All the Information You Need On the Pepperbox Pistol

The Pepper-box revolver or simply pepperbox (also "pepper-pot", from its resemblance to the household pepper grinder) is a repeating firearm that has three or more barrels grouped around a central axis. It mostly appears in the form of a multi-shot handheld firearm. Pepperboxes exist in all ammunition systems: matchlock, wheellock, flintlock, percussion, pinfire, rimfire and centerfire.

The pepperbox should not be confused with a volley gun (like the seven-barrel longgun made by Nock), a firearm that fires multiple projectiles simultaneously by use of multiple barrels. The difference is that a volleygun fires all the barrels simultaneously while the pepperbox is a repeater. Also a firearm with multiple barrels next to each other (like the Jarre) is not a pepperbox: It is called a "Harmonica gun".


This type of weapon was popular in North America from 1830 until the American Civil War, but the concept was introduced much earlier, in the fifteenth century when several single shot barrels were attached to a stock, being fired individually by means of a match.

Around 1790 pepperboxes were built on the basis of flintlock systems, notably by Nock in England and "Segallas" in Belgium. These weapons, building on the success of the earlier two-barrel turnover pistols, were fitted with three, four or seven barrels. These early pepperboxes were hand-rotated.

The invention of the percussion cap by Joshua Shaw, building on Alexander Forsyth's innovations, and the industrial revolution allowed pepperbox revolvers to be mass-produced, making them more affordable than the early handmade guns previously only seen in the hands of the rich. Examples of these early weapons are the English Budding (probably the first English percussion pepperbox), the Swedish Engholm and the American threebarrel Manhattan pistol.


The pepperbox, at least the weapon 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 had 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).

Accurate aiming with a pepperbox is often difficult, and on most types, in particular the ones with a rotating cluster of barrels, 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 suppposed to aim) and there is no place to put the frontsight. However, the primary market was as a self defense weapon for civilians, meaning 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. 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. This was perhaps a reason for the pepperbox's survival after more modern revolvers came along, though the cost of the weapon was probably a more important factor. Pepperboxes are much cheaper to produce than revolvers with their relatively more complex mechanisms.

Modern Use:

The pepperbox design was used for a small number of weapon designs in the 20th century. In 1920, Mossberg produced the Mossberg Brownie, a 4-barrel .22LR pocket-pistol marketed to trappers. In the 1970s, the COP 357 Derringer was produced as a backup weapon for police officers.

Heckler & Koch used the pepperbox concept for their underwater P11 pistol.[15]

While pepperboxes were usually handguns, a few rifle-sized guns were made; Samuel Colt owned a revolving 3-barrel matchlock musket from India.[16] Modern pepperbox shotguns include the FAMARS Rombo and the double-action 4-barrel Winchester Liberator which was designed as an anticommunist insurgency weapon before being adopted by some US police forces.

Mark Twain - "Roughing It":

Mr. George Bemis was dismally formidable. George Bemis was our fellow-traveler.
We had never seen him before. He wore in his belt an old original "Allen" revolver, such as irreverent people called a "pepper-box." Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball.

To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an "Allen" in the world. But George's was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers afterward said, "If she didn't get what she went after, she would fetch something else." And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow.

It was a cheerful weapon--the "Allen." Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.


More great pepperbox photos.
Pepperbox Pistol The Firearm Blog


Anonymous said...

FMJ DD5 Revolver(pepper box)?

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