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From the History Books Historical

The World’s Best Service Sixguns: The Webley Revolvers

by Garry James   |  February 23rd, 2012 34

Webley revolverMost of us admit to having a guilty pleasure or two, and I will own up that I have more than my share. I love grade-Z black-and white horror movies, 1920s popular music, cats and Webley revolvers.

I remember some esteemed expert (it could have been Jeff Cooper) proclaiming a number of years ago the top-break Webley as one of the best military revolvers of all time. Can’t say I disagree — it’s got lot going for it if one doesn’t take into account it’s into its typically clunky British appearance. Like the SMLE, the Webley sure isn’t going to win any beauty contest, but also like the Enfield, looks ain’t everything. It’s one rugged piece of hardware.

The general impression is, as soon as the British decided to adopt a revolving pistol back in the 1850s, the Webley was the logical choice. Not so. Webleys, starting with the Mark I, would not officially enter British service until 1887, being preceded by Colts, Adamses, Tranters and Enfields.

The Birmingham gunmaker Philip Webley and his family had been in the firearms business since before the middle of the 19th century, manufacturing a successful line of single and double-action percussion revolvers, among other things.

Off to a good start, Webley played around with another solid frame revolver or two and then in 1877 entered the world of self-extraction with a hinged-frame revolver devised by gunmaker Charles Pryse. Termed the “No. 4,” this ingenious sixgun featured the forward hinged frame commonly associated with later Webleys, as well as a rebounding hammer safety setup and an improved cylinder lock.

To load a No. 4, all the shooter had to do was press in on a pair of paddle-shaped levers mounted on either side of the recoil shield. This action withdrew two crossbolts that locked into the topstrap, allowing the gun to be broken open by tilting the frame downward (not the barrel, as this had a tendency to clutter the action with sent cases), which forced a star extractor outward to remove the shells. The extractor then snapped back into position ones it reached the limit of its travel and allowed fresh rounds to be loaded into the chambers. The Webley-Pryse became a popular setup, adaptable to different frame sizes—all the way up to guns that could accommodate a special .577 revolver cartridge!

The famed “stirrup latch,” which is the release system most people think of when the name “Webley” comes up, was devised by designer Edwinson Green. It was simpler and more positive than the Pryse arrangement. To open the gun, one simply pushed forward on a lever on the left side of the frame. This unlatched an integral “U”-shaped bar from the rear of the topstrap, freeing the barrel assembly. Initially produced in high-quality civilian “W-G” models, it eventually became the chosen mechanism for the Mark I Webley that was officially adopted by the British Military in 1887.

Webley 2The rugged .455 caliber Mark I Webley, which replaced the oddball .476  Mark I and Mark II Enfield revolvers after only seven years of service, had most of the characteristics we have come to recognize as the archetypical Webley revolver. With its thickest frame, short four-inch barrel, bird’s-head (or as the Brits all it “parrot-beak”) grip, lanyard ring, and V-shaped holster guides, it was the model for all the later military Webley revolvers up to the superb Mark VI, which first made its appearance during World War I. While retaining much of the original mechanism, the Mark VI had a square grip and six-inch barrel.

The Mark VI continued in British service as primary standard until 1927 when it was replaced with a smaller Webley-inspired No. 2 Mark I Enfield revolver in .380 caliber. This was Britain’s main service revolver in World War II, but as supplies began to run low, Webley again stepped into the breach, supplying .380 Mark IVs for war use.

Following WWII, Webley continued to produce police and civilian revolvers in different models, though eventually their cartridge guns were jettisoned in favor of air pistols and rifles.

There are enough different variants of Webleys (including the highly sought-after Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver) out there to provide the collector with a one-manufacturer hobby. I’ve collected them for years, and while I really enjoy studying and looking at them, I particularly like to shoot them.

Webleys: great guns, great history, great shooters — and on reflection, perhaps not such a guilty pleasure, after all.

  • sgt.ret

    Garry, Great article! love this stuff! How does the Webley compare to the S&W model 3? Would love to see (or read) a head to head comparison on these. Just caught ya on Top Gun, glad to see I'm not the only M1 Carbine fan out there, I always catch a little razzing from the AR guys when i bring it to the range.

    • ron mcghee

      i to am a m1 carbine fan for its intended use it was perfect no one gives the .30 carbine it proper due its not ment to be a front line service caliber but it is much more effective than a pistol round 95 grains at almost 2000fps is no joke i bet you wont stand there while somone take shots at you with it lets remember that most shooting done in combat is done as suppression not aimed fire therefore the carbine is a great tool for troops not at the front line though i do agree the m2 carbine was not a good idea as this gun is too light for full auto also other than combat the carbine is one of the most fun rifles to shoot if you can afford cases of ammo have fun at the range boys

      • BJC

        Agreed the 30 carbine is great, I have a Winchester M1 that shoots very well. I have shot an M2 and it wasn't bad, the M14 though is a different story, beyond three round bursts your shooting birds. I don't have a Webley but I do have the S&W and an H&R with the top break mechanism and I like them both.

    • ron mcghee

      ditto here about gary he represtented shooters well on the show… although i must say i thought he was a better shot i guess he like me getting old and the eyes are fading fast… lol just joking good job gary

    • garry james

      Well, the S&W No. 3 is truly a great piece of hardware–especially when mated to the .44 Russian cartridge. Still, for sheer ruggedness and user-friendly characteristics, the stirrup-latch Webley is the end-all and be-all of top-break service revolvers. Thanks for the kind comments about "Top Guns." It was the most fun I ever had working on a TV show. Simply a terrific experience. I love M1 Carbines (have a stable of them myself) and so was not too disappointed when it was the gun I ended up with for the final shootout. If I could have seen where the first shot hit, I could have moved a tad to the right and been a real contender. Ah, well, really didn't want to show up those young guys, anyway (both of whom, I might add, were really good shots.)

  • https://www.facebook.com/james.mcwilliams1 James Mcwilliams

    SGT. RET
    that's unfortunate, every time i bring my carbine usually people won't quit bugging me during cease fire to ask me about it and shoot off a few rounds..lol
    i like my AR as well but being able to bring some old school to the range is always a fun time, especially when the garand comes along to play as well.

    • sgt.ret

      Thats great! unfortunatly, the gun culture down here in South Florida is dominated by guys who only care about who has the most expensive toys,and thats the only reason they go to the range. If its not black, plastic,16", and has every gadget known to man attached to it, your below them. But since there's only 4 ranges from West Palm to Miami, all indoor, you have to endure there crap.lol

      • Tommy

        Sgt.
        It might be a bit out of your way, but there's a great outdoor range in Indian River County (Sebastian) that is run by the county. Only $8.25 + tax to shoot all day!!! They have a pistol range, rifle range and a place for shotgunners too. The rangemasters there are a real nice bunch of middle aged guys like myself and it's a pretty relaxed atmosphere overall. http://www.goshootingirc.com/

        • sgt.ret

          Thx! I'll check it out.

    • BJC

      Good one James I too get a lot of inquisition about my M1 from other shooters and "what was that" when you hear the pingggg after your last shot with the garand.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000034921566 Raymond Clifford

    From a very early age I have been fascinated with guns! When most kids are stashing Sears and Roebucks under the pillow until better avenues open up to them,I was stashing THE Very FIRST issue of GUN WORLD which if I remember correctly sold for 60 cents for Issue NO. 1! I can verify this by stating the gun featured on the cover was a one off conversion single action handgun .454 or something similar? I DO remember it was an Elephant rifle caliber cartridge(Webley) with an extremely long cylindrical shell casing! This was around the 4th or 5th grade? Gonna have to look it up and see? It has been so long! Sturm Ruger is my favorite choice of weapon and I have owned many various models and types during my 56 years upon this wonderful Game Preserve!(JOKE) Posted some good Ted Nugent interviews to Facebook recently and am looking forward to reading up on Guns again! Thank you, Now to go and read the article!

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000034921566 Raymond Clifford

    Interesting? I think I understand half of the technical details? My handguns owned included a Ruger .22 Bearcat that fit nicely into the left front pocket of my Fatigue jacket with just an inch or less of barrel showing! The last Ruger I had the good luck to own was a Super Single Six in Stainless Steel version with the optional .22 Magnum cylinder included. Did most of my plinking with the standard .22 cylinder! Short,long and long rifle! The 2 other Rugers I owned were the Replica .22 LUGER and a .44 magnum Carbine! Now that was a brushcutter of a rifle? Pretty good for plugging engine blocks and putting holes in discarded refrigerators! Can't say as i took too many deer with it though! Thank you.

    • anishinabi

      I like Sigs and Colts but I taught myself to shoot on a Ruger Standard pistol. I box of standard velocity .22 every morning before work. I traded it off but I teach my kids first on the Ruger Target model then move them to a Glock 17. I think the Ruger Ranch mini 14 and the .22 all steel models are the best basics you could own. I am on the verge of a Ruger Gunsight Scout, and I can't wait! I like Ruger because many models are made in my home state of Arizona, and not some phony East Coast antigun state that take your money and hates you and your 2nd amendment rights. I know, Ruger is also back east, but Anti Gun Gun whores that take your money and support diminishing your rights (SW) make me sick. I still can't figure out why most of them headquarter in gun hating states.

  • tanstaafl2

    Smooth out the trigger and stirrup latch release and a Webley Mark VI converted to .45 acp on full-moon clips is the perfect combat revolver!

  • Michael Monti

    I bought a Mark VI at an auction for 20$. No one else would bid on it and that could be because it has been nickel plated and has mother of pearl grips. It is kind of an odd looking combination on a Mark VI but it is still in .455 and a bunch of fun to shoot. I shot it in the local Cowboy Action shoot last month and will again this month along with a Martin Henry Greener in 12-14 ga. Not many people have seen one of those I'd betcha. Maybe not Cowboy Action period correct but both guns are lots of fun and I enjoy shooting them a great deal. Also have an Enfield in .38 S&W that I originally bought because it was in a really nice holster along with matching cartridge belt. I've gotten rid of the holster and belt but still have the Enfield. Did I mention they are really fun to shoot?

  • blackcampbell

    Love my Webleys. My great grandfather was a policeman in Scotland and had one of these that he would occasionally hammer nails with. They are about as stout and foolproof a gun as you are going to find.

    I have a Mk III in .38 S&W that is a surprisingly straight shooter. Also have a Mk VI in .455 and another in .45ACP. I have to admit — i prefer the .455, but the .45ACP is easily the most accurate handgun I have.

  • Ken Bryan

    Webleys are great…I have a MK I, MK VI and the tanker model 38 with no hammer and cast and reload for all!

  • Butch44

    Mr. James,
    Enjoyed the article. It would be nice to include shooting results. Thanks.

  • 2WarAbnVet

    I like Webleys, but I can't say the same for the .38-200 or .455 cartridges.

  • anishinabi

    I have always wanted a top break revolver, like a .45 LC Model 3 (or knockoff) or a Webley but the only thing I run across is impractical stuff like Iver Johnson or H&Rs at the Gun Shows. The top break concept makes a lot of sense. Try reloading a conventional revolver with a disabled arm or hand in a pinch.

  • Skagitskypilot

    To change the subject, the banner for this article shows you and a description "Senior Gun Editor". My question is are you the gun editor that speaks to and for Seniors? I just turned 65 and I'm thrilled that you might be the editor to the Seniors of the gun world . . . just asking.

    • garry james

      Well, I like to think I speak to all gun enthusiasts…but as I just turned 68 myself, I guess it would be most corrrect to take the title as a description of my superannuation rather than limiting me to just one segment of the firearms fraternity. Needless to say, though, I can certainly relate to all of the seniors out there.

      • Bill Lester

        Garry,

        I'm only 45 but you have always been in my Top Three gun writers since I first picked up a copy of G&A in the early 1980's. I still have a copy of that picture from years ago of you standing in the doorway with the 3" mountain gun and covered in a variety of other weapons. It's had a prominent place above my loading bench for years.

        • garry james

          My, I had forgotten that photo. As I remember it was taken in conjunction with some article about home defense. We had a lot of fun putting stories together back then. I would submit, though, that a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar woul be a much more appealing embellishment for your reloading bench.

          • Bill Lester

            Obviously you don't know my wife. She'd wring my neck if I displayed anything of the female persuasion!

          • garry james

            It's your own fault if you let your wife into your reloading room. There are certain things in a man's life that should simply be sacrocanct. Joking aside, many thanks for your kind comments. They are very much appreciated.

  • Mactex53

    Good article, I had a Webley that was stolen at college but have always loved them. Used half-moonclips and .45 ACP which were much cheaper than the .455 (when you could find them). I always read your articles first in anything you appear. I'm just 59 so I just don;t remember all that old fogey stuff you guys tal about -lol!
    Please keep up the good work.

    God Bless

  • Guest

    Great scene in 'Eye Of The Needle' where the woman chases Donald Sutherland's character while shooting a big Webley revolver at him.

  • Michael the Brit

    The Indians still make a Enfield/webley style break actioon revolver in 32, please will someone import it.
    How about a modern break action big bore 2 inch revolver. Are you listening Charter Arms

  • Dirty Devan

    Didn't this gun use by Army officers in U.K? But I don't like revolver because easy to reload like other revolvers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/999johnston Robert Johnston

    Many folks consider the .455 Webley an anemic round.
    Hit a mook just right with even a .22 LR, however?
    That bad guy's going down–and it's going to stick!

    I like break-action weapons–easy to load, for starters.
    Plus, I enjoy Webley airguns–expensive, but top-notch for the job at hand.

    The "History" section on this website is turning out to be my favorite!
    Keep up the good work!
    –RKJ

  • ihsan

    Hi friends i recently found one Weblay (W&S) 450/455 serial number 121336 revolver in my Grand Pa room who died some 20 years ago so i want to know for whom it has made and when . if anyone can help me ……. my e-mail ihsan.leo@gmail.com

  • Beachcomer

    I have come across a Webley hat has no date. But is marked War Finish. Can you help me to determine the year it was made. And what it may be worth. Thank you.

  • Beachcomer

    It is in excellent condition it still had packing grease and wrapped in cellophane when I got it.

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