Some people’s names come to be used as the names of things, like Ah Bing and the Bing Cherry. That’s the case with “derringer,” which means a very small pistol.
The original derringer was invented in 1852 in Philadelphia. The inventor was Henry Deringer (1786-1868). The inventor’s name, with a slight change in spelling, came to be used for the whole category. Deringer’s invention was a specific gun, a one-shot percussion cap pistol. A percussion cap ignited the gunpowder when the trigger was pulled, a new technology at the time.
His design was widely copied. It is not clear how the pistol was marketed, but the pistol’s small size means it could be hidden in a pocket or purse.
The actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth carried one of these pistols. On April 15, 1865, Booth entered behind the box seats occupied by President Abraham Lincoln and his party. They were watching a performance of the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Booth pulled out his derringer and shot Lincoln.
Apparently one of the first newspaper stories about the assassination misspelled Deringer’s name, when it referred to the type of weapon used, and it has been “derringer” ever since. Derringers are still being manufactured and sold, although the technology has advanced far beyond Henry Deringer’s percussion cap system.
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