A pair of small belt pistols by Benjamin Cogswell  

For a Gentleman's Night on the Town

In England, until 1870, the carrying of concealed firearms was completely unregulated, and even up to 1909 there were only minor restrictions. Every gentlemen going out for a night on the town, or for going almost anywhere for that matter, carried a pistol. Relatively small, concealable pistols were available inexpensively in every town in England in specialty shops, ironmongers (hardware stores) and the like. Most were of relatively low quality (like our so-called "Saturday Night Specials", but those made for the gentry were very well-constructed and often elaborate.

The pair shown here were manufactured by Benjamin Cogswell. According to Nigel Brown, he maintained a business at 224 Strand from 1857 to 1863; which thereafter became the well-known firm of Cogswell and Harrison. This pair of .53 caliber, brass-frame percussion boxlock pistols were a slim and elegant accompanyment to a gentleman's dress. They are perhaps slightly anachronistic in that they are large-bore, single shot pistols at a time when multiple-shot pistols and revolvers were coming into fashion, but the large bore would certainly have been very effective, and their slim profile would make them very easy to carry. I don't know how they would have actually been carried. Their profile is that of a boot-pistol, which were tucked into or carried in a holster inside of a boot, but their side hook suggests they may have been carried on a belt, sash or inside pocket. In either case, they would have come quickly to hand if the need arose.

Hammer View of Cogswell belt pistolsHook View of Cogswell belt pistols

The pistols are of fine but not overly elaborate quality, with a cast-brass boxlock and .53 caliber barrel with a case-hardened finish. The steel ramrod is the 'captive' type most usually found on military pieces, but the absence of a stock almost mandates this type of arrangement here.  The barrel, frame and furniture all have some engraving, and the diminutive stock is almost completely covered by very fine, well-executed checkering, which gives a surprisingly good grip for such a tiny stock.

The Anatomy of a Boxlock

Exploded view of the box locks of the Cogswell belt pistolsA boxlock is one in which the internal mechanism of the lock is contained within the frame of the gun. In this example, the frame, bolster and powder chamber are cast as a single piece of brass onto which the barrel is screwed. The side-plate (to which the hook is attached) fastens to the frame with a forward-located pin (not visible here) and a screw. A partially-drilled hole in this plate serves as a bearing for the minor tumbler axle and acts like the bridle on a traditional lock. The removable top plate covers the remainder of the frame and provides a second attachment point for the wooden grip (and also has a rudimentary rear sight). The main spring attaches to the frame by a simple hook arrangement, and a stirrup connects the tip of the spring to the rear of the tumbler. The trigger is pinned into the frame, with the trigger return spring held in place with a simple pin. The captive ramrod is in a self-contained cast brass holder which screws into the barrel. One interesting thing was that the screws go completely through the barrel wall, as does the front sight! When properly cast, this is a simple mechanism to finish and assemble, and it makes for a very rugged lock. Since the inside of the gun was never seen by the owner, it was unfinished except for the necessary bearing surfaces. This contrasts with the detachable locks whose insides were often as well-finished as the outside.

Furniture and Finish

Side view of Cogswell belt pistols Since this was a Gentleman's Gun, it has a higher degree of finish and embellishment than would be seen in an ordinary weapon. All parts have at least some simple but well-executed engraving, and the overall fit and finish is of very good quality.

Barrel and muzzle of Cogswell belt pistolsTop-Bottom views of Cogswell belt pistols

Buttcap of Cogswell belt pistols Proof marks on barrel and frame of Cogswell belt pistolsThe buttcap is also nicely engraved with a case-hardened finish, and in the center of the buttcap is a lid which flips open to reveal a small cavity for cap storage. The barrel shows a London definitive black powder proof mark, and the brass frame bears a London view mark.

It's Pretty, But Is It Effective?

Holding the Cogswell belt pistol, showing its relative sizeThe large bore and 3 1/2 inch barrel would certainly suggest so, but with its light weight (16 oz.) and small grip, could it be effectively handled with a decent powder charge? To find out, the pistol was loaded with a bare ball of .53 caliber (223 gr), which fit the barrel just snugly enough to stay in place. It was fired with a range of powder charges at "assailant range" - about 15 feet.

Load 15 Grains Swiss 2F 20 Grains Swiss 2F 25 Grains Swiss 2F
Ave. Velocity 327 370 415
Energy (fpe) 53 68.2 85

With a 25 grain load, the pistol bucked a lot and the ramrod would come loose after the shot, but I could place all shots in a pieplate at that distance with all loads. This would clearly discourage a footpad!

All Boxed Up & Ready To Travel

 Boxed set of Cogswell belt pistolsTrade label of Benjamin Cogswell