Monday, August 1, 2016

Featured Gun: Hopkins & Allen Dictator

Foreword by Ed Buffaloe:

Suicide Specials
The term “suicide special” was coined by Duncan McConnell in an article in the American Rifleman of February 1948.  In 1958 Donald Blake Webster wrote a book entitled Suicide Specials, now long out of print.  The name was given to a class of small, cheap revolvers that were made in profusion between about 1870 and 1890.  The classification is rather loosely defined, often in negative terms.  Donald Webster has enumerated the following criteria for suicide specials:
  1. Single action revolver
  2. Solid frame
  3. Sheath or spur trigger
  4. Rimfire only, in one of five calibers:  .22, .30, .32, .38, and .41 (.30 is rare)
  5. Electroplated with nickel (95%)
  6. No break-open frames or swing-out cylinders
  7. No extractors or ejectors
  8. No hinged loading gates
  9. No safety features
  10. No serial numbers (or serial number hidden under grips)
  11. Most carried a trade name, not the actual manufacturer’s name
Despite the fact that most cities forbade the open carrying of weapons, late 19th Century America was a time and place where almost everyone owned a gun, and many carried them concealed.  The average person couldn’t necessarily afford a Remington, Colt, or Smith & Wesson, so there was a thriving market for cheap pistols.  With the expiration in 1869 of the Rollin White patent on bored cylinders, held by Smith & Wesson, a world of opportunity was opened up for small arms companies, and the public eagerly embraced their products.

Now that we have the definition of a "Suicide Special", let's take a look at a company that made this particular gun.

The original company known as Hopkins & Allen was founded in 1868 in Norwich, Connecticut. The company was founded with the intention of making firearms, this is not completely unique, but important to note as many firearms makers of the day started out making tools or equipment and were drawn to the firearms industry by the immense demand. 

The founders were brothers Samuel & Charles Hopkins along with Charles W. Allen. Other principle investors included Horace Briggs and Charles A. Converse.

Converse, a Colonel and wealthy industrialist was previously the primary owner of shares in the Norwich gun maker known as Bacon Manufacturing Company. Dissatisfied with the management of Bacon, Converse took over the company and after a few years, dissolved the assets. Soon after, with help from some of the former Bacon employees, they formed the Hopkins & Allen Company. 

The map below shows the proximity of the gun makers in the town of Norwich. For more details see my blog post entitled: Ghost Gun Factories

It would seem that in the late 1800s in Norwich, you could not throw and rock and not expect to hit someone working in the gun business.

In those early days of cartridge firearms, patents were either not obtained or ignored. As a result many of the guns made by competing firms looked identical. In fact many gun makers in Norwich got their forgings from the same foundry and the parts were, to some degree, interchangeable.

Combine this with a small town in which most people were employed by or related to an employee of an arms maker and you get plenty of replication.

The subject of this post is one of those guns. Built by Hopkins and Allen sometime in the 1880s or early 1890s, this 32 Rimfire single action revolver was designed to appeal to gamblers, saloon girls or vagabonds who needed affordable protection against thieves or bullies.
The name "Dictator" was originally used on one of the firms early percussion revolvers. With the cartridge guns selling in favor of the old cap and ball design, the original Dictator was scrapped and a new design for a cartridge pocket gun was "obtained". 

This new pistol was a 5 shot, spur trigger, single action revolver in .22 & .32 rimfire caliber.  Many of Hopkins & Allen revolvers were sold to distributors under trade names including Blue Jacket, Mountain Eagle, Ranger, and others. 

Some time during this period Col. Converse sold his interest in the company to brothers William and Milan Hulbert. This led to the manufacture of famous Merwin-Hulbert pistol.

For reference, this is what the .32 rimfire looks like (from left to right: .32 RF Long, .22 LR, .32 RF Short & .22 Short)

 At one time Navy Arms was offering ammunition, although it wasn't cheap.

My gun fits all eleven requirements for a "Suicide Special". I purchased it years ago along with another small revolver. 
I paid $35, just as a lark, or perhaps a conversation piece.

 The top strap is marked with the model: DICTATOR No2, perhaps indicating that this is a redesign of the original Dictator (the percussion pistol).
 The cylinder holds five rimfire 32 caliber rounds

In the picture below you can see the cylinder bolt (a small piece of tempered sheet metal) just ahead of the trigger. At the front of the frame you see the cylinder base pin latch.  

The front half moon sight stands alone, not even a groove at the rear. You can also see the notch cut out for the firing pin.
There were no other markings on the gun, no manufacturer name, no serial number.....

here is the gun mostly disassembled

Specs for this gun:
Overall Length: 6 3/4"
Overall Height: 3 1/2" (at top of hammer)
Barrel Length: 2 3/4"
Cylinder Length: 1 3/8"
Weight: ?

The gun is a standard single action, the hammer has two notches, one 1/4 cock safety, which also allows the cylinder to spin counter clockwise for loading/unloading and a full cock notch.
The hand/pawl is MIA on this gun, but the cylinder does lock in place when the hammer is cocked (rotated manually). The firing pin is a squared off section of the hammer, it is not removable nor replaceable.

As discussed, there were thousands of these types guns made with over one hundred different names by a dozen or more manufacturers. 
Many of them were brand labeled for other manufacturers or hardware/mercantile stores. Here is a sampling of some I found online:

NRA Museum
Norwich Historical Society
Unblinking Eye

Some of the pictures on this blog were found freely on the world wide web and are used under the guidelines of Fair Use, per Title 17 of the U.S. Code.
If you own the copyright to any of these images and wish them to be credited or removed, please contact me immediately.