Sneaky little pop-gun
A classic hideout gun, the derringer was nearly always used in Western movies by the gambler, the saloon gal or the bad guy. Derringers were not real man’s guns. They were sneaky little stingers. One reader told me that in her family the derringer was always known as ‘the villain gun’ and I can see why. They’ve always exercised an odd fascination on me.
The bad guy’s gun
Racking what passes for my brains, I came up with one or two (OK, maybe slightly more than that) instances of Westerns where derringers are used, and you will see it’s the bad guy who had them.
Humphrey Bogart, no less, (mis)cast as a Mexican bandit in Warner Brothers’ 1940 Errol Flynn Western Virginia City, tries to hold up his fellow stage passengers with one. Little does he know that Errol has surreptitiously unloaded it.
Actually, saloon keeper Bogie also whipped out a derringer to shoot a good guy in The Oklahoma Kid the year before so he had some form with the weapon.
In Devil’s Doorway the Anthony Mann Western with Robert Taylor, badman Louis Calhern (excellent, by the way) has a sneaky derringer. Well, he would. And the same year (1950) Mann also had what is referred to as “a dainty little derringer” for Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies. And thinking of Robert Taylor, in Stand Up and Fight, Taylor’s first Western, wicked slaver Charles Bickford engages in a fist fight with our hero but when he is losing, he pulls a derringer. Typically base.
In The Lonely Man, evil gang member Neville Brand wants to kill Jack Palance, and Neville has a derringer to do it although Neville would be scornful of derringers – see below.
The villain of the Chuck Connors 1966 epic Ride Beyong Vengeance is the fancy-man derringer-wielder Johnsy-Boy (Bill Bixby, well before he achieved Hulkhood).
Horrible Gene Hackman, cruel boss of the town, pulls one on Russell Crowe in the rather bad The Quick and the Dead (Columbia Tristar, 1995). And there’s a good bit later in the movie when he and Sharon appear to have derringers under the tablecloth – but do they?
Showdown in 1973 pitted bad guy Dean Martin against lawman Rock Hudson, and Dino used a derringer. It could never have been the decent sheriff who had one, only the bad guy.
A single-shot Colt derringer was the weapon of choice for evil Mad Dog Tannen in Back to the Future Part III (1990).
However, Tannen’s attempt to kill Doc Brown with it is thwarted when Marty throws a pie plate at the gun in Tannen’s outstretched hand. I’m sure you remember this key moment.
But derringers go right back. In Wagon Tracks, a William S Hart number of 1919, a derringer is palmed by villain Merton and used to kill innocent boy Billy when the lad tumbles to Merton’s dastardly plot. It’s rather a modern-looking derringer for 1850 but we’ll let that slide.
In the Cecil B DeMille epic Union Pacific of 1939, Robert Preston, roguish rival to the hero Joel McCrea, has a derringer ready to do in the good guy sneakily.
In Audie Murphy’s 1957 picture The Guns of Fort Petticoat, runty, unshaven, frock-coated gang leader James Griffith, cadaverously excellent, ties a fellow up then shoots him with a derringer. Honestly, you don’t get much more low-down than that.
The baddy uses a matched pair in Lucky Luke (2009).
A matched pair
Bankers liked them, and of course in Westerns, bankers are invariably baddies. The evil banker shoots the even eviler rancher woman with one in The Bushwhackers in 1951. This is the perfect user of a derringer, a slimeball using one against the perfect victim, because she really deserved it. The Last Outlaw, an indifferent 1993 HBO effort, starts with a bank raid and the bank manager has a hidden derringer. Yet another banker with a derringer appears in the MacMurray/Stanwyck Western The Moonlighter. Brother Tom is killed with it. And talking of bankers, the 2005 Eurowestern Bandidas was pretty dire but the best thing about it was Dwight Yoakam as the totally evil banker who uses, yes, a derringer.
Yup, financiers sure liked ’em.
In Wagon Trail, a Harry Carey Sr movie of 1935, the villain Collins uses a derringer (typical) and the pop-gun plays an important part in the last scene.
The best moment in Guns of a Stranger, a rather cheesy Marty Robbins effort of 1973, is when the lowdown Ace (Bill Coontz) provokes a showdown with the reluctant Marty (who is, of course, a lightning draw) and Ace has a derringer hidden in his kerchief. Typical slyness on the part of the badman. Naturally, it does him no good.
Is that a derringer in Claude Akins’s hat? I can’t quite see. A sneaky hideout gun anyway. Will he get Mitch with it? As if. See Man With the Gun (1955).
And by the way, there’s another derringer in a hat, a derby belonging to Johnny-Behind-The-Deuces, in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950).
Then the classic baddie Hedley Lamarr shoots a man with a nickel-plated derringer for chewing gum while standing in line (fair enough) in the glorious Blazing Saddles (1974).
Hedley (not Hedy)
Colonel Mortimer had to have one in For a Few Dollars More. It was de rigueur, or perhaps I should say di rigore.
Indeed, spaghetti westerns loved derringers. For an example, Lee Van Cleef again, in E’ tornato Sabata…hai chiuso un’altra volta, the 1971 epic. And talking of Sabata, Yul even had a triple-barreled one in Adios Sabata that year too.
Actually I think it’s a Volcanic
And if you want really bad guys, then John Wilkes Booth used an early one.
Outlaw Bill Doolin had one.
And let’s not forget that in Gunfight at the OK Corral, arch-baddy Lee Van Cleef (him again) tries to get Doc Holliday with a derringer in his boot! Unfortunately he’s right handed but hid it in his left boot. Doh. (There’s a derringer in a boot in China 7, Liberty 37. Maybe it’s a quotation.)
In fact a badman named Dan Blackmore (Edward Norris), the fool, had tried to draw a derringer on Wyatt Earp in an earlier Wyatt/Doc picture, Frontier Marshal (1939) so maybe John Sturges was quoting that.
See? It’s the bad guys.
The gamblers’ gun
Gamblers and saloon men liked them especially.
There’s a great bit in The Woman of the Town (1943) when Albert Dekker as Bat Masterson in the saloon shoots a gambler who has the great name of Derringer Davis (sadly uncredited actor).
Doc Holliday draws one on Ike Clanton in Doc in 1971. Richard Webb is a no-good gambler with a frilly shirt and a derringer in The Nebraskan in 1953. In Silverado (1985), Slick, the slimy gambler in fancy frock coat, pulls a sleeve derringer.
Maybe he was quoting the cheating gambler in Rio Bravo (1959) who also has one. Chance and Colorado take it away from him.
In Waco (1966), one of those late geezer Westerns of AC Lyles, the crooked saloon owner (John Smith from Laramie) has a derringer. Not only that, he kills the preacher with it! Now that’s a proper use of the sneaky little pop-gun. Mind, a preacher gets his own back in Five Bloody Graves (1969) when Rev. Boone Hawkins (John Carradine) shoots Horace Wiggins (Ray Young) with one. That’s my kinda preacher. And you remember Preacher Robert Mitchum in 5 Card Stud (1968) who had one concealed in his Bible. Good stuff.
Gambler John Payne defends himself in a bordello with a derringer in Tennessee’s Partner.
In The Magnificent Seven TV series, gambler Ezra Standish, played by Anthony Starke, is a Southern ‘gentleman’ (i.e. conman). I like him because he has a fondness for derringers and is highlighted in the opening credits fondly smiling at one.
Now, Victor Jory. So often the disreputable gambler or saloon owner (and excellent at the role), he was a perfect derringer user. Here he is in The Kansan in 1943, holding one on a lady! The cad.
Jory also had the pop-gun in Buckskin Frontier in 1943. And yet again in 1949, in Fighting Man of the Plains. Victor used derringers so often that I bet the props department had a shelf just for him.
And Jory also figured as the rotter in South of St Louis in 1949, but in fact for once it was not he, this time, who draws the derringer: Zachary Scott starts as Joel McCrea’s pal but descends into city-slickerhood, and as a sure sign of this debasement Zach draws a derringer when he is knocked down in the saloon.
Zach pulls a derringer but it’s kicked out of his hand
And talking of saloons, in Denver and Rio Grande (1952) the barman subdues a whole barroom brawl with one! He seems to think it’s a scatter gun.
People are scornful of the little gun
In the 1932 version of Law and order (the good one) the derringer is shown and explained.
“This here is called a derringer”, says the fat gambler.
“It looks a mite girlish”, is the reply.
“No, it’s a handy weapon,” rebuts the owner.
Gambler shows his pals how useful it is
In Westerns people are often scornful of derringers, the fools. I mentioned The Last Outlaw above. It starts with a bank raid and the bank manager (yet another banker) has a hidden derringer. The ruthless gang leader Graff discovers it and asks scornfully, “What the hell is this?” But this derringer is destined to play a key part in the last reel (if TV movies have reels). So that sent the picture up in my estimation.
In RKO’s picture Tall in the Saddle in 1944, Ward Bond as crooked gambler-judge Garvey uses our hideout gun too. Duke holds it with distaste as if it were a whore’s purse gun and says, “Yours?”
And talking of bad guys named Garvey, there are relatively few good bits in the dreary 1960 Western Five Guns to Tombstone but the picture is enlivened when henchman Ike Garvey (Walter Coy) is blackmailing crooked saloon owner Landon (Willis Bouchey), who pulls a derringer on him. Garvey looks at it mockingly and tosses it scornfully aside. This was, however, a remake of a much better picture, the 1953 George Montgomery oater Gun Belt. In that one, William Bishop as ‘Ike Clinton’ (it’s a sort of Tombstone story too) disarms saloon owning crook Hugh Sanders of the derringer, and says as he does so that he “always disliked baby rattlers.”
In The Outcasts of Poker Flat (the 1937 one), the saloon owner Oakhurst pulls a derringer from his sleeve and gets the drop on the bandit Sonoma. Sonoma is unimpressed: “Measly little pop-gun!” he complains. “Not so measly at close range,” Oakhurst quips. Damn right.
The ladies’ gun
The guy in Law and Order was right, though. They were a mite girlish. They were ladies’ guns. Ladies of a certain kind anyway. Persons of the female persuasion carried derringers in their pockets or purses. Or even in their garters! Think of Cat Ballou.
There’s a good bit in the TV remake of Winchester ’73 only six minutes in when saloon gal Barbara Luna, who is the crooked dealer at blackjack, tries to cheat the marshal’s brother, Dan. Dan challenges her, so she whips a derringer out of a (rather daring) lady-holster under her skirt and points it at him, asking him where he wants it. In the nick of time, though, the marshal turns up, disarms her and runs her outa town. Well, that gave the picture extra oomph.
Barbara is never without hers
In the Tim Holt oater Desert Passage in 1952, bad girl Dorothy Patrick as the whore Roxie has one. In the best bit of Fox’s 1953 Powder River, a sort of My Darling Clementine knock-off, saloon gal Corinne Calvet offers Rory Calhoun a derringer to go shoot somebody. He obviously declines the pop-gun as unworthy of him. He is Rory Calhoun after all.
He ain’t gonna use that!
Beautiful Dorothy Malone helps out her lover Jack Slade (Mark Stevens) in 1953 when she takes part in the showdown gunfight in the saloon – with a derringer, natch. Blam! That’s my kinda gal. In fact in real life, one theory is that black-hearted Jack Slade was lynched by a mob for holding a derringer to the head of a judge. It seems perfectly reasonable behavior to me but the mob evidently thought otherwise.
My kinda gal
In The San Francisco Story, a Joel McCrea picture of 1952, shady lady Yvonne De Carlo has a derringer which she pulls on her man. It’s rather a modern derringer again: you’d expect it to be like the one John Wilkes Booth used, it being 1856 and all, but it’s one of those shiny modern ones that I like so much.
Then there was Belle Starr in The Long Riders. These lady guns were small and almost jewel-like, ornamental anyway, maybe with a pearl handle. But they could sting, at close range anyway. And the kind of girls who had them were the ones you, ahem, tended to be at close range with.
A lady’s derringer does an awful lot of damage from under the table in Rio Lobo.
Saloon owner Frenchie Fontaine (Shelley Winters) uses one on the stage in Frenchie (1950).
In Shoot-Out at Big Sag in 1962, Goldie, (a rather Shelley Wintersish Constance Ford), the wife of crooked owner of the Last Chance saloon Les Tremayne, threatens him with a derringer. Not only that, she even does him in with it in the last part of the movie. Of course both user and target were typical derringer material. Great stuff (in an otherwise lackluster Western).
Ava Gardner fished around in a clothes draw to find a derringer with which to shoot Clark Gable (though she loves him really) in Lone Star. Clark grabs it from her and flings it back dismissively into the drawer.
Angie Dickinson has one in The Last Challenge.
John Wayne seems amused by Joanne Dru’s derringer in Red River.
One of the many reasons I like Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) is that the heroine (Eleanor Parker) is first seen firing a derringer. The stagecoach she is riding in is attacked by Indians and she brings her four-barreled pepperbox to bear. “You done good, lady,” the driver tells her afterwards. Indeed she did done good, for hitting anything whatsoever with that pop gun from a careening coach at more than six feet would have been a remarkable feat of markswomanship; never mind a Mescalero at full gallop. When Captain William Holden helps her down from the coach (the pair will, of course, fall instantly in love) he asks her what on earth this little gadget is, rather as John Wayne scornfully demanded of Joanne Dru of her derringer above. Our leading lady replies that “it’s supposedly a deadly weapon.”
The Western stalwart Marie Windsor, dubious saloon gal in Dakota Lil in 1950, is a classic candidate for a derringer and indeed, so as not to disappoint us, she draws one, from a very ladylike holster on her garter, no fewer than four times! And talking of Dakota, in the 1956 Dale Robertson Western Dakota Incident, we are shown a (rather modern-looking) derringer in Linda Farnell’s purse but it never appears again in the movie. I think it was simply there to establish the actress/singer’s bona fides as tough guy ready to use firearms if the need arose.
There’s an excellent bit in the 1948 noir Western Station West when Jane Greer gives Raymond Burr a derringer: a classic use, this, of that pocket gun, as a female saloon owner slips one to a crooked lawyer in a suit.
In the great TV show Deadwood, obviously Cy Tolliver would have one, being a sneaky gambler, crook and slimy saloon owner (see above). But various saloon gals have them too. The guns figure quite largely. Another reason the series deserved plaudits.
In The Girl of the Golden West (novel, play, opera and film) the Girl, in appropriately Western style, has a pocket pistol, and while in 1850 this would really have been a single-shot flintlock gadget, in some productions she has a proper derringer. Hooray!
These days 21st century Westerns recognize that these little purse guns are not suitable for the feisty kind of woman in a modern Western. In the Nasser Group’s Dawn Rider in 2012, the heroine pulls a huge Colt on a heavy wanting to have sex with her and declares “It ain’t no fucking derringer.” Ah, progress. And talking of modern Westerns, the makers of Cowboys & Zombies got it badly wrong in 2012 because the hero captures the Indian after his Colt has gone by using a derringer, a very sneaky ploy beneath any proper Western good guy.
It is said that lawman Bear River Tom Smith, enforcing a no-gun ordinance in Abilene, toured the red light district and came back with a wheelbarrow full of ladies’ derringers. Now that I would like to have seen. I need Doc’s De Lorean time machine.
Let us not forget great literature, too: on p 140 of Louis L’Amour’s novel Showdown at Yellow Butte, the heroine has a .22 seven-shot derringer in her skirt pocket and shoots the evil gunslinger Dornie Shaw with it, through the material of the skirt, hitting him in the ear. A seven-shot! I never imagined such a thing but discovered that it did indeed exist.
Not only did it exist, Mark Twain had one. In Roughting It he writes:
The good guy with a derringer? Surely not!
Now and then.
Randolph Scott, no less, used a derringer, on a riverboat, in The Stranger Wore a Gun in 1953. Two years later, as marshal, he dealt with the evil gunny Dingo Brion with a derringer fired from underneath the barber’s sheet in A Lawless Street. Cripes!
Arms salesman-turned-sheriff Kenneth More, definitely a good guy, demonstrated a spring powered one in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958). In fact Fractured Jaw might be the best derringer movie ever. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to remedy that now.
In Universal’s Cave of Outlaws in 1951 Wells, Fargo detective Edgar Buchanan (my hero) saves the day with his derringer.
A (semi)hero who used a derringer was Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset (1961). It was an unlikely weapon for a gunfighter but he carried it off. he does actually lose a duel with Rock Hudson armled with a .45 but only because the derringer is unloaded.
Derringers play a key part in Django Unchained, I am happy to say. Good for Mr Tarantino. Of course with Tarantino you don’t know whether to put these users in the good guys or bad guys category. His categories are bad guys and even worse guys.
In War Drums, Ben Johnson tells his friend, “You won’t be needing that pea-shooter, Judge.” The Indians are friendly, you see. Well, if a judge can use one…
The frightfully decent English competitor in the horse-race Western Bite the Bullet (1975) is handed a derringer to shoot his injured horse with. He aims at the poor beast from several yards away. I hope it did not suffer.
In Gunfight at Comanche Creek (great title) in 1963, Audie Murphy robs a bank, sans mask, armed only with a derringer. And an empty derringer at that. Audie with a derringer! Derringers were for saloon gals, gamblers and ne’er-do-wells. Still, this example doesn’t count as he was forced to do it, and the derringer was unloaded.
Wild Bill Hickok (I think we can classify him as a good guy) carried two Williamson .41 derringers in special pockets. Sadly, they didn’t save him on August 2nd 1876 in Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 in Deadwood. In fact in The Iron Horse in 1924, saloon gal Ruby (Gladys Hulette) is insulted by a card player so she shoots him with a derringer, and Fox publicity said it was Hickok’s actual one (probably just a story). She is promptly acquitted by the judge.
But of course the final proof that a Western hero could use a derringer was the fact that John Wayne (gasp) has one in Big Jake. When setting off to recover his kidnapped grandson, Duke gets his estranged wife Maureen O’Hara to bring along his Greeners. Fair enough. But tucked away in the greeners case is Betsy. He pockets it and it comes in very handy in the last reel…
So well, then, if Randolph Scott and John Wayne can use one it can’t be only the bad guys!
And talking of Randolph Scott, don’t forget that Riding Shotgun, his 1954 Warners Western, featured a derringer as a major element of the plot. The pocket pistol, which badman James Millican won for marksmanship in St Louis in 1870, and which (fascinating detail for derringeristas) takes .41 rimfire cartridges, IDs the badman to Randy – he recognizes it – and later in the movie it will enable him to escape captivity. Later still, in the last reel, it will be the undoing of Millican. Great stuff, a derringer as key plot device!
Sometimes movie makers play with us. They want us to think the hero uses a derringer. As if! In Three Hours to Kill (1954) noble Dana Andrews is maligned. He is found standing over a body holding an empty derringer and the corpse has two derringer bullets in it. Naturally, the townsfolk want to lynch him. It’s a Western, after all. But it was Dana. No derringer user he. And in Masterson of Kansas, Bat (George Montgomery) bluffs one bad guy by saying he has a derringer under his hat. But of course he hasn’t: the villain should have known that derringers are for louche gamblers and dubious saloon women, not for noble lawmen fighting for right such as Bat Masterson.
In the 34 black & white thirty-minute episodes of Yancy Derringer aired on CBS in 1958/9, Yancy’s weapons of choice were four-barrel Sharps pepperbox handguns carried concealed, one held by a clamp inside the top of his hat, one in his vest’s left pocket under his jacket and one up his jacket’s left sleeve in a wrist holster. (A belt buckle inset with a toy single-barrel derringer, sold by Mattel at the time and popularly associated with Yancy, did not resemble anything that the character actually used.)
And talking of Jocko, in a 1953 episode of The Range Rider called Outlaw Pistols, which doubtless you recall, the bad guy Laredo (George L Lewis) fools young Dick West, “all-American boy” (Dickie Jones), by crafting a derringer out of soap. He uses it to threaten the sheriff’s daughter and make Dick let him out. See, not only a sneaky hideout gun for a bandit used against a sweet girl but it’s not even real! Boy, is that tricky.
And derringers featured often in jailbreaks, on the big screen too. In the 1959 Fred MacMurray Western Good Day for a Hanging, Fred’s very dumb daughter tries to spring Robert Vaughn by smuggling a derringer into the jail on the dinner tray. Of course she fails. In that timeless Gordon Douglas-directed classic The Fiend Who Walked the West in 1958, the authorities decide to release Hugh O’Brian from jail to track the maniac down, and they arrange an escape by providing him with a derringer with which he can get the drop on Warder Emile Meyer. Great stuff. Then in the 1949 Tim Holt oater Rustlers, saloon gal Trixie Fontaine (Lois Andrews) bakes a cake with a derringer at its center and the dumb sheriff doesn’t even check it, though he makes a play for the cake, wishing to deny the chocolate sumptuousness to the prisoners Tim and Chito, and swallow it himself. Fascinating stuff.
Back on TV, though, also on CBS, in Have Gun – Will Travel, 225 episodes and six seasons, Paladin’s primary weapon was, as we know, that custom-made Colt .45 with an unusual rifled barrel, but remember, he also favored a Remington derringer concealed under his belt. On Gunsmoke Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) would produce various types of derringers as plots required. In Episode 14 of Cimarron Strip (1967/68) a derringer plays a key part in the plot, and in Episode 21 bad guy Don ‘Red’ Barry tries to get Broderick Crawford with one but Brod makes short work of that.
And in The Wild, Wild West, yet again on CBS, 104 episodes from September 1965 to April 1969, two derringers figured largely: a sleeve gun, a Remington Double Derringer, and a Breakaway Remington Derringer. The handle and trigger mechanism were located in one hollowed-out boot heel, while the double-barrel assembly was located in the other heel; the two pieces snapped together and locked. Bullets were dispensed from a secret compartment in his belt-buckle, or the chambers were pre-loaded. Nifty stuff, well worthy of the Western James Bond forbear.
In Enter the Lone Ranger, the 1947 pilot TV film, evil Butch Cavendish (Glenn Strange the Great), pulls one on our hero when cornered. Typical. In the 1981 remake he had a knife, which isn’t the same at all.
Billy had one in Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid on TNT in 1989.
Sometimes, though you may consider it over-egging the pudding, we got two derringers in the same Western. Well, of course, I am in seventh heaven.
In Cat Ballou it wasn’t only Cat who had a derringer. Remember, Jed rescued his partner with one, the gun hidden in a Bible. (That idea was copied by Preacher Robert Mitchum in 5 Card Stud, as mentioned above). As if derringers weren’t sneaky enough. To hide one in a Bible!)
Don ‘Red’ Barry’s 1954 Z-Western Jesse James’ Women had two derringers. “You’re pretty handy with that pop-gun,” Jesse tells a saloon whore, and later a gambler pulls one while getting away with his ill-gotten (through cheating) gains. Saloon gals and gamblers – classic derringer users.
And talking of Jesse James, in Jesse James at Bay (Republic, 1941), a Roy Rogers picture, TWO characters try to get the drop on Roy with derringers. Great.
And another Roy oater was also a two-derringer picture: in the timeless classic Bad Man of Deadwood (also 1941) irrefutable evidence of the skunkery of Henry Brandon as bad guy Carver is given when he uses a derringer to dispose of two of his co-conspirators (Hal Taliaferro and Jay Novello) who were about to skip town on the first stage with the loot. Later he uses it again!
I mentioned Adiós, Sabata earlier. One of the few good things about the movie really is the very high derringer quotient. All the characters seem to have them. There are some top-hatted henchmen in black, and they use derringers, and various other people fire them too. As for Yul, well, he has loads of them, including that triple-barreled one. Naturally, he still manages unerring marksmanship with them across a crowded saloon. And a Volcanic appears again in the big-screen Disney The Lone Ranger of 2013, when Helena Bonham-Carter pulls one.
Flame of Barbary Coast in 1945 was a Joseph Kane-directed John Wayne Western of 1945 and in it the bad guy Morell draws a derringer on Duke, not once but twice. Morell is a classic derringer user, being a slimy crook. Of course it doesn’t do him any good.
The British alleged comedy Western Carry on Cowboy in 1965 was seriously bad (I mean really bad) but it had one saving grace: it was a two-derringer picture. Captain Apache wasn’t much better but it too was a two-derringer picture. Besuited badguy Stuart Whitman has one – appropriately, one of those sleeve types that dashes the popgun into your hand – and one of the dames, I forget which (Carroll Baker or Elisa Montés) also uses one.
The best thing about Frenchie, mentioned above, is that it’s a two-derringer picture. Well, actually it’s the same derringer twice but first Frenchie uses it on the stagecoach, then, in a rather saucy bit, in the saloon Joel draws it from her garter holster to get the drop on the bad guy. More garter-holsters, you see.
Now a special mention for The Return of the Durango Kid (1945). John Calvert, who, parallel to his movie-acting career was also the world’s oldest performing magician, plays the slimy and murderous bad guy, and he has a derringer, which he draws no fewer than nine times in the course of the movie. I counted. Nine times!
Some people give derringers a capital D and indeed, the gun’s name did originate with its inventor, Henry Deringer, a 19th century maker of pocket pistols (no double R in his name). The original Philadelphia Deringer was a single-shot muzzle-loading percussion cap pistol introduced in 1852.
The gun was subsequently made by various manufacturers, notably Remington. By calling it a derringer they avoided potential lawsuits. They manufactured more than 150,000 over-under double-barreled derringers from 1866 until the end of their production in 1935.
The name derringer became a generic one for any small pistol. They’re still made today. Wikipedia tells us that “Bond Arms, Cobra Arms and American Derringer all manufacture the over/under derringer in a variety of calibers”.
Actually, you couldn’t hit much with one, not unless you were very close. There used to be a video on YouTube, since removed I think, in which an expert marksman hit a target with only one of the two shots at 15 yards, and (just) hit twice at seven yards. It was said that the bullet traveled so slowly you could see it.
Despite this, various Westerns contain feats of astonishing marksmanship with the little gun.
In Rock Island Trail (1950) Bruce Cabot challenges Forrest Tucker to a duel in a saloon and Forrest chooses mops at dawn. That’s a good bit. But later Forrest disarms Bruce of his derringer and uses it to shoot a hole plumb in the middle of the O of the HOTEL sign across the street. Bruce compliments him on his marksmanship and indeed, it was a remarkable shot, aka impossible.
In Face of a Fugitive, the 1959 Fred MacMurray Western, during Fred’s first-reel escape, a lawman draws a boot derringer and manages to hit a man fatally with it at over 100 yards, on a horse, which is pretty good going.
In September Gun (1983), a late Robert Preston Western, Preston’s nephew Jason tries to make his uncle an iron breastplate for the upcoming showdown (he must have seen A Fistful of Dollars) but Preston shoots a hole right through it so that was no good. Preston does this with a derringer which he keeps in his boot. Mmm.
In the above-mentioned Bad Man of Deadwood, the famous Roy Rogers epic, bad guy Carver, in the rocks outside Deadwood, manages to shoot Roy’s hat off at a thousand yards with the pop-gun, a feat of marksmanship which would have had the editors of the 1880 edition of the Guinness Book of Records reeling with disbelief.
Well, for now, farewell to the sneaky little pop gun. But I daresay we’ll be back in another few years with an update!