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The Adams Revolver Revolution

In the mid-19th century, Britain was one of the First Nations to adopt a metallic cartridge service revolver, with the Adams Revolver winning that spot. Let's take a hands-on look.

The Adams Revolver Revolution

(Photo by Philip Schreier)

The year is 1870. Robert Adams is dead. Just four years earlier, the man who developed and passionately defended the first practical “self-cocking” revolver had closed his Pall Mall, London premises and moved to other quarters. Though he continued to sell the fine Beaumont-Adams revolvers that had been adopted by Her Majesty’s War Department in 1856, patent expirations and other matters had resulted in some financial difficulties.

His brother John, also in the gun trade, had introduced some interesting arms, most importantly some fine double-action percussions, coincidentally the same year Robert moved his operation. John had been enthusiastic about the possibility of converting percussion revolvers to fire self-contained cartridges.

ADAMS 01
The Model 1872 John Adams revolver is immediately recognizable by the rounded head on its ejection rod. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

John’s new revolver, designed in 1866 and finally patented in early 1867, featured an improved frame design and a slightly modified version of the Beaumont-Adams’ superb double-action lockwork, the main feature of the latter being the relocation of the sear to the rear of the triggerguard area. Though percussion, it would be found to provide an ideal platform for a breech-loader.

ADAMS 01
The Adams Model 1867A civilian modelrevolver featured a simple sliding rod ejector that was locked in place by a retaining lever. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

Centerfire revolver cartridges employing the important ideas of Col. Edward Boxer, superintendent of the Royal Laboratory and the Royal Arsenal at Woolrich, had first appeared in 1866, premiering with a stubby .577 round designed for a Webley revolver. A year later, a .442 load intended for use in Webley’s Royal Irish Constabulary line of repeaters and, in 1868, a .450/455 round built similarly to the .442 consisting of a formed brass case with attached, blackened iron base. The .450/455 was updated 9 years later with the iron base being changed to a hard-rolled brass one and the elimination of the earlier rounds’ cottonwool filling.

ADAMS 01
The precursor to the cartridge Adams, the percussion Beaumont-Adams (above, top), has similarities to its follow-ons. The Adams’ successor, the Enfield Mk I (above, bottom) was a totally divergent design and had a different chambering. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

Like Samuel Colt, Robert Adams was an enthusiastic, sometimes combative promoter of his wares. Early on he tried to interest the British military in his double action-only (DAO) Model 1851, head on its ejection rod. but the authorities thought it too complicated and parts not easily interchanged. They opted instead to purchase a number of Colt Model 1851 Navy revolvers for use in the Crimean War. The Colts performed their service well and were then returned to stores, some refurbished, and distributed to various entities, mostly in the colonies. Some officers did take privately purchased Adams self-cockers with them to the seat of war and reported back they found them perfectly acceptable, even in the harsh conditions of Crimea.

ADAMS 01
This short-barrel commercial 1867, retailed by Boss & Co., shows kinship with its military colleague in that it has the military-style 1867B ejection rod. The rod could be pushed into an empty chamber as a safety device. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

In the meantime, Adams had introduced a fine double-/singleaction (DA/SA) revolver that employed lockwork devised by Lt. F.B.E. Beaumont. This gun, which also featured the improved Kerr loading lever, was duly evaluated The Adams Model 1867A civilian model revolver featured a simple sliding rod ejector that was locked in place by a retaining lever. by the War Department. In January 1856, some 2,000 .54-bore (.442 caliber) pistols were ordered, the first of a larger quantity that would eventually find a home with the military. Though not available in time for the Crimean War, the Beaumont-Adams did see some action during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 where its performance was lauded.

ADAMS 01
The Adams 67A’s ejector rod is released by rotating its retaining lever downward. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

The Beaumont-Adams continued in service, with a number of them eventually being converted to chamber the new .450 Boxer cartridge using a system devised by John Adams. The War Office designated the piece “Pistol, revolver, Deane & Adams, converted breech loader Mk I.” Even though good quantities of these five-shooters were altered in this way, today they are elusive on the collector market.

While all this was going on, John Adams, using his 1866 revolver’s frame design as a platform, came up with two wholly new six-shot .450 breech-loaders ultimately dubbed the Model 1867A and 1867B. Of excellent configuration, the same frame and inner works would also be used for the follow-up Model 1872. Let’s examine what differentiates one model from the other.

ADAMS 01
The rotating ejector rod on the Model 1872 was more sophisticated than that on the 1867 but was still awkward to use and could be a hindrance in a combat situation. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

The 1867s used a simple rod with bent-over, flattened head. It was mounted on the right side of the frame and had two stop notches, one to hold the rod in place when not in use and the other to allow the rod to be locked rearward into an empty chamber where it acted as a safety. This kept the cylinder in place when the pistol was on half cock, the hammer itself having no safety position, per se. The principal variances between the 1867A and 1867B involved the rod. The “A,” intended for commercial sale, had a small lever to hold the rod securely in its two positions. The “B,” which was also called the “Model 1867 Mark II,” had no such lever, the ejector being held in position by spring pressure on the detents. The pistol’s loading gates — also called “shields” by the manufacturer — hinged at their tops and rotated upward.




ADAMS 01
To remove the cylinder on the Adams 1867s, the retaining lever is moved forward to allow the cylinder pin to be withdrawn. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

It appears the ’67’s ejection system was not deemed all that satisfactory, especially in the military version where the rod could easily be inadvertently pushed to the rear and jam up the cylinder. This was not a desired situation in the heat of battle. Accordingly, a new arrangement was initiated with the substitution of a slender pull-out ejector rod contained within a hole in the cylinder arbor. It was brought into action by simply extending it full length and then rotating it into position by means of a swiveling housing. While not exactly the fastest, it was more reliable in the field than its predecessor and accordingly adopted on August 24, 1872, as “Pistol, Adams’, Central Fire, B.L. (Mark III),” the War Office List of Changes succinctly explaining, “It differs from the previous pattern, Mark II … in having a more efficient extractor.”

ADAMS 01
The cylinder pin in the Model 1872 has a simple frame-mounted release button. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

Entering the service, primarily as a cavalry and officers’ arm, the Mark III was found to be an excellent, trustworthy piece of hardware. Complaints from the field were few, but there was some concern about the stopping powder of the .450 Adams round in which a 225-grain bullet at 650 feet per second (fps) produced a muzzle energy of 211 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.). Compared to a contemporary Colt Single Action’s .45 Colt load, which fired a 255-grain bullet at 810 fps for a muzzle energy of 378 ft.-lbs., and the .44 Smith & Wesson Russian’s energy of 324 ft.-lbs. achieved by a 246-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 770 fps, the .450 was something of an also-ran. Granted, its ballistics surpassed that of the 1873 French Ordnance revolver’s muzzle energy of 195 ft.-lbs., but not by much.

The Colt, while also employing a solid frame and having to eject rounds one-at-a-time, had a superior ejection rod fixed on the right side of the barrel. The Smith & Wesson No. 3 Russian, American and Schofield revolvers, with their hinged frames and simultaneous ejection, were even more efficient.

Recommended


ADAMS 01
Loading the Model 1867 and 1872 was easily effected by putting the gun on half cock to free the cylinder and lifting the so-called “shield” (i.e., loading gate) to permit the insertion of a round. (Photo by Philip Schreier)
ADAMS 01
Adams sights involved a drift-adjustable front blade and fixed V-notch at the rear. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

Still, the Mark III was considered sufficient for use by Her Majesty’s forces and performed yeoman service in a number of arenas, most notably in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and, for a period, with Canada’s Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) and units in Australia.

ADAMS 01
Markings on the 1872 involved Adams’ name and trademark on the right side of the frame and “WD” (War Department) stamping over military Mk III designation. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

Studying other more powerful and efficient revolvers, the British War department set about a series of evaluations in 1880. They settled upon a top-break hinged-frame, double action employing an odd simultaneous ejector designed by American Owen Jones. When the revolver was opened, the cylinder slid forward and the gun’s stationary star extractor pulled spent cases free from their chambers. Though the pistol was apparently robust, it chambered a new .265-grain, .476 round, which really didn’t beat the .450’s muzzle energy by much. It was found that during extraction it was necessary to give the revolver a good shake to make sure a fugitive case had not gotten stuck in the action. The Enfield Revolver, produced in two models, was retired by the British after only 9 years of service, however, it remained in use elsewhere — especially with the NWMP into the 20th century.

Shooting The Mark III

For the shooting evaluation, we used a very nice Mark III Adams exhibiting about 50 percent of its original finish and possessing a spotless bore and perfectly functioning action. Ammunition consisted of some of my own .450 handloads using Fiocchi brass charged with 13 grains of Goex FFFg black powder and topped with a 203-grain, .455 lead bullet.

ADAMS 01
John Adams’ later revolvers —1867 shown in the 1868 improvement patent drawing — relied on the excellent mechanism and framework of his earlier Model 1866 percussion design. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

The revolver is simple to use, and the loading process is typical of many others of the period. One merely puts the hammer on half cock, lifts the loading gate and inserts six rounds. The gate is then closed and the gun is ready to go. Double action pulls were smooth and even, running between 13 and 14 pounds. The single-action crisply tripped at 6½ pounds.

ADAMS 01
The .450 Adams round (second from left) and previous and later cronies, respectively the .442 RIC, .476 Enfield and .455 Webley. (Photo by Philip Schreier)
ADAMS 01
The .450 Adams and two of its period military competitors. From the left: French Model 1873 11mm, .450 Adams, .45 Colt. (Photo by Philip Schreier)
ADAMS 01
Original .450 Adams cartridge (Left) and modern Fiocchi .450 load. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

The revolver was fired offhand and from a rest, single-action and offhand and DA at 15 yards. All came in somewhat high, the rested strings averaging 2½ inches and the SA offhands 35⁄8 inches. The double action, I’m embarrassed to say, spread out to an average of some 63/4 inches; the long trigger pull proved a bit of a challenge for my increasingly arthritic forefinger. Ejection, as expected, was sure, but slow, taking about three times as long as the same chore with a Single Action Army Colt. Surprisingly, my blackpowder loads were a bit stouter than I thought they’d be; the gun rose a good degree after each shot.

ADAMS 01
The author found the 1872 Adams to be a sturdy, accurate and reliable shooter in both single and double action use. The best group was fired from a rest, single- action at 15 yards (inset bottom right). This best group measured 17⁄8 inches. Average five-shot spreads were 2½ inches. The author’s best offhand string — fired single-action, one-handed at 15 yards — measured 3 inches. Other groups averaged 3 5⁄8 inches (inset, second from right). (Photo by Philip Schreier)

Sights were period-military adequate. Would I be comfortable with this revolver in a combat situation? I suppose, though given a choice I probably would have swapped the Adams’ DA feature for the Colt’s greater stopping power or a Smith & Wesson No. 3’s faster ejection. Taking the Adams’ period of active service into account, I’d give it about a C+, maybe a B-.

ADAMS 01
The “Cartridge, Small-Arm, Ball, Breech-Loading, Boxer, for Dean & Adams Converted Breech-Loading Revolver Cartridge” as adopted by the military in December 1868. It features a sheet brass case, and iron base disc. Bullet is .455 and powder charge 13 grains “Shell F.G.” This round would be the primary British load until superseded by the .476 in November 1880. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

The Mark II’s and III’s shortcomings were outweighed by their serviceability. However, they appeared at a time when considerable advances were being made in handgun design. Thus, they suffered the fate of many other handguns and longarms of that era: An early, though not necessarily premature, retirement as front-line arms.

ADAMS 01
The SA/DA Beaumont-Adams revolver, which was ultimately adopted by the British War Department in 1856, provided some inspiration to John Adams for his later designs. (Photo by Philip Schreier)
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