Derringer Match-Up: Are These Pocket Guns Right For You?
In our view, these limited-capacity pistols have limited usefulness for most shooters. Reviewed: American Derringer DA 38 and Model 1, and Bond Arms’ Texas Defender and Cowboy Defender.
Subject: Missed the boat?, or did I just miss the vote?
Dear editor: When was it determined “The derringer is the ultimate concealed carry gun,” as mentioned in your recent coming up box? I have a plethora of choices before derringers and, matter of fact, they would not be on any list for me. Ok, I will reserve further judgment until enlightened by your next issue.
And so, that’s how we begin this evaluation of four pocket guns, which, at least historically, have been viewed as appropriate carry pieces for gamblers, ne’er-do-wells, and other malcontents not manly enough to wear their iron outside their pants.
In today’s world, however, derringers are indeed marginalized firearms for people seeking to protect themselves, as “nomad223” notes above. Lightweight metals such as titanium and scandium have made revolvers not only pocket guns, but in some cases possibly even shirt-pocket guns (at least in terms of heft). Double-action wheelguns offer more capacity and easier handling than derringers, we found in a recent test. Ditto that with small-frame pistols.
So why bother with these throwbacks to the riverboat era? Mainly because they’re fun, at least in concept, and because they have some application in Cowboy Action Shooting.
Three of our derringers were similar; the fourth, American Derringer’s DA 38, is a double-action gun, to our knowledge the only such derringer currently made. This derringer is not acceptable for cowboy action because it does not have an external hammer, but if you prefer a double-action pistol, then this one would be the best choice for personal protection, in our view.
How We Tested
Because of the limited samples in this segment, we tested a variety of handguns chambered for different cartridges. Two guns fired either .38 Specials or .357 Magnums, the aforementioned American Derringer DA 38 and the Bond Arms Cowboy Defender, $359. They cost $475 and $359 respectively. Also, we shot the American Derringer Model 1 in .45 LC/.410 shotshell, $423; and the Bond Arms Texas Defender, $359 in the same chambering.
As you can see in the accompanying Accuracy & Chronograph table, we didn’t collect accuracy data as we normally do. Our standard of accuracy for this test was more diffuse, owing to the nature of the guns. We required them to put both shots onto a paper silhouette target at 7 yards. All of the guns did that, including the guns that fired shotshells.
Our test ammos for the .38/.357s were Winchester’s .38 Special Cowboy Load, which carries a 158-grain roundnose lead projectile; Federal Classic .357 Magnum 158-grain Hi-Shok JHPs; and Cor-Bon .357 Magnum 125-grain JHPs. In the larger guns, we shot Winchester’s .45 Colt 225-grain Silvertip HPs; Hornady .45 Colt Frontier 255-grain roundnose lead bullets; and the Cor-Bon .45 Colt 200-grain JHP. The shotshells we used included Winchester’s Super X .410 Shotshell loaded with 000 buckshot and the Rexio .410 Shotshell 00 buckshot load.
Upfront we can say that the only loads that were much fun to shoot were the .38 Specials. The short grips on these derringers transferred all the recoil energy from the round into the shooter’s hand in a most unpleasant manner. But the .357 Magnum and .45 LC loads from Cor-Bon were the worst, in one case breaking the grips on the American Derringer gun. In depth, here’s what we thought of the guns:
American Derringer DA 38, .38 Sp./.357 Mag., $475
In addition to the single-action M-1 .45 Colt/.410 reviewed below, Lightweight and Ultra Lightweight versions of some models are available, and they weigh only 7.5 ounces. The M-4 Alaskan Survival gun is also offered in .45 Colt/.410. The Lady Derringer is stocked in .38 Special or .32 Magnum. The larger Model 6 shoots the .45 Colt/.410 combo, too. The DA 38 Double Action, however, stands out from the rest of the AD products because of its internal hammer.
Our gun weighed 14.5 ounces and held two shots, of course. It had a satin stainless finish on the barrel, receiver, and internal parts. The grip frame was aluminum. The grips were rosewood, but walnut or other hardwoods are available. The gun measured 4.85 inches in overall length and was 1.1 inches thick. It had a hammer block thumb safety and automatic ammunition extractor.
Handling the DA 38 required a different hand position than what we’re accustomed to. Putting the index finger on the trigger made the gun sit too far up in the hand. The ring finger and the pinkie were completely under the grip. Instead, using the middle finger to pull the trigger made the gun sit firmly in the palm, which itself had its pluses and minuses, as we’ll discuss shortly. Also, this grip allowed the right thumb to work the safety, a sizable button which is located on the left side of the gun. Pushed up, the safety blocks the function of the hammer and trigger. It is a vital part of the gun, considering that the AD product lacks a trigger guard. Here’s why.
During any handling of the gun, such as loading and unloading, it’s easy to sweep your hands with the muzzle, and it’s easy to grasp the trigger while the gun sits in your palm. Though we don’t like to rely on a safety to keep us safe, using this one is imperative in the safe operation of the gun, in our view.
Loading the DA 38 was easier than some of the other guns, we thought. With the safety engaged (which is stressed in the owner’s manual), raise the locking latch and pull the back of the barrels upward. This exposes the chambers. Two rounds can be dropped in fairly easily, and without pointing the barrels at your feet. The bottom barrel is a little tougher to load because the extractor partially blocks access to the lower hole, especially with the barrels facing away from the shooter. The barrels need to be opened about 60 degrees.
It’s easier to hold the gun in the right hand and point it across the body, with the barrels pointing toward the left. The shooter then presses down on the latch/barrel and closes the breech. To reload the pistol, the shooter simply pulls up on the lever mounted on top of the pistol at the rear of the barrels and the extractor pulls the shells out of the barrel, where they can be plucked out or shaken loose.
With ammo aboard, we found the gun was comfortable to shoot with .38 Special ammo, somewhat painful to shoot with Federal .357 Magnums, and unbearable to shoot with Cor-Bon .357s. In fact the recoil was so stout with the Cor-Bon ammo that the right-side wood grip split in two. The wood grips on this gun were thinner than on all the rest, presumably to make it easier to conceal in your pocket.
As we noted earlier, we gripped the gun with a standard hold using the index finger to work the trigger, but we found it more comfortable to shoot using the second pad of the middle finger on the trigger and the index finger curled under the barrels. However, it was very easy to extend the index finger alongside the barrel, subjecting the finger to damage from muzzle blast.
The hold we used enabled the butt of the gun to be centered in the palm of the hand, which allowed the recoil to be spread over a greater area. It also meant there was no other place for the recoil forces to go. We didn’t much like shooting the gun with .357 Magnums, and it’s likely we wouldn’t cotton to the other available chambering in .40 S&W caliber.
The top barrel was sandblasted to reduce glare off the shiny stainless surface, but the sights were so abbreviated that we didn’t see much need for the treatment. The front sight was part of the barrel, and the rear sight was a notch cut into the loading latch. What needed sandblasting was the rear of the loading latch, which caused glare so bad the shooter couldn’t see the rear notch. But we recognize this gun was made for close in work, so the sights aren’t that important anyway.
The trigger was spongy and required a lot of force to cycle—more than 10 pounds for each barrel. In one way, that’s good, because without a trigger guard, you damn sure don’t want that exposed trigger to hang on anything and shoot a hole in your behind. The wide, slick trigger shoe sometimes caught the pad of the middle finger between the shoe and the frame; or, depending on where the finger was positioned, the skin between the second and third pads sometimes caught.
The gun comes with a limited one-year warranty, or the owner can purchase a five-year warranty for $30 or a 10-year warranty for $65. A complete parts diagram is supplied with the gun.
American Derringer Model 1 .45 Colt/.410, $423
In the 1800s, one of the most sought after self-protection guns was the .41 rimfire Remington derringer, a classic design that fits into the palm of the shooter’s hand. In period movies, it is often the gun that’s tucked into a gambler’s sleeve at a poker table or in a cowboy’s vest as a backup in a gun fight. Also, these little derringers are often depicted as fitting in ladies’ draw-string purses or in garter belts.
American Derringer expanded on the concept of the old .41 Remington derringer by making its stainless-steel derringers in 26 calibers as listed on the company website, and many different models, ranging from .38 Special to a .357 Magnum, to a .45-70 caliber, to a .22 Long Rifle or Magnum. AD’s website lists the M1 as the company’s “most popular gun.” In one form or another, the concept has been around for over 100 years.
Frankly, we have to wonder why. The Model 1 .45 Colt/.410 shotshell break-open action is very difficult to operate. There is a lever on the right side of the gun that needs to be rotated 180 degrees to open the action, but before you rotate the lever, most of the time you also need to push in on the pin on the left side of the gun to free the lever. The barrels rotate approximately 160 degrees to open, and on our sample, they were stiff to open and close—so much so, we had to place our hands very near the muzzle to gain enough leverage to move them.
Also, an unsafe condition could exist if you loaded the gun and forgot to rotate the locking lever. The gun could fire with the breech unlocked if the trigger were pulled. After the gun is fired, you must manually push on the extractor to extract the shells. On our sample, the barrels rotate approximately 160 degrees and they were stiff to open and close.
Once loaded, there were other complications. The hammer is not a rebounding design, so the firing pin rests on the primer of the cartridge unless you follow the directions provided with the gun. The hammer should be placed in the half cock position before loading. If the hammer is pulled back slightly past the half-cock position, the spring-loaded crossbolt safety can be engaged. When the hammer is pulled back, the safety automatically comes off.
In our view, this gun has some advantages over the Bond arms guns reviewed below. We think it is truer to the design of the guns used in the Old West (except for the stainless steel), and if because of some Cowboy rule the manual safety has to be engaged, then we think you could get off a quicker first shot with the American Derringer. Also, the gun is lighter (15 ounces) and smaller than the Bond gun (19 ounces), so it has a slight advantage in concealability and ease of carry.
Once loaded and cocked, the Model 1 required some effort to fire. We measured the trigger pull weight at 8.5 pounds, and there was hesitation at the beginning of take up. We used a standard grip on this gun, but we wished for more grip room, with the bottom two fingers hanging off the rounded, slick grip. Also, the hammer dug into the web of the hand as we prepared to shoot.
The gun has to be sent back to the factory to have other barrels changed for a different caliber and then they cannot be easily changed back. The Hornady Cowboy loads had moderate recoil, the Winchester defensive ammo had heavy recoil, and the shotgun shells fell in between. The Cor-Bon ammo’s recoil was so heavy as to be unbearable in this gun, we felt.
Like on the other AD gun, the fixed sights are part of the barrels. But the rear notch was easier to see on this gun due to the satin stainless finish. The gun was 4.82 inches long, of which 3 inches was barrel. It was 3.35 inches tall and the frame was 0.9 inch thick. The grip was 1.2 inches thick.
Bond Arms Texas Defender .38 Special/.357 Magnum, $359
Bond Arms Cowboy Defender .45 Colt/.410, $359
These are basically the same gun, except that the Texas Defender has a removable trigger guard and the Cowboy Defender does not. We much preferred the Texas version, and most of our comments here reflect our handling of that gun.
The two Defenders (model BACD for the Cowboy and BATD for the Texas) had a 3-inch barrels and weighed 19 ounces. They measured 5 inches in length. The stocks were laminated black ash, and rosewood is available. The sights are a front blade and a fixed rear notch. The barrels are interchangeable and have automatic extractors, except for models chambered in 9mm, .40 S&W, 10mm, and .450 Bond Super/.45 ACP). We counted 16 different chamberings Bond offers.
These guns have rebounding hammers and retracting firing pins, along with crossbolt safeties. A spring-loaded cammed locking lever allows for a tight barrel/frame fit and rapid loading and unloading. The gun is made of stainless steel with a satin polish finish. The .45 Colt/.410 chamber is 2.5 inches long and rifled.
Operating these guns was markedly easier than the ADs, we thought. To open the action, the shooter pressed down (about 30 degrees) on the spring loaded lever on the left-hand side of the gun and the barrels pop open from the bottom. The barrels easily rotate a full 180 degrees to the open position. After you load the gun, the shooter simply pushed the barrels down and they automatically locked closed. This makes it safer and quicker to reload than the American Derringer single action, we thought.
The extractors are spring loaded so you do not have to push on the lever to extract the shells as you have to on the AD. This gun has retracting firing pins so they will not rest on the bullet primers. There is a safety locking device (SLD) built into the crossbolt safety. You just use a supplied allen wrench and tighten the set screw. That locks the crossbolt safety in the safe position. The AD Model 1 had no such feature.
The barrels are completely and quickly interchangeable by the owner. You just turn one set screw with a supplied Allen wrench and slide in the new barrel set. There is a slight amount of left-to-right play in the barrels, which effectively moves your rear sight left and right, but it is so slight that it makes no difference at defensive shooting distances. In fact, we did not feel the need to accuracy test these pistols beyond verifying that all shots fired from 7 feet would go into a 9-inch circle, which they did in all cases. That also held true for the 00 buckshot .410 shotgun shells. We saw four holes spread out over a 5-inch area on the target. As a self-defense round, the .410’s tight four-shot distribution would likely be a show-stopper.
As we noted before, the Texas Defender’s trigger guard protects the trigger from being accidentally depressed and helps you keep better control of the gun after it has been fired. In our testing, the Hornady .38 Special Cowboy loads were very comfortable to shoot, the Winchester Self Defense ammo had moderate recoil, the shotgun shells had less recoil than the self defense ammo, but more than the cowboy loads. Of course, the Cor-Bon ammo had very heavy, but bearable, recoil in these guns. We attributed this difference in felt recoil to the Bond guns’ wider backstrap and slightly longer grip, which allowed two fingers to gain purchase on the grip instead of one. However, we noted the same problem with the hammer eating into the web of the shooting hand like we found on the AD gun. All in all, the Bond gun is significantly more comfortable to shoot, in our view.
As far as added value on the Bond guns, the latch used to open the barrels can be put on the opposite side of the gun for left-handed shooters for $15, a service not available on the American Derringer. Bond Arms also offers your SASS membership number as the gun’s serial number for $25 extra.
Gun Tests Recommends
Bond Arms Texas Defender .38 Special/.357 Magnum, $359. Don’t Buy this or the others for self-defense. There are simply better, more modern guns out there that make more sense than a derringer, in our view. If we wanted a Cowboy Action derringer, the Texas Defender, whose trigger guard can be removed, would be Our Pick.
Bond Arms Cowboy Defender .45 Colt/.410, $359. Conditional Buy. We think the Texas Defender gun is the better Cowboy design from this company.
American Derringer DA 38, $475. Conditional Buy. If you have to have a derringer for self-defense, this double-action model is easier to use than the single actions. But it wouldn’t be our pick for this job.
American Derringer Model 1 .45 Colt/.410, $423. Don’t Buy. For Cowboy shooting, we like the Bond Arms Texas Defender much better and the Cowboy Defender somewhat better. For derringer self-defense, we like the American Derringer DA 38 better.