by B. Gil Horman - Thursday, December 1, 2016
Once in a while, I have the opportunity to work with a handgun that's exceptionally unique in both its design and background. If you're ready to take a break from 1911s and polymer-frame 9 mm semi-automatics for a little while, then I invite you to sit back, relax and take a look at something completely different, namely, the Howdah 45/410 double-barrel pistol.
Manufactured by Davide Pedersoli & Co. and imported into the United States by the Italian Firearms Group (IFG), the Howdah 45/410 is a beautifully crafted collector's grade break-action pistol chambered to fire .45 Colt revolver cartridges and .410-bore shotgun shells. Its name, design and chambering are all drawn from a variety of historical and political influences that span more than a century.
A Diverse History
The early muzzleloaded flintlock Howdah pistols were carried by hunting parties in Africa and India beginning in the early 19th century. Fitted with two or four barrels, they were used for close-range defense against dangerous game. Having evolved by the early 1900s into cartridge-firing breach loaders, these hard-hitting handguns were chambered for potent rifle cartridges ranging from .380- to .577-caliber. They were named after the howdahs (platforms and baskets) mounted on the backs of elephants in which hunters would ride. However, by the late 1890s, the development and wide spread adoption of lighter, more compact break-top revolvers caused the Howdahs to fall out of favor.
About two decades later, and half a world away in America, the Ithaca Gun Company would revisit the idea of a multi-barrel, big-bore pistol for protection against predators—but of the two-legged variety. Launched in 1922, and manufactured until 1933, the Ithaca Auto & Burglar was a 4.5 lb. side-by-side pistol with a 10.1" double-barrel chambered for 2½" 20-ga. shotgun shells (to keep the recoil manageable). As the name implies, it was intended to be kept in a car or truck in case of too-close-for-comfort encounters with highwaymen (a very real threat in those days) or as a nightstand gun for home defense. These pistols were perfectly legal to own and could be special ordered in .410 bore, 28-gauge, and a wrist-bending 12-gauge.
Although we often credit technological advancements for driving change in the gun market, politics can have just as much of an influence on which guns sell and which disappear into the annals of history. Concerns over growing gangland violence during the Prohibition era (which probably inspired the Auto & Burglar pistol in the first place) spurred the passage of the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. This legislation specifically restricted the ownership of machine guns and short-barreled (sawed-off) shotguns. Because the Auto & Burglar was already a relatively expensive handgun, with its steep $40 price tag, Ithaca recognized that the additional $200 for an NFA tax stamp made the gun all but unsellable and production was halted. With only about 4,000 of these shot pistols ever produced, the Auto & Burglar is a prized collector's item today.
With NFA regulations still in force, how is it possible to own a handgun that shoots .410 shotgun shells today? A legally viable dual-caliber design was implemented by several gun companies starting in the early 1990s. In short, if a handgun has a rifled barrel and is designed to fire a legally recognized handgun cartridge, in this case the .45 Colt revolver cartridge, then stretching the chamber length and modifying the rifling to operate safely with a .410 shell in addition to the .45 Colt does not constitute a violation of NFA regulations.
The .45 Colt/.410 dual-caliber model was incorporated into the MIL, Inc. Thunder 5 double-action revolver in 1992 (with production ending in 1998) and the Bond Arms double-barrel pistol around 1995. That same decade marked the arrival of a .410 compatible version of the Magnum Research BFR single-action revolver. But the revolver credited with bringing .410 handguns from the sidelines into the mainstream was the 5-shot double-action Taurus Judge launched in 2006. The commercial success of the original Judge and its many variations inspired the release of the 6-shot Smith & Wesson Governor. A slew of defensive-grade .410 shotshells followed from several respected American manufacturers including Winchester, Federal Premium, Remington and Hornady's Critical Defense Triple Threat.
Today, the .45 Colt/.410 platforms are not grabbing headlines like they were a decade ago. However, there are plenty of them in circulation these days and .410 ammunition sales are strong enough to keep even the more specialized defensive shells in production. Although the new Howdah 45/410 may not have much in common with other .410 handguns mechanically or historically speaking, these other handguns have paved the way for it to be launched this year.
Features of the Howdah 45/410
The appearance of the Howdah 45/410 has been strongly influenced by the vintage Ithaca Auto & Burglar pistols. However, its overall finish and features have been elevated to match those of the fine double-barrel hunting rifles of the 19th Century. There's not a single piece of polymer to be found in or on this gun. The side-by-side barrel is slightly longer than the original at 10.25", the right-hand rifling is cut at a slow 1:48" twist rate and the entire barrel assembly has been treated to a deep, rich, high-polish blued finish. I especially like the light engraving found 2.5" in front of the breach.
The Ithaca pistols were fitted with just a simple round bead front sight. The Howdah sighting system is much more sophisticated. The brass beaded front sight blade is dovetailed into a double-rifle style ramp base which is grooved to reduce glare. The rear sight block is fitted with a v-notch folding leaf sight that can be tipped up to form a rifle-like sight picture, or folded down for a front-bead-only shotgun-type sight picture. Because I've been shooting .410 handguns with typical handgun sighting systems for some time now, I kept the leaf in the upright position for formal and informal testing.
The pistol's case-colored receiver has a slim profile that's appropriate for the smaller .410 bore shot shells it fires. The action's unlocking lever is finely checkered as is the tang-mounted sliding safety. Pressing the unlocking lever to the right releases the tightly fit barrel assembly, allowing it to swing down into the open position for loading. A single extractor spans both chambers. As the action is closed, the sliding safety automatically resets itself to the Safe position.
The rounded, blued trigger guard houses two smooth-faced, steel-bow triggers. The rear trigger fires the left-side barrel with the front trigger firing the barrel on the right. Both triggers were well tuned to break cleanly and smoothly with 3 lbs. 8 oz. of trigger pull.
This pistol's hand-checkered American Walnut grip blends the features of the two grip styles used by Ithaca. It has the distinctive spur of the first model which was designed to keep the shooter's hand from sliding (painfully) up into the unlocking lever. It also has the increased front-to-back length of the post-1925 models, when Ithaca changed the action. This allows the trigger guard to be attached in a horizontal position instead of angling downward across the front of the grip.
The fore-end features a button mounted directly under the muzzle. Depressing the button releases the fore-end and allows it to be removed just like that of a double-barrel shotgun. With the fore-end removed, the barrel assembly can be opened and lifted out of the receiver for cleaning. I found the fit and finish of the Howdah to be excellent. All of the components reflected the attention to detail and proper fitting one expects to find in a high-quality Old World double gun.
At The Range
The Howdah shares the same ammunition flexibility and long-range limitations as other .45 Colt/.410 handguns. Remember that NFA regulations force manufacturers to work with an unusual set of dual-caliber compromises. This pistol can safely fire the wide variety of birdshot, buckshot and mixed payload defensive shells currently on the market. However, the relatively short, rifled barrel causes shot patterns (especially bird shot patterns) to expand much more quickly than a shotgun-length barrel with a smooth bore and full choke.
Some shooters will expect improved accuracy when firing .45 Colt cartridges because of the Howdah's 10.25" closed-breach barrels. This barrel configuration will squeeze more velocity out of revolver cartridges than a revolver because there is no cylinder gap. However, the .45 Colt bullets must travel through 1.70" of the unrifled chamber (needed to accommodate 3" long .410 shells) before engaging the 7.25" long rifled portion of the bore. That rifling has a very slow twist rate of 1:48 compared to the more typical 1:16 twist found in dedicated .45 Colt Revolvers. As a result, the bullets fly along quickly but with less stability resulting in less accuracy at longer ranges.
In other words, the Howdah pistol, like its dual-caliber compatriots, can be loaded to produce devastating results downrange. But the cost of increased ammunition flexibility is a marked drop in performance at distances greater than 15 yds. when firing .410 buckshot and .45 Colt loads, with birdshot loads spreading out to their maximum useful pattern sizes in as little as 7 yds.
The usual formal accuracy testing process of firing five 5-shot groups at 25 yds. is not a good fit for a double-barrel pistol loaded with fast spreading shotshells. Instead, the Howdah was patterned at 7 yards from a benchrest using Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C 12"x18" targets. I prefer these targets for .410 handgun tests because they’re large enough to capture every pattern type and it's easy to read and photograph the results because of the bright rings of color that form around each impact.
Federal Ammunition Game Shok high brass 2½" ½ oz. #6 birdshot evenly covered the target from top to bottom at this distance.
The Game Shok high brass 3" 11/16 oz. #4 birdshot load produced similar results.
Winchester's Super X high brass 3" 5-pellet 000 buckshot load produced a 2.25" central group with a wad mark off to the left.
The Winchester PDX1 Defender 2½" shell is packed with three copper plated “defense disks” and 12 pieces of BB size shot. The mixed payload struck slightly left of center of the target (from the left barrel) with the three defence disks forming a 1" central group (that's a wad mark above the group) and nine of the 12 pieces of BB shot forming an 11" group around the disks.
The .410 Winchester PDX1 Defender shells are part of a 20-round Combo Pack which includes 10 .410 bore shells and 10 rounds of .45 Colt 225-gr. PDX1 bonded jacketed hollow points. The 10 .45 Colt cartridges were fired at 7 yds. from the bench with the barrels alternating from left to right. The brass bead sight was aimed at the central orange spot and the rear folding leaf sight flipped up. The left barrel formed a 1.95" 5-shot group just left of center with the right barrel producing a tighter 1.23" group a little to the right.
The new Howdah 45/410 imported by the Italian Firearms Group is a high quality dual-caliber, double-barrel pistol with an interesting historical background and a unique appearance that’s unlike anything else entering the handgun market as we near the end of 2016. For those collectors who have longed for an Ithaca Auto & Burglar, now’s your chance to own a finely crafted replica without the need for an NFA tax stamp and the paperwork that entails. After nearly half a decade, the .410 handgun fan clubs finally have a brand new model to talk about.
This pistol is shipping now in limited quantities, so check with your local dealer to place an order with IFG.
U.S. Importer: Italian Firearms Group (IFG)
Manufacturer: Davide Pedersoli & Co.
Model: Howda 45/410
Action: Break-Action Double-Barrel Pistol
Caliber: .45 Colt/.410 Shotgun, 2 1/2" and 3" Shells
Barrels: High Polish Blued Steel, Side-By-Side
Receiver: Case Colored Steel
Stocks: Hand Checkered American Walnut, Lacquer Finish
Trigger: Dual Triggers
Safety: Tang-Mounted Slide Lever
Front Sight: Ramped and Dovetail Brass Bead
Rear Sight: Folding Leaf V-Notch
Barrel Length: 10.25"
Overall Length: 17.25"
Weight: 4 lbs. 1 oz. Unloaded
Capacity: 2 Rounds
Twist: 1:48” RH
Rifle Grooves: 6
Accessories: Hard Case, Owner's Manual
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