I’m not sure where the term ‘Belly Gun’ came from, but it was a slang term for a hide-out gun in the Old West. Some have suggested that it meant the guns were intended to be used when you were ‘belly to belly,’ but the fact that these guns were often equipped with reasonable-length barrels and sights casts doubt on this notion. Initially at least this seems to have indicated a use for a gun rather than a type. After the Civil War the term seems more and more to have referred to short-barrelled firearms, and by the 20th C. it seems to have been firmly fixed as referring to a snub-nose revolver.
In point of fact any hideout piece meant to be employed with stealth and surprise was termed a ‘Belly gun,’ and many of them were not revolvers. I’ve seen reference to a Hammond Bulldog, a single-shot pistol chambered in .44 Henry Rimfire, as a person’s ‘Belly Gun.’ Certainly in modern terms though, this term is now applied almost exclusively to revolvers.
There have actually been revolvers intended for concealed carry for about as long as there have been practical revolvers. The original Colt Patterson was a .28 caliber revolver, and was quite svelte enough to be carried concealed. Being underpowered, fussy and rather fragile it was not a commercial success.
After Colonel Walker’s commision for 1000 Walker Colt horse pistols, the first new commercial endeavor Colt undertook was the .31 Caliber ‘Baby Dragoon,’ a small .31 caliber revolver intended from the outset as a concealed self-defense pistol. This was followed immediately by the 1849 .31 Pocket Model, which incorporated mechanical improvements and a loading lever, and the ‘Wells Fargo,’ an 1849 with a short barrel and no loading lever. The 1849/Wells Fargo line became the best-selling Colt percussion revolvers, with over 300,000 produced between 1849-1873.
Smith & Wesson jumped into the game in 1857 with their Model #1 revolver, chambered in .22 Rimfire (which we now call .22 Short) and shortly thereafter with a .32 Rimfire. These were not short-barrelled guns as such, but they were quite svelte and easily concealed under the clothing of the time.
Both the Colt and S&W concealable factory revolvers of this era were rather anemic, and some people wanted something with a bit more punch. This led to chopping the barrels off of Colt Navy .36 caliber revolvers. Early Mormons were notorious for this, and they came to be referred to as ‘Avenging Angels’ or ‘Mormon Avengers.’ When the 1860 Army .44 was introduced this treatment was applied to them as well. Judging from the numbers of surviving examples this appears to have been widely done, but not necessarily common.
Remington cast it’s hat in the ring in 1857 with several percussion revolvers, including Remington-Beals single-action models and Remington-Rider double-action percussion revolvers ranging in caliber from .31-.44. These included several pocket models, which were available in .31 and .36 caliber, and all of the early Rider revolvers were intended as pocket-guns. The did introduce a variant of the 1858 using the Rider double-action mechanism in 1863 that was a belt pistol.
After the Civil War metallic cartridges began to supplant percussion guns. S&Ws monopoly on the bored-through cylinder expired and others, including Colt began to introduce pistols and revolvers that used metallic cartridges. Initially these were conversions of percussion revolvers, but in 1871 Colt introduced their first solid-frame, purpose-built cartridge revolvers, the House Pistol and Cloverleaf (so named due to it’s four-shot cylinder) chambered in .41 Rimfire.
By 1885 a bewildering variety of small cartridge revolvers were being marketed, all intended to serve the concealed carry market. All the big-name makers offered pocket revolvers, and ‘British Bulldog’ revolvers were imported both from Britain and Belgium. In the US Forehand & Wadsworth made their fortune on their domestically-produced ‘British Bulldogs.’ Colt did market their 1873 in an ejectorless model, which were available with very short barrels, but it was increasingly rare to see cut-down versions of full-sized belt revolvers.
Any and all of these might have been used as, and referred to, as Belly Guns. Of course just covering these would be the subject of a book- or more likely multiple books!
In the early 21st Century Cowboy Action Shooting competition has sparked a renewed interest in the ‘Belly Gun,’ but since of all the vast majority of period revolvers only Colts and Remingtons are normally available as reproductions they are based entirely on cut-down versions of those guns. As long-time readers will know I make a good few of these myself, usually in the form of cartridge-conversion guns.
So the western Belly Gun is alive and well in the modern era, but with scads of more practical options it’s all for fun now. I’m fine with that; I enjoy my modern guns and amenities. But every so often it’s nice to take a step back…
Michael Tinker Pearce, 20 January 2019