Victorian ‘Howdah’ hunting pistols

Custom-ordered from Adams of London (more famous for their revolvers) in around 1880, this pair of big double-barrelled Victorian pistols were split up around 60 years ago. Thanks to the generosity of a member of the public, the Royal Armouries was able to reunite them.

The owner’s initials are engraved on both pistols. Although we may never know who ‘H.C.’ was, we can assume that he was a big-game hunter in India or Africa.

The reunited pistols
The reunited pistols

Weapons like these are known as ‘Howdah’ pistols, a howdah being essentially a saddle for an elephant that could be used as a firing platform. You can see a life-sized recreation of this outside the Hunting Gallery at our Leeds Museum.

Hunting diorama, Royal Armouries Leeds
Hunting diorama, Royal Armouries Leeds

The pistols weren’t for hunting but for self-defence against dangerous and fast-moving game animals like lions and tigers. They were a compromise between the power of a rifle and the small size and handiness of a pistol, the two barrels allowing for two quick shots without reloading. They were more powerful and reliable than a multi-shot revolver.

Many howdah pistols are chambered in large calibres for better ‘stopping power’, but our pair is unusual. One is in a commonly available revolver and lever-action carbine cartridge (.44-40) – also a favourite in the Old West. The other, recently donated, is smooth-bored (20 bore) like a shotgun, so of less use against large animals. One possibility is that it was for defence against venomous snakes, the spread of shot giving a better chance of hitting the soft-skinned creature.

You can see pistols like these in the 2009 movie adaptation of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, fired at Robert Downey Jr as he escapes into the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. An over-and-under version appears in ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas as hunters called in to protect railway workers from two ‘man-eating’ lions.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms