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Friday, December 7, 2012



Sneaky little pop gun

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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.

Racking what passes for my brains, I came up with various instances of Westerns where derringers are used.

In Enter the Lone Ranger (Apex/ABC), the 1947 pilot TV film, Butch Cavendish (Glenn Strange the Great), the bad guy, pulls one on our hero when cornered. Typical. In the 1981 remake he had a knife, which isn't the same at all.

The evil Butch Cavendish pulls a pocket pistol on the Lone Ranger. Swine.

Similarly, Humphrey Bogart, no less, miscast as a Mexican bandit in Warner Brothers' 1940 Errol Flynn/Randolph Scott Western Virginia City, tries to hold up his fellow stage passengers with one. Little does he know that Errol has surreptitiously unloaded it.

Bandit Bogie uses one

In Silverado (Columbia, 1985), Slick, the slimy gambler in fancy frock coat, pulls one.

Slick. Well named.
Maybe he was quoting the cheating gambler in Rio Bravo (Warner Bros, 1959) who also has one. Chance and Colorado take it away from him. 
Chance & Colorado disarm the gambler
Another gambler who uses what the heavy in the movie, Neville Brand, calls "the tinhorn's little popgun" is Frank Faylen in the 1954 B-Western, The Lone Gun. The derringer actually plays an important part in the plot. Excellent.

Gambler Frank Faylen has to check his derringer behind the bar in The Lone Gun
Talking of bars, in Denver and Rio Grande (Paramount, 1952) the barman subdues a whole saloon fight with one! He seems to think it's a scatter gun.
In the 1932 version of Law and Order, the derringer is shown and explained. "This here is called a derringer", says the fat gambler. "It looks a might girlish", is the reply. "No, it's a handy weapon," rebuts the owner.

In a Tombstone saloon
Horrible Gene Hackman, cruel boss of the town, pulls one on Russell Crowe in The Quick And The Dead (Columbia Tristar, 1995).
Horrible Hackman, evil town boss
In The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937), 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.
In Jesse James at Bay (Republic, 1941), a Roy Rogers picture, TWO characters try to get the drop on Roy with derringers. Great. A two-derringer picture, that's really something.
In War Drums, Ben Johnson tells his friend, "You won't be needing that pea-shooter, Judge." The Indians are friendly, you see.

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.

Bad guys Donlevy, Preston, Quinn ready to do in Joel McCrea

And let's not forget that in Gunfight at the OK Corral, arch-baddy Lee Van Cleef tries to get Doc Holliday with a derringer in his boot! Unfortunately he's right handed but hid it in his left boot. Doh.

Lee tries to get the drop on Doc

In fact a badman named Dan Blackmore (Edward Norris) tried to draw a derringer on Wyatt, the fool, in an earlier Wyatt/Doc picture, Frontier Marshal (1939) so maybe John Sturges was quoting that.

In the 1996 HBO movie The Cherokee Kid, the Kid, played by Sinbad, goes for villain James Coburn with a very nifty four-shot pepperbox. Nice one.


In a 1953 episode of The Range Rider called Outlaw Pistols, 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.
Made of soap!
And derringers featured often in jailbreaks. 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 in on the dinner tray. Of course she fails.

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.
The evil banker shoots the even eviler rancher woman with one in The Bushwhackers (Realart Pictures, 1951). The perfect user of a derringer and the perfect victim because she really deserved it.

In Wagon Trail, a Harry Carey Sr. movie of 1935, the villain Collins uses a derringer (typical) and the popgun plays an important part in the last scene.
Harry Carey Sr. examines derringer disgustedly
In Wild Bill (1995) there are derringers galore (and don't you think derringers galore is a lovely phrase?): the whore Lurline shoots the ear off a miner with one, Wild Bill pulls one on Jack McCall in the opium den and Jack even does for Bill in the No. 10 not with a single action Colt, as per history, but, yes, with a derringer. Whore, gambler, assassin. Classic.
The English competitor in the horse-race Western Bite the Bullet (Columbia, 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.

Hope the poor beast didn't suffer

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 (UA, 1955).

Claude about to take a sneaky shot at Bob

Then of course 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 (Warner Bros, 1974).
Hedley and sidekick Slim Pickens
See? It’s the bad guys. Outlaw Bill Doolin had one:

Looks a bit basic...

And of course John Wilkes Booth used one:

 The Gun ~
It did for Abe
Wild Bill Hickok 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.

Williamson .41 derringer as used by Wild Bill Hickok
Buffalo Bill Cody tried to imitate Wild Bill in many things. He too ordered a pair of .41 pocket pistols from Henry Deringer in 1865.

The guy in Law and Order was right. 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.

Cat has one
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. That's my kinda gal.


 A derringer means a lady gets what she wants from John Payne. The Eagle and the Hawk (1950).

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.

Lady's purse gun

It is said that lawman Bear River Tom Smith, enforcing a no-gun ordinance in Abilene, toured the Abilene red light district and came back with a wheelbarrow full of ladies’ derringers. Now that I would like to have seen.

A derringer does an awful lot of damage from under the table in Rio Lobo:

How a lady deals with gunmen
Frenchie Fontaine (Shelley Winters) uses one in Frenchie (1950).

Angie Dickinson has one in The Last Challenge.

Angie gets ready for the saloon

http://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.fr/2017/06/john-wayne.html John Wayne seems amused by a woman's derringer in Red River:

What are you doing with a toy like this? he seems to be saying

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 there to establish the actress/singer's bona fides as tough guy ready to use firearms if the need arose.

Yup, the ladies liked them alright.

In the great TV Deadwood, obviously Cy Tolliver would have one, being a sneaky gambler and slimy saloon owner. But various saloon gals have them too.

Nasty Cy. Derringer the obvious weapon.
Spaghetti westerns loved them. For an example, Lee Van Cleef’s in E' tornato Sabata...hai chiuso un'altra volta (Artemis, 1971). Yul had a triple-barreled one in Adios Sabata (UA, 1971).

Triple-barreled. Actually, I think it might be a Volcanic.

Colonel Mortimer would have to have one in For a Few Dollars More:

Col. Mortimer prepares to face El Indio

A matched pair in Lucky Luke (2009):

Derringers play a key part in Django Unchained, I am happy to say. Good for Mr. Tarantino.

However, just to prove the rule, very occasionally a good guy would use one. It was rare, but it did happen.

Marshal Randolph Scott deals with the evil gunny Dingo Brion with a derringer fired from underneath the barber's sheet in A Lawless Street. Paladin famously carried one as a back-up in Have Gun, Will Travel. And arms salesman-turned-sheriff Kenneth More demonstrated a spring-powered one in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (Fox, 1958). In fact Fractured Jaw might be the best derringer movie ever. If you haven't seen it yet, remedy that now.

Handy for a gambler though hardly a sheriff's weapon

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!

And there was James West's similar sleeve derringer in The Wild, Wild West. He also had one hidden in a boot heel.

What a heel
There was the TV series Yancy Derringer, starring Jock Mahoney, 34 thirty-minute episodes in 1958/9. It was all New Orleans and frock coats and crinolines.

Fancy Yancey
Of course in Cat Ballou (Columbia, 1965) it wasn’t only Cat who had a derringer. Jed rescued his partner with one, the gun hidden in a Bible. That idea was copied by Preacher Robert Mitchum in 5 Card Stud (Paramount, 1968). As if derringers weren’t sneaky enough. To hide one in a Bible!

Derringer in a Bible?
A (semi)hero who used a derringer was Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset (Universal, 1961). It was an unlikely weapon for a gunfighter but he carried it off.

Gunfighter with a derringer? Well, ...
But of course the final proof that a Western hero could use a derringer, if rarely, was the fact that John Wayne (gasp) has one in Big Jake.

When setting off to recover his kidnaped 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 indeed it comes in handy in the last reel...

Actually, you couldn’t hit much with one, not unless you were very close. In a quite good ten-minute video on YouTube, an expert hits with only one of the two shots at 15 yards, and (just) hits twice at seven yards.

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.

A seven-shot .22 derringer. Wow.
Some people give these 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 pistol was subsequently made by various manufacturers, notably Remington. Soon derringer became a generic name 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”.

I’m sure there are many other Westerns with derringers in. I can’t think of one for the moment but doubtless I’ll think of others. Let me know if you know of any.

But ten to one the users will be gamblers, bad guys or saloon women. It was part of their basic equipment.



1 comment:

  1. In the movie, "5 Card Draw," a derringer hidden in a bible plays a major role.