Key Guns

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I have seen many types of weird and wacky guns, but these key guns take the cake. From at least the 17th century untill the mid 1800s, some lock makers integrated guns into lock keys for use by jailers. The idea was that if the prisoner tried any funny stuff, the jailer could fire a round through the lock at the prisoner.

Flintlock Key Gun

Some of the key guns were very basic, requiring the jailer to use a a cigar, cigarette or match to ignite a touchhole, while others used sophisticated percussion cap and flintlock mechanisms.

1850s .32 Cal blackpowder gun with touchhole. (Photo from Webteek Auctions)
British made and Birmingham proofed percussion key pistol. Approx. .45 cal. Made 1850 – 1860. (Photo from Horst Held Antique Handguns)

My hunch is that these were marketing gimmicks from lock makers, not useful tools for prison guards and jailers. I suspect they were carried around unloaded, but cocked, so prisoners would think twice before attacking a guard.

[Hat Tip: Sven via. Boing Boing]

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Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


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  • Auxin

    Would anyone here would understand a Kingdom Hearts reference if I made it? Oh well.

  • Jon Mac

    I would.

    Note that most of these (not those pictured) are fake – it being very easy to drill a touchhole in an old key and slap a mechanism on the side.

  • armed_partisan

    My father was a correctional officer. When he was promoted to Major, he brought home a key that was big enough that you could club someone on the head with it. It was the main gate key, and he was one of only two people who had one (the other was the Colonel who outranked him).

    It makes sense that the ones that looked like pistols would be carried unloaded for a scare effect, but what about the ones that just looked like keys? Clearly, there was some market for it.

  • Mouse

    Lol, I would.

  • Gir6543

    looks like someone else watches pawn stars. refer to season 2 episode 3. he fires one towards the end of the episode, i just cant find a video of it :/ anyway it was a terrible weapon that took about 3 seconds after the trigger was pulled to fire.

  • Gir6543
  • vellar

    back in the day they made anything and everything they could into guns.

  • GM

    It might instead be a way of open concealment. If you’re walking around your stately manor at night after hearing a bump in the night, it would be less obvious to house trolls that you are armed if your pistol looks like a key. This would have some advantage if the troll got the jump on you.

    ‘Ello Guv’nor… O’Bloody ‘Ell.

  • JonMac

    We can speculate, but the historical evidence for key guns is as children’s toys and gunmaker’s curios, not practical weapons. If anyone can find a reference to a gaoler or warden using one, then great.

  • Keith Burke

    I own the pistol key that was on Pawn Stars and the photo they have of it on their web site is not the right photo. I don’t think the photo is a pistol key. I purchased this pistol key at the Indy Padlock Show 2010 from a guy who purchased it from Sean on the show. I also purchased a much nicer flintlock pistol key 1700-1760 Italian made. When I saw the Pawn Star episode my search started. I mainly collect padlocks 5000 plus pieces but these pistol keys fall into the 300-400 year catagory of the european locks I have been focusing on the last few years. I have shown these pistol keys to several gun shops and they are truly amazed. I am a Locksmith and have alot of my customers come up to me and start telling me about the pistol key they saw on TV. When I show it to them they say you have one like was on Pawn Stars and I tell them no this is the one that was on Pawn Stars. I have had alot of fun with it and both pieces are truly the centerpiece of my collection.

    • tom

      i have a 17 cal. key gun still in the box never opened! whats something like this worth?

    • Jeff

      Did you buy it from Rick? How much did you pay?

  • tom

    i have a 17.cal key gun still in the box! never opened whats something like this worth?

  • Tate

    I believe the key was for protection of a manor…

    Knock, knock, knock…

    Who’s there?

    Mr. Sherlock Holmes

    Okay, wait a minute while I unlock the door. killing the trespasser.

    Just my thought…