Unblinking Eye
Suicide Specials

 

Suicide Specials
by Ed Buffaloe

List of Trade Names
(not comprehensive):

Acme, Aetna, Alaska, Alert, Alexis, Alexia, American, American Boy, American Eagle, Aristocrat, Aubrey, Avenger, Bang Up, Bengal, Big Bonanza, Bismark, Blue Hound, Blue Jacket, Boys Choice, Brutus, Buffalo Bill, Bull Dog, Capt. Jack, Caruso, Challenge, Champion, Chicago Ledger, Chichester, Chieftain, Columbian, Comet, Commander, Constant, Continental, Conqueror, Cowboy, Cowboy Ranger, Creedmore, Crescent, Crown, Crown Jewel, Czar, Daisy, Daniel Boone, Dead Shot, Defender, Defiance, Despatch, Double Header, Dreadnought, Eagle, Eagle Arms Co., Earlhood, Earthquake, Elector, Electric, Emperor, Empire, Empress, Encore, Enterprise, Eureka, Excelsior, Express, Fashion, Faultless, Favorite, Favorite Navy, Fisher, Frontier, Gem, Governor, Guardian, Gypsy, Half Breed, Hard Pan, Hero, Hecla, Hood, Imperial, International, Iroquois, Jewel, J.H. Johnston, Joker, Kaiser, Kentucky, King, King Pin, Kittemaug, Knockabout, Ladies Companion, Ladies Pet, Lakeside, Leader, Liberty, Lifelong, Lion, Little Giant, Little John, Little Joker, Little Pet, Little Scott, Lone Star, Long Range, Long Tom, Marquis of Lorne, Metropolitan Police, Midget, Mohawk, Mohegan, Monitor, Monarch, Mountain Eagle, My Companion, Napoleon, Nero, Never Miss, New Baby, Newport, Nonpareil, Non-XL, Norwich Falls, Odd Fellow, O.K., OK, Old Hickory, Orient, Our Own, Panther, Paragon, Paralyzer, Parole, Pathfinder, Patriot, Peace Maker, Peerless, Penetrator, Pet, Phoenix, Pinafore, Pioneer, Prairie King, Premier, Princess, Protector, Queen, Ranger, Rattler, Red Hot, Red Jacket, Reliable, Reliant, Retriever, Robin Hood, Rob Roy, Rover, Royal, Rupertus, Russian, Ryan, Ryan’s New Model, Safe Guard, Savage, Scott, Scout, Secret Service, Senator, Sentinel, Smoker, Smokey City, Southron, Spit Fire, Spitfire, Splendor, Spy, Star Leader, Sterling, Striker, Success, Superior, Swamp Angel, Terrier, Terror, Tiger, Tower’s Police Safety, Tramp’s Terror, Triumph, Trojan, True Blue, Tycoon, Uncle Sam, Union Jack, Union NY, Unique, Veiled Prophets, Venus, Veteran, VETO, Victor, Victoria, White Jacket, White Star, Whitney, Wide Awake, William Tell, Winfield, Winner, Wonder, XL, XLCR, Yankee Boy, You Bet, Young America.

List of Manufacturers
 (not comprehensive):

Bacon Arms Company, E.L. Dickenson, Forehand & Wadsworth, Harrington & Richardson, Hood Firearms Company, Hopkins & Allen, Iver Johnson, Lee Arms Company, J.M. Marlin, Norwich Arms Company, Osgood, Prescott, Reid, Whitney.

The term “suicide special” was coined by Duncan McConnell in an article in the American Rifleman of February 1948.  In 1958 Donald Blake Webster wrote a book entitled Suicide Specials, now long out of print.  The name was given to a class of small, cheap revolvers that were made in profusion between about 1870 and 1890.  The classification is rather loosely defined, often in negative terms.  Donald Webster has enumerated the following criteria for suicide specials:
  1. Single action revolver
  2. Solid frame
  3. Sheath or spur trigger
  4. Most are rimfire only, in one of five calibers:  .22, .30, .32, .38, and .41 (.30 is rare)
  5. Electroplated with nickel (95%)
  6. No break-open frames or swing-out cylinders
  7. No extractors or ejectors
  8. No hinged loading gates
  9. No safety features
  10. No serial numbers (or serial number hidden under grips)
  11. Most carried a trade name, not the actual manufacturer’s name

Despite the fact that most cities forbade the open carrying of weapons, late 19th Century America was a time and place where almost everyone owned a gun, and many carried them concealed.  The average person couldn’t necessarily afford a Remington, Colt, or Smith & Wesson, so there was a thriving market for cheap pistols.  With the expiration in 1869 of the Rollin White patent on bored cylinders, held by Smith & Wesson, a world of opportunity was opened up for small arms companies, and the public eagerly embraced their products.

The market for really small pocket revolvers was initially created by Smith & Wesson with their 1st Model .22 short revolver, which appeared in 1857, and the 2nd Model .32 rimfire, which appeared in 1861.  Colt, Remington, and Whitney also eventually made a few small pocket models, but none of them were in production for very long because they simply couldn’t compete with the cheaper guns.

Donald Webster is careful to emphasize that many of the suicide specials were poorly made of cheap metal and weren’t particularly safe to shoot when they were made, let alone today.  The only rimfire ammunition still in production today is .22 caliber, but it is much too powerful to be shot in old suicide specials (with the possible exception of CB caps).  Most of these guns are purely for collecting, not for shooting.

Also, as a result of being poorly made, many of the suicide specials that still exist are not in very good condition.  In the best of storage situations, some of them can deteriorate even without being handled.  This is particularly true of the cheap nickel plating used on most of them.

My intention here is not to write an exhaustive article on suicide specials, but simply to outline the basics on the guns and to add photographs of my own guns as I collect them.  If you have a suicide special and don’t mind sharing a photograph, I would be happy to publish it here.

ĘTNA No. 2 - .32

Aetna No. 2
Aetna No. 2

The Aetna was manufactured by Harrington and Richardson, formed in 1874.  There were four models of the Aetna.  The No. 1 was a .22 caliber with birds-head grips.  The No. 1-1/2 was a .22 with the grips squared off at the bottom.  The No. 2 was a .32 rimfire with birds-head grips.  The No. 2-1/2 was a .32 rimfire with the grips squared off.

 

Blue Jacket No. 2 - .32

Hopkins & Allen Blue Jacket No. 2 Hopkins & Allen Blue Jacket No. 2

The Blue Jacket No. 2. is a five-shot .32 rimfire revolver made by Hopkins & Allen.  The grip frame and grips may be either square butt or birdshead.  In some examples the patent date is omitted from the inscription.

 

Bulldog .38

Forehand and Wadsworth Bull Dog
Forehand and Wadsworth Bull Dog

There were many guns given the name Bulldog or Bull Dog.  This one, in .38 rimfire, was made by Forehand and Wadsworth.  Webster lists it as having a nickel finish and a fluted cylinder, so this may be an exceptional specimen.  These were some of the best made of the so-called “suicide specials.”

 

Defender

Defender .32 Rimfire Defender .32 Rimfire

The Defender was manufactured by Johnson & Bye (later Iver Johnson) from 1873-1888.  There were three different frame sizes for both square butt and birds head grip models.  The small frame was chambered for .22 rimfire; the medium frame was chambered for .32 rimfire; and the large frame was chambered for .38 or .41 rimfire.  Serial numbers for each frame size and model started at 1 and ran to 99,999, then started over again.  These were all smooth bore guns.  Defender is the most common brand name, but Johnson & Bye also made the same guns under other names, including Eagle, Encore, Eureka, Favorite, Favorite Navy, Lion, Smoker, Old Hickory, and Tycoon.  Pearl and ivory grips were available by special order, as were longer barrels.

There was a second series of guns made by Johnson & Bye from 1889-1899 that had rifled barrels and redesigned and improved lockwork.  These were sold as the Defender 89.  “Defender 89” was stamped on the topstrap and molded into the hard rubber grips. 

 

Eureka No. 2

Eureka No. 2 Eureka No. 2

The Eureka No. 2 was a five shot revolver in .32 rimfire that was manufactured by Johnson & Bye (Iver Johnson and Martin Bye) sometime in the period between 1871 and 1899.  The same revolver was manufactured under various trade names, the most common being Defender, others being Defender 89, Eagle, Encore, Favorite Navy, Lion, Smoker, Old Hickory, and Tycoon.  The .32 rimfire shown here was the medium frame, but the gun was also available in a small frame .22 and a large frame .38 or .41 caliber.  All have serial numbers of five digits or less.  Most have three inch barrels and bird’s head grips made of rosewood, or square butts with hard rubber grips.  Longer barrel lengths were available, as were ivory and mother of pearl grips.

 

H&R 1½

H&R-32-1-half-R-S H&R-32-1-half-L-S

The five-shot .32 rimfire Model 1½ by Harrington and Richardson is not listed in Webster’s book, but appears to be one of the better made of the so-called suicide specials.

 

Ranger No. 2

Hopkins & Allen Ranger No. 2 Hopkins & Allen Ranger No. 2

The five-shot .32 rimfire Ranger No. 2, with a 2- or 3-inch barrel, was made by Hopkins and Allen, and is not to be confused with the similar Ranger No. 2 made by E.L. Dickinson.

 

Rattler .32

Rattler
Rattler

The five-shot Rattler was a typical pocket gun of its day.  The manufacturer is unknown.

 

Robin Hood No. 1

Robin Hood No. 1

The Robin Hood No. 1 was a 7-shot .22 manufactured by the Hood Firearms Company of Norwich, Connecticut under patents granted to F.W. Hood .  The “No. 1” has a fluted cylinder, while the plain “Robin Hood” has an unfluted cylinder.  These guns had no rifling in the barrel, though they did have some notches at the muzzle to make the buyer think the barrel was rifled.  This one has walnut grips--some had hard rubber.  The gun is marked “CAST STEEL, PAT. FEB. 23, ‘75, Mar. 14, ‘76.”

 

Rupertus .41

Rupertus .41
Rupertus .41

The Rupertus in .41 rimfire was manufactured by the Rupertus Patent Pistol Company of Philadelphia, under the direction of Jacob Rupertus.  The firm was in business from 1858 to 1888.

 

Smoker

IJ-Smoker-R-S
IJ-Smoker-L-S

The .38 caliber rimfire Smoker, also known as the Smoker No. 3, is believed to have been made by Iver Johnson, though the name does not appear on the guns.  Webster states the has heard of a Smoker in .44 Henry but has never seen one.  The No. 1 was in .22, the No. 2 in .32, the No. 3 in .38, and the No. 4 in .41 caliber, but the numbers 1 through 3 often appear with only the name Smoker on the topstrap, as in this example.

 

Swamp Angel

Swamp-Angel-R-S Swamp-Angel-L-S

The .41 rimfire Swamp Angel is another well-made gun by Forehand and Wadsworth.  Webster says that barrels may be either 2-1/4 inch or 3 inch, but 1-1/4 inch, 1-1/2 inch, and very long (6 inch) barrels are also known to exist.  This gun was available in both 5-shot and 6-shot versions.  The gun shown here has a 5 shot cylinder and 2-1/4 inch barrel.  It is finished in blue and has polished walnut grip plates.

 

Terror

Forehand and Wadsworth Terror - .32 rimfire.
Forehand and Wadsworth Terror - .32 rimfire.

The Terror is yet another very well-made gun by Forehand and Wadsworth.  Shown here is a .32 rimfire six-shot, though Webster says that it may also be found as a five-shot and with a fluted barrel.

 

Tiger

Tiger-No2-R-S Tiger-No2-L-S

The Tiger is not listed in Webster’s book Suicide Specials as being for certain a suicide special, but is mentioned in Vaporise’s Fifty Years of Gunmaking: The Story of the Hopkins & Allen Arms Company, though no details are given. The No. 2 is in .32 caliber.

 

XL No. 3

Hopkins & Allen XL No. 3
Hopkins & Allen XL No. 3

The XL No. 3 is a Hopkins & Allen 5-shot .32 center fire with a nickel finish.  This is listed as a rimfire and as having a birdshead grip in Webster’s book, but this specimen is clearly labeled as a center fire and has the square grip.  Possibly rare.

 

XL No. 4

Hopkins & Allen XL No. 4
Hopkins & Allen XL No. 4

The XL No. 4 is a Hopkins & Allen 5-shot .38 rimfire with a nickel finish.

 

Copyright 2008-2017 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Jim Stoddard for allowing me to photograph his Rupertus.
Special thanks to Jerome Pellegrino for allowing me to photograph his Rattler.
Special thanks to Erik Winter for his many contributions.
Click on the pictures to open a larger version in a new window.


References

  • Blake, Donald Webster.  “The Burglar’s Lament or Suicide Specials, Revisited.”  Man at Arms, February, 2008.
  • Fors, W. Barlow.  Collector’s Handbook of U.S. Cartridge Revolvers.  Adams Press, Chicago:  1973.
  • Goforth. W.E.  Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works Firearms, 1871-1993, Gun Show Books, Hudson, WI:  2006.
  • Heckert, J. Wayne.  “Not Your Normal Suicide Specials.” Man at Arms for the Gun Collector, April 2017.
  • Sellers, Frank M.  “Collecting the ABCs...The Suicide Special from A to Z.”  Gun Collector’s Digest, 3rd Ed., 1981.
  • Vaporise, Joseph T. Fifty Years of Gunmaking: The Story of the Hopkins & Allen Arms Company.  Armsco Press, Canton, Connecticut:  1992.
  • Webster, Donald B., Jr.  Suicide Specials, Stackpole, Harrisburg, PA:  1958.
     

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