Pocket Pistols Then & Now

by Fred Ray on March 31, 2012 · 2 comments

How far have pocket pistols come in 150 years? Let’s take a quick look.

The Otis Smith revolver, which I posted about earlier, is a good example of the breed in the 1860s and 70s. It’s a knock-off of the Smith & Wesson Model 1½ introduced near the end of the Civil War. Smith introduced his pistol in 1873, the year Rollin White’s “bored through cylinder” patents ran out. Let’s compare it to something modern, a Kel-Tec P-32, a currently popular pocket pistol.

The most obvious difference between the two is the construction—the Kel-Tec is made mostly of polymer with a steel barrel, while the Otis Smith is all nickeled steel. The Smith is a revolver while the Kel-Tec is an automatic pistol, which did not come into use until the turn of the last century.

Both are .32 caliber. The Smith fires a self-contained rimmed rimfire black powder cartridge, an innovation at the time, which runs a soft lead bullet down the 2″ barrel at about 500-650 feet per second. This makes for a pretty anemic load but quite adequate considering 19th Century medicine.

The Kel-Tec shoots a modern .32 ACP whose smokeless powder load hustles a 71 grain full metal jacket or jacketed hollow point bullet down its 2½ barrel at about 800 feet per second, which is not exactly a “man-stopper” either.

The Kel-Tec holds seven rounds in the single-stack detachable magazine, plus one in the chamber, and can be carried safely that way. A ten round mag is available. The Smith holds five shots and can only be carried safely with four, the hammer resting on an empty chamber.

Fully loaded the Kel-Tec weighs 9.4 oz., or about what the Smith weighs empty. Since no .32 S&W black powder ammo was available (and I was unable to get weigh specs) I could not figure the loaded weight of the Smith, but it’s probably around 12 oz.. Thus if you allow that the  Kel-Tec holds twice as many rounds as the Smith, the loaded weights are pretty close. For the same reason—no ammo—I could not do any sort of accuracy or penetration tests, but I think I’d much rather have the Kel-Tec, which can also be reloaded much faster with a spare magazine.

In terms of design the Kel-Tec is a much more streamlined design, carefully engineered to avoid snagging on clothing and such. As you can see from the photo there isn’t much difference in the size of the two pistols, but the Smith, while mostly pretty streamlined, definitely does have a problem with the hammer, which sticks way out there and invites snagging.

Still, the Otis Smith has it way over the butt-ugly, utilitarian Kel-Tec in terms of style and “feel.” The graceful lines of the “bird’s foot” butt, set off with rosewood grips, make it easy on the eye and hand in a retro, steampunk kind of way.

In today’s market and liability climate there’s just no way you could build something like the Otis Smith today for any sort of competitive price, and the exposed hammer and lack of any sort of transfer bar safety would doom it in any courtroom.

Still, it and its cousins are kinda cool, and represented a huge step in the development of the modern pocket pistol.

More to come…

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