The howdah pistol was a large-calibre handgun, often with two or four barrels, used in India and Africa from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and into the early twentieth century, during the British Empire era. It was typically intended for defence against tigers, lions, and other dangerous animals that might be encountered in remote areas. Multi-barreled breech-loading designs were later favoured over contemporary revolvers, due to their higher velocity and faster reloading potential.
The term "howdah pistol" comes from the howdah, a large platform mounted on the back of an elephant. Hunters, particularly in British Raj India, used howdahs as a platform for hunting, and needed large-calibre side-arms for protection against close quarters animal attacks. The practice of hunting from the howdah basket on top of an Asian elephant was first made popular by the joint Anglo-Indian East India Company during the 1790s. The early howdah pistols were flintlock designs, and it was not until about 60 years later percussion models in single or double barrel configuration were seen. By the 1890s and early 1900s cartridge-firing and fully rifled howdah pistols were standard.
The first breech-loading howdah pistols were little more than sawn-off rifles, typically in .577 Snider or .577/450 Martini–Henry calibre. This was practical in that the huntsman could use the same ammunition in rifle and pistol, as well as being a powerful round. Later English firearms makers manufactured specially-designed howdah pistols in both rifle calibres and standard pistol calibres such as .455 Webley and .476 Enfield. As a result, the term "howdah pistol" is often applied to a number of English multi-barrelled handguns including the Lancaster pistol (available in a variety of calibres from .380" to .577"), and various .577 calibre revolvers produced in England and Europe for a brief time in the mid-late 19th century. A howdah pistol with its closed breach shot at a substantially higher velocity than a revolver of the same calibre, in that there was not the revolver's gas leakage at the cylinder.
Although howdah pistols were originally for emergency defence against dangerous animals in Africa and India, British officers later carried them for personal protection and even battlefield use. By the late 19th century, top-break revolvers in more practical calibres (such as .455 Webley) had become widespread, removing much of the traditional market for howdah pistols.
Modern reproductions are available from Italian gun maker Pedersoli in .577 and .50 calibers, as well as in 20 bore.