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Barkers, Pops, Bulldozers and "Meat in the Pot"
18th and 19th Century Nicknames or Slang for Pistols

Confederate Guerrilla George Maddox of the Quantrill Raiders with his revolvers. c1863
Confederate Guerrilla George Maddox of the Quantrill Raiders with his revolvers. c1863

ONE OF HISTORY'S ODDITIES: FOR CENTURIES OUTLAWS HAVE GENERATED THE MOST INTERESTING SLANG FOR FIREARMS. Today criminals and gang members have called pistols burners, heaters, bangers, scorchers, and pipes just to name a few. Hollywood often popularizes these slang terms into society.  Two hundred years ago, similar popularization of nicknames seemed to happen. 

The 18th Century provides the first recorded uses of slang for pistols.  Footpads (muggers) and highwaymen used their "barking irons" to rob unsuspecting travellers.  In the 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, "barking irons" are defined as a Irish expression meaning "pistols, from their explosion resembling the bow-wow or barking of a dog."  

The expression was soon shortened to "barkers".  While a common expression among criminals, it slowly gained popularity across the lower classes of society.  Royal Navy seamen for example, used the term for both the lower deck artillery pieces and the Sea Service pistols they were armed with. 

By 1809 in London "barkers" meant both a footpad and his weapon of choice.  In Charles Dicken's 1837 book Oliver Twist a character readying to commit a beggary armed himself with a pair of "Barkers".  A footpad robbing a character in the 1841 novel Night and Morning  warned his victim "Lord, sir, I have my barkers with me."  A character in the 1857 novel Two Years Ago is noted buying a pair of "pretty little barkers."  The expression continued to be used until the end of the century.

Doctor Syntax Stopped by Highwayman, 1815 (Thomas Rowlandson)
Doctor Syntax Stopped by Highwayman, 1815 (Thomas Rowlandson)

The oldest known English nickname for a pistol is "Bull Dog".  In George Farquhar's work The Constant Couple, published in 1700, recounts a fight where "He whips out his stiletto, and I whips out my Bull-Dog."  This expression continued into the 19th century.  One of Sir Walter Scott's 1824 fictional characters commented: "I have always a brace of bull-dogs about me."  However this nickname came to an abrupt end when the short British Bulldog revolver was introduced in 1872.

Another nickname that dates to the 18th century is "pops."  An example from 1785 is "he pulled out his pops and plumped him" meaning his drew out his pistols and shot him.  In 1834, the author William Ainsworth published a song about a Highwayman called the Game of High Toby (slang for Highway robbery). The first verse goes:

Now Oliver puts his black mightcap on,
And every star its glim is hiding,
And forth to the heath is the scampsman gone,
His matchless cherry-black prancer riding;
Merrily over the common he flies,
Fast and free as the rush of rocket,
His crape-covered vizard drawn over his eyes,
His tol by his side and his pops in his pocket.

Then who can name
So merry a game,
As the game of all games - high toby?

SLANG: Oliver=moon; glim=light; scampsman=highwayman; tol=sword; pops=pistols

Bad pistols at the beginning of the 19th century were called "queer popps."  By 1891 calling a pistol a "pop" was only being used in the United States.  So long it had been out of use in England that "pop" was thought to be American slang.  In 1809 to be "popt" or "popped" meant to be shot.  Today it has the same meaning in Chicago. 

Another 18th century nickname for pistol was "snapper".  It doesn't appear to have seen heavy use.  Wooden practice musket flints were also called "snappers" and confusion may have ended the nickname's use.  It is possible "snapper" could date back to the early snaphance flintlocks of the 16th century. 

"Sticks" was popular in the first half of the 19th century.  To "stow your sticks" meant to hide your pistols.  In 1859 it was recorded that the nickname was nearly obsolete.  However it gave raise to the expression "cross as two sticks" meaning to be angry.

     Famous outlaw Jesse James with a revolver drawn c1870
Famous outlaw Jesse James with a revolver drawn. 1860s

 The mass-production of revolvers throughout the 1850s and 1860s brought a wave of new entertaining slang expressions.  In Texas and on the frontier revolvers were called "meat in the pot", "my unconverted friend", "a one eyed scribe" and "blue lighting".  Lead bullets were sometimes nicknamed "blue pills" in the United States.  One theory for the "blue pill" expression came from the blue colored mercury-based calomel medicinal pills being mass-consumed by Americans after the Civil War.

Another possible origin of "blue pill" is from the English who called a bullet "bluey" and death by a bullet was termed as "blue murder".   "Bluey" is a shorter version of the 18th century bullet nickname of "blue plumb".  An entertaining example of this is the phrase "a sortment of George Rex's blue plumbs" meaning a volley of ball shot from soldier flintlocks (King George's troops).

The American West gave birth to a number of new slang expressions for the pistol.    In the 1880s in California, to have an "advantage" or "pocket advantage" to be carrying a pistol in your pocket half cocked to be fired through the pocket against an adversary.  Also around the same time, a Californian "bulldozer" was a pistol or revolver with a bullet heavy enough to stop a man dead. 

While the pistol had many nicknames, it could be a nickname itself.  In 1872, to say you had a "pocket pistol" meant to your friends you were packing a dram-flask of whiskey.  Cheers!


Black Powder Flintlock Muzzleloaders



 Author Robert Henderson enjoys unearthing and telling stories of military valour, heritage, and sacrifice from across the globe. Lest we forget.


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