Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder

American Gun Craft’s Desperado hand cannon looks like a double barrel 12 gauge shotgun but it is not a firearm under federal law. There is no gimmick here, Desperado is a hybrid black powder and percussion device you load from the front with black powder and shot then shoot with a 209 shotgun primer.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder

Desperado may just be the most powerful handgun ever made. It is great fun to load and shoot. Because it is smooth bore and short-barreled, it is pretty quick and easy to load. The 209 shotgun primers are more consistent than the caps I have used with other black powder guns. Every shot I loaded launched with great effect. The instant smoke screen is like a magic trick for each shot.

The Desperado is a modern howdah pistol. What is a howdah? The Arabic word هودج (hawdaj) translates as “bed mounted on the back of a camel”. The word howdah was adopted by the British in India to describe hunting platforms mounted on elephants. These hunters in British Raj needed large-caliber side-arms in the basket with them just in case a tiger jumped in with them. Rifles were too long and slow for this contingency.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder

King George V of Britain, hunting from a howdah in Nepal, 1911 Photo courtesy of

Howda pistols were large caliber handguns, often with two or four barrels, designed to stop large predators at extremely close range with a heavy high-velocity projectile. The Desperado would be right at home on a tiger hunt.

More than most other guns, black powder guns require knowledge of safety rules and reloading techniques. If you don’t know the fundamentals of black powder shooting, the Desperado is not for you. It is not difficult to load and shoot, but you must know what you are doing or you can create a very dangerous situation. It is a good gun to learn with, but you need to get some instruction before you shoot it.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
100% handcrafted in America, the Desperado is a high-quality antique firearm.

Desperado is a handy size for home protection or use in a car. Are black powder guns good for self-defense? For over 100 years they were used effectively as military, defensive and hunting firearms. You only get two rounds before a reload, but they are two very effective rounds. The velocities of black powder shotgun loads are about 100 fps to 200 fps less than modern shotshells. That difference is not enough to impact their effectiveness for self-defense.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
Are black powder guns good for self-defense? The Desperado can stop a gator. If you have a bigger threat, you may want to consider a belt-fed. Photo courtesy of American Guncraft.

The front-loading break open design makes Desperado impossible to load with a regular shotgun shell. If you load it with smokeless powder, that would make the Desperado a pipe bomb, so it would become a destructive device under federal law.

As a muzzle-loading, black powder weapon, Desperado meets the definition of an “antique firearm” under the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968. It is not a firearm under federal law and may lawfully be received and possessed without going through a Federal Firearms License holder. State and local laws may vary, (looking at you New Jersey) know your laws before you order one.

This is a boon for law-abiding citizens, but a prohibited person under the GCA is prohibited from possessing any ammunition, including 209 primers so this is not a work around for convicted felons and drug addicts. See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3), (a)(16).

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
As a muzzle-loading, black powder weapon, Desperado meets the definition of an “antique firearm” under the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968. It is not a firearm under federal law. Photo courtesy of American Gun Craft.

Features of the Desperado Hand Cannon:

Break open, Double Barrel, Side-by-side, Smooth-Bore Muzzle Loader

Action: Single hammer, single trigger (selector on the hammer selects barrel)

Barrel Length: 8″ Length hand-polished Blued Barrel

Overall Length: 12 inches

Caliber: 20 or 12 Gauge

Ignition: 209 Primer in Breech Plug

Suggested Load: 60gr FFG, 1 oz shot

Finish: Polished Blued

Weight: 4 Lbs

Stock: Black finish rubber handguard and large 3 finger rubber Grip

Sights: Bead and rib

MSRP: $639

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
The Desperado has a hammer with a half-cock notch. The barrel selector sits in front of the hammer and moves laterally to select a barrel.

Weighing in at four pounds, the Desperado is a handful with two 8-inch smooth-bore barrels. Full-size rubber grips make the felt recoil no worse than a .357. Easy to aim, it has a straight mid-rib with a simple brass bead front sight. The oversized trigger guard allows the use of gloves which might come in handy for the recoil sensitive.

The Desperado can fire 1-ounce loads up to .729 inches with up to 60 grains of FFg black powder or its equivalent using .740-inch shot cards and wad standard #209 primers. American Gun Craft recommends Goex or Pyrodex powders.

Shooting the Desperado:

I shot the Diablo almost 50 times. I wiped it clean after each range session and there was no buildup of carbon. The recoil was quite manageable and controllable with the recommended 60 grains of powder and 1 oz of shot. I shot with two hands on the grip like a revolver.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
The left barrel was loaded with birdshot in a shot cup, the right barrel was loaded with a .715 ball. I aimed in the middle of the target, upper chest. At 7 yards, you can see the hits are offset as the barrels are on each side of the sights. All the targets I shot were close variations of this. I wouldn’t try to use Desperado for anything practical much past 10 yards, but at 10 yards it is devastating.

I found the accuracy quite acceptable for self-defense at 7 yards. Aiming center of mass, I never failed to hit the target. With buckshot or ball, it should stop a threat while creating a dense confusing cloud of smoke to cover your escape.

I am sure with load development and some Kentucky windage you could get out to 25 yards, but this gun shines up close. It was completely reliable even using primers that have been in my garage for 10 years. The variety of loading components that work in this gun make it cheaper and more practical to shoot than chasing ammunition.

During the times of plague, I found that shotgun primers and black powder were easier to come by than most fixed ammunition. The many types of shot and ball which can be used made shooting this beast affordable and interesting.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
The sights sit between the barrels. A flat rib leads to a brass bead for a nice shotgun sight picture. Photo courtesy of American Gun Craft.

A black powder gun lets you chose your own adventure. It gives you complete control over how much powder you’re using and your projectiles. Roofing nails, rock salt, or broken glass may not be great loads, but they are now on the table. This makes Desperado cheaper to shoot than a modern firearm and infinitely flexible when it comes to load selection. Anything is possible, ranging from blank loads up to dangerous loads that will blow up your gun. When using fixed ammunition from a manufacturer, there are standards and inspections. When you load your own, you are the research and development technician as well as the safety inspector.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
Antique smooth bore muskets like the Brown Bess were cylinder bored and frequently loaded with multiple projectiles. Muskets were the original shotguns. This Brown Bess Musket reproduction is made by Pedisoli.

The firearms we now call shotguns showed up in the 1870s with side-by-side double-barrel percussion shotguns. Modern shotguns directly evolved from them. I have used my .75 caliber Brown Bess musket as a shotgun with great results. The .75 caliber barrel is about 11 gauge.

Load development for the shotgun is simple but attention to basics will yield the best results. Every shot is a custom handload. The burn rate of the powder is critical. The manufacturer suggests FFG powder, which is pretty coarse and traditionally used in rifles and shotguns (a higher number of F’s in the name indicates finer grains of powder). The slower ignition and lower peak pressures coarse powders provide for improved safety and consistent patterns.

An ancient rule of thumb states that the best load for black powder shotguns is an equal measure, by volume, of shot to powder. Shooting more powder than shot by volume will tend to open the pattern, using less powder than shot will tend to tighten the pattern, making it denser.

After the powder is loaded, a wad is needed over the powder to keep the flame of the burning powder from invading the column of shot as it moves out of the barrel. This disrupts the shot column and could melt or deform the individual shot, causing them to diverge once they leave the muzzle. A typical over-powder wad is dense cardboard about 1/8 inch thick. You can buy them or make them.

Some shooters advocate use of a soft cushion wad next to moderate the shock of the igniting powder to protect the shot. These cushion wads can be a hard ‘fiber’ wad or a soft paper felt wad about 1/2 inch thick. Some shooters just skip the cushion in the name of simplicity.

You may want to use a plastic shot cup. While not traditional, this provides a nice pressure seal for higher velocities. The cups I used fit nicely and held a 1 oz load of shot. A shot cup makes for tighter patterns. Use the ramrod to seat it firmly against the wad. Every skeet range is covered in once-fired shot cups, no reason you can’t recycle these.

Once the shot is loaded use an over-shot wad, usually 1/16 inch cardboard, to keep the shot from rolling out of the barrel. Without rifling to hold your projectiles in, you need an over-powder wad to keep the shot in place. This serves the same purpose as a shotshell crimp, sealing out the elements and keeping your load secure. Shooting the Brown Bess musket, I have raised the muzzle to shoot and had the shot roll out.

I had some old paper shotgun shells that were too sketchy to shoot. These made excellent donor cartridges to get wads and shot from while disposing of the uncertain powder and hulls. My Brown Bess round balls were a great fit and worked well.

I also used paper cartridges from my Brown Bess. I like to use the brown paper grocery store bags for making cartridges and shooting (pretty sure the founding fathers also used grocery bags, but they may have had other sources of paper).

Shotguns can also shoot balls or slugs, instead of shot. Everything else stays the same….powder, card wad, cushion wad, then a tightly fitting lubricated patched ball or a slug. An ounce lead shot weighs 437.5 grains. A Brown Bess musket of .75 caliber is an 11 gauge. An 11 gauge ball weighs 625 gr. and can be safely shot in the Desperado.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
If you plan to open carry the Desperado for camping or hunting, American Gun Craft sells a cross draw holster. The strap is designed to cover the cocked hammer, providing effective safety. They offer both right and left hand. MSRP $129 Photo courtesy of American Gun Craft.

If I was considering the Desperado for serious practical use I would make paper cartridges the way soldiers did for black powder rifles. In the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, soldiers measured powder into a paper tube and tied it off adding a ball. This gave them a quick reload and the paper wrapping made a great wad. Jefferson Arsenal sells kits for both ball and buck and ball and has some great instructional videos.

Paper cartridges were used with ball and buck and ball (a multiple projectile load). Civil War soldiers had a separate pouch of caps, for Desperado, you would also need some 209 primers. It would cut loading time down, but you still need a ramrod and even with paper cartridges it is not very fast. Measuring out the powder in advance will certainly make range days safer and more pleasant.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
12 gauge over shot cards, over powder cards, and wads used in a muzzle loading shotgun. 

The Desperado is an amazing antique firearm. Beware, everyone who sees looks twice and the more they know about it the more intrigued they become. In most of the United States, there is no problem, you can legally own and even carry this powerful 12 gauge pistol. It has impressive ballistics and as a black powder design, the Desperado is far less regulated than modern firearms. Slower to reload than a fixed cartridge coach gun, it is the most powerful antique firearm around. In these uncertain times of ammunition drought, there is a place in your collection for an inexpensive shooting shotgun analog that is pure fun. Make sure you buy enough black powder for your friends to shoot it too.

Desperado Double Barrel 12 Gauge Hand Cannon: The Secret Ingredient is Black Powder
The Desperado is designed to be its own loading stand.

*** Buy and Sell on GunsAmerica! All Local Sales are FREE! ***

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Frank February 23, 2023, 2:20 pm

    I’m admittedly “Old School” and I grew up shooting the working man’s doubles made by Stevens/Savage. I like the simplicity and reliability of two triggers instead of selectors. I have both systems among my doubles, but I still prefer what I learned as a youngster. My trigger finger knows instinctively where to go depending on the shot.

    Even so, it’s an awesome “hand cannon” featured here, just out of my price range.

  • phylo February 20, 2023, 3:36 pm

    I bought one and it is fun to shoot. If you load it up with about 100 grains and 15-20 pieces of buckshot it can penetrate a 3/4 plywood from around 10 paces.

  • Fred Fullerton February 20, 2023, 12:28 pm

    I am very interested in this, How can I purchase one. Looks like so much fun, I love it. I live in Northern Cal. Probly not for long, We were both born and raised Here Cattle ranching and construction. But DUE TO IDIOTS We are going to be leaving Home. I really love this little Big Toy.
    Thanks Fred

    • phylo February 20, 2023, 3:41 pm

      search AGC American Gun Craft. They are in MN

      • Mark Miller February 21, 2023, 6:30 pm

    • Mark Miller February 21, 2023, 6:31 pm

      You can order one at: in a new tab)

  • Kevin February 20, 2023, 11:13 am

    Any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; This is the defination of a firearm from the ATF site. The item in this article is definately a firearm.

    • srsquidizen February 20, 2023, 3:11 pm

      It’s NOT a firearm covered under federal law which requires distribution through a FFL, background check, form 4473 and all other such unconstitutional BS. It can simply be shipped straight to your house…depending on what state you live in. In some states black powder firearms are easier to buy than cigarettes; in others you’d best not be caught with any kind of firearm, not even a family heirloom, without permission from the state nannies.

    • phylo February 20, 2023, 3:39 pm

      it is a black powder firearm and not subject to registration on purchase.

    • Mark Miller February 21, 2023, 6:34 pm

      The term “antique firearm” means any firearm (including any firearm with a matchlock,
      flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system) manufactured in or before 1898. The
      definition includes any replica of an antique firearm if it is not designed or redesigned for using
      rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition, or uses rimfire or conventional centerfire
      ammunition which is no longer manufactured in the United States, and which is not readily available
      in ordinary channels of commercial trade. Further, any muzzle loading rifle, shotgun, or pistol which
      is designed to use black powder or black powder substitute, and which cannot use fixed ammunition,
      is an “antique firearm” unless it (1) incorporates a firearm frame or receiver; (2) is a firearm which is
      converted into a muzzle loading weapon; or (3) is a muzzle loading weapon which can be readily
      converted to fire fixed ammunition by replacing the barrel, bolt, breechblock, or any combination
      thereof. See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3), (a)(16).
      Thus, a muzzle loading weapon that meets the definition of an “antique firearm” is not a firearm and
      may lawfully be received and possessed by a prohibited person under the GCA.
      In addition, the GCA defines the term “ammunition” to mean “ammunition or cartridge cases,
      primers, bullets, or propellant powder designed for use in any firearm.” Because an “antique firearm”
      is not a “firearm,” it would is lawful for a prohibited person to receive or possess black powder
      designed for use in an “antique firearm.” Also, the Federal explosives laws do not make it unlawful
      for a prohibited person to acquire and possess black powder in quantities not exceeding fifty pounds
      if it is intended to be used solely for sporting, recreational, or cultural purposes in “antique firearms.”
      See 18 U.S.C. § 845(a)(5)

  • carlos a pacheco February 20, 2023, 10:54 am

    Do you have to have check backgroung check? and why so expensive.

  • Clint W. February 20, 2023, 10:49 am

    When I shot a lot of Trap, one of the jokesters in the group handed over a bunch of hand loads he wanted one of our other jokesters to try out. The first couple rounds were normal, but he snuck a black powder load in there and we all had a great laugh at the shooters reaction…we also had to wait for the smoke to clear before anybody else could shoot. When that first jokester passed away, he was such an avid Trap shooter, he wanted his ashes to be loaded into shells and fired one more time on the Trap range. There are a lot of ashes comprising a human body, and it took quite a few rounds, and alot of folks blasting away to get ol’ Arthur ashes sent on their way.

  • mvd February 20, 2023, 10:42 am

    What an incredibly FUN gun to shoot! Loaded up heavy or light as a feather. There is NOTHING like pop’n off a double barreled shorty like these 12Gs!

  • TERRY February 20, 2023, 9:26 am

    I think that the only person who would have a need for this is for someone who can’t pass a background check.

  • james parker February 20, 2023, 8:37 am

    Re: black powder rules. All true as stated in the text. Bonus. If you don’t load the gun with proper attention to the details you can hit your opponent with the bloody stump at the end of your arm where your hand used to be. That alone will take the fight out of some fellas.

  • Jay Smith February 20, 2023, 8:16 am

    Neat idea, I would buy one, > if not WAY overpriced. I could see , 200-400 , not 650 ……

    • Whine E Reader March 2, 2023, 7:01 am

      They base model is $499 (up from $479 about two years ago). They also occasionally have factory second models with cosmetic “blems” for sale at a lower cost. For the money, build quality is solidly “OK” and the mechanism is just a single hammer/trigger with a manual barrel selector than must be moved into position for each shot. Clunky and slow, but it removes the need for precise fitting and extra components required in a conventional SXS mechanism and is immune to doubling.

  • Mark N. February 18, 2023, 11:27 pm

    Keep this in the car for your unfriendly neighborhood carjackers. For what it is, especially compared to far more complicated cap and ball pistols, it is on the expensive side of things, but looks well made. Not sure what the purpose would be except for gators and varmints, or just for fun.
    In California, felons cannot possess black powder muzzle loading firearms–as to them, they are firearms.”For the rest of us, they are not firearms UNTIL you load them, and THEN they are firearms for the purposes of the penal code violations of carrying a loaded firearm. Technically, you can load the barrel, and it is not “loaded” until you place a primer on the nipple.

Send this to a friend