While it would seem obvious that concealed carry is a component of the right to bear arms, it has not always been the case that the American legal system nor legislative bodies viewed it that way.
Despite the Bruen ruling, a number of states are looking to enact whatever laws they can, curtailing the right of the lawful citizen to own and carry a gun in their own defense.
This begs the question: did people concealed carry before permits were widely available? If so…how?
Before Concealed Carry Permits, It Was A Different Ballgame
Most US states prohibited the concealed carry of a firearm until the 20th century. During the 19th century, virtually every US state passed laws prohibiting the concealed carry of a firearm…including every town in the Old West that you’ve seen in movies.
Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone, Wichita, Omaha, and Kansas City were no-carry zones.
The first modern concealed carry permit law was New York’s Sullivan Act of 1907. The Sullivan Act was the blueprint of may-issue laws; it gave issuing authorities broad discretion (ruled to be too much in Bruen) to grant or not grant carry permits as they saw fit.
Permits were rarely granted to the average citizen; it was mostly a privilege of the wealthy and politically connected, and usually (though not exclusively) white, middle-aged men.
Most states copied it, often in the guise of a (Name of State) Pistol And Revolver Act, copied near wholesale from the Sullivan Act. Eventually, all but a few states changed them to shall-issue laws (New Hampshire was first, followed by Washington state) and some to constitutional carry laws after that.
How did people carry a gun in this regulatory environment? Mostly illegally and in a completely concealed fashion.
Extrajudicial concealed carry by concerned citizens was common throughout American history; it’s only in the relatively recent past that the ability to do so lawfully has been available.
When Charles Askins wrote about concealed carry, his readers couldn’t get a license to legally carry the gun in all but a couple of US states. Only Vermont had constitutional carry at the time.
Pocket Pistols And Belly Guns
To give you an idea of how prevalent concealed carry was, you only need to look into a bit of firearms history. Concealable pistols were produced just as much as the service pistols of various eras and were just as commercially successful, if not more so.
Pocket pistols certainly existed during the muzzleloader era. They were carried concealed by men and women all over the world, such as the “Queen Anne” pistol design popular in 18th century England. Women would often hide the gun in a muff, giving rise to the term “muff gun.”
Thomas Jefferson’s pocket pistols (bought in London) are on display at Monticello.
In the 1820s, Henry Deringer of Philadelphia introduced a small single-shot pistol for pocket carry that was so popular that an entire class of guns still bears his name…albeit misspelled.
Deringer pistols were manufactured by a bevy of companies, including Colt, who produced theirs from 1871 to 1912 and even resumed production for a few years in the 1950s. Remington’s over/under Deringer was produced from 1866 to 1935, and they made double the number of those compared to the Model 51 semi-auto pistol.
The Sharps company is remembered for their rifles like the one in “Quigley Down Under,” but they sold almost as many pepperbox deringers.
The best-selling of the Colt percussion revolvers was the Pocket model, which could easily be carried in a coat pocket if one had the 3-inch barrel model. Colt’s post-war catalog was replete with multiple pocket pistols, including the New Line and Open Top Pocket revolvers.
Out of Smith & Wesson’s first five revolvers, three (the Model 1, Model 1-½, and Model 2) were pocket pistols. Their first double-action revolver wasn’t the Model 10; it was the Safety Hammerless (a.k.a. Lemon Squeezer) which was in production from 1887 to 1940.
Into the 20th century, most of the early commercial semi-auto pistols weren’t service pistols like the 1911, but rather vest pocket guns like the Colt Vest Pocket and Baby Browning.
There were some larger early semi-autos, but it was much the same story; compact, sleek, skinny, and easily concealed in a pocket or the waistband. The FN 1900, Remington Model 51, and Colt 1908 aren’t so far removed from the Glock 48 or Sig P365XL of today.
The pistol packin’ preacher trope from westerns doesn’t exist for no reason; men of the cloth often had more than just a Bible on hand.
The guns of past eras tells you what most people were buying them for. The words for them tell you the various ways they were carried. Vest-pocket gun, boot gun, coat pocket gun…and belly gun, as some people carried in the front of the waistband.
You didn’t think appendix carry was new, did you?
What’s Old Could Be New Again
Obviously, this isn’t to say, “if concealed carry becomes illegal…break the law! Plenty of people used to!” The legal system of today is vastly different. The laws are different, the prosecution is different, and the penalties are different.
This is to say that during an era when it was largely illegal to carry a concealed pistol, a lot of people still did. NPE concealed carry is a far older practice than carrying with a permit; if anything, today’s concealed carrier is even more law-abiding than at any other time in our history.
They carried small, often sub-caliber pistols discreetly, often in a pocket or in a waistband. They were easily carried and easily concealed. Our grandfathers (maybe even our fathers) kept a hidden handgun in the car because you couldn’t carry one outside of it.
This is just something to think about. In past eras, people still carried despite a non-permissive environment. Another point to ponder is just how effective prohibitions are or ever really were.