Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) described a friend’s Allen pepperbox this way:
Simply drawing the trigger back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world…
It was a cheerful weapon—the “Allen.” Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once and then there was no safe place in all the region roundabout but behind it.
Mark Twain was liable to exaggerate for comic effect, but there is some truth in the description.
The Allen pepperbox wasn’t a long-range weapon by any stretch. It was more like a belly gun—meant to be used for self-defense in dire emergencies, when an attacker was closing in. And although not a common event, it was possible for a spark to flash from one percussion cap to the next, igniting anywhere from two to all six charges virtually simultaneously. This would probably have been a heck of a surprise for people on both ends of the gun.
From the 1830s through the 1850s, this was probably the most popular handgun in America, due to its reasonable price—about $10 new, roughly equivalent to $300 today—and the ability to fire six shots before reloading. The great majority of Allens were produced in .32 caliber, with a minority in .36 (and other, smaller calibers too, but we’re not concerned with those for now). Its popularity declined as the more reliable and powerful metallic cartridge revolvers came into their own in the 1860s, but they were manufactured well into the 1880s.
So if you’re playing a FAR Western character who needs a not-too-expensive pistol that can be carried in a coat pocket, purse, or waistband or kept handy in a drawer while you go about your daily business, this is probably the default choice.
The Allen & Thurber pepperbox wasn’t a military firearm, nor was it glamorous or elegant. It was a practical, effective tool, which explains both its immense popularity and the fact that very few people today would recognize one if they saw it.
It does have some historical connections, however: Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, defended himself with a smuggled .32 caliber Allen pepperbox (referred to as a “six-shooter” in most accounts), wounding three assailants before he and his brother were murdered by a mob that had stormed their jail cell in Carthage, Illinois. (It’s a heck of a story; you can read more about it here.) And when Brigham Young led the subsequent exodus through the wilderness to settle what would later become the state of Utah, he equipped the expedition with “four hundred dollars worth of Allen’s revolving six-shooting pistols.”
Interested in learning more about this nifty historical firearm? Check out these resources: