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Transitional Revolvers: The Bridge Between 19th-Century Handguns

As firearm development progressed through the 19th century, different handguns were developed simultaneously, showing off some interesting features and designs that did not make it into the modern era of revolvers.

Transitional Revolvers: The Bridge Between 19th-Century Handguns

(Photo by Philip Schreier)

When one follows patterns in most fields of human endeavor, it is generally not too difficult to determine a logical line of progression. One invention begets another, and so on. Occasionally though, an interloper appears, a development so out of place that it causes perplexion. Such an intrusion into what otherwise would be a tidy evolution can be met with slight regard and simply passed over as a trivial anomaly. In the field of firearms, no better example of this can be put forward than the transitional revolver.

The term “transitional revolver” is a modern one of convenience, and it was not used at the time the system was in its heyday. It implies a sort of missing link between earlier styles of repeaters and the improved firearms invented by Samuel Colt. In fact, though appearing somewhat primitive, these guns actually post-­date his developments and, quixotically, Colt himself was largely responsible for their existence.

The Collier flintlock revolver (left, top) was, quixotically, a precursor to both the transitional revolver (left, middle) and the Colt revolver (left, bottom). (Courtesy of the National Firearms Museum.)

Multi-­shot revolving handguns and longarms were known for some time prior to the more modern ones we are familiar with today. They appeared primarily in two varieties, those with several barrels which rotated around a central arbor and others with one barrel which serviced a centrally-­mounted rotating cylinder. The latter is most commonly and effectively represented by the short-­lived Collier flintlock repeater which appeared around 1819. It was produced until about 1830 and though beautifully made, it was beset with difficulties such as manner of cylinder rotation (most were hand-­turned), ignition and expense.

Cluster barrel revolving arms, on the other hand, were more readily accepted. They were cheaper and reliable, though prone to multiple discharges as well as being somewhat cumbersome. However, they could provide the user with several shots if needed. Commonly called “pepperboxes,” these arms, originally in flintlock, came into their own with the development of the percussion system. In short order, reliable mechanisms were developed that allowed the shooter to rotate the barrels and fire a shot with a single pull of the trigger. 

Single-­action versions were also available, and except for the internal pawl required to turn the barrels, comfortably relied on proven mechanisms adapted from earlier stationary ­barreled boxlocks. 

Disassembly on the better transitionals with bottom straps is affected by the removal of a wedge, similar to those used in early Colt revolvers, which permits the barrel assembly and cylinder to be separated from the frame. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

The number of barrels on one of these guns normally varied from three or four, with some up to six or seven! There were even freak variants which sported more, risking the ease of handling for the added advantage of greater firepower. The normal pepperbox sported a nipple for each barrel, which jutted up at a 90-­degree angle from the rear of the bundle. Normally, there were no partitions between the nipples, which resulted in the danger of chain-­fire.

Improved percussion pepperboxes appeared in Great Britain and America at roughly the same time, around the late 1820s to the early 1830s. Mechanics varied but the most common double-actions (DA) employed flat-bar hammers, which rose and fell as the trigger was pulled and the barrels turned. Single actions (SA) relied on more traditional styles, though as both bar and spurred hammers were regularly placed at the center part of an action, aiming became impossible, especially over the rotating barrels.

Normally, transitional revolvers without bottom straps have their barrels screwed onto the cylinder arbor. The barrel is held in place by a screw. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

In his book “Roughing It,” Mark Twain describes an American Allen pepperbox, commenting it was a “cheerful weapon” that, “if she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else,” adding “Sometimes all six barrels would go off at once and then there was no safe place in all the region about, but behind it.”

On October 22, 1835, Colt wisely filed the first patents for his “Certain Improvements Applicable to Fire-­Arms” (revolvers) in England. A quirk in British law held that a patent first applied for in one country and then subsequently offered in England, would hold no authority in Great Britain. He would not patent his invention in the United States until February 25, 1836.

Despite the fact that initially Colt’s early Paterson-­style revolver did not receive the wild acclaim he had anticipated, at least his patents prohibited others from producing like firearms until 1857. This allowed for refinements and design changes that finally brought Colt the success he sought.

To load the Gibbs bar hammer, after introducing a powder charge, an Adams-­style bullet is loaded with attached wad, seated with the plunger, and then the chamber topped off with water pump grease and capped. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

In the meantime, other makers were doing their best to come out with similar appearing and functioning arms without getting involved in infringement litigation. Hence, in Britain, by the late 1840s, a promising hybrid style emerged that was able to take advantage of the pepperbox-­style lockwork by applying it to an arm with a single barrel and rotating cylinder. This was likely in response to the popularity of Colt’s Model 1849 Pocket and Model 1851 Navy revolvers, not to mention the high degree of acceptance of Britisher Robert Adams’ Model 1851 self-­cocking revolver. (The Adams was protected by a different patent.)

What followed were hybrid revolvers, which, forward of their cylinders, looked much like Colt’s products, but from the rear these had elongated frames and deeply curved grips seen in pepperbox mechanisms. The revolver cylinders themselves were little more than attenuated versions of the pepperbox barrel cluster including nipples that jut upwards at right angles, which were necessary because of the falling action of the guns’ hammers.


Though most transitional revolvers were composed of similar basic elements, variations were not unusual. The two most common relied on pepperbox-­style bar hammers and thumb-­cocking hammers, mainly depending on whether or not a gun was single or double action. Others had rather curious-­looking combinations thereof, and some employed small under-­hammers or concealed strikers.

Due to the considerable difference between chamber and bore size, after introducing a charge it was necessary to load the Lang with a wad, topped by a relatively loose ball, which was then firmly seated by the rammer. The chamber was then sealed with grease, and the nipple capped. Note: Unlike the more common bar hammer, the Lang has fences between nipples. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

As transitionals featured single barrels, it was finally possible to work out some sort of sighting arrangements. The bar hammers often had slots cut in them to allow the shooter to access the front bead or blade, a not wholly satisfactory solution as it provided an extremely limited sight picture that was constantly changing as the hammer rose. Many thumb-­cockers remedied the problem by simply canting the hammers off to the right to allow an unobstructed view of the rear and front sights.

Generally, transitional revolvers were made to the highest standards. Fit, finish and embellishment were the match of many other types of top-­grade examples of the British gunmakers’ art. They were often cased with a selection of accessories. Engraving was common and some were even fitted with extras such as spring-­loaded bayonets. While actions were normally made of steel, nickel-silver was also popular.

Transitional revolvers without rammers had their bullets seated using old-­style ramrods. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

Barrels were attached to frames by either being keyed onto the cylinder arbor and secured with a wedge, like the arrangement seen in Colt revolvers, or were threaded onto the arbor and secured by a small screw. The second type normally did not allow provision for a bottom strap and thus was not quite as strong as keyed guns. Cylinders were normally rotated by a simple pawl and indexed using a spring-­loaded detent on the inside of the face of the recoil shield.

Despite their undoubted quality, transitional revolvers did carry along some of the baggage of their predecessors. They were a bit awkward ergonomically, often could not be easily sighted, and the nipple arrangement, abetted by sometimes excessive cylinder gaps, were open invitations to chain firing (i.e., multiple chambers going off at once). To correct inadvertent simultaneous discharge, some models of these revolvers, notably those devised by the highly regarded London gunsmith Joseph Lang, featured reciprocating gas-­seal cylinders and fences between nipples. Lang also made more affordable versions without the extra cylinder feature, one of which we shall experience later in our shooting evaluation.

As can be seen from this photo, the Lang revolver had a considerable flash gap. Due to this observation, it was not deemed safe to fully load the cylinder during testing. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

It appears the early (and cheaper) transitional revolvers were loaded with ball and wad or patch in the manner of pepperboxes by using a separate wooden rammer. This was apparently not considered wholly sufficient, as various styles of mechanical rammers and plungers were also being routinely attached to barrels and frames.

Though transitional revolvers didn’t catch on as much in America, there were some domestic arms that hinted at the style including Savage, Pettengill, Butterfield, Massachusetts Arms and Ellis repeaters; “hinted,” as in all of the above mentioned and some others, there is some mitigating feature(s) that remove them from being true transitionals. The only other country that seems to have produced the British-­style hybrid pistol in any quantity was Belgium.

The large quantity of extant transitional revolvers indicates they were originally manufactured in copious quantities. Also, the fine condition of the majority of them hints at the fact they were not used that much. While period stories centering around the salubrious employment of Colts, Adamses and other more conventional revolvers abound, one is hard-­pressed to come up with a 19th century anecdote describing the use of a transitional revolver, or even the mention of one in passing.

The trigger pull on the self-­cocking bar hammer was long. This, coupled with the poor sighting arrangement, resulted in indifferent accuracy. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

This does not mean that transitional revolvers did not see military action or were not carried for civilian self-­defense; based on the apparent quantities made, it seems likely that some most likely were. It just appears that their effectiveness and cache was not sufficient to produce a solid cadre of admirers and supporters. Basically, they seem to be not much more than convenient stopgaps offered by makers of the period so they could appear to be up to date by taking advantage of the revolver revolution. Some were undoubtedly manufactured into the early 1860s, but it’s likely production dropped off drastically once access to the Colt and Adams patents became more universal.

At the Range

For Guns & Ammo’s evaluation, I rounded up a pair of typical transitional revolvers, one with a double-­action bar hammer manufactured by George Gibbs of Bristol and a single-­action (lacking the gas seal arrangement) by London’s Joseph Lang. Both were of estimable quality and in excellent physical and mechanical condition. To aid in loading, the Lang sported a Blissett patent loading lever, and the Gibbs a spring-­loaded plunger.

Transitional revolvers have fallen well under the radar of most collectors, and even more so with shooters. In fact, after considerable research, I could turn up no directions, period or otherwise, for loading one. Through the years, I’ve fired many kinds of more traditional percussion revolvers, so I figured with a bit of extrapolation the Gibbs and Lang would present no difficulties. I believe the ancient Greeks coined a word for such an attitude: “Hubris.”

Because of its long trigger pull and inadequate sight arrangement, the Gibbs performed poorly. Rested 12-­yard groups printed quite high at an average of 8 inches. This best group measured 5 inches. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

In miking out the Lang, we found the cylinder chambers measured .459 inch and the bore diameter .444. It was decided a .451 ball would be agreeable to both, however, as the bullet was smaller than the chamber. We were then left with the problem of how to effect a proper seal. With a traditional percussion revolver, this is no problem: One uses a slightly oversized bullet and swages it in using the rammer. If we tried that here, we would have to use at least a .461, and this was deemed excessive in reference to the bore size.

Putting the gun back together, the question immediately became moot. It was obvious that the frame is so close to the cylinder face that it would be impossible to rotate it sufficiently to allow a large bullet to be positioned beneath the loading lever. Colts have cutaways for just such a purpose, but not the Lang. It was decided to top the chosen 17-­FFFg blackpowder charge with a .54 Ox-­Yoke Wonder Wad, followed by the bullet and then the whole package, which was sealed with water-pump grease. Though the nipples were separated by low fences, the flash cylinder/barrel gap was considerable, raising the concern of possible chain fire. Nipples on both revolvers were quite small, originally intended for percussion caps of a size no longer available. After some experimentation, it was found that No. 10s sufficed, though they had to be severely pinched in order to remain in position.

Prudently, I only loaded one round for the first shot. Despite being a bit nose-­heavy, the gun was not all that awkward in the hand. The offset hammer allowed for a good sight picture, and the trigger pull was not disagreeable; it measured a crisp 6 pounds. At 12 yards, the bullet struck about an inch high of point of aim. My associate, Philip Schreier, was on hand to record the event photographically — and it was good he did! As the after-­discharge perusal of his high-­speed photos showed, an inordinate amount of flash betwixt cylinder and barrel was enough that, for safety’s sake, I felt it wise to not attempt multiple shots in this revolver. Our subsequent groups were achieved by single loadings. Surprisingly, they turned out to be quite agreeable with rested spreads measuring an average of 2¾ inches. The best running was 1½ inches, but all were close to point of aim.

Despite its horrendous barrel-­to-­cylinder gap, the single-­action Lang performed well in the accuracy test: 12-­yard rested spreads averaged 23/4 inches, close to point of aim. This one was tops at 1½ inches. (Photo by Philip Schreier)

The Gibbs presented its own set of challenges. Fortunately, the cylinder-­to-­bore measurements were closer together than those of the Lang — .443/.438 — but we still had the frame/cylinder problem. Add into the equation the considerable lack of mechanical advantage provided by the simple plunger and, again, we ended up with a chamber sealing problem. This was ultimately dealt with by using a .440 round ball cast from an original mold for a Deane Adams & Deane .54 bore revolver, to which we could attach a .45 Wonder Wad via the ball’s integral wad spike. The bullet and wad were plunged down on top of the 17-­grain charge and were followed by water pump grease. While the Gibbs’ flash gap was somewhat tighter than that of the Lang’s, as the Gibbs cylinder’s nipples were unprotected, we again opted to shoot groups one loading at a time.

The Gibbs’ bar hammer was equipped with an aiming slot. However, the slow, heavy trigger pull and constantly changing aperture aspect created a perfect storm of inaccuracy. Rested 12-­yard groups invariably shot 6 to 10 inches high and splattered the target with groups averaging 8 inches, the best of which was 5 inches.

While these are estimable examples of the gunmakers’ art from a quality of construction standpoint, these guns were not user-­friendly. It’s easy to understand why the majority of them are in such good shape. One can imagine the disposition of a typical transition revolver might be that after one or two outings: It was unceremoniously stuck in a drawer and languished until it was discovered by an ancestor. Colt and Adams had nothing to worry about.

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