The Webley Revolver (also known as the Webley Break-Top Revolver or Webley Self-Extracting Revolver) was, in various marks, the standard issue service pistol for the armed forces of the United Kingdom, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth from 1887 until 1963. But the Webley story does not begin with that well-known model.
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Other well-known Webley Revolvers
Before creating the iconic Webley Top-Break, Webley & Scott produced a number of other highly popular revolvers largely intended for the police and civilian markets.
The Webley RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) model was Webley’s first double-action revolver, and adopted by RIC in 1868, hence the name. It was a solid-frame, gate-loaded revolver, chambered in .442 Webley, .450 Adams, .455 Webley or .476 Enfield. These cartridges all had short cases and heavy large-caliber bullets. While they all began as black-powder rounds, the .442 and .455 transitioned to smokeless powder. Remember, at that time single-action revolvers were the most common type in use, some using cap & ball and some using metallic cartridges. Double-action meant faster firing.
There is a lot of speculation that General (actually Lt. Colonel; he was only a brevet/temporary Major General of volunteers) George Armstrong Custer, who was known to have owned a pair, were what was armed with at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
From the Webley & Scott wikipedia entry: “There is a well-known story that a pair of Webley RIC Model revolvers were presented to Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer by Lord Berkeley in 1869, and it is believed that General Custer was using them at the time of his death in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There is some question whether the gun or guns presented to George Armstrong Custer were Webley RIC’s. Other sources indicate that Lord Berkeley Paget presented Custer with a Galand & Sommerville 44 calibre revolver (manufactured in England by the firm of Braendlin & Sommerville) and gave another to Tom Custer. Of course, it is possible that Lord Berkeley Paget may have given Custer two revolvers, both a Galand & Sommerville and a Webley RIC or even given the Custer brothers, in some combination, a pair of Webley RICs and a pair of Galand & Sommervilles. A cased Galand & Sommerville revolver certainly formed part of Tom Custer’s estate. It is an unconfirmed possibility that the Galand & Sommerville 44 revolver chambered the same ammunition as the first Webley RIC’s, i.e. Webley’s .442 centre-fire cartridge.”
The British Bulldog was a popular type of solid-frame pocket revolver produced initially by British gunmakers Webley & Scott in 1878 and subsequently copied by gunmakers in Continental Europe and the United States. They featured a 2.5-inch (64 mm) barrel and were chambered for a variety of heavy-duty calibres, including .442 Webley and .450 Adams.
Designed to be carried in a coat pocket or kept on a night-stand, great numbers have survived to the present day in good condition, having seen little actual use. Sharp-eyed movie buffs might have spotted Jude Law busting caps with one in Sherlock Holmes.
Numerous copies of this design were also made in France, Belgium, Spain, and the USA during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with many of the American copies being manufactured by the firm of Forehand & Wadsworth. American copies of the design retailed for approximately $5 and were often chambered for the low-powered .44 Bulldog cartridge.
One of these American-made British Bulldog revolvers was used to assassinate US President James Garfield on July 2, 1881 by disgruntled lawyer Charles Guiteau, who was angry that Garfield had not appointed him to a Federal post. Guiteau reportedly wanted to purchase a British Bulldog revolver with ivory grips instead of wooden ones (as he believed they would look nicer when the gun was displayed in a museum) but decided not to spend the extra dollar that the Ivory-gripped model would have cost. In all, he paid $10 for the revolver, a box of cartridges, and a penknife, before spending the next day familiarising himself with the revolver’s operation and firing 10 practice shots with it into trees along the banks of the Potomac River. He eventually used the revolver to shoot Garfield a week or so later in the Sixth Street Railway Station in Washington, D.C.
After Guiteau’s trial, the revolver was placed in the Smithsonian Institution. Some time after (believed to be around 1900) the revolver disappeared, and has not been seen since. (Ed. Note: Has anyone looked in Jim Zumbo’s sock-drawer?)
British Bulldogs are now generally sought after as collector’s pieces, especially as ammunition for them is no longer commercially available. Thus, under US federal law they are not classified as firearms.
UPDATE: Purely by concidence, American Rifleman has a feature on the Bulldog on the back page of the Dec 2010 issue.
Approaching the 20th Century
The Webley that everyone recognizes is a top-break revolver with automatic extraction. That is, breaking the revolver open for reloading also operates the extractor. This removes the spent cartridges from the cylinder.
The Webley Mk I service revolver was adopted in 1887. A later version, the Mk IV, rose to prominence during the Boer War of 1899–1902. However, the Mk VI, introduced in 1915 during the First World War, is perhaps the best-known model.
Webley Revolvers often serve as a stereotypical British revolver in film and television—their appearance in the film Zulu, for example, is an anachronism, as the film is set in 1879 and the Webley Mk VI revolvers shown in use by the British officers were not introduced until 1915, but the Mk VI is based on designs from around the period in which the film is set, and can thus be seen as a stand-in for the historically correct (but more difficult to obtain) Beaumont-Adams Revolver.
And the Webley revolver has a habit of turning up in the most unlikely of places. (Ed. Note: Chapter 12, you lazy illiterate A.D.D. whiners.)
The Webley that we know is born
The British company Webley and Scott (P. Webley & Son before merger with W & C Scott) produced a range of revolvers from the late 19th to late 20th centuries, starting with the RIC and Bulldog models. Early models such as the Webley-Green army model 1879 and the Webley-Pryse model were first made during the 1870s.
In 1887, the British Army was searching for a revolver to replace the largely unsatisfactory Enfield Mk I & Mk II Revolvers, and Webley & Scott, who were already very well known makers of quality guns and had sold many pistols on a commercial basis to military officers and civilians alike, tendered the .455 caliber Webley Self-Extracting Revolver for trials. The military was suitably impressed with the revolver (it was seen as a vast improvement over the Enfield revolvers then in service, which lacked a practical extraction system), and it was adopted on 8 November 1887 as the “Pistol, Webley, Mk I”. The initial contract called for 10,000 Webley revolvers, at a price of £3/1/1- each, with at least 2,000 revolvers to be supplied within eight months.
The Webley revolver went through a number of changes, culminating in the Mk VI, which was in production between 1915 and 1923. The large .455 Webley revolvers were retired in 1947, although the Webley Mk IV .38/200 remained in service until 1963 alongside the Enfield No. 2 Mk I revolver. Commercial versions of all Webley service revolvers were also sold to the civilian market, along with a number of similar designs (such as the Webley-Government and Webley-Wilkinson) that were not officially adopted for service, but were nonetheless purchased privately by military officers.
The Webley Mk IV, chambered in .455 Webley, was introduced in 1899 and soon became known as the “Boer War Model”, on account of the large numbers of officers and Non-commissioned officers who purchased it on their way to take part in the conflict. The Webley Mk IV served alongside a large number of other handguns, including the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” (as used by Winston Churchill during the War), earlier Beaumont-Adams cartridge revolvers, and other top-break revolvers manufactured by gunmakers such as William Tranter, and Kynoch.
First World War
The standard-issue Webley revolver at the outbreak of the First World War was the Webley Mk V (adopted 9 December 1913), but there were considerably more Mk IV revolvers in service in 1914, as the initial order for 20,000 Mk V revolvers had not been completed when hostilities began. On 24 May 1915, the Webley Mk VI was adopted as the standard sidearm for British and Commonwealth troops and remained so for the duration of the First World War, being issued to officers, airmen, naval crews, boarding parties, trench raiders, machine-gun teams, and tank crews. The Mk VI proved to be a very reliable and hardy weapon, well suited to the mud and adverse conditions of trench warfare, and several accessories were developed for the Mk VI, including a bayonet (made from a converted French Gras bayonet), a speedloader device (“Prideaux Device”), and a stock allowing for the revolver to be converted into a carbine.
Second World War
The official service pistol for the British military during the Second World War was the Enfield No. 2 Mk I .38/200 calibre revolver, but owing to a critical shortage of handguns, a number of other weapons were also adopted (first practically, then officially) to alleviate the shortage. As a result, both the Webley Mk IV in .38/200 and the .455 calibre Webley Mk VI were issued to personnel during the war.
The Webley Mk VI (.455) and Mk IV (.38/200) revolvers were still issued to British and Commonwealth Forces after the Second World War; there were now extensive stockpiles of the revolvers in military stores. An armourer stationed in West Germany recalled (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) that by the time they were officially retired in 1963, the ammunition allowance was “two cartridges per man, per year.” This lack of ammunition was instrumental in keeping the Enfield and Webley revolvers in use so long: they were not wearing out because they were not being used.
The Webley Mk IV .38 revolver was not completely replaced by the Browning Hi-Power until 1963, and saw combat in the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, Malayan Emergency, and the Rhodesian Bush War. Many Enfield No. 2 Mk I revolvers were still floating about in British Military service as late as 1970.
The (Royal) Hong Kong Police and Royal Singaporean Police were issued Webley Mk III & Mk IV .38/200 revolvers from the 1930s. Singaporean police Webleys were equipped with safety catches, a rather unusual feature in a revolver. These were gradually retired in the 1970s as they came in for repair, and were replaced with Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 revolvers.
The London Metropolitan Police were also known to use Webley revolvers, as were most colonial police units until just after the Second World War. There may still be some police units with Webley Mk IV revolvers that, whilst not issued, are still present in the armory.
Military service .455 Webley revolver marks and models
There were six different marks of .455 calibre Webley British Government Model revolvers approved for British military service at various times between 1887 and the end of the First World War:
The Webley Mk IV .38/200 Service Revolver
At the end of the First World War, the British military decided that the .455 calibre gun and cartridge was too large for modern military use, and decided (after numerous tests and extensive trials) that a pistol in .38 calibre , firing a 200-grain bullet, would be just as effective as the .455 for stopping an enemy. Webley & Scott immediately tendered the .38/200 calibre Webley Mk IV revolver, which as well as being nearly identical in appearance to the .455 calibre Mk VI revolver (albeit scaled down for the smaller cartridge), was based on their .38 calibre Webley Mk III pistol, designed for the police and civilian markets. Much to their surprise, the British Government took the design to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock, which came up with a revolver that was externally very similar looking to the .38/200 calibre Webley Mk IV , but was internally different enough that no parts from the Webley could be used in the Enfield and vice-versa. The Enfield-designed pistol was quickly accepted under the designation Revolver, No. 2 Mk I, and was adopted in 1932, followed in 1938 by the Mk I* (spurless hammer, double action only), and finally the Mk I** (simplified for wartime production) in 1942.
Webley & Scott sued the British Government over the incident, claiming £2250 as “costs involved in the research and design” of the revolver. This was contested by RSAF Enfield, which quite firmly stated that the Enfield No. 2 Mk I was designed by Captain Boys (the Assistant Superintendent of Design, later of Boys Anti-Tank Rifle fame) with assistance from Webley & Scott, and not the other way around. Accordingly, their claim was denied. By way of compensation, the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors eventually awarded Webley & Scott £1250 for their work.
RSAF Enfield proved unable to manufacture enough No. 2 revolvers to meet the military’s wartime demands, and as a result Webley’s Mk IV was also adopted as a standard sidearm for the British Army.
The various Webley revolvers began by using large-caliber slow-moving bullets in a stubby case propelled by black powder (later smokeless powder). The RIC and Bulldog models were offered in an assortment of similar calibers: .442 Webley, .450 Adams, .455 Webley and .476 Enfield. (The .450 Adams, .455 Webley and .476 Enfield cartridges all featured a case diameter of .476 inch.) Some of the cartridges are allegedly interchangeable to some degree.
The .442 Webley (also known as the .442 Revolver Center Fire in Great Britain, the 10.5x17mmR or .442 Kurz in Europe, and .44 Webley or .442 R.I.C. in the United States) is a British centerfire revolver cartridge.
Introduced in 1868, the .442 (11.2mm) Webley round was used in the Webley & Scott RIC revolver. This was the standard service weapon of the Royal Irish Constabulary. A black powder round, the .442 originally used a 15-19 gr (0.972-1.23 g) charge behind a 200-220 gr (13-14.3 g) bullet. This loading was later joined by a smokeless variety.
At one time, the .442 Webley was a popular chambering in self-defense or “pocket” guns (so named for being designed to be carried in a pocket, what today might be a known as a snubnose or carry gun), such as the widely copied Webley British Bulldog pocket revolver. (The .442 Webley should not be confused with the short, low-powered .44 Bulldog round offered in American copies of the Bulldog.) In addition, at least one Harrington & Richardson revolver model was chambered for the cartridge, as well.
The cartridge was intended purely for self-defense, being roughly similar in power to the contemporary .38 S&W, .41 Colt, or .44 S&W American, and somewhat less potent than the later 7.65mm Parabellum, .38 Special or .45 ACP. As a consequence, it is not really suitable at anything but close range.
Smokeless .442 Webley loads continued to be commercially offered in the U.S. until 1940 and in the United Kingdom and Europe until the 1950s.
Bullet diameter: .436 in (11.1 mm)
Neck diameter: .470 in (11.9 mm)
Base diameter: .442 in (11.2 mm)
Rim diameter: .503 in (12.8 mm)
Case length: .69 in (18 mm)
Overall length: 1.10 in (28 mm)
Primer type: large Berdan
Bullet weight/type Velocity Energy
200 gr (Kynoch ball, factory load) 700 ft/s 239 ft·lb
200 gr (Remington factory load) 715 ft/s 230 ft·lb
The .455 cartridge was a service revolver cartridge, featuring a rimmed cartridge firing a .45 bullet at the relatively low velocity of 650 ft/s (190 m/s). The result was a cartridge and handgun combination with relatively mild recoil, with good penetration and excellent stopping power. It was rated superior to the .45 Colt in stopping power in the disputed United States Thompson-LaGarde Tests of 1904 that resulted in the adoption by the U.S. of the .45 ACP cartridge.
The .455 Webley cartridge remained in service with British and Commonwealth forces until the end of the Second World War. Six main types of .455 revolver ammunition were produced:
In addition to the Webley revolvers, the British and Canadian armies also ordered several thousand Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejector revolvers, chambered in .455 Webley, in a rush to equip their troops for the Great War. The urgency was such that the earliest of these were converted from revolvers already completed and chambered for .44 Special. Approximately 60,000 Colt New Service revolvers were also purchased, in .455.
The Italian firm Fiocchi is currently the only commercial manufacturer of the .455 Webley cartridge (in Mk II). The American firm Hornady produces equipment for reloading .455 Webley cartridges.
Case type: Straight, rimmed
Bullet diameter: .454 in (11.5 mm)
Neck diameter: .476 in (12.1 mm)
Base diameter: .480 in (12.2 mm)
Rim diameter: .535 in (13.6 mm)
Case length: .770 in (19.6 mm)
Overall length: 1.230 in (31.2 mm)
Primer type: Large pistol
Bullet weight/type Velocity Energy
265 gr FMJ 700 ft/s 289 ft·lb
265 gr 600 ft/s 212 ft·lb
265 gr 757 ft/s 337 ft·lb
265 gr 600 ft/s 220 ft·lb
Despite the apparent difference in caliber name, the .476 Enfield was quite similar to the .455 Webley. The .476 had a 0.05 mm (0.002 in) shorter case than the .455 Mark I and could be fired in weapons regulated and marked as safe for the caliber, such as the Webley ‘WG Army’ model. This had a cylinder that was long enough to accommodate the significantly longer cartridge in which the bullet swelled out to .476″ beyond the case. It would not chamber in any government-issue .455 Webley Marks I-VI. The .450 Adams (1868), .476 Enfield (1881), and .455 Webley (1887) British service cartridges all featured a case diameter of .476 inch.
The .476 Enfield (also known as the .476 Eley, .476 Revolver, and occasionally .455/476) is a British centrefire black powder revolver cartridge.
Used in the Enfield Mk II revolver, the Mk III variant was introduced in 1881 for the British Army, supplanting the earlier .476 Enfield Marks I and II cartridges, which in turn had replaced the .450 Adams cartridges, all of which also used black powder propellant.
The .476 Enfield cartridge was only in British service for a comparatively short while before it was itself replaced in service by the black powder-loaded .455 Webley Mark I in 1887 and then by the smokeless powder-loaded .455 Webley Mark IV in September 1894. Just over 1,000 Enfield Mark IIs were issued to the North-West Mounted Police, which remained in use until 1911, when the last Enfields were phased out in favour of more modern (and reliable) .45 Colt New Service revolvers.
Using the same bullet as the .455 (11.6mm) Webley Mark I, the .476 casing was 0.05 mm (0.002 in) longer and carried a charge of 18 gr of black powder, compared to 6.5 gr of cordite in the .455 Mark I.
While the .476 Enfield cartridge can be used in any British-manufactured .455 Webley calibre service revolver, there are issues with the later-production Colt or Smith & Wesson .455 Revolver models, which are liable to have slightly smaller bore diameters.
Despite the difference in designation, the .476 will readily interchange with the earlier .450 Adams and .455 Webley rounds (the latter in black powder Mark 1 and smokeless Marks I through VI), as well as the .455 Colt (a U.S. commercial brand for the same .455 Webley round, with slightly different ballistics), which all use the same .455 in (11.6mm) bullet, the distinction being which diameter was measured. Officially, .450 Adams, .476 Enfield, and .455 Webley cartridges all could be fired in the Webley Mark III British Government Model revolver; although case length, bullet weight and shape, and powder charge differed, all three cartridges featured a case diameter of .476 inch with a bullet diameter of .455 inch, which could be fired in a barrel of .450 inch bore.
The Enfield name derives from the location of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock, the armoury where British Military Small Arms were produced (in this case, the Enfield revolver the cartridge was best known for being used in), while Eley was a British commercial brand.
Bullet diameter: .455 in (11.6 mm)
Neck diameter: .474 in (12.0 mm)
Base diameter: .478 in (12.1 mm)
Rim diameter: .530 in (13.5 mm)
Case length: 0.87 in (22 mm)
Overall length: 1.33 in (34 mm)
Primer type: Berdan