Most 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.
The 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.