The pepper-box revolver or simply pepperbox (also "pepper-pot", from its resemblance to the household pepper grinder) is a multiple-barrel repeating firearm that has three or more barrels grouped around a central axis. It mostly appears in the form of a multi-shot handheld firearm. Pepperboxes exist in all ammunition systems: matchlock, wheellock, flintlock, percussion, pinfire, rimfire and centerfire.
The pepperbox should not be confused with a volley gun (like the seven-barrel long gun made by Nock), a firearm that fires multiple projectiles simultaneously by use of multiple barrels. The difference is that a volleygun fires all the barrels simultaneously while the pepperbox is a repeater. The pepperbox should also not be confused with or seen as a development of the Gatling gun, which fires rapidly by the use of rotating multiple barrels.
This type of firearm was popular in North America from 1830 until the American Civil War, but the concept was introduced much earlier. In the 15th century, several single-shot barrels were attached to a stock, being fired individually by means of a match.
Around 1790, pepperboxes were built on the basis of flintlock systems, notably by Nock in England and "Segallas" in Belgium. These weapons, building on the success of the earlier two-barrel turnover pistols, were fitted with three, four or seven barrels. These early pepperboxes were hand-rotated.
The invention of the percussion cap by Joshua Shaw, building on Alexander Forsyth's innovations, and the industrial revolution allowed pepperbox revolvers to be mass-produced, making them more affordable than the early handmade guns previously only seen in the hands of the rich. Examples of these early weapons are the English Budding (probably the first English percussion pepperbox), the Swedish Engholm and the American threebarrel Manhattan pistol. Most percussion pepperboxes have a circular flange around the rear of the cylinder to prevent the capped nipples being accidentally fired if the gun were to be knocked while in a pocket, or dropped.
The pepperbox, at least the firearm that is mostly associated with this term, was invented in the 1830s and was intended for civilian use, but military officers often made private purchases for their own use. The design spread rapidly in the United Kingdom, the USA and some parts of continental Europe. It was similar to the later revolver in that it contained bullets in separate chambers in a rotating cylinder. Unlike the revolver, however, each chamber had its own barrel, making a complex indexing system unnecessary (though pepperboxes with such a system do exist).
A few percussion pepperboxes were still hand-rotated but most have a mechanism that rotates the barrel group as the hammer is cocked for each shot. Single-action versions were made, notably by Darling of Massachusetts, but the vast majority use the self-cocking system whereby squeezing the trigger rotates the barrel block, cocks the hammer and finally fires the weapon. (Sometimes called "double action", although this term is more properly used for later revolvers that can be fired either in single-action or in self-cocking mode.) The main producer of self-cocking top-hammer pepperboxes (mostly referred to as "bar-hammer pepperbox") in the USA was Ethan Allen, but this type of weapon was also produced in very large quantities in England.
Some pepperboxes fired the lower barrel instead of the upper, such as the Belgian Marriette (in configurations with between 4 and 24 barrels), the American Blunt & Syms or the English Cooper. Usually these employed an "underhammer" action, with the hammer mounted under the frame, behind the barrels, forward of the trigger (often a ring-trigger). Several other types of firing mechanisms exist, such as rotating internal firing pins (Rigby, Robbins and Lawrence, Comblain), rotating firing pins on a hammer (Sharps, Grunbaum) or multiple firing pins (Martin).
The flaw with the pepperbox is that it becomes more front-heavy if the length and number of barrels is increased, making accurate aiming difficult. With most types, in particular those with rotating barrel-clusters, it is almost impossible to aim beyond close range because the hammer is in the line of sight (some pepperboxes have a slot in the hammer through which one is supposed to aim), there is no place to put a frontsight (putting one for each barrel would only increase the weight of the front end and likely make drawing the weapon awkward), and the gun is too front-heavy to permit quick and steady aiming. However, the primary market was for civilian self-defense so its most common use was at close range. Common practice at the time, indeed, was not to aim pistols, but instead to "shoot from the hip," holding the gun low and simply pointing at the target's center of mass. Gunfights often happened at point-blank range. With this use in mind, many pepperboxes, in fact, have smooth-bored barrels, even though rifling had been commonly used for decades by the time of their manufacture. Bobbins & Lawrence models had rifled barrels.
Multi-shot percussion firearms were often considered dangerous because firing one powder charge could ignite the others (a "chainfire"), all at the same time, when proper care was not taken. This problem was largely eliminated by the introduction of nipple partitions, evident on later percussion revolvers, which largely shielded the percussion caps on neighbouring chambers from the flash struck by the weapon's hammer during firing. However this feature is rarely seen on pepperboxes, although some had the nipples placed in recesses or at right angles to each other to reduce the chance of a chainfire. A chainfire in a pepperbox would be far less dangerous than in a single-barreled revolver because with a pepperbox, each of its bullets could freely exit its own dedicated barrel (essentially turning it into an impromptu volley gun). Similarly if a chamber wasn’t in exactly the right position when the hammer hit the cap it would fire normally and safely, as opposed to a single-barrelled revolver where a cylinder misaligned with the barrel when fired could cause a potentially explosive malfunction. This simplicity and safety helped the pepperbox survive after more modern revolvers came along, as well as keeping production costs a lot lower than revolvers with their more complex mechanisms.
A development from the pepperbox is the so-called "transitional" revolver. This weapon uses the same action but with one single barrel attached to the front of a cut-down pepperbox cylinder. A transitional revolver is defined as a revolver (with barrel and cylinder) that does not have a cylinder-stop, an early example being the Collier flintlock revolver of 1819.
It retained the pepperbox's caplock action but still had many deficiencies. The lack of an effective cylinder stop allowed a charge to be fired when the cylinder wasn’t aligned with the barrel, resulting in an erratic shot possibly damaging the gun and even injuring the firer. While the shortened cylinder made loading easier the barrel was attached to the cylinder pin; over time this weakened the gun, decreasing its accuracy. In addition it lacked partitions between its nipples, risking similar chain-fires to the earlier pepperbox. This was exacerbated by the fact that the bar-hammers common on pepperboxes and transitional revolvers usually provided a weak blow, which meant that extra-sensitive percussion caps were needed to ensure that the gun would fire, further increasing the risk of a chain-fire. Although later models were fitted with a shield to protect the user from cap fragments there was still a risk of being maimed or killed as a multiple discharge could cause the gun to explode.
Since the bullets didn't have to be rammed down from the muzzle but were loaded into the cylinder behind the barrel, they could be slightly larger than the bore, which facilitated the use of rifled barrels. Whereas most pepperboxes are smooth-bore, most transitionals are rifled.
Daniel Leavitt was the subject of a famous lawsuit after producing a transitional revolver in 1851 with an identical loading lever to the Colt Dragoon. Guns of this type saw use in the Mexican War as an alternative to the Colt Walker and Dragoon, most notably by General Winfield Scott. A late example, the 1855 Butterfield revolver, used a Maynard tape primer rather than percussion caps. 640 were issued to the US army during the American Civil War, but the government canceled any further purchases when the pistols were found to be inferior to the cheaper Colt Navy. Pepperboxes and transitional revolvers started disappearing gradually in the 1850s with the manufacture of true revolvers by Samuel Colt, Webley, Robert Adams, Smith & Wesson, Jacob Rupertus and others.
The pepperbox experienced a kind of "revival" in the late 19th century as a short, easily concealable pocketweapon that used pinfire cartridges. A special variation of this kind of handgun, in which the shortness of the barrel cluster was fully utilized, is the French "Apache revolver." This weapon, allegedly popular among Paris street gangs, was fitted with a folding blade and knuckle-duster. The pepperboxes from this period disappeared with the demise of the pinfire cartridge.
Two of the most common pepperboxes in the Old West included the four barrel Christian Sharps Derringer, and the five barrel Remington Elliot. Guns of this type were prized by gamblers because they could be easily concealed in a vest pocket. Unlike the single action Sharps, the Remington had a double action ring trigger. These were typically made in .22 short and .32 rimfire for close quarters self-defence.
The Swedish five-barrel Feilitzenre pistol is the only pepperbox that was ever taken into consideration for use by an army. In the late 19th century many British officers used the privately purchased 4-barrel Lancaster pistol in preference to the standard-issue Beaumont–Adams and Webley revolvers as it had greater stopping power, a faster rate of fire and was quicker to reload. This break-action pepperbox, available in calibers as large as .476 (with even a double barrel version in caliber .577 available) worked in a similar way to the Sharps Pocket Pistol: its striker, not the barrels, revolved.
The pepperbox design was used for a small number of weapon designs in the 20th century.
While pepperboxes were usually handguns, a few rifle-sized guns were made; Samuel Colt owned a revolving 3-barrel matchlock musket from India. During the 1960s the Colt Defender, a pepperbox shotgun designed by Robert Hillberg, utilized 3-inch 20-gauge Magnum rounds and had 8 barrels which rotated around a central axis. One version of the Defender also had a receptacle for a tear-gas canister between the barrels.
3D printed pepper-box
The Reprringer is a 3D printed pepperbox handgun, made public around September 2013. It was created by Hexen. It can hold 5 bullets and is chambered in .22 Caliber caps.
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