The song says that “bad, bad Leroy Brown” was the meanest guy in town, and he had “a .32 gun in his pocket full of fun.” Jim Croce’s 1973 hit about the ultimate “junkyard dog” mentions his penchant for an easily concealed semi-automatic for self-defense.
With the numbers of concealed carry permit holders steadily rising, gaining momentum for “Constitutional carry” laws across the nation, and vast improvements and more options for small, easily concealable firearms than ever before, now is a great time to look back at the origins and evolution of the “pocket pistol.”
Once the Chinese invented gunpowder in the early 800’s, it wasn’t long before they arrived at the idea of containing the blast of escaping gas and using them to push projectiles in a concentrated direction. The Heilongjiang E hand cannon was discovered in the 1970s and is thought to have been made prior to 1288, making it the oldest known gun in the world! Weighing only 7.83 pounds, it tips the scales at 1.5 pounds lighter than a World War II-era M1 Garand.
The first firearm mechanisms required an open flame linstock or slow-match to make the gun work. While Edward Teach – best known as Blackbeard the pirate -- didn’t mind stashing burning matches in his beard, it was considered somewhat alarming to have something smoldering away in your pocket back in the 1700’s. Wheellocks were ignition systems that produced sparks from a spring-wound spinning wheel that in turn ignited priming powder. Their large size made personal concealment somewhat of an issue, but at least you didn’t have to worry about setting yourself on fire!
Flint and steel have been lighting fires since the dawn of time (at least of man!). A nice compact and easily concealed flintlock handgun became the rage as feudalism ended in Europe and folks started to migrate around on their own volition. Of course, running around the countryside presents its own set of tribulations, namely highwaymen and bandits. This handy four-barreled gun would stand you in good stead as long as the flint mechanism actually ignited when you pulled the trigger, you didn’t encounter more than four highwaymen at any one time, and if you did, that they all stood real close together. Other than those restrictions, it was the perfect gun for self-defense.
Percussion caps made their way into the firearms field in the early 1800s, providing a dependable method of ignition for a pistol charge. New Englander Samuel Colt patented a percussion revolver in 1836, and 13 years later introduced the Colt Model 1849 “Pocket” revolver, making it perhaps the first gun ever marketed with the word “pocket” in the name. Colt made 340,000 of these in the 23 years that they were manufactured. Like American Express, you didn’t leave home without it if you were “going West young man.”
Henry Deringer was a Philadelphia-based gun maker whose name is forever associated with palm-sized, single-shot pistol used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Patent infringers – a 19th century word for copycats -- added another “R” to Deringer’s name to skirt legal issues when they copied his work and sold it worldwide. Soon his name became inexorably linked to the product he made, much like Xerox, Kleenex or Band-Aid.
John M. Browning brought untold inventions and changes to the firearms world during his lifetime. One of the finest, sleekest and best concealed carry guns ever made was designed by him in 1903. Called the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, this gem came chambered in .32ACP and in .380 calibers. Between 1903 and 1946, Colt made over 700,000 of these in both calibers. Now enjoying a resurgence of popularity, Colt is manufacturing it once again. Undoubtedly, if Leroy Brown was the classy individual that I’ve always thought he was, a Colt 1903 was the .32 gun in his “pocket full of fun.”