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Mini Revolvers

by Ed Buffaloe

History

S&W First Model .22

Colt Open-Top .22 of 1872

I’ve often demonstrated my fascination with small concealable pistols of all types, and I’m certainly not immune to the lure of the mini revolver.  There are a number of guns I think of as historical antecedants to the modern mini revolver.  Small revolvers have a long tradition in America, dating back to the Smith & Wesson First Model .22 of 1857, which evoked a plethora of imitations in the form of cheap pocket revolvers.

The small .22 revolvers were followed by larger models in .32, .38, and .41 caliber-- cheap rimfire versions of which have since become known as suicide specials.  Soon after American pocket revolvers began to appear, the Webley Bulldog came on the market (1872-1873).  It was originally chambered for larger self defense rounds such as the .45 Webley, the .442, and the .380 centerfire, but was also made in .44 rimfire, .45 Webley, .320 and many other calibers.  American companies quickly began to imitate the very successful Bulldog, and it wasn’t long before the Belgian arms industry took a piece of the action as well.  By the 1890’s there were literally hundreds of different pocket revolvers of
First Model Ladysmith

First Model Ladysmith of 1902

every imaginable size and caliber on the market.

With the advent of the bicycle, the Bicycle Gun came into vogue--typically a pocket revolver in a small caliber suitable for discouraging dogs from chasing bicyclists.  Such guns already existed, but hadn’t been named Bicycle Gun yet.  One such was the Hopkins and Allen 7-shot .22 solid frame double action revolver, made between 1875 and 1907, known as the XL No. 3 Double Action small frame.  The .32 Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless of 1888 to 1892 with the 2 inch barrel became known as a “Bicycle” gun at some point, and the First Model Ladysmith (the 1902 M Frame Model .22 Hand Ejector), was often referred to as a “Bicycle” gun.  Iver Johnson made a similar gun--the Model 1900 Double Action small frame, a 7-shot .22, which appeared in 1900 and remained in production for 41 years.

Belgian Velo Dog .25

Belgian Velo Dog .25

In 1894 the 5.5mm Velo Dog cartridge was introduced in France--a rimmed .22 centerfire cartridge with a long, slim case.  “Velo” is an abbreviation of “velocipede,” used in Europe like Americans use the word “bike” for “bicycle.”  Velo Dog became a generic name for small revolvers carried by bicyclists, in any of a number of calibers, made primarily by Belgian and German small arms manufacturers, though some were made in Spain.  They were usually hammerless (concealed hammer) revolvers with a folding double-action trigger and a swivel ejector rod like the British Bulldogs (John Adams’ patent of July 1872--British Patent #285).

Modern Mini Revolvers

In my lifetime, so far as I know, the first mini revolver to show up on the market was the Rocky Mountain Arms Corporation (RMAC) .22 short.  According to an interview with the current owner of North American Arms, Sandy
Belgian Velo Dog .25

Rocky Mountain Arms A22S

Chisolm, Rocky Mountain Arms was founded late in 1971.  RMAC licensed their design from Richard J. Casull.  Casull’s early design, as realized in the Rocky Mountain Arms mini-revolver, utilized a lever attached to the hammer on top of the gun to lock the cylinder in place.  The first place I find the RMAC mini-revolver listed is in the 1975 issue of Gun Digest, but it may have been advertised elsewhere before that.  The gun is marked on the left side ROCKY MOUNTAIN ARMS CORP. / SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH and CASULL MODEL A22S / PATENT PENDING.  Apparently Rocky Mountain Arms only lasted for a few short years.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has more information on what happened to the company.

Casull later redesigned his gun to have the locking mechanism on the bottom, eliminating the lever attached to the hammer.  His patents were filed in 1978 and granted in 1980.  U.S. Patent 4228606 was granted to Casull on 21 October 1980 for the means of mounting the cylinder to the frame, and U.S. Patent 4228608 was granted on the same date for the cylinder locking mechanism.  U.S. Patent 4385463 was granted to Casull on 31 May 1983 for a floating firing pin for small revolvers and U.S. Patent 4450992 was granted 29 May 1984 for a belt buckle that would hold a .22 short mini revolver.

Belgian Velo Dog .25

Casull Patent Drawing

In 1978 Wayne Baker and Dick Casull founded the Freedom Arms company in Freedom, Wyoming.  Their first offering was a five-shot mini revolver in .22 long rifle, which I believe appeared in 1979.  Models in .22 short and .22 magnum appeared soon thereafter.  In 1982 they introduced their Boot Gun with a longer barrel and larger grips.  Casull patented a belt buckle to hold the .22 short mini revolver, but I do not know when it was first produced.

According to Sandy Chisolm, North American Arms was founded “a couple of years [after the founding of Rocky Mountain Arms] to continue the development and manufacture of several firearms designed originally for RMA by the legendary Dick Casull.”  Chisolm also states:  “In the early 80s, NAA became a subsidiary of Talley Manufacturing, an aerospace manufacturing company.”  I’m not sure exactly when North American Arms began producing their pistols, but I know they were listed in the 1984 issue of Gun Digest, though the name of the company was North American Manufacturing Corporation at that time.  In 1988 both Freedom Arms and North American Arms were producing their guns at the same time, but sometime around 1990 Freedom Arms dropped the mini revolvers.  Talley Manufacturing sold North American Arms to Sandy Chisolm in November of 1991.  The company has continued in business ever since.

NAA Mini Revolver

North American Arms Mini Revolver

Sometime around 2005 or 2006 Charter Arms began manufacturing their Dixie Derringer in both .22 LR and .22 Magnum.  I have never had the opportunity to examine one of these guns, but judging from the photographs it is a significantly different design from the Freedom and NAA pistols (though externally they look very much alike).  I don’t see any sign of a removeable side plate on the Dixie Derringer--it appears to have a solid frame like all of Charter’s other revolvers.  It also has a hammer-block safety button.

Shooting Mini Revolvers

I own a North American Arms .22 LR Mini Revolver and an NAA .22 magnum, and I was able to borrow a Freedom Arms .22 LR Boot Gun from a friend for comparison purposes.  My NAA long rifle mini revolver came with the standard tiny “birds head” grips, which I took an instant dislike to.  I simply couldn’t find a comfortable position in which to hold the gun.  Eventually I made myself a pair of deer antler grips for the gun, and purposely made the left-side grip with a slim top and swollen bottom so I could get my thumb over it. 
Two NAA Mini Revolvers

NAA .22 Magnum & .22 LR

I love the looks of my homemade grips, but they really don’t help me control the gun much better.  Then I discovered I could buy some larger boot -shaped grips for my NAA direct from the company, which I did.  I like them better than the original grips--I’m still not able to get a firm enough grip on the gun.  A number of guys on the internet forums have lauded the “Black Widow” version of the NAA gun, which has oversized black rubber grips.  I haven’t tried one of these yet, but it is the next logical step for me, though obviously the larger grips reduce the concealability of the gun.

The NAA .22 magnum revolver has somewhat larger grips than the long rifle version, which feel better in my hand, but the more powerful cartridge prevents me from hanging onto it any better than the smaller revolver.  If anything, I’m even less accurate with the .22 magnum.  For practical self-defense purposes, these guns are limited to an arms-length range .  A sharp knife is probably a more dangerous up-close weapon.  However, the little revolvers do make a lot of noise and shoot flames out the front in the dark, so they might have a certain deterrent effect on amateur assailants.

Freedom Arms & NAA Minis

Freedom Arms & NAA Minis

I fell in love with the looks of the Freedom Arms Boot gun, with its slim 3-inch barrel and elegant boot-shaped grips.  The boot gun has its firing pin in the frame, rather than on the hammer, so you can actually see the rear sight when you aim.  This is definitely a better design, since on the NAA revolvers the firing pin blocks your view of the rear sight, negating its usefulness entirely.  On the other hand, the Freedom Arms has only a half-cock for a safety, whereas the NAA derringers now have a slot between each cylinder where you can rest the hammer for an absolutely safe carry.

Unfortunately, I found that even with better sights, a longer sight radius, and a larger grip, I still wasn’t very accurate shooting one-handed with the Freedom Arms Boot Gun.  My friend told me it was a very accurate gun, and he could hit quite well with it, but he has powerful hands and obviously can control the recoil.  Then I came across an article in the 1984 edition of Gun Digest entitled “Handling Mini-Revolvers” by Dave Reynolds.  Dave claimed he could shoot 2-inch groups at 50 feet with the Boot Gun (and had a picture to prove it).  His techniques are worth repeating.

Pocket Holsters for NAA Mini Revolvers

Pocket Holsters for NAA Minis

Reynolds says you have to use both hands to hold the gun.  He recommends wrapping the index and middle fingers tightly around the grip, then using the other hand to cock the hammer and pull the trigger.  Using his method with the Freedom Arms Boot Gun, I could keep all my shots on a paper plate at 25 feet, but I certainly couldn’t put them all in a 2-inch group.  And with the NAA mini I couldn’t even hit the plate most of the time, unless I reduced the distance to 15 feet.  Despite my own failings, I think two hands is the way to go.  I’m sure with practice I’ll find a method that works better for me.

I feel the mini revolvers have a place as deep concealment and backup guns, but those who carry them should practice with them regularly if they expect to defend themselves effectively.  Dave Reynolds reports that rapid fire is quite possible with a little practice.  He recommends keeping the arms tight against the body, holding the trigger back with one hand and thumbing the hammer with the other.  He says he can put 5 shots in an area the size of a basketball at 10 feet in about 2 seconds.  Not bad!   

Copyright 2008-2013 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.
Click on the pictures to open a larger version in a new window.


References

The British Bulldog Revolver, by George Layman.  Andrew Mobray, Woonsocket, Rhode Island: 2006.
“Handling Mini-Revolvers,” by Dave Reynolds.  Gun Digest, 1984.
“Pocket Pal,” by Mike Cumpston.  American Handgunner, July/August 2001.
The .22 Magnum Dixie Derringer from Charter 2000, by Jeff Quinn.
North American Arms
The North American Arms Mini Revolver, by Syd Weedon.
The Riverboat Gun, by Jim Libourel.
Randy Wakeman Interviews Sandy Chisolm
 

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