Monthly Archives: June 2019

The Webley Mk.1- Going Strong 130 Years Later.

The Webley company has roots extending into the 18th Century, and changed names a few times over the years. Initially a maker of bespoke firearms of a variety of sorts, they dipped their toes into the emerging revolver market in 1853 with the percussion ‘longspur’ revolver.

This was a very high-quality, hand-made weapon. Webley had hoped for an Army contract, but in the end they could not compete with Adams mass-produced pistols, which were less expensive and could more easily be produced in the numbers required.

In the 1860s they produced a solid-frame, double-action revolver, and in 1868 a variant of this was purchased by the British government for the Royal Irish Constabulary, causing the model to be named the RIC. A few years later they made a more compact version of the RIC called the Bulldog, and these became one of the most widely copied handguns of the 19th C., with versions being made in Belgium, the USA and Spain.

In the early 1880s the British army was dissatisfied with their Enfield revolvers, and issued a specification for a new gun. Webley’s response was the Mk.1, a large-caliber top-break with an auto-ejector similar to those used by S&W. This robust, large-caliber weapon was adopted by the army in 1887, and the first lot of 2000 guns was delivered within eight months. In subsequent years they made improvements to the design, which culminated in the Mk.6, which was produced in large numbers for WW1.

The Webley Mk.1. Chambered in .455, it fired a 265gr. bullet at approximately 700-750 fps.

Earlier weapons, like the Mk.1, were re-issued to the Royal Navy at the outset of WW1, where some examples remained in use until the end of WW2.

After WW2 a large number of these guns were sold as surplus and found their way to the United States. .455 was not a common cartridge in America, and it was thought these guns would sell better in .45 ACP. To accomplish this the cylinders were cut back to use spring-steel clips to hold, and allow the extraction of, the rimless cartridge, similarly to earlier Colt and S&W New Service revolvers.

This proved problematic; .455 developed chamber pressures from 13,400-15,000 CUP; .45 ACP factory loadings run from 19,000-21,000 CUP. Effectively standard .45 ACP ammunition was the equivalent of a ‘proof-load’ for the Webley. In rare instances this actually caused the cylinder to fail, but more commonly it produced what came to be known as ‘Wobbly Webley’ syndrome, where the gun loosened up enough to render it unreliable. Another common malady of shooting surplus ‘GI’ jacketed ammo was excessive wear of the rifling. These guns were made for lead bullets, where the relatively soft steel of the barrel was not an issue. But the copper-cased surplus and commercial loads wiped away the rifling is fairly short order.

The use of copper-jacketed, stock .45 ACP ammo cause these guns to develop an undeserved reputation for being weak, unreliable and inaccurate. A steady diet of +P+ ammunition might produce similar results in many perfectly good modern firearms. Sadly most imported Webleys were damaged to one degree or another by shooting factory .45 ACP ammunition.

Last month I was contacted by a fellow and offered a Webley Mk.1. It was in reasonable condition and mechanically sound, and like most such guns had the cylinder cut for .45 ACP. We came to an arrangement and a couple of weeks ago the Webley arrived. It came with a single 6-round clip, so I immediately ordered 16 more. These are made by Ranch Products, and are robust, high quality and quite affordable.

An excellent clip for .45 ACP revolvers. I got 16 clips for about $1 each including shipping.

The first thing you notice about the Mk.1 is that it is big. It makes a Colt Single-Action Army look positively svelte. I checked the revolver thoroughly, and was impressed with the fit, and the wonderfully smooth and stage-free double-action trigger. It’s not what you’d call a ‘light’ trigger, but it is so buttery-smooth it doesn’t really interfere with accuracy. The bore and chambers are in excellent condition. The gun’s original finish has aged into a mottled gray with bits of brown. there is little evidence of pitting, and most of that is on the grip-frame. The original horn grips are missing a chunk at the bottom of the left-side grip panel, which is somewhat uncomfortable in my hand. The serial number appears on the frame, barrel and cylinder, and indicates that this is an early gun, likely manufactured in 1888.

The Webley Mk.1, as it arrived. Notte the chunk missing from the grip-panel.

I’ve had a number of well-meaning folks tell me that I should only shoot black powder in this gun, but I believe this to be unnecessary for two reasons: One, the British switched to smokeless ammunition for these guns in 1892, four years after this gun was made. Two- among the various proofs is one that indicates this gun was Nitro Proofed at some point. Mind you, it very much needs to be shot with low-pressure, lead-bullet loads, but it will be fine with smokeless rounds within the proper pressure range.

While I don’t think I am going to refinish or otherwise alter this gun, I did need to do something about that grip. I have a chunk of dense, close-grained hardwood of an unknown type, that I bought at a building-supply salvage place. It makes pretty nice grips, and I made a set for the Webley. They look nice and are quite comfortable.

The Webley’s new ‘mystery-wood’ grip

I researched the loads that people were using successfully in these guns and determined that my .45 ACP ‘Match Load’ ought to be fine. I took the gun to Champion Arms indoor shooting range at the first opportunity and tried it out. The load seemed to work well and shot to point-of-aim at seven yards,producing very reasonable double-action groups.

7 yards, double-action, standing/unsupported. Not bad- especially when you consider there are three bullet holes in the X-ring.

The new moon-clips arrived Thursday, and I decided to shoot this gun in Saturday’s Action Shooting International match. I needed a holster and a way to carry extra clips, so Friday was devoted to making those. These came out well and were very useful at the match. Surprisingly concealable for a large man such as myself, too.

My new ‘half-pancake’ holster and moon-clip holder. I’ll discuss the construction of the clip-holder in a future post.

The gun performed flawlessly at the match. I didn’t, but I did alright. Reloads were fast and smooth and accuracy was excellent if I did my part. I’m really quite enamored with this revolver!

This Webley is accurate, easy to shoot and can be reloaded as quickly as a modern revolver. While there are undoubtedly better choices, this gun would be a viable option for self-defense even in the 21st century. There aren’t a lot of 19th C. guns you could say that of!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 11 June 2019

P.S.: I’ll discuss the specifics of using this gun in an action shooting match in a future post, as well as more information about the clip-holder and how I made it.

Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless

Another old-school Roscoe- this is an Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless (2nd Model) made in 1897 or so. It is a five-shot double-action only top-break revolver. It is chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge, similar in power to a .380 ACP. Around 1900 the Sears Roebuck catalogue sold these for $6. Not a cheap gun, but not expensive either.

Iver Johnson was trained as a gunsmith in his home-country of Norway and emigrated to the US in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. He worked as a gunsmith and designer, and eventually entered into a partnership in a business that became Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Works in 1891 and began production of top-break double-action revolvers starting in 1895. These were very popular mid-priced guns, with over seven million made in .32 S&W and .38 S&W calibers. In 1909 Iver Johnson adopted the trade brand name US Revolver Company, in part to use up remaining stocks of parts for their 2nd Model top-breaks when the line was upgraded for smokeless powder in 1909.

Initially the only differences between the Iver Johnson line of revolvers and the U.S. Revolver Company guns was that the hammer version does not have the transfer-bar safety of the regular line and the hammerless version does not have the safety trigger.

It’s interesting to note that while IJ upgraded their top-break guns ‘for smokeless powder,’ the USR guns were all rated for smokeless… even though they used cylinders and barrels from the supposedly ‘black powder’ guns, indicating that the ‘upgrades’ were made for reasons having little direct connection to the sort of propellant used in their cartridges. More on this later.

IJ revolver opened for loading. HKS Model 36 speedloaders work quite well with this gun.

The ‘Automatic’ refers to the auto-ejection feature. The ‘Safety’ refers to the transfer-bar safety and the hammerless part is pretty obvious (and a lie- it has a hammer under the shroud.) It also has a safety-bar on the trigger identical to a Glock Safe-Action trigger. The cylinder free-rotates when not being fired; it’s lock system is similar to the older Webleys- when firing the cylinder is pinned between the hand and a fixed stop mounted on the trigger assembly. The gun is fully locked when the trigger is pulled all the way to the point where it releases the hammer. The design is quite clever; the action-bar that works the hammer is also the transfer bar.

When I got this the hand-spring was broken, and since both the hand and the action-bar that operates the trigger depend on this it was non-functional. I fabricated a replacement and the gun is surprisingly good in several respects.

The first surprise is that the internal parts are heat-treated and tempered, which is often not the case in inexpensive firearms of the period. The second is that while this gun appears to have been fired quite a bit it is tight and the cylinder lock-up is tight and solid with zero play. The last and most pleasant surprise is the trigger- the pull is short, smooth and surprisingly light.

While these guns aren’t up to the standards of fit and finish that Colt and S&W revolvers of the period maintained they are really decent quality.

This is a ‘Black Powder Gun:’ it does not incorporate the changes made in 1909 to accommodate the new smokeless powders- or, to be brutally honest, to allow for the mistakes of stupid hand-loaders. Factory smokeless ammo for these guns was originally, and remains, tailored to not blow up even poor-quality guns, and was designed to be safe in older guns. But handloaders in the early 20th Century, used to black powder, often didn’t do their research when switching to smokeless.

You can’t fit enough black powder into a pistol-cartridge case to blow up a reasonable quality gun. You can fit enough smokeless powder, and people did. By 1909 smokeless powders had pretty thoroughly edged out BP, and Iver Johnson introduced the slightly beefier 3rd Model which was ‘proofed’ for smokeless powders. Of course what this really meant was ‘less likely to be blown up by idiots.’

Regardless, I have always fired smokeless loads in my cartridge-firing antiques. Mild, conservative loads to be sure, but I have never experienced an issue from doing so.

So how does it shoot? Honestly I am not sure… I ran across an old box of .38 S&W that I had loaded with 125gr. LRN and took that to shoot through the IJ. I very shortly remembered why that box was sitting around- they suck. About 3 out of five bullets from this load keyhole at seven yards, no matter what gun I shoot them through. The few bullets that hit properly were reasonably on-center, but the key-holed hits were all over the target. OK, the targets were 5-1/2″ circles and even the bad hits were in the circle, but a 5-1/2″ group at seven yards is no one’s idea of good. I need another trip to the range with some proper loads, then we’ll see what is what.

All in all I am quite pleased with this little gun. I think I am likely to get creative with this one; even in excellent condition they aren’t worth much or particularly collectible, and this one is not in excellent condition. I am likely to strip the nickel off and rust blue it at least… perhaps some fancy grips too.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 4 June 2019