February 28, 2022
Firearms legend Col. Jeff Cooper once told me he felt that the best military revolver ever was the Webley stirrup latch, top-break, double-action. It’s a statement that’s hard to argue with. In discussions of robust, serviceable arms, the name Webley invariably emerges, especially in connection with the rugged arms used by British and Commonwealth forces during the two World Wars. What’s not so commonly known, though, is the history of the company’s formative years and the gun that got things started.
Philip and James Webley, who were sons of Birmingham button-maker (correctly identified as a “white button turner”), served their apprenticeships in the early part of the 19th century. James, the elder of the pair, established his business first and was joined by his brother in 1835 manufacturing sundry firearms parts.
After marrying Caroline Davis, the daughter of the late William Davis, a well-known Birmingham bullet-mold maker, Philip absorbed Davis’ firm, giving new strength to his own proprietorship.
Though the brothers maintained separate establishments, they also worked together producing transition-style revolvers, pepperboxes and workaday muskets and pistols for military and private sale. Along the way, both had received assorted firearms patents, some of which were more practical and profitable than others. On March 29, 1853, James Webley received patent number 743 for what he termed “improved patent repeating pistols,” and that same year unhesitatingly launched into production of what would be considered the first true Webley revolver.
It must be remembered at this time the names of Robert Adams, who came out with his superb double-action five-shooter in 1851, and William Tranter, a respected gunsmith who also had a profitable line of wares. They were preeminent among British repeating handgun makers.
Though James’ revolver lacked the “self-cocking” feature of the Adamses and Tranters, its single-action mechanism was sound and reliable. Probably the design’s most noticeable departure from the norm was the use of an exaggerated hammer thumbpiece. This feature resulted in the gun’s nickname, “Longspur.” Necessary because of the configuration of the pistol’s grip, it gave the shooter excellent leverage and allowed for more rapid cocking than was possible with the much-vaunted Colt products of the time.
Like many of its contemporaries, the Webley had an open-top frame and cylinder arbor fixed to the center of the recoil shield. A wedge through the front of the arbor secured the forward portion of the frame/barrel. Removing the wedge allowed the barrel to hinge down, permitting the cylinder to be easily removed. Early versions of the First Model were not equipped with loading levers, however, as production progressed, separate rammers were provided that were secured by a small screw on the right side of the revolver’s barrel.
The internals of the majority of Longspurs were unlike those of other revolvers of the time in that the hammer employed two attached swiveling arms, one for rotating the cylinder and another, which operated along with a rising cylinder stop, to lock the cylinder when the trigger was pulled. The mechanism was simple and sure. The works could be viewed and serviced through a removable sideplate on the left, rear of the frame. A small spring was attached to the lower portion of the arbor to keep the cylinder from overspinning upon cocking. The arbor itself was square in cross section through most of its length to help take up powder fouling.
Sighting involved a notch rear cut into a percussion cap shield on the hammer nose and drift-adjustable front blade. The shield was intended to protect the shooter from bits and pieces of exploding percussion cap, which it did. Unfortunately it was rather fragile and many extant examples of Longspurs are seen with broken or missing shields.
The quality of James’ and Philip’s new revolver was excellent and, in the manner of the majority of Birmingham makers, parts were contracted out and then hand-fitted. Thus, interchangeably of components was iffy at best. Also, this resulted in higher costs and fewer arms than those mass-produced by Colt and others. Most likely, not more than 2,000 Longspurs were made during the pistols’ limited production period.
Webley Longspurs were ordinarily offered in three sizes termed by the firm, “Small,” “Middle” and “Large.” These corresponded to the common designations of “pocket” (120 bore, .338 inch), “belt” (60 bore, .426 inch) and “holster” (48 bore, .459 inch). Small revolvers were six-shot and had 3- and 4-inch barrels, Middles were 4- and 5-inch barreled five-shooters, and Large five-shot Longspurs had 6- and 7-inch barrels.
Around 1855, a Second Model revolver was introduced. It generally followed the construction of the First Model, however, an up-swinging Adams-style loading lever was affixed to the lower, right of the frame. This version was made until around 1857. James Webley had died the previous year, so sole responsibility of Longspur production passed to Philip. As Philip had been even more involved in the day-to-day workings of the firm than James, this did not greatly affect production.
Even though Longspur sales were reasonably healthy and the pistols well-regarded by those who purchased them, it was decided a redesign was in order. The main change involved the jettisoning of the hinged barrel in favor of one that was completely removable. The arbor wedge was dropped in favor of a captured thumbscrew sited on the lower portion of the barrel assembly where it met the frame. The barrel could now be completely unscrewed from the arbor and the cylinder removed.
Because the first Webley Longspurs were produced in 1853, it has been opined that some saw service in the Crimean War (1854 to ’56). It is also not unlikely that some could have made it to India during Mutiny of 1857 to ’58.
Though primarily seen in the hands of British customers, Longspur distribution was not limited to Albion and the colonies. For instance, an elegant, special-order Third Model, embellished with gold inlay, was presented during the American Civil War by Union Captain (later Admiral) David G. Farragut to Captain (also, later Admiral) David D. Porter in 1862. Arms dealer Tim Prince of College Hill Arsenal (collegehillarsenal.com) recently offered for sale an interesting Second Model holster version originally retailed by S. Isaac Campbell & Company, a firm that sold arms and equipment to the Confederacy. As the establishment had been in business well before the War Between the States, and the revolver could have been made as early as 1857, it is more probable the arm was sold commercially, though it is possible that it could have found its way to the U.S.A. or C.S.A. between 1861 and ’65. In any event, as Webley never received government contracts for the Longspurs, any that might have seen military action would have to have been privately purchased.
Despite being an excellent series of revolvers, the Longspurs had a relatively short life span, about seven or eight years. Though of estimable design and quality, as mentioned previously, they were not cheap and numbers were limited. Too, the guns of Robert Adams had solidly established the double-action concept in the minds of the British buyers. Ultimately, the Longspurs were phased out of Webley’s line in favor of an excellent double-action quasi-solid frame, commonly termed the “Wedge Frame.” As its name implies, Webley returned, briefly, to the concept of a wedge holding two portions of the frame together, but with a twist. This new revolver had a topstrap that dovetailed into the rear portion of the frame. Made in the usual range of sizes, this revolver’s tenure lasted for about two years, after which time it was replaced with a similar-looking self-cocker featuring a more conventional solid frame.
Shooting the Longspur
For our evaluation we secured a Third Model, holster-size Longspur in .48 bore. Its overall condition was excellent, lockup solid, and the action smooth and sure. The barrel’s three-groove rifling was almost perfect. In the manner of all Longspurs, it displays foliate decoration and its backstrap is grandiously engraved “BY HER ROYAL MAJESTY’S LETTERS PATENT,” and the sideplate reads, “WEBLEY’S PATENT.” Another variant of the frame marking, usually seen on earlier pistols is, “JAMES WEBLEY PATENTEE.” The top of the barrel has the name of John Cox, an arms dealer who operated from Southampton, England, from 1843 through 1859. Revolvers sold directly by the maker usually sport Webley’s own name and address in place of a dealer’s.
It was immediately obvious upon inspection that the gun’s bore diameter was definitely smaller than that of the chamber, not an unusual happenstance in percussion revolvers. A check with the micrometer revealed a .457-inch bore and .462-inch chamber. As far as I can determine, because the loading lever plunger at rest was so close to the chamber mouth, bullets were originally intended to be pushed well down into the chambers manually before the cylinder could be rotated and the receive its final seating with the rammer.
First Model Longspurs, initially, had no levers at all. These guns were probably loaded, like the early Deane, Adams & Deane revolvers, by inserting and seating wadded bullets solely with finger pressure. Second Models, though fitted with an upswinging Adams rammer, could be charged with slightly oversized balls to improve obturation. Still, the mechanical advantage afforded by the lever to perform this task was not as good as that enjoyed in other systems.
Though I like to be as authentic in my evaluations as possible, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the Third Model’s loading arrangement as undersized bullets could result in multiple discharges. Instead, I opted to employ a ball larger than the chamber size and to seat it using a Traditions .44-caliber loading stand (traditionsfirearms.com, $31). This clever appliance allows a revolver’s cylinder to be removed from the gun, placed on a spindle for loading, and then returned to the pistol for capping.
As I have in the past, I turned to the Ballmoulds in Essex, England (ballmoulds.com), for a brass round bullet mold. We opted for a .464-inch, 151-grain ball. I also decided to use not just an over-the-powder wad, but also a healthy dollop of water pump grease over the bullet after it had been seated. Chosen charge was 28 grains of FFFg Goex blackpowder.
British revolver nipples from this period have a tendency to be rather small, so even using No. 10s, it was necessary to pinch the caps to keep them in place.
Initially, I just loaded one chamber to get a feel for the piece. It worked just fine. Then multiple shots were essayed from a rest at 25 yards, the closest distance available at the range. Trigger pull was quite good, coming in at 4¼ pounds. Ergonomically, the pistol was a dream; it fit my hand perfectly, the extended hammer spur affording smooth, glitch-free cocking. Recoil, though stout, was not prohibitive. Rounds struck slightly high with three-shot groups averaging 3¼ inches, which is about as good as I can fire any handgun nowadays.
One can see why the Longspur enjoyed a vogue during its short life span. Being virtually a hand-made arm, its too bad that it was not more affordable and broadly available. It might have challenged some of the more prominent products of the time. My only complaint with the handgun was the loading arrangement, though perhaps I’m missing something in my appraisal of the system.
Today, Longspurs bring premium prices with collectors and are not all that easy to come by. I must admit, I enjoyed shooting the piece as much as I have any percussion revolver, but its value, and difficulty of repair should some part fail, dictates a well-earned retirement.
The Longspur was a good example of a product that, while not commonly remembered today, had a defining influence over the fortunes of an initially modest firm — eventually transforming Webley into a giant in its field.
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