Unblinking Eye
Little Ace

 

Little Ace

by Ed Buffaloe

Early Little Ace BoxLittle Ace falls into the class of guns that aren’t really good for anything, but that firearms afficionados find fascinating anyway.  It is a tiny little single-shot .22 short derringer with a sheath trigger, patterned after the rim-fire derringers of the late 19th Century.  Manufactured by Erl Svendsen, he claimed it was the smallest real derringer in the world.  It seems to have first appeared sometime in the early 1960’s.  Little Ace rated a brief mention in the 1972 Gun Digest in an article by DeWitt E. Sell entitled “U.S. Handguns Since World War II,” and is also listed in the Blue Book of Gun Values.  There was a local hardware store in Austin, Texas that carried them in the early 70’s, along with Svendsen’s “Four Aces,” which was a four-barrel .22 short derringer with a rotating firing pin on the hammer.  I have rarely seen either of these guns at gun shows, so they must be relatively scarce.  The ones in the hardware store were nicely blued with a shiny brass frame and wooden grips.  I recall that Little Ace cost about $20 in the 1970’s.  My rent at that time was only about $60 a month, and $20 seemed like a lot of money to spend on a gun that was really only a novelty.

Little Ace photo by Kurt Kuemmel Little Ace photo by Kurt KuemmelThe April 1962 issue of Guns magazine has a few paragraphs about Little Ace in its “Gun Rack” department.  Despite my own inability to hit the side of a barn with Little Ace, the magazine staff stated:  “We have test fired the gun with .22 BB and CB caps and with .22 short ammo.  The latter ammo gives surprising accuracy and, incredible as it may seem, it also kicks a fair bit.  Shooting the Little Ace with CB or BB produced some fair groupings on the targets...”  They further stated:  “Unloaded, the gun weighs 3 ounces, measures 3-7/8” overall.  The frame is solid bronze, the barrel is blue steel and rifled to standard .22 caliber specifications.”  I also found an advertisement for Little Ace in the June 1962 issue of Guns magazine.  It says the gun is a “replica of scarce Ethan Allen garter gun of almost 100 years ago,” and that it is made of “genuine steel & bronze (no aluminum or slush metal)”.  It sold for $12.95 at the time of the writing.

Little Ace photo by Kurt Kuemmel Little Ace photo by Kurt KuemmelThe earliest Little Ace guns were made in Norridge, Illinois.  However, the majority of them were made in Itasca, Illinois.  Finally, Erl Svendsen moved to Brownsville, Texas in about 1973, and made his last guns in that location.  He eventually sold the rights to his guns to Herman J. Seminiano of Brownsville, Texas.  Herman intended to continue to manufacture the pistols, but when he asked about the plans for the guns he was told there weren’t any.  All of Earl Svendsen’s guns were made by hand and were hand fitted.  There were no interchangeable parts.  A German derringer collector, Kurt Kuemmel, has many photographs of the Little Ace derringer on his website.

Erl called his company the Erl Svendsen Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, or ESFAC for short.  Later he also made guns under the name 4 Ace Manufacturing Company, Inc.

Little Ace is marked “LITTLE ACE” on the left side (with the heart in a square).  On the right side the early guns are marked “.22 BB & CB CAPS”, and the later guns are marked “.22 SHORT / STD. VEL. ONLY”.  On top, the early guns are marked “ERL SVENDSEN F.A. MFG. CO. / NORRIDGE, ILLINOIS.”  Later guns were marked  “ERL SVENDSEN F.A. MFG. CO. / ITASCA, ILLINOIS. U.S.A.”  Later still they were marked “ERL SVENDSEN F.A. CO. / BROWNSVILLE, TEX. U.S.A.” on top.  The last guns produced were marked 4 ACE MFG COMPANY, INC. / BROWNSVILLE, TEX. U.S.A.

My Little Ace DerringerThe in-the-white example shown here belonged to a friend of mine who removed the blue and added a pair of homemade horn grips (the original grips were cheap plastic and were not particularly well fitted).  My friend had sewn a loop of leather onto the back of his belt for the barrel to fit in, and the tongue of the belt buckle fitted into a groove in the right grip.  He could hook his right thumb around the grip, behind his belt buckle, and pull the gun out in a trice.  I always had my doubts about how effective it would be, even at very close range, though it might have scared someone to death.  The gun is impossible to hold steady under recoil–it is simply too small–so it is only usable up close.  I think I’d much prefer one of the old .41 caliber derringers for self-defense.

I’d be interested to collect serial numbers from surviving specimens to see if we can determine how many of each type may have been made.  So far I only have a very small survey.  The Norridge, Illinois guns were made through at least serial number 5260.  The Itasca, Illinois guns were made through at least serial number 12194.  Some Itasca guns have an “A” prefix--I’ve documented one with serial number A10578.  It is possible that Erl started the serial numbers over when he moved to Itasca--I don’t have enough information to determine this for certain.  The Brownsville, Texas guns I have documented have serial numbers 12342, 13238, 13343, L3176, and L3432.

Other Guns Manufactured by Erl Svendsen

Pony Express Revolver - This gun is said to be a copy of the early Ruger Single Six revolver--I don’t know if this is true, since I haven’t been able to examine a Pony Express in person.  The gun was a six-shot single-action-only revolver with a six-inch barrel and was manufactured in both .22 Long Rifle and .38 Special.  Apparently, this was the first gun manufactured by Erl Svendsen.  I would appreciate it if someone could provide good photos of one of these guns.

4 Aces Derringer - This was a four-barrel “pepperbox” style gun that fired the .22 Short cartridge.  I believe that manufacture started when Erl Svendsen was located in Itasca, Illinois.  If anyone has one from Norridge, I’d be grateful if you could send me the serial number and some photographs.  The late version of the 4 Aces fired the .22 Long Rifle cartridge.  The gun continued to be manufactured in Brownsville, Texas, and formed the basis for the HJS Frontier Four derringer which was patented by Herman Seminiano (U.S. patent number D.274639) on 10 July 1984.

Pocket Pony or Model 1 - This was a six-shot single-action revolver in .22 Long Rifle.  The two that I have seen were stamped “Mod. 1,” but various posts on gun-related internet forums call it the Pocket Pony.

Cased Sets - A small number of cased sets containing Little Ace, 4 Aces, and the Pocket Pony were made.  The guns in each set have matching serial numbers with the “CS” prefix.  I spoke to a gentleman who stated that he knew Erl Svendsen when he lived in Brownsville and Erl told him that he only made 100 of the cased sets.  However, collectors have since written me, one with CS112, one with CS115, one with CS196, and another with CS200.

Erl Svendsen 4 Aces

A very rare cased set of Erl Svendsen guns.
Top Right:  Little Ace
Bottom Right:  4 Aces
Left:  Model 1

Copyright 2008-2011 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.
Click on the pictures to open a larger version in a new window.


References

http://www.derringer.de/new1068.htm
http://www.thefiringline.com/forums/showthread.php?t=45109
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Little_Ace
Special thanks to Kurt Kuemmel for allowing me to reproduce photographs from his website.
 

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