog’s-head handles.

Anyone with a real likelihood of armed defense was unlikely to choose a derringer anymore than a walking stick gun.  For this purpose most people wanted multiple shots without reloading, with the result being a burgeoning new market in medium powered, pocket-sized revolvers.  The highest quality examples of this genre were produced by Colt, Remington, Rupertus, Hopkins & Allen and Forehand & Wadsworth.  At one time or other Pat Garrett owned a .41 RF F&W “Swamp Angel” (serial number #4318) featuring a gold plated cylinder and a backstrap engraved with his name, as well as a .38 S&W CF caliber Merwin & Hulbert Pocket Army revolver with a unique folding hammer presented him by the favored citizens of Uvalde, New Mexico.  Both featured ivory stocks and rudimentary “New York” style scroll engraving.

All such arms sported similar profiles to the early S&W tip-ups: “sheath” or “spur” triggers (sans trigger guard) with three to five inch barrels and generally rounded, “bird’s head” grip frames.  Around 1874 Remington’s added their “two cents” worth with their Smoot patent line.  The .30, .32, and .38 rimfire Remingtons featured simple ejector rods, while their .41 RF variant did not.

Colt continued its tradition of pocket arms with its 1870 release of their “Cloverleaf” (deep fluted) cylinder “House Pistol,” a four shot revolver in .41 RF, one of which is provenanced to Inspector of Railroads and onetime Confederate General William Hardeman.  That same year they began flooding the market with the itsy-bitsy .22 “open top,” churning out some 110,000 before finally giving it up in 1877.  Both were essentially made obsolete in 1874 with the introduction of five Colt’s “New Line” series in five different graduated frame sizes.  Served up in rimfire .22 and .30 rimfire, plus .32, .38 and .41 centerfire.  The last of this configuration was their New Police .38 CF.  Like the cleverly named “House” pistol, its “cop and thug” motif grips appealed to the need for convenient personal and home security.  The New Lines often served as back up guns, paired with Colt’s ubiquitous large bore Peacemaker.  They were effectively phased out by the mid 1880’s under market pressure from the scads of cheap imitations such as the two-dollar “suicide special” removed from Hickock murderer Jack McCall in 1876.  Their niche in the prestigious Colt lineup remained unfilled until the 1896 release of the double action New Pocket model.

Since the day Smith & Wesson locked up the patents for the bored-through cylinder (and thus for the repeat shot breech loading handgun), their various small arms have enjoyed a fervent and faithful following.  Beginning in 1857 with the introduction of the tip-up  models #1 in .22, the previously discussed #1 1/2 and #2 in .32 rimfire, S&W went on to even greater success with a much stronger top-break design first introduced in 1870 in their large frame, large bore Model #3 American.  This was followed in 1876 and 1878 with medium frame top-breaks in .38 and .32 centerfire.  The .38 S&W CF cartridge was more briskly loaded with a 16 grain black powder charge, topped by a 145 round nosed bullet.  Smith and Wesson manufactured and shipped in excess of 130,000 “New Model” or “Baby Russian” .38’s before finally taking it off line in 1891.  This medium powered round went on to be one of the most popular calibers of its time.

In 1892 a posse headed by Marshal Paden Tolbert surrounded and eventually blew up with dynamite a recessed log “fort” manned by the framed Cherokee outlaw Ned Christie.  In a photo taken shortly after the raid, posse members are seen to have Harrington and Richardson, S&W and Colt New Line pocket revolvers tucked into their vests and waistbands, along with a large frame Colt 1878 .44 WCF and a hodgepodge of rifles and shotguns.  Needless to say, it was the TNT that carried the day, and these lightweight backups were unlikely used in the fray.  Sheriff William “Billy” Tilghman helped bust up the Doolin gang and clean up Oklahoma’s infamous “Hell’s Half Acre,” and his reputation alone was enough to settle most disputes.  But it was a  hidden belly gun in the hands of boozed-up Prohibition Agent (!) that ended both his life and his career.

Yet another factor in handgun selection, hideaways or not, has always been rapidity of fire: how fast one can get off repeat, aimed shots.  The single action revolver (in which the hammer has to be hand cocked each time) is nearly if not equally quick for the first round.  But the double action (with the hammer cocked and the cylinder rotated by a single long pull on the trigger) has a significant edge when it comes to subsequent aimed shots, and is considerably quicker to empty into the belly of a close range assailant.

Smith & Wesson’s first double action topbreaks hit the shelves in 1880, with over one thousand of its Third models having been sold to the American Express Co. for the protection of its agents and guards.  These remained their primary hideaways until the 1899 advent of their now signature “hand ejector” (swing-out cylinder) designs, currently exemplified by the “Chief’s Special” Model 36.

Other substantial .38 CF caliber double action topbreaks were made in the latter part of the 19th Century by manufacturers  Harrington & Richardson, Hopkins & Allen and Iver Johnson Bicycle Works with their characteristic gutta percha grip panels– featuring the face of an owl and ornamental filigree.  Long barrels could be had on most, but for purposes of defense and concealment the preferred length for this caliber remained something between three and five inches.  They’re not hideaways, after all, if they leave an outline or bulge that’s easily seen.  Favorite places for stashing small arms include not only pockets but boot tops, shoulder holsters and suspender rigs for those on the move.  And under pillows, in bedstand drawers, and inside the cash registers of folks at home and at work.

A purse was the most common way for a woman to pack a sidearm, and may still be today.  Unfortunately it’s a less than optimum arrangement, given that it’s the first thing a snatch-thief is likely to grab.  One can only speculate how many times some gal has has been surprised to find herself relieved of not only her money and her make-up kit, but also her primary means of defense.  More effective would be an open top belt holster worn high on the small of the back, or strapped above the knee underneath a billowing Western skirt.

Small caliber revolvers were perhaps ideal for daily concealed carry– but those with no need to hide their armament, and anyone wearing enough of a coat might pick a larger gun in substantially more powerful calibers.  One of the smallest pocket canines with real bite was the Webley & Son Bulldog, an imported five shot, double action revolver available in .44 Webley caliber– roughly twice as powerful as the prevailing .38 S&W.  While copied and altered here and abroad, the original British models came with bird’s-head grip frames, two and a half inch barrels and unfluted cylinders.  They began showing up in the far West as early as 1873, and one found its way into the hands of Billy The Kid’s patron and employer, John Tunstall.  It’s larger bore and spreading popularity was no doubt a factor in Colt bringing out it’s own medium frame double action revolvers in 1877 and 1878: the nicknamed “Lightning” in .38 Long Colt, and the “Thunderer” in .41 Colt caliber.

Awesome knock down power has its own appeal.  Merwin & Hulbert brought out a bird’s head grip model called the Pocket Army in both .44 M&W and .44 WCF (.44-40).  With it’s factory shortened three inch plus barrel, it still weighed a good two pounds, four ounces.... making it a bit heavy for concealed carry, leather lined pocket or not.  But evidently not too much for the unredeemable Bass Outlaw, who had an open top version (serial #195) recovered from his person for waving it around in an El Paso saloon “in a manner calculated to disturb the inhabitants of said public place.”  Nor for unsuccessful girl bandit Pearl Heart, who was allegedly carrying another M&W (serial #645) tucked in her pants belt when arrested by Sheriff W. Truman in 1899.

Weighty large frame Colts and Smith & Wessons are often found altered by their original owners, obviously looking to pack more power in a somewhat concealable package.  A large number of S&W single action Americans, surplus Schofields and #3’s on the antique market today have at one time or other had their tubes reduced to four or five inches.  And sadly from a collector’s point of view, so have all too many old Colt SA’s– including the now rare Artillery models.  John Selman paid for the burial of Bass Outlaw with a confiscated, chopped Colt (serial #42870) specially altered for fanning by the removal of the trigger assembly and replacement of the cylinder pin.  In that condition a revolver would be quick to employ, but nearless worthless beyond ten feet for so. 

With its factory issued tube and trigger, a competent pistolero could hit a stationary man sixty or more yards away a good percentage of the time.  An 1873 Winchester carbine was reasonably effective out to one hundred and twenty-five yards, and double that for the same company’s 1894 rifle.  As I write this, military weaponry has “improved” to the extent that tank gunners and fighter pilots can deliver devastating payloads of high explosives with pinpoint accuracy at previously unimaginable distances.... without ever looking up from their computer screens, or looking into the faces of those they need to kill.  This has resulted in a depersonalization of armed combat, and increasingly positions our soldiery far enough away from the enemy to dilute the emotional experience, reducing any opportunities for empathy or mercy, and making the taking of life more of a mechanical exercise in obedience than a deliberate moral decision and an act of passion.  Of course even the heavy single-shot “buffalo rifles” of the 1800’s were capable of consistent hits five times further than the shooter could positively identify their target.  And if an opponent is further away than the length of a barroom there’s probably an option for cover or retreat.  While I doubt my namesake Wes Hardin would agree– if I’m far enough away to avoid an incident, I’d usually just as soon exit the scene.

It’s true that President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head at close range with a snub nosed percussion derringer.  But John Wilkes Booth aside, pocket guns have seldom been employed by intentional assailants.  There is therefore considerably less moral ambiguity with arms primarily designed for self protection and generally unsuitable for offense.  No one in their right mind would bring a hideaway to initiate a fight.  They’re more likely to be found in the hands– or still stashed in the pockets– of those who have been wronged.

As every reader of GunBlast would agree, self defense is a justifiable and even healthy response to unprovoked aggression.  Since the primordial beginnings of our kind, we’ve joined the rest of creation in doing everything we can to preserve and extend our mortal lives.  We are motivated and fueled by the same source that provokes cells to grow and multiply, rabbits to strike out against a ravenous snake– or a snake to fight off the hungers of the giant eagle.... even if another few minutes of survival means a deadly drop of hundreds of feet!  It is the Spirit-given impulse to struggle again and again into the light, and to never give up the fight.  No one can be faulted for valuing their own existence over that of an attacker.   Complacency and capitulation, like obliviousness, are what make us prey.... not the mere existence of predators.

Truly, personal survival is an inherent, credible and honorable motivation, qualifying our most insistent and energetic defense.  But then again, neither is it necessarily the most noble of all reasons for taking assertive action.  The desire to live is sacred as well as natural, and yet the protection of our narrowly defined selves isn’t always the most important thing.  For a person of integrity and compassion there are also people, homes and beliefs worth risking our lives for.  Once we recognize that our families are integral and vital extensions of our very beings, protecting them becomes an act of expanded self defense.  In time we may come to realize the degree to which our ideals, our friends and communities, the forests, rivers and land we stand upon are essential elements of what it means to be human.... and that to protect their expression and wholeness is to defend what it is to be “us.”

Pocket guns and hideaways are but one demonstration of insistence and self-love, determination and daring.  Of grit and gravel, courage and caring!  That something really matters, none need wonder... given the flashes of life and lightning in our eyes, and the judicious roar of hidden thunder.

Jesse L. "Wolf" Hardin


Hideouts is adapted from Hidden Thunder, a chapter in Jesse’s book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts: Firearms Of The Old West 1866-1916. 

Click here to read Boge’s review of this book. 

To order a copy specially signed to you, go to www.oldgunsbook.com.

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