Issue 28 October 2021

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Howdah You Do?

A H. Holland Howdah Pistol

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Guns & Gunmakers|October 2021

A howdah pistol was a weapon of last resort. It does have sights but they are largely redundant, as the indended range for engaging your opponent was probably inches rather than yards.

That opponent would usually be a tiger, leaping up the side of the elephant on which you were riding, trying to get into the howdah in which you were probably now cowering, having exhaused your double rifle and still facing an angry cat intent on exacting revenge before succumbing to its wounds. As the big fellow's huge head and fearsome teeth came into view, your last chance was to point your howdah pistol and pull the trigger, hoping the big bullet would save your skin at the last moment.

In fairness, as long as your nerve held, these big 'stoppers' had the power to deal you a 'get-out-of-jail' card just when you needed one. The one illustrated here is a fully rifled, eight-inch barrelled, 12-bore by H. Holland, made between 1872 and 1875. It shows very little sign of having been used, which is not surprising. Unlike shotuns and rifles, these were not expected to be required on a daily basis. If you had to use it at all, you were probably unlucky.

The damascus barrels are proof tested for black powder and are stamped '13', meaning they were made .710" in the bore and would have fired a conical bullet. The pistol is made like a mini double rifle, with a rotary-under-lever and non-rebounding back-locks. It dis-assembles like a shotgun, the small forend retained by a wedge and escutcheon and the barrels swing on a conventional hinge pin. Most of the original colour case-hardening remains.

Though well made and of first class construction, finishing is not best quality. The engraving is fairly crude by the standards of the day and it has the feel of a well made piece but not quite of the quality the owner probably paid for in his shotguns and double rifles.

Howdah pistols also found some favour as personal protection pieces - the fearsome muzzles served to scare off many an assailant and the massive bullet was enough to stop one in his tracks, should that become necesary. The 1857 Indian Mutiny was still a vivid memory when this pistol was built, just fifteen years or so later.

That conflict abounded with tales of fanatical Sepoys running through pistol shots to carve up their British masters. A 'man stopper' became a very attractive prospect in the minds of many colonial travellers thereafter.

This particular pistol appeared at Holt's in September 2021 with an estimated value of £3,000-£5,000. It sailed through that barrier to eventually make a hefty £10,000 on the hammer, which means £13,000 in actual money. The value of howdah pistols has risen better in recent years than that of most vintage sporting arms

Legally, a 12-bore howdah pistol, like this, even a fully-rifled one, is classified as a Section 5 'Prohibited Weapon', though it is Section 7.3 eligible. Many similar pistols were made for the .577 cartridge, which makes them Section 58 'Antique' in modern legal terms and free to own without a licence, as a curio.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on

Guns & Gunmakers|October 2021

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