Firearms Food for Thought: Derringers and Self-Defense

It’s been nearly two hundred years since Henry Deringer first sold his palm pistols, and almost as long since the proper spelling of the gun’s name has been lost. Of course, it may not have been lost, per se. When he created the Philadelphia Deringer he failed to get his methods properly patented, and no one hesitated to make their own versions of his gun. Those knock-offs were called derringers, with that extra “r” thrown in.

Not many manufacturers make these little pistols anymore and even fewer manufacture them using high-quality materials (good manufacturers do exist, though). While the original Philadelphia Deringer was a small single-shot pistol they eventually evolved into the over/under barrel design more common today. Those barrels are chambered in everything from .357 Magnum/.38 Special to .45 ACP to .410. Of course, the barrels in question tend to be short, measuring between just a couple inches to around four. Shorter barrels mean a faster loss of velocity which translates to abbreviated range for effective use. Then there’s the recoil – if you’ve never fired a derringer but have fired guns chambered in the aforementioned calibers, let’s just say the felt recoil is far greater with a derringer.

There are a lot of people who see derringers as a part of a lost era of card sharks and gunslingers in need of last-minute backup, but there are also those who see greater use from the guns. Derringers may be small, but they have proven their ability to be mighty. John Wilkes Booth, anyone? So here’s the question: do you guys think derringers can be reliable self-defense weapons? To build on that, do you think they should be a main carry weapon or backup only?

Derringers are interesting pistols and are also an important part of firearms history. They can be fun to shoot and absolutely make a good addition to any collection. What would you use yours for?

If you want a closer look at some well-made derringers, try

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  • Don Ward

    If it’s good enough for Kenny Rogers in The Gambler, it’s good enough for me!

  • Bill

    Stop it, Katie, just stop it.

    I’ve thought about getting a Bond Arms, or one of those NAA mini revolvers just for giggles, but don’t have the disposable income. For self defense, I’d use one right after I replace the airbags in my car with bean bag chairs, which in light of all the recalls might not be such a bad idea.

    • PK

      The NAA revolvers are just so reasonably priced, though! Used, you can find them for under $200. Bond Arms are bigger, much more versatile, and twice the price. They both cover different scenarios and have different uses, but the .22 mag NAA holds five shots.

      Neither are not ideal for defense, but they sure beat a sharp stick, and in the case of the NAA it’s so small and light you can have it with you all the time.

      • kbroughton77

        I don’t know… I’m thinking I could incapacitate an attacker faster with a sharp stick than a NAA revolver. Fun to play around with at the range, I wouldn’t trust my life for a second with one

        • PK

          You’d make a better primitive man than I would, then. I never was too great with a spear, or even modern clubs like the ASP. I still carry one of those, too.

          Before you say you wouldn’t trust your life to the NAA mini-revolvers, at least give one a try. You might be surprised how quick and easy they are to take out of a pocket holster and fire off.

      • Swarf

        A sharp stick at halitosis distances would probably be quicker to deploy and more effective than a single action, easily fumble-able Jelly Belly.

        Don’t get me wrong, they look fun, but I’d rather have a bo staff in a fight.

        • PK

          A fixed knife or sharp stick at that sort of distance beats a gun, sure. It’s also not something you run around with in your hand, where a little pocket gun works for me in my situation.

          To each his own, it’s what makes this hobby so fun – there are options for all.

        • Jwedel1231

          And I’d rather have a rifle than a Bo staff, but that’s not the issue.

      • Bill

        Ironically, I’m really digging the longer-barreled ones like The Earl.

        • PK

          Those are quite nice, as are the Sidewinder models with traditional crane and latch arrangement. I still kick myself over not ordering a top-break when they were available, those are like a tiny S&W Model 3 Schofield.

    • Rusty Williams

      Actually I have a Bond Arms Snake Slayer in 410/.45colt. Love it but it is only a in car anti-carjacking gun. I also use it for a bedside gun because of it being single action. (Less likely to have a ND/UD with it that way.) In both uses I have it loaded with 000 buck. I also have the 9mm barrel with it for cheap(er) practice sessions.

  • M.M.D.C.

    If I want something small for discreet carry I’ll tote an itty bitty 380. This is kinda cool looking though:

  • Edeco

    Too stout and bulky; like a stainless steel jelly bean. For my taste that is, for any practical or recreational purpose. If they made one really pared-down in 380 or 22 lr, might be a different story.

    • PK

      “If they made one really pared-down in…22 lr, might be a different story.”

      Go try out the tiny little NAA line of .22 (short, LR, mag) derringers. They’re five shot revolvers, but the price is very reasonable and they’re exceptionally small. That may be just what you’re looking for! Personally, I never carry a Bond derringer any longer.

      • Edeco

        I like the look of those more than the current over/under type derringers.

        • PK

          The NAA revolvers are incredibly small, as derringers ought to be. The Bond Arms derringers are sturdy, reliable, accurate, but heavy and bulky.

          For the same size/weight as a Bond, you can carry a micro-9x19mm or 9x17mm/.380ACP. But then, the Bond derringers can be had in substantially more powerful cartridges and specialty loadings such as .410 shotshells. It’s a trade-off, as is anything.

  • Iggy

    The trick is to make up for capacity with volume:

    • PK


      Seriously didn’t expect to see Meryl posted on TFB comments.

    • BattleshipGrey

      I like anime, but that’s rediculous! They’d spend more time groping and searching for those than actually shooting the enemy.

      • MeaCulpa

        Can there be too much groping in anime?

    • Austin

      That just reminds me how much I want a real version of Vash’s revolver…

      • DaveP.

        I want the “14.5mm Anti-Freak Rifle” from Hellsing… complete with drum mag and fun switch.

        • PK

          This appeals to me on so many levels… large bore DD, an MG, humorously oversized gun, drum mag… yes, please.

        • Austin

          You want that more than the .454 casaull 1911?

          • DaveP.

            Austin, it’s not like I asked for the Harkonnen Mk. 2… now is it?

      • PK

        I keep toying with the idea of making one, but so far easier projects keep distracting me. There are fairly well thought-out CAD files out there, as well, which allow for a good starting point.

        The main issue is even with the barrel on bottom design, a top-break revolver in .454 Casull is going to have stretching/flex issues. I haven’t yet figured a way to render it safe on paper to the point that I’d be willing to invest time and money and see what happens in testing.

        • Austin

          IIRC his is in .45 Long Colt

          • PK

            You’re absolutely right, I don’t know why it was stuck in my mind as .454. Still, top-break revolvers with anything approaching a medium or high power modern cartridge is hard to do and keep it intact long-term. Even Webley revolvers loaded lightly tend to stretch, over the years.

            Mechanically speaking the top-break revolvers are more like open-tops than solid-frames, even with tightly fitted lugs, proper material selection and heat treat.

            I find this especially frustrating since I love the looks and function of top-breaks so very much!

          • Austin

            It has potential as a competition revolver if it could be worked out

          • Austin

            Being a bottom firing revolver, wouldn’t most of the pressure be put on the hinge and not the latch?

    • jamezb

      Meryl was a dangerous little derringer jockey when she got her hackles up.. but at least she was well insured.

  • PK

    Yes, of course diminutive pistols have a place for self defense. They’re the gun you carry when you “can’t carry a gun”. If I’m wearing pants and not passing through a metal detector or into a Federal building, I’ve got a NAA .22 mag!

    • jng1226

      I say exactly the same thing but with a S&W Bodyguard .380 with a Tecna Clip. Seriously, that thing is stone reliable, surprisingly accurate and carries 6+1 of Underwood Ammo Golden Saber 102-grain +P in less than 15 ounces, no belt required. It’s even got a frickin’ lazzzerrr beam on it!

  • Some Rabbit

    I suppose they’re better than a rock, because after you expend your two shots, you can still throw it at the bad guy (like a rock).

  • Hank

    I’ve considered carrying a Bond Arms in 410 as a backup to my Glock. My self-defense use is usually against the no-legged, rattling kind.

  • Roy G Bunting

    With the wide variety of 32 and 380 autoloaders in the same price range and roughly the same size, I don’t see the advantage of the classic derringers any more.

    However, one could make some super light single shot rifles with the Heizer action, reasonable grips, stock and 16″ barrel. That would be interesting.

    The NAACP mini revolvers are neat, but I think there is an untapped possibility for them. With a grip that actually fits a hand the longer barrel versions would make small, light trail guns. A 22 that weighs like a knife for plinking or small game could be useful for some people.

    • Swarf


      Pretty sure they don’t make guns.

      Maybe they should.

      • Roy G Bunting

        Phone autocorrect typo. And I agree, they probably should. 🙂

    • PK

      Bigger grip, longer barrel… NAA currently offers the “Mini-Master” pistol?

      • Roy G Bunting

        Yes, but a full 4 finger grip would be better.

    • Cymond

      I’ve heard good things about Chong Vang grips, I think this is their current webpage, but they’re basically shut down until they choose a new source of wood.

      • Edeco

        Ah, those look comfortable: otherwise, with factory grips, the hammer and trigger look too close to the back of the grip to me, for easy, elegant manipulation.

  • ontheleftcoast

    I’ve shot a NAA Mini 1 1/8″ barrel in .22 WMR. With hot loads like the Hornady Critical Defense, it’s definitely not fun. Also, with particular that loading, despite its being (per Hornady) “Optimized for short-barreled firearms” the bullets tended to keyhole past 3 yards with this gun, though most other .22 WMR flavors I tried didn’t. The LaserLyte laser grip helped with accuracy. A lot.

  • DaveP.

    I own a Bond Arms 2.5″ .45ACP. Recoil is lighter than you ‘d think, but beyond 10 feet I’m thinking “Area Targets Only”. Given a choice between the Bond and a Smith 442 the Smith wins hands down- but it is a cool little range toy and if I was carrying a .45 as an EDC I might see a use for it.

  • Fruitbat44

    Thoughts from an armchair gunfighter: a concealed carry gun for when it’s the only gun you can conceal, or a second gun in case your main piece goes south, or a as a hold out piece in case you get taken hostage. Okay maybe more Walter Mitty than anything else but still.

    • DaveP.

      Don’t run down Walter Mitty. Dude sells a bunch of guns.

  • hikerguy

    They were really good backups and last-ditch weapons for 1880. But, this is 2016. They do have a nostalgic vibe to them. The NAA Mini Master would be the closest thing in that genre that, at least to me, would be practical. Like the others have said, given the bulk of of a gun like that I would opt for a small .380 or compact 9mm first.

  • Rusty Williams

    Actually I have a Bond Arms Snake Slayer in 410/.45colt. Love it but it is only a in car anti-carjacking gun. I also use it for a bedside gun because of it being single action. (Less likely to have a ND/UD when woken up from a sound sleep with it that way.) In both uses I have it loaded with 000 buck. I also have the 9mm barrel with it for cheap(er) practice sessions. But it’s WAY to heavy to carry as a backup.

  • marathag

    It still boils down to:

    “Better to have, and not need, than to need and not have”

    A crap weapon beats no weapon, so the smaller form factor might mean it’s more likely on your person if that need ever arises

    • Cymond

      But there are similarly small and light guns that are easier to shoot and hold more ammo.

      • marathag

        Totally agree. But even a poor choice is better than nothing at all. I carried a 32 just for that reason

  • John

    You should carry what you can (with CCW of course) . If all you can carry is a North American .22 mag in your pocket then carry that. If you can run around undetected with a Sig P226 in your belt, have at it. Derringer style weapons are absolutely necessary in today’s world as they are the only option for some people. Test before your carry to make sure it won’t fly out of your hand and realize that shot placement is the best option for success regardless of caliber. Buy the best quality you can afford and carry every opportunity you possibly can. JMHO

  • Jim Drickamer

    This kind of reminds me about debates over which gun is the bad guys’ weapon of choice. People kept suggesting the bad guy favorites were assault weapons, hi-cap pistols, sawed off shotguns, etc. The truth of the matter is that a bad guy’s favorite weapon is the one he has. At least, that is the one he will use.

  • demophilus

    Not for nothing, but some people use derringers for self defense against snakes. .22 shot shells (lr or mag) will kill a snake at striking range — especially smaller snakes like copperheads, or water moccasins. Buddy of mine killed 2-3 rattlers in his back yard with .38 shot shells out of his 686. Just about blew their heads off.

  • Cymond

    Mechanically reliable? Yes. Reliable performance? No, a lot has happened since 1866, we have repeaters now. We don’t have to settle for 2 shots from a single action any more.

    The only good thing about a derringer is that you can get 2 shots of 45 in a similar size package as 6-10 shots of 9mm. That’s great for people who think that they only need 1 shot with a 45 because they never miss, and that criminals just get more angry when you shoot them with 9mm.

    No joke, I had a guy argue that 9mm sucks, but that 38 Special is a reliable man stopper.

  • valorius

    It’s better than a sharp stick.