Miniature handguns: history

ancient miniature handgunsThe history of miniature firearms has lasted more than 300 years. It is believed that the manufacture of miniatures was a test for the gunsmiths. If the apprentice could create a working weapon on a half scale or even less – it meant that manufacturing and repairing full-size gears was not a problem for him. There is an opinion that miniature specimens may have been samples for sellers: it’s much easier to carry a dozen of miniatures than full-sized pistols and guns. This, of course, made sense, especially in the case of large items.
Another, known for certain, reason for the creation of miniature operating arms – using them as gifts for important clients: courtiers and regal persons. Miniature guns can be seen in many palace collections, in particular, in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Among the oldest operating miniature models, the first to mention are mechanisms with wheel locks. They date back to the beginning of the 16th century, and production continued for almost a century. This intricate mechanism used a friction wheel with a spring tension, which caused a spark when the “dog” (the hammer) touched the rotating wheel. One of the most famous manufacturers of miniature wheel mechanisms was Michael Mann. This master specialized in manufacturing of art castles and was also famous for his miniatures, reminiscent of complex mechanical masterpieces and watches rather than weapons. He worked in Nuremberg from 1590 to 1630. On the pictures below you can see two miniature handguns by Michael Mann, circa 1600.

wheellock pistol by Michael Mann

wheellock pistol 15-16 century

In place of the wheel mechanisms the system of the flintlock type came. These guns were also popular prototypes for the creators of miniatures. Their mechanisms are not so difficult to miniaturize as wheel locks. Antique miniatures with flint locks date from the end of the 17th to the 18th century, their popularity coincides with the popularity of the prototype.

miniature flintlock handgunHowever, this system had significant drawbacks. When the weather was rainy, gunpowder in the mechanisms of flintlock pistols could easily get wet, making guns useless. This problem was solved in 1820 by the invention of a percussion cap. In this case, the powder is contained in a small metal cup, which, being placed against the hammer behind the breech part of the barrel, was relatively resistant to weather conditions. The ignition of gunpowder is caused not by sparks, but by impact and friction. In short time, a percussion pistol became the predominant type of firearms.

italian golden pistolThe golden handle of the Italian percussion gun shown in the illustration is an example of a unique miniature handgun, possibly based on a full-sized pistol. The deeply carved thread is exceptional, especially considering the scale.

Until the 1830s, most percussion pistols had a fairly primitive mechanism, something that we call “muzzleloaders”. Gunpowder poured directly into the barrel, and the hammer pressed on gunpowder. The only differences were in the mechanisms that ignited gunpowder in the barrel.

Japanese handgunSeparate direction in firearms engineering – matchlock guns. By age, they coincide with the earliest, wheel lock mechanisms, but were not applied in Europe, because they were invented in Asia. A matchlock pistol uses a smoldering cord held by the hand to ignite gunpowder. This is one of the oldest examples of firearms. However, most miniature matchlock pistols, which can be seen, date back to the 19th century. Due to isolation from the West, this type of weapon was popular only in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), and most miniature matchlock handguns were produced later as their imitation.

Japanese matchlock guns had handles of wood or ivory and iron barrels, often with intricate inserts of silver or gold. The barrel, lock and handle are held together by a metal band. The sample shown has a length of only 6.3 cm.

one of the first perkussion pistolsOf course, the above systems are not very practical, since they require a lot of effort to clean and maintain arms in a combat-ready state, and also increase the time for recharging. Therefore, over time, they were optimized: gunpowder and a bullet were placed in a separate container, which was easily and quickly inserted into the barrel. Patented in 1831, the rimfire cartridge became one of the first metal rounds. Mainly it was used in small-caliber pistols, or in firearms for entertainment, used for indoor firing. The German 3-mm single-shot pistol shown in the illustration looks like one of these “saloon guns”, but its length is less than 6 cm.

Chech mini handgunAs an alternative to rimfire cartridge, in the mid-1800s Casimir Lefauchaux developed a widely known pinfire cartridge. In this system, the hammer does not impact directly on the cartridge sleeve, but on the pin protruding out of it. Over the Civil War in the United States, most of the weapons were produced in the North, and because of trade embargoes imposed on the South, the Lefauchaux gun became the preferred firearm for soldiers from the South.

If you take a close look at a picture of a miniature Czech handgun next to a full-size cartridge, you can see the tiny two-millimeter pinfire cartridges.

1mm muff gunIn length of time rounds became more widespread. In 1880, the French company Gevelot started producing 2-mm pinfire cartridges and 1-mm percussion caps. So muff pistol charms have appeared: tiny women accessories with 1-mm barrel. One of them you can see in a box with a brass tin and a combined tool (a mold for bullets and a key for screwing a barrel). These items have become the subject of fashion. They were worn by women in their muffs in the Victorian era. Miniatures were usually worn on a chain, as a talisman. Even Queen Victoria had one, and it can still be seen with other items of her collection of miniature arms in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Double action mini revolverSince the 1880s, such amulets were produced in two versions: with removable and fixed barrels. Removable barrels allowed the lead bullet to fit tightly, and although these tiny pieces of art are only 5 cm long and have a 1 mm percussion cap, they can fire a 2 mm lead ball with the force which is enough to pierce wood about 2,5 cm thick.
At the same time, some French and Belgian armourers began manufacturing 2 mm pinfire handguns, which were real double-action revolvers. One pull cocked and released the trigger. Miniature revolvers of double action were sold from the 1880’s to the 1940’s. In 1939 the firearms catalog Stoger included a revolver of this kind at a price of $ 35. In those years, a new car could be bought for $ 400.

revolver Victor BovyWhen tiny 2-mm cartridges became widely available, many new developments arose. Revolvers were produced in several versions; the main difference was that they were made with open top and closed top – such mechanisms worked with pinfire and rimfire cartridges. An excellent example of a 2-mm open-top gun is the “Victor Bovy”, which was made in France in 1884. With its engraving and mother-of-pearl handle, it was only 38 mm in length.

For collectors of 2 mm pinfire guns, Franz Pfannl from Austria is considered to be the father of the model called “Berloque”. Although he is better known as the designer of “Kolibri” pistol, which was only 5.5 cm long. It is the smallest semi-automatic gun ever produced.

Berloque Austrian handgunIn 19th-20th centuries this European inventor designed and released a number of charm handguns. The most prevalent is a 2mm pinfire pistol with a folding down barrel and embossed handles. The model shown in the illustration has much rarer enameled handles with inserted golden stars. This gun was patented by Pfannl in 1899 and was manufactured at his plant in Krems, Austria, until its closure in 1943.

Here is a highly rare design of Pfannl’s firearms, a pistol with a double barrel. There is an inscription “AUSTRIA” on one of its grips, on the other grip is the mark “KOBOLD”. It is boxed with a container for 2-mm cartridges in a typical case made of cardboard and crocodile leather.

Later, after the World War II, charm handguns were manufactured by various manufacturers in Europe, as well as in Japan. The specimens presented in the illustration are the most prevalent. They can be easily recognized by handles, stamped together with the body, not as separate parts attached to the pistol. From the 1940s to the mid-1950s, they were often sold in local shops and gas stations; they could also be purchased through advertisements in magazines such as “Popular Mechanics”.

two shot pistol by PfannlBerloque new age handgun

Miniature handguns of the new generation

And, finally, we have come to the fact that modern manufacturers of miniature firearms spend many hours working on one project. They make every piece individually, often selling it at a price that is the average wage in developed countries. For what? The answer is simple: for love, for challenge. It can be frustrating. It can drive you mad when the part that you worked on for hours, is lost, and you find it only in a few weeks when it is no needed anymore. In short, this occupation is not for everyone. Many of today’s miniaturists are retired mechanics, gunsmiths, jewelers, or even artists.

Remington pistol by David KucerOver the past 50 years, the community of miniature makers has been small. Ron Devalt, Larry Smith, Tom Weston, Mike Barrett and Stanley Blaschak are the names that any collector of miniature handguns will recognize. One of the true masters of miniatures today is David Kucer. Made in 1/3 scale, his works are real masterpieces. The illustration shows his “Remington” gun with all accessories. Pay attention to the size comparing to the coin placed on the box.

This master is considered to be the most honored: he has devoted more than 65 years of his life to miniature firearms . In his 92 David Kucer is still active in business and does not plan to retire. Several heirs has grown in his family. Danny, David’s eldest son, a former jeweler and engraver, is now a successful entrepreneur. Joel, Danny’s son, worked in grandfather’s studio for two years, but then he received an engineering degree in industrial design. Another son of David, by contrast, left the job of an aerospace engineer to study the miniature from his father. He worked full-time as an apprentice, learning everything that was available, about miniature firearms and metalworking in general. He also attended the Stockton School of Jewelry and Engraving in California to upgrade his skills. His intention is to follow his father’s way and continue to keep the name Kucer at the top of the list of miniature masters.
The next illustration shows a set of operating dueling guns (the original comes from 1798) made by South American master Antonio Rincon. This maker surprises with his versatility and artistry. He has the skill of a watchmaker in processing of screws with microscopic diameter, the accuracy of a jeweler in manufacturing of tiny engraved inlays of precious metals, and the ability to reduce to a third or a quarter the size of the most complex mechanisms. Although many experts participated in the production of originals, who were separate specialists in barrels, locks, ornaments and engravings, Antonio Rincon perfectly performs each of these operations himself. The result is an invaluable work in which functionality and aesthetics are harmoniously combined.

dueling pistols by Antonio Rincon
Rincon took a fancy for ancient firearms when he was 20 years old, and over time managed to gather a fairly extensive collection. One of the most valuable exhibits in it is the set of pistols by Nicholas Noel Boutet, Napoleon Bonaparte’s gunsmith. This is one of the leading figures in the history of firearms art. Boutet with equal skill madealuxury weapon for the emperor, generals and marshals, and standard firearms for the troops. It is believed that his work has never been surpassed. That’s why, probably, his pistols were taken by Rincon as a model for miniaturizing. In 1994 Antonio’s work, reproducing flintlock pistols, made by Boutet for Napoleon, appeared in English magazine “Guns Review” with the following comment: “The photography speaks for itself.” An English correspondent for the American magazine “Shooting the Breeze” wrote: “We have not seen anything like this in England.” Such comments made the master even more demanding. He makes his own tools and uses only the highest quality materials. Gold and silver adorn barrels and frames. For grips and cases, he uses exotic wood: ebony, walnut (taken from the part of the tree where the root connects to the trunk), cherry wood, some species of maple.
Derringers by Bob UrsoIn the next illustration, you see a pair of miniature Derringers “Delvigne” on a scale of 1/3 and 1/2. Their author, Bob Urso, is a retired professor, having taught design, computer graphics and drawing at the university level for 40 years. For the past 15 years, he has edited the magazine “Miniature Arms Journal”. Also he is an active miniature firearms manufacturer and collector. He has written a book “The Tiniest Gun”, a guide for collectors of miniature pistols with a caliber of 2 mm.

To date, the “Miniature Arms Society of Collectors and Makers” has members all over the world: these people are united by a passion for miniature firearms. It publishes a quarterly magazine with articles, photographs and advertising information. If you want to join the number of these enthusiasts – then the first exhibit for your collection can be purchased right now!

Want to buy a miniature handgun?

miniature handgun to buyThis “Derringer” is available for sale in all countries. It is made of precious metals: red and white gold. Gold is used for all the details, excepting two springs. The handle is made of exotic material: the mammoth bone. The scale 1: 6 makes it the smallest shooting gun in the world. The length is 25 mm. Its cartridges have only 1 mm caliber and contain hardened steel bullets. The shot power is very high for a pistol of such size: it is enough to break through the metal side of the can. Learn more about this model here.