Pepper-box - Popularity


The pepperbox, at least the firearm that is mostly associated with this term, was invented in the 1830s and was meant mainly for civilian use. It 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 and 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, like rotating internal firing pins (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 which makes accurate aiming difficult. With most types, in particular those with rotating barrel-clusters, it is almost impossible 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, 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. Pepperboxes with rifled barrels do exist, however, particularly the ones from the pinfire era.

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. In a pepperbox this would be less dangerous than when the same thing happened in a single-barreled revolver because in the pepperbox, at least, all the bullets could freely exit the muzzle. Similarly if a chamber wasn’t in exactly the right position when the hammer hit the cap it would fire normally and safely. 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.

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