Lancaster Howdah Pistols at RIA

Charles Lancaster was a master London gunsmith who made 2-barrel and 4-barrel pistols in a variety of British revolver cartridges (commonly known as Howdah pistols). Many of his pistols was purchased privately by British military officers, explorers, and big-game hunters to use as backup weapons throughout the Empire. These three examples are chambered for the .380, .476, and .577 centerfire cartridges, and are all excellent examples of Lancaster’s work and the quality of Victorian-era British craftsmanship:


  1. The rotating firing pin principle was also used in later Mossberg Brownie .22 four-barrel pistol and COP .357 Derringer. I wonder that designer were aware of Lancaster Howdah pistol or they invent rotating firing pin principle independently?

    • Sharp’s four barrel rotary pin derringer was invented nearly ten years earlier. But impact element construction should be different than Lancaster’s claimed.

  2. That .577 is huge! That’s bordering on shotgun shell sizes. I wonder what that would feel like to shoot. Although, I suppose if it is your big game hunting backup gun, it doesn’t matter. If you need it, a hurt wrist is a lot better than being mauled by a tiger or water buffalo.

  3. That third hole on the .577 is for the mechanism to work. it only has two barrels (instead of four) as such it only moves back and forth requiring a second firing pin, the hole is so your pin not in use doesn’t get smashed against the breech-face,

    • Agreed, the two firing pins are set up on some kind of internal pivot point obviously and when the top pin is firing the top barrel the bottom pin is in position for that side hole. When the bottom pin is firing the bottom barrel the top pin is in position for that side hole. You could mark one of the pins and it would become more clear.

    • I may be wrong, but I recall the polygonal rifling coming first. Whitworth rifles were available in both configurations I recall reading, but cannot give reference to where. I was also verbally informed of this over 20 years ago by an old collector and former purchasing agent for Century International Arms.

    • Yes, Lancaster’s oval bore along with Metford “Segmental” rifling were undoubtedly “polygonal” rifling.

        • The difference between the major and minor axes is literally too small to be detected without an inside micrometer. The bullet did require a special “skirted” design similar to a Minie’ “ball” to properly seal and take the “rifling”. A plain-based flat-back-end bullet, like most pistol bullets of the day, would tend to “skid” and not acquire enough rotation to stabilize properly.

          “Oval” rifling was experimented with over and over again, mainly in rifles, up to the pre-WW2 period. Springfield even made some M1903s with “oval” rifled barrels in .30-06 for tests in the early 1930s. What everyone who tested such arms found was that consistent results were very dependent on bullet design and QC.

          Simply put, “cut” rifling was and is more tolerant of changes in projectiles or even less-than-perfectly-made projectiles. U.S. Army Ordnance concluded that the “ideal” bullet for oval-bored barrels was one with a rotating band like an artillery projectile; as long as it fit the bore, the exact characteristics of the bullet itself were largely immaterial. Needless to say, bullets built like miniature 105mm projectiles are going to cost more.

          H&K “polygonal” rifling dates to the late WW2 period, when Mauser was looking for a way to both speed up production and make durable rifle and MG barrels with longer service lives out of lower-grade steel. Polygon rifling could be “pressed” into the bore by a rifling button much as the barrels of .22 RF guns are rifled, which wasn’t really practical with 7.9×57 barrels back then. (Today of course, Savage Arms does it on Model 110s in every imaginable caliber, every working day.)

          Also everyone who tried it agreed that oval rifling, or modern polygon rifling, exerts less drag on the bullet, resulting in somewhat higher muzzle velocities. It’s easier to clean, too.

          Still, overall, “cut” rifling seems to be the best overall choice. Not least because it can be done by whatever machining methods are available, while oval or polygon generally requires very serious power tools to make.

          I can make cut rifling with a rifling bench made almost entirely of wood. Oval or polygon rifling can’t be made that way, AFAIK.

          Still, an oval-bored Pennsylvania rifle would be interesting, to say the least.



  4. Great finds Ian, I tried to look up those cartridges and didn’t have any luck. Do you think they were a cut down .577 Snider made for howdah pistols? Also if they had a comparable reduction in powder they could be down below .44 magnum energy. Stock .577 Snider and .50 AE are fairly similar energy wise. What was in the small triangular compartment on the right side of the case?

    • Webley made revolvers for a .577 round cut down from the Snider case, but that version of the cartridge actually took a .600 bullet due to the slight taper of the parent rifle case;

      The bullets were of course intended for the Webley’s conventionally-rifled bore.

      Tranter also made revolvers in this caliber that used the same ammunition as the Webleys. The movie Zulu notwithstanding, at Rorke’s Drift Lts. Bromhead and Chard were probably armed with .577/.600 Webley or Tranter revolvers, not the later Webleys used in the film (which weren’t introduced until several years after the Isandhlwana/Rorke’s Drift battle).

      I don’t know whether these rounds were usable in the Lancaster pistols or not. My SWAG would be “yes”, as in “British Frontier Logic”, but with bullets not made specifically to be fired in the oval bore the accuracy might not be up to standard.

      However, at the usual range for a howdah pistol’s deployment (you in howdah, howdah on back of elephant, large, irritated striped feline trying to sit in your lap so he can play handball with your head) it probably didn’t matter all that much.



    • I suspect it’s .577 boxer, given that W&S made revolvers in that size so Kynoch was probably producing ammunition for them.

  5. Beautiful and quite fascinating old pistols. The term “Howdah” pistol derives from the basket-type saddles mounted atop the Indian elephants that were common transport in the British Raj. It seems that the local tigers would often attack the elephants by jumping up onto their backs and into the howdah, with predictable results. The pistols allowed for a hard-hitting defense against an enraged tiger at near-contact range where a rifle would have been impossible to use. There are muzzle-loading types, and later models made from double and four-barreled breech loaders resembling cut-down rifles with exposed hammers. These Lancasters represent the state-of-the-art in design, providing a quickly deployable weapon with no hammers to cock or to snag when suddenly jumped by a hungry tiger (or a murderous thug). Definitely a must-have for the proper Englishman deployed to the far corners of the Empire. On a side note, I was privileged to handle (but not fire) a revolver made by Thomas Bland chambered for the same .577 cartridge as the big Lancaster and intended for the same purposes. I like to think that the big Desert Eagles, and the .460 and .500 S&W revolvers are the modern counterparts to these old beauties. I know it was a comfort to have that .500 tucked under my arm when fly-fishing in big bear country!

    • The Indians had domesticated elephants for centuries long before a Brit arrived, and if we believe that the Chinese invented black powder, who had what when?

      • The Indians invented hunting from a howdah, specifically with bows. That sounds a bit dicey until you know that the Indian short bow was all steel, rather like an old-fashioned automobile leaf spring, and had about the pull weight and punch of the Byzantine cataphractoi composite bow. Considering what an arrow from one of those would do to a man in leather armor, the effect on even a dangerous animal of the Subcontinent would have been lethal enough at close range.

        As for the Chinese and black powder, it’s pretty definite that they invented it, more or less by accident. Early on, it was mainly used for “special effects” by magicians who needed a puff of smoke to hide what they were doing(making the rabbit disappear and turn into a pretty girl, etc.).

        The purely destructive capabilities of the mixture seem to have been realized by Chinese soldiers about the middle of the 10th century AD.

        Even then, the main use was not in “guns”, but in ceramic pots thrown by catapult. These pots were originally filled with concoctions of such revolting substances as powdered wolf dung, etc., which had a definite sternutating (lung injurant) effect, but in the main were used because there was a mystical “resonance” there in keeping with Taoism. (“Wolves are nasty predators, therefore their dung must be extra-powerful”, etc.)

        Eventually (about the mid-11th Century), the principle that a ceramic pot loaded with powder and fragments of porcelain would explode and lacerate anyone close to it with shrapnel was discovered. Called “thunderclap” bombs, they were quickly superseded by bombs with casings of “soft” metal, usually copper or cast iron. These were called thundercrash bombs, and acted exactly like time-fused explosive grenades as we know them today.

        The Chinese developed cannon first, as well, about fifty years before the first depiction of same in Europe (Walter de Milemete’s On The Duties of Kings, 1327). They progressed from the pot-shaped “gonnes” to more conventional shapes by the time of the Battle of Crecy (1346).

        European use of black powder was about half independent discovery and half from information gained from China. As Jack Kelly points out in his book Gunpowder, early European powder formulas included things like arsenic that made no sense in a propellant powder, but were common in Chinese formulas for powder to be used in filling the “thundercrash” bombs. The arsenic dust, spread by the explosion, would be a powerful sternutator.

        In other words, the European artisans had mistaken a bomb filling formula for a propellant powder formula. This only makes sense if they were copying Chinese original work, probably passed on by word of mouth by traders (see “stimulus diffusion theory”).

        The only really logical conclusion is that China was ahead of Europe in the invention and development of black powder as a weapon system. The best estimate of the “time lag” is about 50 to 75 years, between a concept (like cannon) being experimented with in China, and it being used in Europe.

        Why didn’t black powder alter China’s history like it did Europe’s? Look up “hydraulic state”. China had a vast bureaucracy to control irrigation from a very early date, much like ancient Egypt or Sumeria but on an even more immense scale. the Imperial state had pretty much absolute control of everything, and a large army to enforce that control.

        Gunpowder, like the crossbow before it, became just another instrument of State control in China. even with Communism, the country’s culture and form of government has changed far less than most foreigners think in the last three millennia.

        See The Genius Of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention by Robert Temple and Joseph Needham.



        • James Mill’s highly influential History of British India (1817) – most particularly the long essay ‘Of the Hindus’ comprising ten chapters – is the single most important source of British Indophobia and hostility to Orientalism”. In the chapter titled General Reflections in ‘Of the Hindus’, Mill wrote “under the glosing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy.”. According to Mill, ‘the same insincerity, mendacity, and perfidy; the same indifference to the feelings of others; the same prostitution and venality’ were the conspicuous characteristics of both the Hindoos and the Muslims. The Muslims, however,were perfuse, when possessed of wealth, and devoted to pleasure; the Hindoos almost always penurious and ascetic; and ‘in truth, the Hindoo like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave.’Furthermore, similar to the Chinese, the Hindoos were ‘dissembling, treacherous, mendacious, to an excess which surpasses even the usual measure of uncultivated society.’ Both the Chinese and the Hindoos were ‘disposed to excessive exaggeration with regard to everything relating to themselves.’ Both were ‘cowardly and unfeeling.’ Both were ‘in the highest degree conceited of themselves, and full of affected contempt for others.’ And, above all, both were ‘in physical sense, disgustingly unclean in their persons and houses.

          Owd James was a charmer wasn’t he…

        • Mind you the ancient Chinese art of war, incorporating doing scary dances to frighten each other would have really reduced the body count in WW1 but Krupp’s wouldn’t have been in favour of it.

      • Considering that the only examples of such weapons are British in origin, and the fact that they were marketed as Howdah pistols for English travelers in the 19th and 20th centuries, pretty much gives us the answer. Sure, other weapons from bows to swivel cannons were mounted on or used from the backs of elephants from ancient times, a large-bore pistol specifically designed for close defense in hunting from elephant-back is definitely a product of British colonialism. I would imagine that in the flintlock era, a well-charged blunderbuss would have been effective against an angry tiger at “bad breath” range.

  6. four barrels and a single sighting line. I wonder if those wonderfull pistols been regulated for all bores to hit the
    same point of impact and if made, for what distance.

    • The usual regulation range was 25 yards. Remember, the accepted range of engagement for a tiger or other animal with the double rifle was from 50 to 100 yards, usually the shorter range due to foliage cover.

      The howdah pistol’s job was up-close, point-blank stopping when the animal charged and you had already expended the two rounds in the double rifle. Whether you’d just wounded the animal or flat-out missed, the pistol was intended to stop him right now, when he close enough to take your head off. In the case of a Bengal tiger, that wasn’t just a figure of speech.

      I suspect most howdah pistols, when used in the game field, weren’t really “aimed” anyway. At the range we’re talking about, it would more likely be instinctive point-shooting, simply because there wouldn’t be time or space for anything else.



      • Speaking of shooting wild things at point-blank, what would happen if one were to use a Howdah pistol on a crazed bandit? Assuming center of mass was the target, indigestion would be the least of the bandit’s troubles…

        • As the old saying goes, if he had a twin brother standing behind him, it would go through him, too, most likely. The heavy slug was intended to penetrate to the vitals of a fairly large animal, so hitting a human body front-to-back wouldn’t slow it down very much.

          It has to be remembered that howdah pistols were perfect examples of black powder killing power. Since velocities were limited (few black powder handgun rounds had muzzle velocities much over 600 FPS until the 1880s), the only way to increase killing power (KE in foot-pounds) was to launch a heavier slug. This inevitably meant a bigger bore, physics being pretty unforgiving on that point.

          The 577/600 Webley launched a 450-grain bullet at about an even 600 FPS, for about 360 FPE. Yes, it hit about as hard as a .45 ACP 230-grain hardball or 9x19mm 124-grain hardball service load.

          You can argue “wound channels” and “permanent crush cavities” ’til the cows come home, but the fact is that the .45 Colt in a 7 1/2″ barreled M1873 Cavalry model (255-grain @ 850 F/S for 405 FPE) packed more wallop in KE terms than the admittedly impressive-looking .577 pistols.

          And even with “five beans in the wheel”, it still held three more rounds than a double-barreled pistol did.

          As for the .476, its ballistics roughly match those of the .455 MK II Webley service load; 265 grain @ 600 for 220 FPE. About equal to a .38 Special mid-range wadcutter target load.

          .380 Revolver? 124 grain @ 625 FPS for 110 FPE. The .32 ACP hits harder with standard factory loads out of a pocket auto barrel.

          The .450 (Adams) revolver round launched a 225-grain RNL at 650 to 700 for about 215 to 245 FPE. When you think about it, Holmes & Watson were seriously “undergunned” when they went “hound-hunting” around Baskerville Hall.




          • In the .577 Trantor revolver article discussion at this very site Micki Mahoney gives a muzzle velocity of 725 fps for 525 ft-lbs of energy. His source is W.C. Dowell’s “The Webley Story”:


            If that is true, the .577 would have about about the same energy as mild .357 Magnum or hot .45 ACP loads; not a slouch for a such an early cartridge and definitely the 19th century version of .500 S&W and other “big bore” revolvers. Another reference from the same discussion gives an even slightly higher muzzle velocity (745 fps, same bullet weight):


            So it appears 600 fps represents a fairly light load for the cartridge, perhaps intended for military rather big game hunting self-defense use.

          • Dowell measured mv of the 577 revolver at 725 fps. That makes about 525 ft-lbs of energy; a fair bit more than top 45 Colt loads with 40 grains of black powder. You could expect slightly more still out of a Lancaster, seeing as there’s no cylinder gap.

          • Regarding the Baskerville hound, there were were three armed men to intercept the hound, but Holmes ran the fastest and shot it five times and that was enough. 450’s and Watson’s service revolver were mentioned in the stories, but it was not clear what Holmes was armed with. In the Dancing Men, the original Strand illustrations almost look like Holmes had a Colt SAA, which was carried over to the Jeremy Brett/Grenada TV episode in the 1980’s. No doubt Col Moran would have had a Howdah whilst hunting tigers in India.

            Back to the real world, has anyone tried this sort of rifling (and the production of some large caliber cartridges) to legally turn a shotgun AOW into a pistol? A 28 GA Auto Burglar, for instance?

          • Jacob;

            In “The Speckled Band”, Holmes mentions that Watson’s revolver used the “Eley’s No. 2” cartridge, which was the .450. In other stories (“The Red-Headed League”, “The Sign of Four”), Holmes & Watson used the same cartridges in their revolvers, so logically Holmes must have carried a .450 as well. Most likely a Webley Bulldog or Metropolitan Police five-shot, which were the most compact revolvers available for that round.

            Holmes had a habit of sticking his revolver in his housecoat pocket if anticipating a visit from someone who was “awkward”, and a larger revolver probably wouldn’t have fit, or if it did said awkward individual might notice it.

            Watson’s “old service revolver” was probably an Adams or Tranter .450 six-shot with a four or five inch barrel. Officers had to buy their own sidearms, and those were fairly common purchases.

            BTW, by the time of “The Problem of Thor Bridge” Watson had a different revolver- six-shot, “small but heavy”, and with a safety catch. This was probably a later-pattern Webley Bulldog .320, as that’s the one that best fits the description. There was a .380 with a safety catch at that point, but it was a five-shot.

            Never get a Holmesian started on the minutiae of the Canon.




          • Don’t forget the shooting of VR in the wall of 221b with a “hair trigger”, I think it was. I doubt that Doyle ever kept notes on who was using what, which makes it interesting.

            The only things ever shot by Holmes/Watson were two dogs (the mastiff in the Copper Beeches) and one Andaman Island native, is that right? Although Holmes arguably killed Dr Roylott with his own snake, Moriarty with Ju Jitsu / gravity, and failed to interfere when Chas. Milverton bought the farm.

      • Thanks for clarification. In fact, considering each fired barrel causing an upward and fired side direction swing, a perfect regulation for four barreled gun should be near impossible. Slow initial speed also would make that job more difficult. Therefore, the sights for Lancasters were
        for decorative purposes but their need for the shooters
        could not be questioned, especially at the age when the
        science of internal ballistics going on development.

        • The Howdah pistols were designed for use at near-contact range. The idea was more for quick deployment in a situation where the tiger was nearly in one’s lap, so any kind of target range accuracy was not necessary when trying to put the brakes on an angry cat pushing 500 lbs. of fangs and claws. It is likely that one would have shoved the barrels into the animal’s chest or down the throat before unloading. I am sure that anyone who needed to use one for its intended purpose would likely be happy to have been wearing brown trousers as well. 🙂

          • Lancaster pistols were also largely used by British officiers at Asia and Africa for personal protection before Webley Scott revolvers. The precise single action trigger mechanism, though easing the long and heavy trigger pull, was also, of course for aimed shoots needing barrel regulation.

  7. At age when these Lancaster pistols made, most probably, true barrel regulation art was not present. All barrel axis converged to see the same point at a given distance should be accepted sufficient. The behavior of the firearm mass held on hand or shoulder at instant of expelling blast, should be analised, understood and remedied for usable barrel regulation, after the beginning of twentieth century. Therefore,
    the single sighting line for multibarreled guns before that time, might be accepted usable even for rifles even if the large amount of misses were present.

  8. Montenegrin king Nicolas I had one of those (4 barrel, double trigger) in his extensive firearms collection*, chambered for 11x36mm Gasser.

    Collection included Luger which was personal gift from Georg Luger (who was DWM representative selling Maxim MGs to Montenegro), Colt SAA Buntline from Buffalo Bill, and quite few exotics. If you are ever in Montenegro visit Biljarda Museum on Cetinje, some of collection is still preserved (a lot was lost/stolen in WW1 and WW2 but there are at least some photos of those)…

  9. That folding “cocking lever” trigger is more correctly known as a Tranter trigger, after its inventor, British gunsmith Joseph Tranter. He marketed the mechanism as a compromise between the single-action (or hammer-cocked) Colt and the self-cocking or trigger-cocking (now known as “double action only”) Adams revolver. (Double action being fast but heavy; single action being slow but accurate.) Tranter trigger revolvers were known in the US in time for the Civil War; the Starr “double-action” was an attempt to provide the same convenience under a different patent.

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