Allen & Thurber Pepperbox at RIA

If the Colt Paterson was the high-end classy choice for a sidearm in the mid-1800s, the Allen & Thurber pepperbox would have been the simple working man’s alternative. While Colt was working for military contracts, Allen & Thurber ignored that market in favor of producing an affordable civilian sidearm in large volume.

The basic idea of a pepperbox is like a revolver, but with the cylinder comprising a cluster of full-length barrels instead of just chambers lining up with a single barrel in turn. This made the pepperbox a simpler weapon to manufacture, as it did not have the precise alignment requirements of a traditional revolver. Allen & Thurber’s examples were further simplified by having no sights and smooth bored, and being double action only.

These were not the tool of professional gunmen, but they were simple, cheap (a quarter the cost of a Colt), and effective enough at close range. Allen & Thurber sold a huge number of them (exact numbers are not known, as they were not serialized) during the 1830s, 40s, and 50s and made a very tidy profit in the process. The end of the pepperbox came as metallic cartridges were becoming common place, as there was no easy way to convert the from muzzleloading to cartridge use, and cheap revolvers would take their place as the stereotypical working man’s handgun.


  1. “Pepperbox”
    Was pepperbox design more or less vulnerable to chain-fire (igniting powder in more than 1 chamber at one time) than cap-and-ball revolvers?

    • Probably more, seeing as the darned thing tended to pepper everything in front when the rear ends wore down. The pepper box could aim for the tree but kill the cow about twenty feet to the left of the tree. Guess where I got part of the previous statement.

      • “Guess where I got part of the previous statement.”
        From Mark Twain, in original it was about Smith & Wesson seven-shooter, according to
        I was armed to the teeth with a pitiful little Smith & Wesson’s seven-shooter, which carried a ball like a homopathic pill, and it took the whole seven to make a dose for an adult. But I thought it was grand. It appeared to me to be a dangerous weapon. It had only one fault–you could not hit anything with it. One of our ‘conductors’ practiced awhile on a cow with it, and as long as she stood still and behaved herself she was safe; but as soon as she went to moving about, and he got to shooting at other things, she came to grief.

        • Now I see that there is also quote about Allen “pepperbox” which states low accuracy of this weapon:
          “[George Bemis:] If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow.

          and also vulnerability to chain-fire:
          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.

        • Also, from The Luck of Roaring Camp;

          “I should have shot that long, gangly lubber they called Hank if’n I could’ve done it without crippling six or seven others, but of course I couldn’t, the old Allen bein’ so consarned comprehensive.”

          The difference is that unlike a “conventional” revolver, a gangfire from a pepperbox has nothing in front of the muzzles to be damaged, or to impede the bullets’ departure. As such, such a multiple discharge acts much like the discharge of a volley gun, “duck’s-foot” pistol, or a shotgun or blunderbuss.

          No real risk to the shooter except maybe a sprained wrist from the recoil. Standing in front of it is a different matter entirely.



    • Either way. Allen and other pepperbox makers would sell you a single pistol, one with a powder flask, bullet mould, etc., or a cased set of two with all necessary cleaning and loading gear. It all depended on your wants and the size of your pocketbook.

      What no one ever seems to have come up with was any sort of holster for one of these things. Which is odd in that some of them, notably those in calibers above .40, were a bit big for the average coat pocket, which was the Allen’s intended “habitat” when in use.

      Keep in mind that the pepperbox was purely and simply a self-defense gun. It was not intended for hunting, target shooting, dueling, or anything except stopping and/or killing an attacker at point-blank range.

      It had much the same function as typical Derringer of the original percussion type, about the same effective range, but less power shot-per-shot due to its generally smaller bore.

      In terms of muzzle velocity, which at 500 F/S or less wasn’t anything to shout about by our standards, they were about even, but the Derringer generally fired a bigger, heavier ball, .41 caliber or so.

      Some pepperboxes were .45 caliber, with only four or five barrels. Most of them were single-action, thumb-cocked, and the barrels had to be turned by hand.

      In terms of concealment, hiding a live moose in your refrigerator would probably be easier.



      • Pity there are no moose where I live, but perhaps a falling-block action pistol would have some usability in defense shooting. Some turn up at Khyber Pass… I’m pretty sure that would pack a nasty punch in one’s pocket prior to the introduction of Magnum revolvers.

        • The old Remington Rolling Block single-shot pistols bought by the U.S. Army and Navy in the immediate post-Civil War period came in either .50 rimfire or .50 centerfire. Either way, they launched a 265-grain bullet at about 880 F/S for about 470 FPE. Or about the power of an average .357 Magnum load out of a 4″ revolver barrel today.

          The reason we were still fooling around with single-shots was that senior Army officers, mainly cavalrymen, were of the Napoleonic school, and felt that the recent war had been an “aberration”, and that single-shot pistols and the saber were the only “proper weapons” for “proper European-style” warfare.

          I’ve often wondered how many of them were still around to read despatches from the Boxer Rebellion, Second Boer War, Russo-Japanese War, etc., when the machine gun made their cherished charges with glittering lance tips, and the arme blanche flashing in the sun, as obsolete as a Greek phalanx.

          To say nothing of the effects of the machine gun and artillery from 1914 to 1918.

          They say army generals are always fully prepared to fight the previous war. In the latter half of the 19th Century, most generals in the “developed” countries seemed to be assuming that the next war would look more like Salamanca or Waterloo than Gettysburg, Vicksburg or Richmond.

          Even Plevna didn’t disabuse them of the notion, apparently. And all the Turks had were Winchesters.

          OK, about 30,000 Winchesters.



          • And some of the Turkish Winchesters were modified to have water jackets because they were heavy snipers at the city walls.

            You’re right about “more firepower=throw away traditional warfare” issues stemming from the disbelief that anyone (at least in Western Europe) would eschew old-fashioned chivalry for industrialized might. Basically, let’s see the battle sequence in episode two from the anime adaptation of Gate: Jieitai Kano Chi Nite Kaku Tatakaeri.

            The medieval hordes get annihilated by artillery and flak before they can see the people who counter-invaded their world in retaliation for the former invading the latter’s world. Said medieval hordes had invaded modern “pacifist” Japan, and look at what happened. Gettysburg nothing, this was the Somme! Honorable warfare be damned, Japan learned the hard way that industrialized armies cannot stick with combat techniques and strategies found in medieval history unless the other team is still stuck in the Middle Ages, and there is no guarantee that one’s enemies are spear-toting maniacs with face paint and grass skirts (no offense to any ethnicity that seems to resemble that description). Eventually, the Japanese elect to try to find someone in the other world who will be willing to facilitate peace talks. Occupying the entire fantasy world at gun point would bankrupt even America, if one hasn’t noticed… Or am I wrong?

          • “charges with glittering lance tips”
            Apparently they don’t know that Suvorov-style (The bullet is a mad thing; only the bayonet knows what it is about) wars are gone.

            “They say army generals are always fully prepared to fight the previous war.”
            Generals also prefer their branch, Napoleon as a artillery officer consider artillery as a way to win battles, Lee as a military engineer consider entrenching as a way to win. Notice that trench warfare is now associated with First World War but it also during occurred American Civil War – see Battle of Cold Harbor when smaller but entrenched forces of Robert E. Lee causes bigger loses to Grant forces than Grant forces to them and Battle of Crater when big explosive load was used to create that Crater; later planting explosive under enemy trenches but on bigger scale will occur during First World War see Battle of Messines (1917):

  2. It should be noted that the term “cast steel” refers to a steelmaking technique rather than indicating the part was cast. At that time “cast steel” was the highest quality of steel generally available and refers to what we now call crucible steel.

  3. There are pinfire pepperboxes. There were others that had a single barrel which fitted to the cylinder axis which made a weapon that looked like our notion of a revolver. Webley made such weapons in their early days. In Europe pepperboxes were made and used much longer than in America.

  4. It would be interesting to know how the barrels were finish machined and how parallel they were, it can be challenging to drill a straight hole that deep. With a normal pistol the barrel is offset to some conistent relation to the sights. Used to at least, revolver factories would test fire revolvers and if the point of sight/point of impact was way off they would whack the frame with a babbit bar to bring things into alignment.

    Even if a pepper box had sights, there would be no way to regulate the frame / barrels / sights to bring them into alignment when that many barrels were stuck together. Maybe that was one reason they did not bother with sights.

    • “Even if a pepper box had sights”
      If you want sights attached to pepperbox you either will have very short sight radius or have to fit every barrel with its sights. Lacks of sights also mean that pepperbox will not snatch in your clothes, allowing fast draw.

      • Also, the bar hammer on most DA-only pepperboxes rather militates against any sort of “sight picture”. The Mariette type (linear, spring-driven striker or fully-concealed hammer) had no sights so that nothing would impede a fast draw.

        Sights were largely academic with a pepperbox, rather as they are with modern-day deep-concealment mini-autos in .32ACP. The range of engagement will generally be about arm’s length, so if you try to bring the pistol up to your sight line, the assailant will probably try to arm-wrestle you for it.

        Hence, the “FBI crouch” aka “point shooting”. Or the even faster “speed rock” position with the pistol tucked in against the waist and fired double-action using the upper body basically as a “gun turret”.

        This was the sort of shooting the pepperbox was intended for. Not fancy or finely accurate, but fast and able to put six rounds into a man-sized target at point-blank, which was what was required.



  5. During the early to mid 70’s Avon had a pepper box decanter full of aftershave for men. It was a decent likeness of the Allen and Thurber model. Didn’t,chain fire.

  6. Really great to see coverage of a pepperbox. It was once such a common gun that has certainly been forgotten. Certainly very much neglected in tv, film and the reproduction market.
    The lack of sights is interesting. I think it may have been a fairly common thing to ignore them in pocket pistols. I own what I surmise to be a Belgian made lefauxcheux pinfire pocket revolver. It has a front sight bead which can only be cosmetic as the hammer blocks it from view when cocked.

  7. I built a replica of one when I was a teenager from a mail-order kit. The chainfires were the best part of shooting it; like having a pocket-sized shotgun.

    • There was a kit offered for sale in the 1970s. They were good quality and could be nicely customized by engraving the brass frame. Way back then my shop teacher made one as an after school project. He made a shadow box frame and it hung on his office wall.Today that would be impossible for purely political reasons.

      • Good to see the kits are around! I’m Australian so the process of getting a kit to build would be very complicated legally if possible but it’s a good idea!

        • Or just get the plans and make it from scratch.

          Or 3D print one;

          It occurs to me that any halfway-skilled machinist should be able to make a percussion pepperbox almost as easily as making a single-shot. Frankly, the insides just aren’t that complicated, as can be seen by looking at any of the old patents.

          And unlike a “conventional” revolver, “timing” really isn’t an issue, as long as the percussion nipple behind each barrel is reasonably well lined up with the hammer when it sears off.

          I could see the pepperbox making a comeback in this way.



          • Absolutely Eon a pepper box would be a very simple build and doubtless if one feels unsafe enough to ignore local laws (where lawful carry doesn’t exist) and start carrying it would be a logical starting point for a build. I was just meaning more in the context of low stress or legal stuff that also fits the aesthetics of the time. Yes agreed timing isn’t a problem for them. As long as the hammer/firing pin hits what it needs to there isn’t much need for precise builds. It’s a forgiving configuration whether with a rotating barrel or a rotating striker like the original hillberg liberator Shotgun.

          • Tassie;

            One of the last pepperboxes was the .22 RF “Ladies Companion” made by the Continental Arms Co. in Norwich, CN, just after the American Civil War;


            As you can see, it was basically a “Smith & Wesson evasion”, getting around the Rollin White patent the same way the Reid “My Friend” did, by being a pepperbox rather than a revolver with a separate barrel and cylinder. (White’s patent didn’t mention bored-through multiple rotating barrels.)

            Being a single-action with a S&W searage, this is about as simple as a repeating metallic-cartridge handgun can get.

            For real percussion fun, try building a pepperbox on a Colt 1851 frame;


            Why should Pietta have all the fun?

            I’ve often thought that a “modern” pepperbox could be built using caseless ammunition (or CPCTA- Combustible Plastic-Cased Telescoped Ammuntion) and electric ignition. It wouldn’t even necessarily need rotating barrels, just sequential contacts. Sort of an updated Mossberg “Brownie” in, say, 9mm bore size.

            Any of the above would be pretty practical as a pocket pistol, even today.

            And don’t forget; the old COP (Compact Off-duty Police) pocket pistol in .357 or .22 was technically a “pepperbox” as well.



          • Great examples there Eon. I really like the Mossberg Brownie in particular. The modern electronic version is a an interesting idea I have also pondered. I guess the ultimate realization of this would be a metal storm style pepper box.
            Another interesting idea might be a captive piston silent pepper box. It’d be a workshop task to load it but it’d be quite possible. Those single action ones look pleasant to shoot.

          • Tassie;

            I thought that H&K “underwater” pistol with six barrels that fires darts (the one Angelina Jolie used in the second Tomb Raider movie- no, it wasn’t just a Hollywood creation)would be a good platform for Metalstorm, because those barrels are a pre-loaded, interchangeable “clip”.

            You could probably get 10 rounds per barrel and have a Steyr AUG-type pull-through trigger for single, triburst, or full-auto fire, switching from one barrel to the next as ammunition was expended, or going round and round firing in sequence to “even out” recoil. (The latter would probably be technically easier, and also more comfortable for the shooter.)

            Imagine the difference. Lady Croft fires six darts, then changes barrel clusters, reloading not with one holding six more darts, but one with each barrel being a ten-round Metalstorm package.

            Bad guys hear barrels ejected, and figure “The next time she reloads, we rush her.”

            She fires six more rounds, they up and charge- and she bears down on the trigger all the way, giving them the remaining fifty-four rounds in a half-second burst. (Remember Metalstorm’s horrendously-high cyclic rates.)

            Problem solved from her POV.



          • I like that idea Eon. One control group and a very diverse range of functions. If a small electronic sight could be added to the metal storm barrel cluster it could be configured to have a different zero for each barrel. No need to regulate barrels to match if you can just zero the sight a few times. It would hugely increase the practical accuracy of the system.
            I love the idea of underwater pistols like the HK or the Russian ones.

    • Sounds like a great bit of fun Doc! I am very interested in any observations you might have on what it was like to shoot and it’s capabilities. The accidental volleys would ad a whole extra element of uncertainty to the Dirty Harry “do you feel lucky punk?” scenario! How would you rate one if set upon by footpads, highwaymen or bushrangers?

      • One of the earliest pepperboxes in the percussion era, the four-barreled “American Primitive”, was a single-action with hand-turned barrels.

        This doesn’t sound too great until you consider that it was also a .55 caliber.

        A musket-style “buck-and-ball” load in each barrel would be entirely feasible in that bore size. As would reloading with pre-prepared paper or linen cartridges.

        It would almost qualify as a four-barreled sawn-off shotgun. Not the sort of thing your average highwayman wants to see pointed in his direction.



      • You could put all six .32 caliber round balls into the vitals of a B12 silhouette at 15 feet, although the spread was about 8″ to 10″ across. Recoil was a slow push with little muzzle climb due to weight. Controllability wasn’t bad, even with some rather stout powder charges, and it would be a potent little surprise at social ranges; at least it would be more effective than harsh language! Luckily, I live in a CCW state, so my options are better, but I think I’m going to order another kit just for fun.

  8. Does the pepperbox have a rebounding hammer, or can it safely rest between the charged nipples? I have to assume there is some way to stop a light tap on the top of the gun from setting off the currently selected barrel.

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