One gun that has always seemed very interesting to me is the so-called Howdah pistol. The history is rich and it was originally created to serve as a last-ditch effort from attacking animals whilst on the hunt. The name of the gun originates from the use of the Howdah – or rather the carriage if you will – placed atop an elephant while hunting. These were quite popular for hunting in India especially during the late 19th and into the early 20th century. The need arose after, one must assume, a few hunters were plucked from their howdahs by angry tigers! The hunter needed a way to defend himself quickly and easily – much more so than a long barreled rifle could provide. H. A. Leveson is quoted in regards to the howdah pistol, “to be effective, the muzzle must be placed close to the tiger’s head, and care must be taken not to kill the mahout.” The mahout was the one who would lead or tend the elephant and was generally the first to be attacked by a tiger.
These guns started out merely as cut-down, out of use rifles. Therefore, it is typical to see them using rifle cartridges that have also been trimmed. The original howdah pistols could be smooth or rifle bored guns; although I’m sure many of them were built from rifles that had seen their rifling deteriorate through heavy use; making them nearly useless for accurate shooting. Because of the close range use, long distance accuracy was not a requirement! Over the years, I have seen a few of these that were of the original variety and, although they were not pretty, I’m sure they were able to get the job done! It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century when the English makers started producing guns specifically meant for howdahs – or merely a defense type gun that could be worn on one’s belt. All of the big names – Westley Richards, Holland & Holland, and Purdey – made these types of Howdah pistols. They were also naturally produced by much smaller firms and probably cobbled together in India, as well.
Peterson and Elman in their book, “The Great Guns,” reference a variety of howdah pistols. One of the earliest mentioned in their book is “made by Westley Richards between 1835 and 1850, [and] was a caplock with a heavy, octagonal, .722 caliber barrel.” Obviously this was one of the earliest Howdah pistols manufactured, before the demand really took off. Through the natural evolution of cartridges, the howdah pistol was later manufactured using pinfire and then centerfire cartridges. As stated earlier, many of these were merely shortened version of their rifle counterparts or would otherwise employ cartridges such as the 577 Boxer which was developed by William Tranter of Birmingham or, later on, the more common 455 Webley.
I have seen many of these howdah pistols over the years and quite a few of them go through the major auctions. It’s quite often that they are found cased or in pairs; especially those of the nicer variety that were most likely bespoke. Many of them are very similar having side by side barrels and an underlever; though occasionally one will see something unique such as an over/under with a side lever like Lancaster made. Perhaps not serving much of a true purpose these days, I still think they are typically great values if one is interested in the history or possible providence of these types of guns. As some would say, “if only these guns could talk…”