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The Handslapper: Tiny Holes from a Larger Than Life Pistol

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

In 1862, a Wyoming cowpoke named Silas McDuggin had a problem. Every time he reached down to itch his foot or adjust his spurs, an ornery rattler would leap up to bite him. In Goldtrap County, the snakes had a peculiar habit of “jumping” when disturbed, due to mineral deficiencies in the soil as well as a surfeit of naturally occurring saltpeter that rendered them highly aggressive.

Most ranchers had six methods of solving their problems with snakes. These were the six bullets of their single-action (and later, double-action) revolvers, and their high-speed, brass-jacketed lead rounds within them.

Unfortunately, McDuggin raised a special breed of cow that was only half to a third the size of the typical American beeve: The Lesser Western Frontier Heifer Cow. This type of beef cow earned high marks for the reduced amount of grass required to sustain it, as well as the fact that its diminutive size rendered it easier to rope, herd, brand and corral. However, because its legs remained the same width as ordinary cow legs and their mass was equally proportionate, the Western Heifer had a very difficult time walking and moving its substantial bulk. This cow (also called the bullseye, due to its distinctive, target-like markings) was vulnerable to wolf predation—as well as stepping on the aforementioned angry snakes of Goldtrap County.

However, this also meant they never strayed more than a few meters from the ranch.

The son of a gunsmith, Silas McDuggin was born in New York and moved his family west to pursue his dream of raising small cows along the vast frontier in Big Sky country. The promise of free land was too good to resist. As soon as Silas erected his stick-and-strut cabin, he paid social calls to all of his neighbors to introduce himself and ask for their advice about how to best pursue his new occupation.

“The first thing I noticed…,” he wrote in his journal, “…was the small holes in every square inch of every settler’s cabin. At first, I thought this must be some innovation for the expeditious release of smoke, or for better wildlife viewing. Apparently, these holes were caused by mishaps resulting from firing projectiles too close to dwellings—often in order to protect the small and slow bovine brethren from the vicious Goldtrap County rattlers that frequent this region. My good neighbors stated that these holes, tiny though they were, caused the leakage of much fine air and led to winters that were miserable, and which many a toe, a finger or a child was lost due to internal cold seepage. I resolved then and there that no snake nor other obstacle would force me to place any holes in my cabin but the requisite three: door, window, chimney.”

When McDuggin communicated his thoughts on these matters, his neighbors took him for a fool, an inexperienced tenderfoot and a madman. No one could conceive of close-quarters ranching without putting dozens of bullet holes in their walls. The hard scrabble reality had caused many homesteaders to abandon their ranches and move to other counties with slightly less aggressive snakes, switch to raising larger cows that could walk further, or quit ranching entirely.

Silas McDuggin realized that the rounds currently in use by ranchers were a tad too powerful, so he thought why use a gun at all? First, McDuggin tried to shoo the snakes away with loud language. Then, when this failed, he used a crooked “snake stick.” Failing that, he tried his superior roping skills and attempted to lasso the troublesome critters but they were too spry and determined to flee. Much as he wanted to find a different method for snake control, a firearm would have to settle the matter after all.

He realized that the .22 caliber extra-long went straight through log, adobe, and even mud huts. They even pierced cast iron cook pots on the stove from outside the house. The .22 long was no better. The .22 short could still blow a hole in home and hearth from an uncomfortably close distance. Therefore, Silas McDuggin took his father’s gunsmithing skills and set to work engineering the perfect bullet, a bullet that a cabin could refuse but no snake could say no to.

Behold, the .22 extra short. About the size of the thumb tack, the .22 extra short (also called the “snake popper”) was the perfect tool to win the West. At least from the snakes. In Goldtrap County. Silas McDuggin spent month after month hammering and pounding away in his bullet forge, much to the consternation of his wife Eliza and their 15 children. The children were left to tend the cows while McDuggin the Elder was so occupied, and the eldest of the children was only 15, but since the cows were tiny, the family was able to carry on in like fashion while their patriarch was preoccupied with his visionary schemes.

Finally, months later, at the end of his efforts, McDuggin had his tiny bullet. He ran from his forge and showed it to his neighbors with glee. The first thing he did was set up a store and take out advertisements to sell the bullet, but it was then that he realized that no gun yet existed which could fire it. The skeptics laughed at him and walked away. In a rage, Eliza took a case of the worthless bullets and threw them in the fire, but they all exploded. They did no damage as they went off, which seemed to verify their safety.

Instead of giving up, old Silas McDuggin went back to the forge like the stubborn cuss he was. This time his purpose was not to make the world’s tiniest bullet, but to make the gun that would fire it. By now he was running out of money and materials and he’d sold or traded off his last beef cow, so he took what pistol he had and sawed the barrel down. Then he poured steel and filled in the chambers until his tiny bullets would fit snugly without falling out. He test-fired at his range until each shot rang true. Not only that, but he made sure that his snake poppers would pop a snake from 15 yards but only bounce off a glass window or a China tea cup from the same distance. He went through Eliza’s entire tea set and half the snakes in Goldtrap County getting it right.

50 cents equaled $1,000 in today's currency.

By the end of the testing, Eliza was so fed up with Silas, and so fed up with eating rattle snake for supper that she back-handed Silas so hard he fell off his chair. It was then that the idea came to him. He would market his new gun as The Handslapper. After selling his one and only version of the gun, he had just enough supplies to make two more. Slowly, he built up his inventory and opened a store until within a year the McDuggins were the richest family in Goldtrap County. It was said that the Handslapper and the .22 extra short single-handedly saved the Lesser Western Frontier Heifer Cow, and the families that depended upon it. Several decades later, Dr. Alfred Von Knockenbicken created an electrification process to remove saltpeter and excess minerals from the soil, which reduced the aggression levels in local snakes, rendering them quite docile and thus by 1895 the Handslapper was obsolete as a snake critter control device.

Eliza McDuggin pictured with Georgie the McDuggins' favorite Lesser Western Frontier Heisfer Cow (full-grown)

But more than The Lesser Western Frontier Heifer Cow, it was President Theodore Roosevelt who made the Handslapper famous. He used a modified Handslapper with customized .22 medium-short rounds to deliver the coup de grâce to animals he had wounded on his many expeditions. He preferred the .22 medium-short for this purpose because of its density and stopping power, and also because its low mass meant that a humane kill could be more easily rendered with less damage to the skull of the animal, thus resulting in trophy-quality hunting specimens. Not only did he require this for his own private collections. The museums commissioning and bankrolling most of his expeditions demanded this level of precision as well.

In addition to being a weapon of euthanasia, the Handslapper found brief service as the preferred gentleman’s dueling pistol in Gübinsberg from 1870 until 1905, when dueling and trial by combat were finally outlawed, replaced by slow, agonizing philosophical arguments drawn out over chess games. The pistol was chosen due to the expectation of low lethality to humans. It must be noted, however, that the lethality of the Handslapper varied considerably with the round being used. Being shot during duels conducted with the .22 extra short (known to Gübinsbergers as “the McDuggin kiss”) was often described by the victims as, “feeling like having a small thumb tack spat in the face from a long way off.” But with a .22 medium-short, a .22 short or other .22 round, terminal injuries can and did result—particularly from head wounds. For the most part, Handslapper duels were fought “to the first blood” and not “to the death.” Sometimes this was difficult to determine, as a person often did not feel any sensation of having been shot, especially through heavy clothing. Because of this, later Handslapper duels were of necessity fought in the nude.

The Handslapper also has a parallel history in England and the U.K., where it was exported in 1875. Most Brits have never heard of the Handslapper, however, because by the time it reached their shores it was rebranded and named “The Wrong Righter” as it was believed that the values of duty, service and justice would have greater appeal than the Handslapper’s other qualities. In 1867 the Wrong Righter became known as a “dandy” or “gentleman’s” gun. This was of course because the landed gentry used private armies to prevent impoverished tenant farmers from hunting squirrels and other small game on their vast country estates as had been their tradition for hundreds of years. This conflict was known as the Glastonbury Rabbit Riots. During the Riots, the distinctive “pops” made by the .22 extra short, along with the pings of the rounds off of stone fences and cottages, could be heard for miles. Hundreds of bunnies took refuge in stone cottages while farmers and their landlords plinked away at each other for months. Historians believe that the Glastonbury Rabbit Riots was the longest battle with the least casualties in Briton’s history, with just over two million rounds expended, no lives lost, and only one injury (due to mild back strain from ducking too low).

1874 advertisement for the Handslapper, as shown in the Goldtrap County Register

The last original Handslapper was produced by the J. Silas McDuggin Handslap Factory in 1907. After that, production ceased until the mid-1950’s when Gübinsberg and other neutral countries without a standing army or those with constabulary, mostly-unarmed police forces authorized the Handslapper as their standard-issue sidearm for all-purpose civil defense use. The police forces and authorities who do still issue the Handslapper do so because it is considered able to do more harm than a cudgel but less harm than a machine-gun.

The Handslapper was, is and will likely always remain a weapon of peace whether you are a snake, a beef cow, a bunny or a human being.


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