When a rifle was just too long.
Tiger hunting in the Raj, back when Britain had an Empire and India was the famed ‘Jewel in the Crown’ was an organised affair, conducted for formal sport. It was often organised by one of the many regional royal families of the Indian provinces, to show their hospitality to diplomats, visiting princes or other dignitaries.
Maharajahs were essentially powerless in terms of political and military policy outside their own borders, as Pax Britannica kept the peace between the once oft-warring principalities that made up British India. However, they were provided with huge incomes and integrated into the social and diplomatic machinery of the state. For many, sport and entertainment became their over-riding passions.
A tiger hunt involved lines of beaters on elephants, with the sportsmen given the honour of participating in the shooting mounted atop their pachyderm, armed with a suitable rifle and seated on a contraption known as a howdah. This was kind of enlarged platform with raised sides, often made from wicker, attached to the elephant much in the manner a horse has its saddle mounted.
In front of the howdah, the mahout sat astride the elephant’s neck, his legs gripping behind the beast’s ears, high up but unarmed and within reach of a leaping tiger. His job was to steer the elephant as they sought out the tiger in the long grass.These chaps must have been very brave, or badly in need of a job, to take part. Not only was the mahout exposed to the attentions of the tiger, he had to have faith that whoever was trying to shoot the tiger from behind him would be disciplined and calm enough, in the frenzy of the charge, not to shoot him during the fray.
Most tigers were shot as they became exposed in the area ahead of the line of elephants, with each shooter letting fly as the tiger ran to-and-fro. However, if an enraged beast decided to launch himself on his tormentors and fly up the side of an elephant in order to engage with the occupants of the howdah, the normal rifles being wielded could become difficult to manage in the cramped and unstable basket , especially as the elephant was likely to react to the charge with its own aggressive or panicky movements.
So, atop a jumpy elephant, trying hard to cling-on to your basket with one hand, with an angry ten-foot-long cat trying to get in there with you and spoil your afternoon, you needed a weapon of last resort. Something you could fire one-handed, if necessary, and that would be devastatingly effective at point-blank range.
Early means of addressing this need,like most reactions to circumstance, involved modification of available weaponry. Most black-powder pistols were insufficiently potent to knock a tiger off you before it had re-arranged your face, even if you managed a few shots. Rifle payloads were more effective, so sportsmen began to cut down their double rifles and ended up with something looking a bit like a mini sawn-off shotgun. Sporting rifles for thin skinned dangerous game in those days were typically of .450, .500 or .577 calibre but the so-called ‘bore rifles’, fully rifled weapons in shogun gauges, were also in circulation for larger game.
Once the desired features of a weapon of this type were formulated in the minds of sportsmen, they began ordering them from their favourite gunmakers. They became known as ‘howdah pistols’ after the place from which they would be fired and they remain today as a legacy of a now defunct sport, their characteristics and quality a testament to the craftsmanship and opulence of the era.
The period of the howdah pistol spanned the late percussion era, with some muzzle loading examples extant, but they came into their own in the 1870s and 1880s, the heyday of Indian sport, when the vast continent seemed to have no bounds and the game was so abundant that it was thought inexhaustible. Howdah pistols of these decades are usually black-powder firing breech-loading double hammer pistols, made on actions very like the available ones being used to build smaller calibre double rifles.
Stock shapes were modified to provide more grip than a ‘sawn-off’ straight-hand, some being almost ‘broom-handle’ in shape, but a rounded pistol-grip being more usual. Locks could be bar-action or back-action and barrels either smooth-bored or fully rifled. .500, .577, 28-bore and 20-bore are the sizes I have encountered most often.
The howdah pistol could be used one-handed but it could also be held in two hands, as it usually retained the forend, which could be gripped in the normal manner to provide greater stability and dampen the recoil.
Away from the howdah and the tiger, these pistols also attracted a following as personal side-arms for travel. The 1857 Indian Mutiny had shown the colonialists that a motivated opponent with a sword or blunt instrument was not easily stopped by the common black-powder revolvers of the day. A double barrelled pistol was also faster to re-load than a revolver. The security of having a weapon for close quarter use that was guaranteed to be terminally effective was re-assuring.
As the cordite era began and available revolvers, like the Webley .455, became more powerful and quicker to load, the howdah pistol fell out of favour as a protection arm. Tiger numbers began to dwindle as it became apparent that the wildlife was in fact limited and the forests were cut to provide land and timber for the development of the country and the famous spectacle of the elephant mounted tiger hunt became increasingly less common.
Queen Elisabeth and Prince Phillip visited India in 1961 and were treated to a traditional tiger hunt, hosted by the maharajah of Jaipur. Photos of the hunt show their weapons of choice were bolt action rifles. We can only wonder if the odd howdah pistol was carried on that trip.
Today, howdah pistols appear at auction form time to time. Calibre is an important issue; for some may be obtained without a licence, under Section 57 of the Firearms Act, while others are Section 5 prohibited weapons. They are beautiful things to own, often coming in a neat box with dies, moulds and tools. They were often built to standards on parr with the finest rifles and shotguns of the day and far exceeding the common military handguns one encounters. The howdah pistol is a unique object from a brief part of sporting and gun making history that makes it special. If you have between five and ten thousand pounds to invest and a gun collection that seeks to be representative of the finest of the Victorian era, you need to have one.