When looking at a pepperbox pistol, one can’t help but to conjure-up nostalgic visions of a bygone era―a gambler firing upon a card cheat, a gold prospector protecting his claim against hostiles, or a Civil War soldier pulling a pistol from his boot as a last line of defense in heated battle.
Originally marketed as a ‘pocket gun’, the pepperbox earned its unique name due to its resemblance to a household pepper grinder. The first pepperbox pistols were produced around 1790, constructed with flintlock systems, and were fired by rotating the barrel by hand.
With the invention of the percussion cap, and the mass-production capabilities ushered in with the industrial revolution, pepperbox pistols became more affordable; and therefore, more accessible to the general public. The pepperbox addressed the need for an inconspicuous, easily-concealable weapon; and gamblers did use them to deliver a quick and formidable response to a card game gone wrong.
Most of the pistols were small weapons, ranging from .31 to .36 caliber. However, not all pepperboxes were small in size or caliber. For example, a dragoon pepperbox, fired up to a .44 caliber ball!
American Arms Maker, Ethan Allen
The pepperbox enjoyed a period of popularity from 1830 through the end of the Civil War. In America, the vast majority of pepperbox pistols in circulation were produced by arms maker Ethan Allen of Massachusetts.
Allen (not related to the Revolutionary War patriot, Ethan Allen) and his business partner and brother-in-law, Charles Thurber, produced the most popular multi-shot pistols of the 1830s and 1840s―including the 6-barrel pepperbox pistol. An entire book could be written about the variations of Allen’s iconic pepperbox ‘revolving pistols’―in fact, one has: Ethan Allen and Allen & Wheelock: Their Guns and Their Legacy.
The Gun That Won the East
Often referred to as ‘the gun that won the east’, the Allen and Thurber pepperbox was primarily used for civilian self-defense. A pepperbox wielding person wouldn’t “aim” the pistol, but rather “shoot from the hip,” holding the gun low and pointing at the largest area of the target in front of them. While smaller pistols were preferred by civilians, larger varieties were favored by gold prospectors of the California Gold Rush, for protection against rival prospectors, robbers, and Indians. Although intended for civilian use, many military men made private purchases of pepperbox pistols and carried them into battle as a last line of defense.
While the pepperbox had its benefits; namely concealability, self-defense, and intimidation, it had its fair share of issues. For one, most pepperboxes were made with smooth-bored barrels, which limited their range of accuracy. They were also front-heavy because of the multiple barrels, making accurate aiming difficult. Even when trying to aim, the hammer (known as a “bar-hammer pepperbox”) is directly in the line of slight.
The pepperbox was also notorious for accidental chain firing. Most pepperboxes were constructed with exposed nipples (for percussion caps) which were positioned in close proximity to each other. As a result, these pistols had a tendency to accidently fire all barrels at once.
In his semi-autobiographical book entitled “Roughing It,” Mark Twain detailed his brief encounter with an “Allen” revolver and its propensity for accidental discharge. Twain wrote,
“It was a cheerful weapon–the “Allen.” Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.”
Allen & Thurber Pepperbox in Action
Here’s a great video featuring the Allen & Thurber pepperbox in action.
With the introduction of the Colt 1873, the Peacemaker, a cartridge gun, the pepperbox fell out of favor and quickly became obsolete. However, due to their popularity throughout the better half of the 19th Century, there are plenty of surviving pieces available for collectors to purchase. The smaller caliber pepperboxes typically sell for $750 to $1,200, whereas the larger pistols sell for close to $3,000.