Are these small but powerful firearms — call them hand cannons or pocket shotguns — just market hype or true mighty midgets for concealed carry?
The newest modern derringers are now essentially the same caliber as Henry Deringer’s first pocket pistol of 1852. Back then, the muzzleloading single-shot Philadelphia Deringer used 15 to 25 grains of black powder to drive a .41 caliber round ball. Since those days, derringers have been chambered for many handgun cartridges, but only fairly recently have they been made to shoot the .410 shotshell.
Are these modern pocket shotguns and hand cannons just gimmicks or are they really viable for self-defense? To answer that, we need to know if .410 ammunition can stop an attacker. Also we need to know if the derringer has the physical characteristics suitable for concealed or pocket carry, and if the derringer is controllable in pointing and in recoil.
Hand Cannon Ammo
One selling point for these handguns is the happy coincidence that chambers can be made to fit both .45 Colt cartridges and .410 shotgun shells (though rim diameter and thickness is not identical), providing a “twofer” benefit. However, because .45 Colt bullet diameters vary from .452 to .454 inches, and factory loads can measure as small as .440 inches, you must be sure that yours properly fits the groove diameter of your pistol, otherwise you could suffer unacceptable accuracy and reduced penetration.
The specific derringers examined here have rifling groove diameters of .450 inches (Bond Arms) and .452 inches (Heizer Defense PS1), so you should use bullets of not less than those diameters and not more than about .0005 inches over.
While small shot like No. 9 through No. 1 may stop an attacker up close, it may be less likely to instantly incapacitate than the buckshot sizes 00 and 000, especially as distance increases.
Three to five 00 balls will fit in a .410 shell, depending on whether it is 2 inches or 3 inches long. Stepping up to 000, three or four fit in a 2-inch shell and five can get into a 3-inch shell; it varies with the maker.
Winchester’s PDX 410 Defender ammo, used for testing and now marketed as just Defender, goes a slightly different route, being loaded with three full-caliber, plated lead discs on top of 12 pellets of plated BB shot (larger than #1, but smaller than buckshot). While not an exhaustive evaluation, it’s a starting point for testing defense-specific ammo.
Unfortunately, there is just about zero data from real-life shootings using .410 pistols because they are so new to the world of defensive handguns. Still, it seems likely that striking an attacker a few feet away with multiple .35 to .41-caliber bullets would be effective.
Life is full of tradeoffs. We chose a derringer for its size, knowing we must forego fine sights, full-size grips, backup shots and the effective range of other carry guns. We tested two .410 derringers, the Bond Arms double barrel and the single-barrel Heizer Defense PS1.
Each maker approaches the derringer concept differently, and it’s up to the individual shooter to decide which features are most desirable. Both pistols here chamber only the 2-inch shotshell. Trigger pull weights, by design, are intentionally heavy and exceeded the capacity of spring-type gauges.
The Bond Arms derringer is a hefty 19.9-ounce chunk of stainless steel and has a very short bird’s-head grip with a smooth backstrap.
Couple that with expected sharp recoil, and the first inclination is to settle the gun too low in the hand and grip the trigger at the first knuckle of the index finger. But allowing the web of your hand to press against the cocked hammer can increase trigger pull weight. So hold the derringer as you would your other pistols, with an imaginary straight line running from the front sight to your elbow and only the pad of your finger in the trigger face.
This is a single action (SA) pistol requiring thumb cocking of the hammer before firing. With practice it doesn’t have to add any time to present the pistol to the target, but the handgun’s ergonomics and the considerable effort needed for thumb cocking must suit your hand size and strength.
If too large or too hard for you to cock, you may find yourself unintentionally squeezing the trigger while cocking. The wide, serrated hammer spur aids in cocking but it can snag on clothing during the draw unless you cover the hammer with your thumb upon drawing from a holster or pocket.
The pistol’s cross-bolt safety is not readily disengaged with one hand, especially if you’re in a hurry. For carry, turning a screw locks the safety in the off position. The Bond Arms loads safely with the hammer down. Because the 3-inch barrel assembly is hinged at the top, shells and cartridges will slide out when closing the action, unless you tip the pistol on its side or slightly invert it.
The Heizer Defense PS1
The most immediately notable feature of the PS1 is its 1/2-inch wide, flat profile, totally lacking any protrusions other than the low front sight. Clearly, the snag-proof, melted-edge design is intended specifically for pocket carry, though the maker includes a list of holsters that fit the PS1. Barrel length for the .410 is 3 inches and the weight is 21.4 ounces. The only operating control other than the trigger is the ambidextrous recessed barrel release. A spring-loaded extractor pushes cases from the chamber far enough to grasp with the fingers.
The trigger pull is long and stacks at the end as the striker spring compresses. The trigger is adequate for the pistol’s purpose. The .45 Colt rim diameter is slightly smaller than the .410. Several times during loading with the barrel pointed down, .45 Colt cartridge rims slipped past the extractor; when this happens it’s impossible to close the action.
These are truly diminutive guns, and even the smallest hands won’t get a pinky finger on either grip. The PS1 has the edge for shooters with weaker hands who may find the Bond Arms pistol difficult to thumb cock. If gripping with both hands Weaver style, placing your offhand index finger on the front of the trigger guard of either pistol puts it a fraction of an inch from the muzzle, so extra caution or changing your grip is in order.
Both guns patterned well at 7 feet, placing multiple hits close to center mass. As expected; however, at 21 feet the shot from the short barrels spread so much as to render hits iffy though several still landed at center mass.
The rifling in each barrel apparently caused shot to favor to the left.
These are utilitarian self-defense handguns, not something you’ll shoot often for pleasure. And frankly, in .410 they are not a pleasure to shoot; the PS1’s slim grip made recoil particularly uncomfortable. A few rounds for regular practice and familiarity are necessary but anything more than that would be punishing.
Derringers are intended for convenient carry and up-close defensive situations. An across-the-room shot is fairly long, with accuracy and instant incapacitation decreasing rapidly with distance. There are better choices for home defense. Protracted gunfights are obviously not an option with derringers. If firepower is your priority then Bond Arms gets the nod with two immediate shots; if non-snag pocket carry concealment is number one, then the PS1 has a clear design advantage.
In this timely rewrite of the world’s most authoritative work on the topic, In the Gravest Extreme, Massad Ayoob utilizes an extra thirty years of experience to discuss the ideas and issues surrounding the armed citizens’ rules of engagement. Learn more