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 period of British Colonial rule. 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 the original muzzle-loading designs for Howdah pistols, because they offered faster reloading than was possible with contemporary revolvers, which had to be loaded and unloaded through a gate in the side of the frame.
The term "howdah pistol" comes from the howdah, a large platform mounted on the back of an elephant. Hunters, especially during the period of the British Raj in India, used howdahs as a platform for hunting wild animals and needed large-calibre side-arms for protection from 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. These earliest 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 in normal, everyday use.
The first breech-loading howdah pistols were little more than sawn-off rifles, typically in .577 Snider or .577/450 Martini–Henry calibre. Later English firearms makers manufactured specially-designed howdah pistols in both rifle calibres and more conventional handgun 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 such as 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.
Even though howdah pistols were designed for emergency defense from dangerous animals in Africa and India, British officers adopted them for personal protection in other far-flung outposts of the British Empire. 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.
- Elephant gun
- Lancaster pistol
- Ithaca Auto & Burglar
- List of multiple barrel firearms
- Animal attacks
- Maze, Robert J. (2002). Howdah to High Power. Excalibur Publications. p. 22.
- Maze. - p.19.
- Maze. - p.20.
- Maze. - pp.20-22.
- Maze. - p.25.