An Unusual Self-Defense Gun

Terry’s “Little Thug,” which started life as a .577 Snider double rifle but is now a 20 gauge, is remarkably comfortable to shoot, with negligible muzzle jump. It puts forth a hard-hitting charge and a choking cloud of smoke that can be very handy in a defensive situation. Handloaded Spirepoint, pumpkin ball, and shot loads perform effectively at 15 yards.

It’s an uncontestable fact that the best-laid schemes of mice and men “gang aft agley,” as Robert Burns would have it—or “often go awry,” as it’s generally translated into English. Either way, for those concerned with self-defense, this means that no matter how thoroughly you try to prepare for those unforeseeable emergencies, chances are that when the unthinkable happens you will not have your ideal gun in your hand.

When that happens, you’d best be prepared to go with what you can grab.

Behind the door of what passes for my office-cum-gunroom stands a modest firearm I affectionately refer to as the “Little Thug.” It’s a hammer gun, made about 140 years ago by the London firm of E.M. Reilly, and what it is now barely resembles how it started life. As to its history during those 140 years, I would dearly love to know!

The “Little Thug”

The Little Thug is now a 20-gauge shotgun with 24-inch barrels, devoid of choke, with back-action locks, and—an extreme rarity—a full-snap Jones underlever. It began life, however, as a .577 Snider double rifle. About the only thing that’s changed is the removal of the sights, installation of an amber bead, and, of course, boring it out and rechambering. This was probably done because of corrosion, but who knows? It was a fine professional job.

I bought the gun off the “rust and dust” shelf at Puglisi Gun Emporium in Duluth, Minnesota, a few years ago. It was dirty and damaged. It needed a new fore-end tip, the horrible hot-blue job removed from its frame, the metal restored, and the wood refinished. Puglisi’s bought it from a local bartender, who had acquired it in a trade with the mate off a Great Lakes freighter. Who knows how he came by it—or where it’d been for 140 years. Guarding pack trains in the Khyber Pass? Repelling boarders in the China Sea? On a riverboat up the Congo? These are all genuine possibilities.

Ammo loads for the "Little Thug"

One thing I know for certain is that it was originally built for war, not for hunting. E.M. Reilly was a maker of fine guns of every type, but catered mainly to officers and civil servants off to guard the Empire—the kind of men found on the Northwest Frontier, shooting it out with Pathans.

With its 2½-inch chambers, I was a little limited. My friend Bob Hayley (Hayley’s Custom Ammunition, 940-888-3352) conjured up some 20-gauge brass cases as well as some old 20-gauge paper we could cut to length. For the brass, we had both 20-gauge round balls and 20-gauge Spirepoint slugs, while the paper hulls were stuffed with shot. All are powered by blackpowder, although it’s not really necessary because the Little Thug’s barrel walls are thick and heavy for a shotgun. The gun weighs 7 pounds, 3 ounces, most of it in the barrels. For my purposes, though, blackpowder serves a purpose.

Ballistically, the Little Thug will outmuscle a .45 ACP at close range. Those 350-grain pumpkin balls leave the muzzle at around 800 fps, and with one from each barrel, the gun plants them about 2 inches apart at 15 yards. The shot charge prints a pattern right over top. That will most assuredly stop anyone barging through the office door.

The blackpowder adds further injury in the form of a choking cloud of smoke and wad fragments. Since I would be expecting this gas attack, and an invader wouldn’t, it gives me a few precious seconds to get to my secondary armament: an AUG, a couple of P38s, and…well, you get the idea.

Such a scenario opens the field to “what if…” and “yes, but….” Certainly, those are all things that might happen—the aforementioned unexpected and unthinkable—and you cannot prepare for every eventuality. No one can. You just try to keep things from “gang agley.” For that, the Little Thug is in its element.


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