Pocket Pistol Roundup Part 1

Pocket Pistol Roundup Part 1

The CO2 subcompacts

By Dennis Adler

“Pocket Pistol” is an incredibly old terminology that dates back to the Old West, actually, even further if you consider Henry Deringer’s small, single shot pocket models which were introduced in the 1830s, and small pistol designs by famous armsmakers like Christian Sharps (of Sharp’s Rifle fame), who managed to put four barrels into a pocket-sized pistol, and of course, Samuel Colt, whose first production revolver, the c.1836 No.1 Paterson, was small enough to fit in the palm of your hand! “Pocket Pistol” is a term that has been liberally thrown around for a very, very long time.

For revolvers, Pocket Pistols began with Samuel Colt and his first handgun, the No. 1 or Baby Paterson, which was available in .28 and .31 caliber versions. Comparatively small but more than adequate for a pistol one could hide in a vest pocket or palm from seemingly out of nowhere. Fitted with a 2-1/2 inch barrel, the gun was barely the size of a man’s hand and weighed less than 12 ounces.

It is fair to say that Samuel Colt invented the pocket pistol as a revolver. His 1836 Paterson No. 1 was new to a world dominated by single shot pistols, and was not as well received as Colt had hoped. Production of the tiny pocket model ended in 1839 after roughly 490 guns had been manufactured and then it took until 1846 for them to sell out. Of course, Colt had larger models in .36 caliber which were a success, but his first company in Paterson, New Jersey, nevertheless went into receivership in 1841 and the remaining Colt models were sold by John Elhers, who purchased the company’s assets. Colt’s fortunes would be realized in 1847 with the new .44 caliber Walker revolver, and by 1855 he had established the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co. Interestingly, after building the .44 caliber Walker and 1st Model Dragoon, his next gun was a pocket pistol, the Model 1848, chambered in .31 caliber.   

Aside from revolvers and single shot Deringer pistols, the Sharps Patent four-barrel, .32 caliber Pepperbox Derringer was one of the most successful small, multi-barrel pistols of the 1860s and 1870s. Designed by Christian Sharps in 1859 and manufactured through 1874, this is a deluxe cased C. Sharps Tipping & Lawden version with silver plated factory engraved frame and grips. (Mike Clark Collection, Collector’s Firearms)
The one view of the .32 caliber C. Sharps Pepperbox you didn’t want to see was this. In the 1950’s television western Yancy Derringer actor Jock Mahoney played a suave New Orleans gambler living in the French Quarter. The show was set in the post Civil War 1860s and Yancy was actually an undercover agent working for the city to uncover corruption in New Orleans. Yancy was usually armed with only a sword cane and a pair of C. Sharps pistols. (Photo courtesy Doug Abbott and westerntvphotos.com)

Small guns in variously sized pockets

The further back in time you go, the larger pockets become. That’s one you have probably never heard before, but it is true; jacket, trouser, and vest pockets were considerably larger 150 years ago, even into the early 20th century. Many pocket pistols in the past, though small, were better suited to the pockets of the era. I am, of course, referring to revolvers, until the early 1900s when small semi-autos like the .25 caliber Colt Hammerless Vest Pocket Pistol came into use for discrete personal protection.  

Sam Colt may have invented the pocket revolver, but he wasn’t alone in the world of small caliber pocket pistols, and his greatest early competitor was E. Remington & Sons, which was among the first to convert their percussion pistols to load metallic cartridges. A deluxe 5-shot, .32 caliber rimfire model like the example shown, would have cost $17.50 in the early 1870s.
Smith & Wesson had patented the first cartridge loading revolvers and the .22 Short rimfire cartridge just before the Civil War. The first model with a “tip-up” barrel held seven rounds. It was followed by the .32 caliber rimfire model No. 1-1/2 and larger .32 caliber No. 2, the first mass production metallic cartridge revolvers made in the U.S. By the 1880s, S&W’s topbreak DAO revolvers, like this factory engraved example, were world class pocket pistols with an average overall length of just 6-3/4 inches.

Later in the 20th century you get to models like the 1930’s Walther PPK and Soviet Makarov (Russia’s c.1951 Cold War era counterpart to the PPK), and other small guns in calibers like 9mm Browning (.380 ACP, which date back to Browning’s design for the Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless, a gun that was small for its time). For revolvers, the .38 S&W caliber was among the most successful. Browning’s .32 ACP (designed in 1903) and .380 ACP (1908) for pocket-sized semiautomatic pistols were the most practical throughout the early to mid 20th century, along with comparable European calibers like 9x18mm (equivalent to the .380), 7.63×25mm Mauser, and 7.65mm (equivalent to .32 ACP).

In 1908 Colt introduced the John M. Browning designed Model 1908 Vest Pocket Hammerless semi-auto pistol in .25 ACP. The 6-shot pistol was advertised by Colt as a personal protection firearm that was safe to carry with a chambered round. It was so successful, that the 1908 remained in production until 1946.

The Air Pistol Connection

Much of this leads to some fairly authentic early 20th century and more current semi-autos that have been recreated as CO2 model in what can be regarded as the “Pocket Pistol” category.

Today, the closest we have to pocket pistols in CO2 are blowback action models like the Gletcher Makarov PM 1951 (back left), Umarex Walther PPK/S, back right), Umarex Walther PPS (left center), Umarex Beretta 84FS (bottom center) and the smallest of the lot and a true pocket pistol, the Sig Sauer P365 (far right).

It is a fairly short list headed by the Umarex Walther PPK/S, the first blowback action CO2 model – an anemic BB pistol that still has its allure – the Makarov (PM 1951), which had been recreated by Gletcher and Umarex in two models, the Umarex Beretta Model 84FS, Umarex Walther PPS/PPS M2, and most recently, the Sig Sauer P365 (which shares its velocity anemia with the old Umarex PPK/S, but delivers it in a much more authentic looking package). These are the smallest blowback action models overall and fall into the pocket pistol category from the 1930s to the present. I know someone is saying, “Why not put the Dan Wesson 2-1/2 inch revolver in this group?” The large grips blow it out of contention, but these five semi-autos stack up quite nice, literally.

In Part 2 we will see how these five blowback action CO2 models stack up for size, handling, and performance. The guns are all priced well under $100 and some like the PPK/S, a little more than $50. They are small guns with small prices, but most with big gun quality.

In Part 2, I will run a model by model comparison to find the best overall CO2 “Pocket Pistol” on the market.

11 thoughts on “Pocket Pistol Roundup Part 1

  1. Haven’t shot theUmarex Makarov recently , but both that pistol and the Beretta 84 are fun to shoot , have good blowback , are accurate and have around 350 plus fps velocity. Both put the old ppk/s and the new Sig to shame in the velocity dept. The Sig is limited by its size but there is no reason a co2 improved version of the Walther could not be produced. it seems Umarex has no desire to offer new replica pocket pistol handguns , even historical ones that while they might seem large today, still loom large in historical significance. That supposedly was one of the reasons to produce historical replicas



    • I think given the size of the Sig Sauer P365 it should be possible to build a Colt Mustang or for Sig to simply work out the logistics of adapting P365 CO2 technology and build a Sig Sauer P238 or slightly larger P239. From a purely historic gun point of view, I’d really prefer the slightly larger Colt Model 1903 Hammerless as a true classic early ear pocket pistol.


      • I think the Colt 1903 should be numero uno in the R&D department. It is of sufficient size to take a 12 gm cartridge,Large enough to shoot well at air gun range, but most of all an affordable piece of history. I could see a nickel engraved model with mother of pearlite grips, as well as standard nickel and drum roll please, a parkerized General Officers Model



    • It was memorable because of the guns and the Lone Ranger and Tonto kind of relationship between Jock Mahoney as Yancy and X Brands as Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wha. The show ran from October 2, 1958 through September 24, 1959. It was an era in television westerns when shows came and went in a year or two but even some of the short-lived shows like Yancy Derringer left a lasting memory. A couple of others with short runs were Temple Houston starring Jeffrey Hunter, only 26 episodes, and Klondike with Ralph Taeger, only 18 episodes. Everything couldn’t be Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Wagon Train. But they are all good memories.


  2. Legends Makarov is fun and good as an at home trainer for Bersa .380. Wish the PPK/S had better performance specs. Sig P365 Air Pistol is a recent acquisition just because of its being the smallest co2 available. It approximates the size and weight of my .32 acp and .22 lr pocket pistols. Would like to see Colt 1903/Mustang, Sig 238, or Beretta Jetfire sized airgun. Would accept 8g co2 with fewer shots if that woud facilitate true pocket sized replica pistols and J frame sized revolvers.


    • Ditto those suggestions, could see the Beretta 918 with full size co2, Ruger LCP2, but my nod would be for the Colt 1903, and the Sig 238/Colt Mustang. With the plus one mag it could be done. I would add some other historic pocket pistols like Sauer 38h, Mauser HSC, and Beretta 1934


  3. Interesting remind about the 8gr bottle.
    Since the technology exists it would be a great solution for co2 action handguns.
    Even high power ones. I for one would be happy to accept a pistol shooting 17 pellets at 5fpe (one magazine), and then having to reload with a new set. Maybe it’s time for large companies to understand that their discriminating customers are leading the masses and the times that we live are in favour of the best substitutes for firearms, since real ones are getting difficult to have and use.


  4. Some mistakenly think that James Bond’s pre Walther Ppk Pistol was the little Beretta Jetfire. Not so. It was the much larger Beretta 418, that looks large enough for a blowback replica pistol



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