Bore view of Purdey Howdah pistol  

The Last Thing the Tiger Sees...

Tiger hunt with Howdah on elephants

Tiger hunting in India in the days of the British Raj was dangerous for both the tiger and the hunter. It was not unknown for the tiger to try to climb up the elephant to get at the hunters in the howdah, and at such close range, a rifle was not an effective weapon. For such 'last ditch' defense, a large-bore, double barrelled pistol was used, and these came to be known as "Howdah Pistols".

The one shown here is a fine example made by Purdey in the first half of the 19th century. Like most howdah pistols, it is a large smoothbore, in this case, 0.662"(16 ga) with 7 1/2" barrels. Since they were meant for 'snatch & shoot' action, it has only a rudimentary bead front sight and no rear sight, but it is relatively light (2 pounds 6 ounces), and the balance is absolutely superb.

Side view of Purdey Howdah pistol

Topview of Purdey Howdah pistol

Proof marks on bottom of barrel of of Purdey Howdah pistol, with barrel maker's initialsI found the pistol (in its original case) in a collection of otherwise nondescript old guns at an auction in New England. When I saw it, I knew it 'needed' to be in my collection, and fortunately, my wife purchased it for me as a Christmas present. As can be seen in the photograph (click on it for a larger version), it is beautifully made, with highly polished Damascus barrels and engraved locks marked "Purdey". On the top of the barrel is the maker's name and place of business: "J. Purdey Prince Street Leister Square, London". The proofmarks and serial numbers (846) are on the bottom, hidden by the stock; also present there are the initials 'CL', for Charles Lancaster, the well-regarded barrel-maker used by Purdey, Manton and other renowned London gunsmiths. These serial numbers, according to lists in the book British Gunmakers by Nigel Brown, put the manufacture of this pistol in 1825.

Detail of outside and inside of locks of Purdey Howdah pistolThe locks have sliding safety catches which engage the tumbler at half-cock, and the internal finish is equally as fine as that of the outside, a mark of the best London craftsmanship. The tumblers incorporate a fly, even though the pistol does not use set triggers.

Close up of lock of Purdey Howdah pistolThis close-up of the side shows the platinum plugs which were used to seal the bolster after drilling out the flash channel. Note the tiny holes in the center of the plugs, which communicate through to the flash channel. Many makers believed they relieved some of the pressure from the exploding percussion cap and prevented the main charge from being disturbed before it was fully ignited. These details were also the mark of a fine gun-maker of that era.

Pistol Bottom ViewThe bottom of the pistol shows the engraving on the triggerguard, ramrod entry pipe and other furniture.

Howdah Pistol Ballistics

The pistol was loaded with a 0.648" ball and 0.012" patch and was fired with increasing charges of FF Swiss Black Powder. The table below shows the muzzle velocity as measured over a Oehler P35 chronograph.

Powder Charge 30 gr 40 gr 50 gr 60 gr 70 (calc)
Muzzle Velocity 523 678 719 xx 876
Energy (fpe) 250 419 471 xx 695

Except at the lowest charge, shooting the pistol can only be described as 'brutal' - my knuckles were bruised, and my wrists felt like they were hit with a bat. I could not get a consistent velocity reading with the chronograph at 60gr, but I had enough data to estimate the ball energy with a 70gr charge. The accuracy of the pistol was at best modest, particularly as its light weight and heavy ball made it hard to control, and the off-center kick moved the impact point a good eight inches to the side which was fired.. At an elephant-to-ground distance of about 20 feet, I could generally get a 6 inch group - not great precision, but on the other hand, a tiger is a pretty large animal - especially at close range...