The History of the Hand Drill

Updated February 21, 2017

Hand or eggbeater drills bore small holes up to 1/4-inch in diameter in nearly any material. Still manufactured today, the hand drill competes with electric models by offering accuracy and control instead of power. By the late 1800s hand drills were in common use both in Europe and America, with many patents issued for improvements on this old design.


Bow drills evolved as early in human culture as did the hunting bow. Commonly used for making fire by friction, bow drills soon were adapted for other simple tasks such as boring beads for necklaces. Better versions now called pump drills used wooden discs as inertial weights and were powered by pumping a handle up and down on the shaft. Cords wrapped around the drill shaft wound tight and spun the drill as the handle pushed down. The inertia of the disc wound the cords tight again and the next push spun the drill in the opposite direction. Reciprocating drills were in common use even into the late 1800s.


The first true hand drills used a hand rotated gear to drive the drill in continuous forward motion. Auger drills already in use cut with more precision than reciprocating drills but were clumsy and slow for boring small-diameter holes. The hand drill outperforms both auger and reciprocating drills in that application. Early hand drills used collet chucks and cast-iron gears. One of the first American hand drills manufactured by the Millers Falls Company in Massachusetts bored holes from 1/100-inch to 1/8-inch in diameter. The Millers No. 1 was sold as both a jeweller's drill and a child's toy.


Advancements in the design of the hand drill soon included steel construction and tempered gears, greatly reducing failure rates. In 1877 Henry Pratt, the president of Millers Falls Company, patented a springless drill chuck with two jaws which accepted bits up to 1/8-inch in diameter. This jaw chuck accepted the full range of bits the drill used, and eliminated the need for a set of different collets.

McCoy's Chuck

William McCoy--a Millers Falls employee--patented a more dependable three jaw chuck in 1896. The better grip of the three jaw design paved the way for more improvements that widened the useful range of the drill. Larger diameter drive gears of tempered steel provided more power and the addition of an extra pinion gear gave the tools more stability. Two-speed drills were introduced in 1913; now craftsmen could change speeds without removing the drill from the workpiece.

Buck Rogers

Millers Falls Nos. 104 and 398 produced in the late 1940s converted old technology to a new look and became known as Buck Rogers drills. Enclosed gears and oilite bearings improved the performance of this unique tool and protected fingers from being pinched in the gears. The hollow wood handle--an old feature which provided convenient bit storage--was replaced by a bright red plastic version. Millers Falls discontinued both in the late 1950s.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

James Young began writing in 1969 as a military journalist combat correspondent in Vietnam. Young's articles have been published in "Tai Chi Magazine," "Seattle Post-Intelligencer," Sonar 4 ezine, "Stars & Stripes" and "Fine Woodworking." He has worked as a foundryman, woodturner, electronics technician, herb farmer and woodcarver. Young graduated from North Seattle Community College with an associate degree in applied science and electronic technology.