RIA: Simple Key Pistol

We humans have built pretty much everything into weapons over time, and here’s an example of that. There are a variety of types of key pistols in existence, varying from the elaborate and complex to the ones as rudimentary as this one. This example is simply a large(ish) key with the stem hollowed out so that a powder charge and projectile can be loaded into it. A touchhole is drilled at the back of this chamber, where a lit ember can be used to ignite the powder and fire the charge.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any specific history on the date or origins of this example…


    • The Spanish 18 shot .25 caliber revolver on that page seems comparatively practical. I’d love to see Ian examine it.

    • Revolving petronel seems interesting to me
      (I saw some in various museum, included brand-new looking ones, and I would be interested to see it in action. Even if flintlock ignition is not the perfect one for revolver system)

    • Most crazy combination weapon I see patent for:
      Patent US 1183492 A from 1916 by Albert Bacon Pratt of Lyndon, Vermont for gun adapted to be mounted on and fired from the head of the marksman (see drawing in link).
      Pratt statement
      The “blow-back” causes the breech-bolt to retreat and automatically cock the hammer, but the strong spring back of the breech-bolt forces the same so quickly forward again following the recoil, that the two movements naturalize one another so promptly that no discomfort to the wearer results from the recoil.
      Is FALSE, if it would be TRUE ANY gun that is blow-back would be recoilless. So the size of cartridge used would be restricted, to prevent breaking neck of user.

  1. I think, as Iain says, it is impossible to know the specific history behind these artefacts, however the “fact” that a key is “actually” a pistol, may have assisted its preservation whether true or not. There is a possibility that this key is not a firearm and that the hole is simply an air vent to stop the key getting stuck on the spigot of the lock! As a cast piece, the strength would not be great, even with a gunpowder charge..!

    On the other hand, in the days when metal implements were generally scarce, a key is one of the few easily obtained candidate objects for concealing firearms.

    • The key would be the one item that a castle guard would hold in his dominant hand in the milliseconds after unlocking the front gate. Why not give the guard a surprise weapon just in case some rude intruder tried to rush past him? Believe me, I’ve seen key pistols with serpentine match-holders.

      And as for nasty surprises, there was one Japanese percussion cap pistol disguised as a sheathed tanto. Cross-draw it quietly while the other guy’s looking away, cock hammer, then BANG! But then again it was likely a novelty that would barely get past the Meiji Era Sword Ban… Or am I wrong?

      • Cherndog, seems the operator would almost be better off with the tanto. And the tanto would have made it through the sword bans as it was well short of sword length .

      • See Firearms Curiosa by Lewis Winant, chapter 1, “Combination Weapons”. One he shows is a dha, a traditional pattern of sword used in Burma, with a gun barrel built into the sword hilt, the muzzle at the very “pommel” end, and a British-made Tower type percussion lock attached to the scabbard.

        The dha’s hilt is normally a piece of steel looking a lot like a lead pipe anyway, so when carried in the usual manner (thrust through a cummerbund-like sash tied around the waist) it wouldn’t look out of the ordinary. The sash would neatly hide the percussion lock.

        What the setup with this weapon most likely means is that the owner, when a brouhaha was in the offing, could do a Toshiro Mifune turn and shoot somebody with the concealed gun in the sword hilt before drawing steel and commencing the festivities. The lock being attached to the scabbard meant that it wouldn’t be an encumbrance on the sword when he went to work.

        Most Far Eastern weapons like this were predicated on getting off one fast shot at point blank before getting down to business up close and personal. Sort of like the American Elgin “Bowie knife” pistol.

        Besides, once you’ve fired off your one shot, a foot or so of sharp, cold steel in your hand is much more comforting than an empty weapon that is, at best, a poorly-shaped club.



  2. Hi Ian.
    First of all, great channel, I enjoy it immensely 🙂
    I have some info of similar objects, you might find interesting.
    I remeber my parents’ stories of “shooting keys” in 50’s-70’s.
    Teens were drilling holes in big old keys like this one, stuffing it with powder or saltpeter and pluging muzzle with paper balls.
    It was a sort of poor kid’s firecracker in post-war Central Europe.
    Maybe this sort of “toys” were used also in other places of the world and this might be one of them?
    Without firing mechanism i dont see much of practical, defensive potential in it.
    Real deal key pistols always had one.
    Cheers from Poland.

    • I had a similar experience, watching the pre-teen boys taking s fairly large key, shaving into the hollow space (which would come naturally) one or two safety match heads, stopping it with a nail, and then linking the nail and the key with a piece of string which was used to swing the whole contraption around the corner to detonate it by hitting on the other side of the corner, first checking whether the coast was clear.

  3. Then there was the shield pistol I once saw many moons ago. The muzzle stuck through the center of the shield and could be fired during the heat of battle with a matchlock. They were called “Gun Shields” if memory serves. As for the guard needing a punk-string to fire the key pistol, usually they carried torches. Maybe they had failed to pay their electric bill and it had been turned off or something. In the key guns I have handled, they were made of iron and there was significant corrosion due to apparent neglect of cleaning after firing black powder charges. As far as range, these would have been very close quarter encounters.

    • http://www.gunsandammo.com/files/2011/07/gonne-shield.jpg

      Winant shows those. They were made for Henry VIII of England’s palace guard. They were breechloaded, using a steel cylinder “cartridge”, and a breech not unlike the later French Demondion “lifting breech” action. They had a matchlock firing mechanism. Aiming was via a small latticed “window” just above the gun barrel that formed the shield’s center “boss”.

      Most of the real ones weren’t nearly as neatly made as the drawing suggests;


      The Tower of London armory once recorded fifty of them in inventory, and the Tower collection still holds six. Others are in museum and private collections elsewhere.

      In a close fight in the tunnels and halls of the Tower or one of Henry’s residences, a weapon like this would be a nasty surprise for interlopers, singly or in groups.



      • I don’t think there’s any evidence that they were for the ‘palace guard’. We do know that they were for use on board ship; a number were found on the Mary Rose.

        We also have more than six; just over twice that, in fact 😉 (originally at least 66 according to the inventory).

        They are really nothing like the gun keys, and are a very different proposition as a practical weapon. Safely ensconced behind the shield and the gunwales of a ship, you could keep your matchcord burning. Not really practical in key form toe-to-toe with a desperate criminal…

  4. Winant shows a large key pistol in Chapter 8 of FC, “Other Disguised Guns”. This one has a clamshell-like housing where the ring normally is on a large warded key like the one Ian showed. Said housing concealing a compact flintlock, tripped by a slender lever on the left side that doesn’t really look much like a trigger. A “finial” on the very back end of the key is the latch that holds the clamshell housing shut.

    I really don’t buy the idea that these were mostly prison guards’ guns. It would be too easy for a prisoner to get hold of one and not only open his cell but shoot somebody, or hold them hostage, on the way out.

    The idea of such a gun being used by a gate guard at a castle, manor, or etc., is far more likely. Among other things, if attacked by some sneaky person, if the guard could hit the trigger or whatever once, the sound of the shot would “raise the alarum” whether he managed to hit the intruder or not.

    So really, key guns should probably fall more into the “alarm gun” category than any other.

    BTW, the other three guns in the lot are very typical mid-19th Century (1840s-50s) “muff” pistols, the sort carried by ladies (and yes, gentlemen) when out for a stroll or riding in a coach.

    The middle one has a sliding half-cock safety behind the hammer, and you can see the notch on the back of the hammer swan-neck it engages with.

    The bottom one seems to be all brass except for its stocks, and is the smallest of the three.

    The top one has a folding trigger, which would spring out at the half-cock, and is probably the latest in terms of time, that feature not being particularly common much before 1850 or so.

    All of these pistols filled the same tactical niche as the American “Deringer”. They were most likely made in England, France, or Belgium. They were not particularly expensive in their own time, or particularly powerful, period.

    But like the Deringer, they could fire one shot up close, when it mattered the most. And that’s often good enough.



  5. If various shooting buttons or pens was made why key wasn’t been a candidate for firearms??
    The idea would be as concealed undetected weapon used for dirty ends,this particular pistol could be used for assassination purpose rather than anything else,an spy gun or some sort of….

    Shooting key,shooting cane,shooting pen,shooting door handle,shooting button,shooting knife and a lot more things we didn’t had chance to see…

    • There are way too many disguised firearms for anyone to regulate. At least one was a functioning flute, another was a “shoot-case” for surprising highway robbers, and yet another gun was disguised as a matchbox!

          • The caliber figure is correct. The T-12 was developed during WW2 for the OSS as a deep-concealment weapon. Its appearance is similar to a couple of typical European-made draughtsmen’s “propelling pencils” of the prewar era.

            The small caliber was intended to ensure that the hole in the end did not look suspiciously “big”, hence the weapon might not be recognized for what it was in a cursory search.

            The rather slight power of the load was largely irrelevant. All it had to do was pierce the skin, because the hollow-tipped bullet was filled with a neurotoxin based on snake venom. Snakes courtesy of the reptile collection of the Bronx Zoo, run by Raymond L. Ditmars, the dean of American herpetologists;


            The British SOE had a similar weapon, which used compressed air to fire envenomed needles. I suspect it came first, and OSS wasn’t satisfied with the penetration on clothing, hence the Colt T-12.



          • Ok, but why COLT T-12 is engraved on it then?

            Maybe postwar they tried to sell it as a blank gun for starting footraces at Junior Woodchuck outings?

            A commemorative issue?

            A gift for VIPs who voted on military appropriations when Colt was trying to sell the new AR-15 to the U.S. Army?

            I’m guessing wartime ones came in a plain cardboard box, not a fancy wooden one. And they certainly wouldn’t be marked with the manufacturer’s name.

            Basically, it’s a “pen gun”, a common type of improvised weapon. Most fire regular .22 RF rounds;




  6. Well included video Ian, it is a forgotten weapon. It would be an interesting and easy project piece (local laws permitting) maybe striker fired in .22 short.

  7. @Felix: it is a very modern habit to cast keys. Very fancy one were cast to be cheap at first, around 1900.
    The production of cast keys wasn’t a thing before 1940s I believe.
    The one shown hire would be forged, maybe dropforged.

    To me, it looks like an Italian key.

  8. Actually, it just might not be a key gun, but just a key.
    My company-issued railroad switch lock key is configured just like this; a hollowed-out shaft with the hollow fitting on a spindle in the keyhole. The other end near the circular “handle” has a hole in line with the shaft hollow to allow it to drain water or to poke out any debris that might find its way in there…

  9. The stem of this key was not “hollowed out.” Keys like this work in locks with a pin in the lock that fits in that hollow to give the key leverage against the levers it has to move around.

    When dealing with an auction house always keep this in mind: “Buy the item, not the story.”

      • One of my co-workers has reminded me of an exception. In some ward locks with a central pin, the pin can be spring loaded and act to position the wards. So, the wrong depth of the hole in the key can prevent the key from turning. This prevents a key made from a simple wax impression from operating the lock if the center hole is not the correct depth. Clever folks these lock makers. ^__^

    • In American locksmith lingo they are called barrel bit keys. A key of the age shown in the video would have been for a warded lock. One of more recent manufacture (like a railroad lock) would be a lever-tumbler lock, while a reproduction lock for a piece of furniture would be a warded lock. Neither of the recently made sorts of keys would be large enough to fire a projectile of any size to speak of.

      I suppose it is possible that that someone made a hole in one with the idea that they could touch a candle against it to fire a shot, but it would be really hard to distinguish between the real deal and a fake. Maybe the idea was if someone broke into someone’s room at the castle and told them to open the strong-box they would appear to comply and taking the key and a candle stick they would instead fire a round at the intruder. Back in those days lock boxes had secret key holes, sliding panels, etc., so a burglar would likely try to compel the owner to open them.

        • These older, super complex, locking systems are funny in that they often have these hidden ways to get them unlocked and the complex way is for show to give depositors extra confidence in the security of the “safe.” ^__^

      • This may just be regional, around here the “bit” is the part of the key that operates the lock, moves the tumblers into alignment and throws the bolt. The tube part is called a “barrel” around here … looks like a barrel (of a gun), called a barrel. ^__^ Looking at this key, my guess is that it operated a lever-tumbler lock and would throw the bolt. If this is a jail door key, you’d hope that it had a tumbler in the lock. ^__^

        • Tumbler locks were invented in the late 1700’s, and Chubb invented the lever tumbler lock in the early 1800’s and later on Yale invented the pin tumbler. A key like what Ian showed would have to be for a warded lock, one that a “skeleton” key would open.

          • We may be talking of two different things. I’m referring to the simple lever-tumbler, “a pivoted piece in a lock that holds the bolt until lifted by a key” … the simple version of this is what was improved by Robert Barron in 1778. The idea of things falling into recesses in a door bolt to secure that bolt so it had to be opened with a “key” is an ancient idea:


  10. While it seems entirely possible that this is just a key i have heard enough stories from different people of “gunkeys” to make the story plausibe. Quite a lot of my childhood friends here in sweden talked about making keyguns and at least one claimed he had made several of these guns. No one thougth about using them as weapons. A fun (and probably higly dangerous) toy was the goal The charge supposedly came from firecrackers and the reason behind using keys is that they already have a tubular barrel sealed at one end. All you have to do is to drill a touchhole. Doable even for a child with bad tools (drilling out a hole lengthwise in a metal bar without proper tools is a lot harder and plugging a tube is not childs play either). I never actualy saw one of these guns but the idea was there and we certanly made a lot of other dangerous stuff.

  11. For the lowdown on these, you need the Canadian Journal of Arms Collecting 23.2 p.60-62, & Gun Report 17.5, p.21. I’ve shared scans with Ian. The gist is that we know some of these were made/converted from keys as toys and curios in the 16th & 17th centuries, and there is one Victorian example that’s been made as a gun key. Impossible to say what the others really are without some kind of provenance since, as others have noted, it would be easy to make one.

    Personally, I share Ian’s scepticism that any gaoler ever carried such as thing, and there is no written evidence that they did.

  12. Ian, I received one of these keys from my father-in-law in England some forty years ago, he obtained the key pre-WWII.He was a “key” collector and frequently displayed his collection. The story with this key was that it was used in a jail house , where the guards always smoked cigars [in part as a defensive weapon].Inmates were not allowed to smoke for the same rational.The key gun was as much a noise maker and warning signal as it was a defensive weapon.My father-in-law told me, once while displaying his collection, had an old guard from one of the extremely old jails, tell him that he had used one of these when he worked. I understand that this doesn’t make good provenance, but may lend credence to your story. the example I have has a depression where the touch hole is, which also lends credence to its purpose as a touch hole.The key is forged iron and quite heavy. The caliber of the bore is about 30 cal so it may have been used as stated. There is no way to prove this. However in England it is a common for very old locks and keys to be used today, and trust me there are locks and keys still in use which are similar in shape and style [with some of the older buildings documented to be lived it since the 1600-1700’s]. Keep up your great work and informative site. I look forward to reading your articles and seeing your videos up here in northern Ontario Canada.

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