May 18, 2022
By Garry James
By the end of the 19th century, the British firm of Webley & Scott (W&S) had firmly established itself as the purveyors of a large and successful line of double-action revolvers. Though the double-actions (DA) of such makers as Nagant, Colt and Smith & Wesson were certainly arms to be reckoned with, it can be said that W&S arms resided at the apex of military and civilian self-cockers.
Things were soon to change. In 1893, naturalized-American Hugo Borchard’s revolutionary 7.65mm recoil-operated pistol, while not perfect, became a harbinger of things to come. Soon, repeaters designed by the likes of Georg Luger, Ferdinand Mannlicher, Peter Paul Mauser and John Browning all presented more sophisticated designs that established the practicality and marketability of semiautomatics.
As early as 1898, Webley & Scott had made examples of a complex, ungainly, but ultimately flawed repeater designed by Hugh Gabbett-Fairfax. After turning out a small number of these arms, the project was scrapped. W&S had a better option, one that combined the company’s traditional reputation as a revolver-maker with the new trend in repeaters.
Designed by recipient of the Victoria Cross, Lieutenant Colonel George Vincent Fosbery, the Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver was a marvel of ingenuity. First appearing in 1902, and ultimately chambered in .455 Webley and .38 Colt Automatic, this remarkable invention, though sometimes subject to malfunction due to dirt in the field, under ideal range conditions was a dream to shoot because of its light trigger. It became popular with target and competition shooters such as Walter Winans who, in 1902, used a Webley-Fosbery to put six shots in a 2-inch bull at 12 paces in 7 seconds. Using a Prideaux quick-loader, Winans upped his achievement by dropping 12-shots into 3 inches in 15 seconds. Some officers did carry this clever repeater into battle as the full-flapped British military holster did provide some protection against the elements. In the end, for all its virtues, the Fosberry turned out to be a fascinating dead-end, and production of the gun was halted in 1914.
In the meantime, W&S had turned its attentions to more mainstream semiautos devised primarily by inventor William John Whiting, who also had done some work on the Fosbery. By 1906, Whiting and the firm had introduced a more conventional-style blowback .32 ACP auto, the Model 1906. Internally, it had some new and some borrowed features. Construction was of the usual Webley & Scott high standards. Appearance-wise, it was unique. Possessed of a boxy, almost risible square silhouette and featuring a straight, slightly angled grip, the piece was anything but elegant. This is not to say that other auto pistols on the market also lacked eye-appeal, but the ’06 was another matter.
Still, it had a curious attraction. It looked solid, dependable and, well, “British.” The piece was certainly functional, even being adopted by London’s Metropolitan Police in 1911. Most importantly, it established W&S as a serious manufacturer of mainstream auto pistols. The 1906 was manufactured until the beginning of World War II and spawned a line of similarly configured commercial self-loaders in calibers .25 ACP, .32 ACP, 9mm Parabellum and .38 Colt ACP. The various models of original Webley Autos employed features that would eventually be incorporated, or at least paraphrased, in the military .455. The pistols would gain enough of a reputation that between 1912 and 1924, in America, Harrington & Richardson would manufacture variants of the Webley .25 and .32 “hammerless” auto pistols, albeit with some internal and cosmetic differences from the parent models.
The increased proliferation worldwide of semiautomatic military pistols during the first few years of the 20th century led Webley & Scott and William John Whiting — now a director of the company — to decide to promote a large-caliber auto to the British government.
The army was pretty much sold on double-action revolvers of .455 caliber. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, anxious to have its own dedicated sidearm, expressed considerable interest in the development of the proposed auto pistol. Using its experimental .45-caliber Model 1906 as a base, W&S expanded upon that gun’s design by adding a grip safety that would replace the ’06’s hammer safety and beefing up the gun’s locking arrangement.
The chosen caliber was .455 Self-Loading (SL), a round originally developed for the Webley & Scott Model 1904, a pistol also intended to interest the British military but which, after being evaluated by authorities, was ultimately rejected. (It was a similar situation to the American .45 ACP load that was developed by John Browning for his 1905 Colt auto, a pistol that was also disdained by testers.)
The .455 Self-Loading round, though looking much like the .45 ACP and dimensionally similar, had differences, primarily a semi-rimmed base as opposed to the .45 ACP’s case, which was rimless. In fact, the cartridges were close enough that Colt had no problem producing some .455 SL-chambered Model 1911 pistols for the British commercial market and military.
Though the .455 SL round underwent some tweaking during its development and subsequent adoption, the pair submitted for British evaluation were an FMJ of 225.5 grains backed by 8.6 grains of Cordite and a soft point of 224.1 grains powered with 9.1 grains of Cordite. The one eventually used by the navy would, in effect, be extremely close to both, employing a 224-grain cupro-nickel-jacketed bullet and 7 grains of Cordite that provided a muzzle velocity of 700 feet-per-second (fps) and muzzle energy of 247 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.).
The pistol was a locked-breech design based on the earlier .38-caliber Model 1910. It involved a barrel with squared-off rear that incorporated four, broad angled slanting ribs, two on each side. When the pistol was fired, the barrel dropped and disconnected from the slide. After the spent case was ejected and the slide achieved its full rearward movement, a revolver-style leaf spring mounted on the right side of the frame was engaged with a hooked recoil lever, and which connected to the slide by a transverse recoil lever bar, moved the slide forward, chambered a round and locked the action, readying the handgun for its next shot.
The new .455 was a substantial, extremely well-made seven-shooter. It eventually measured 8½ inches from stem to stern, 5 1/2 inches deep and hefting some 2 pounds, 8 ounces, with an unloaded magazine. Controls consisted of a grip safety, the pistol’s only safety device, and a slide-release button sited at the top of the left grip. The mag release was a simple push-button set into a recess at the base of the butt just in front of the lanyard ring. The sights, regulated to 25 yards, consisted of an immovable blade front, and screw-fixed, drift-adjustable rear U-notch marked with increments, each of which accounted for a variation of 3.125 inches at 25 yards.
After some developmental work, Webley & Scott/Whiting felt their substantial self-loader was ready for a governmental look-see. The gun was initially submitted to a British small-arms committee and then, in 1909 passed on to the Royal Navy for evaluation. The army, generally comfortable with their large stock of Webley revolvers, expressed little interest in the new self-loader, though evaluations were made by the land forces. While not exactly desultory, it was stopped short of general adoption. Their efforts did result in limited orders for some pistols for the Royal Horse Artillery intended to replace that branch of service’s Mark III SMLE rifles. The RHA pistol maintained the Navy’s basic mechanics, but could also be fitted with a removable shoulder stock. Other differences were the addition of a sophisticated dial-style adjustable rear sight graduated from 50 to 200 yards and hammer-mounted safety catch.
The navy, on the other hand, was quite enthusiastic about the .455. The robust repeater survived shooting and torture testing admirably and even bested the Colt 1911 in some challenges with which it was compared. The navy felt the auto was at least as reliable as its current revolvers and simpler in construction, having only two screws as opposed to the Webley revolver’s 10. Also, with one round in the chamber and seven in the magazine, the self-loader bested the revolver’s ammo capacity by two shots. As well, the .455 Self-Loading cartridge had a slightly higher muzzle energy than the Mark II .455 revolver round.
The admiralty gave the pistol a go in 1912, officially adopting it as the “Pistol, Self-Loading, Webley & Scott, .455-inch Mark I” on 19 May, 1913, though initial batches of pistols had been delivered prior to that date. Generally, the pistol was accepted as originally offered by W&S with the exception that the navy felt that it would be good to include a cutoff mechanism so that the pistol could be fired single shot. This was handily achieved by the addition of a second locking hole on the base of the magazine that allowed it to be dropped far enough for a single round to be introduced into the chamber by hand, and the slide closed without interference by the magazine’s follower.
Webley & Scott was also selling its .455 self-loader commercially and achieved some popularity with British officers who purchased it privately. The firm even offered, for a slight premium, to engrave the new owner’s name and particulars on his gun. With the onset of the Great War in 1914, private purchase of the Mark I, while brisk, was not overwhelming. In the trenches, the pistol was found to have some sensitivity to dirt and grime, though actually not all that much more than many of the other semiautos eventually used on the ground. Early in the war, the Mark I also had a small vogue with Royal Flying Corp pilots and observers prior to the widespread employment of aerial machine guns.
Commercial guns’ slides were marked in the same manner as the naval-issue pieces; however, they did not have the navy’s “N” surcharge nor the military proofs. A civilian gun’s serial number was stamped on the left-rear of the frame rather than the bottom-front as in the military.
According to the terms of the contract, the naval-model .455s were supplied with accessories that included a simple metal cleaning rod with loop handle and an “action implement” consisting of a wooden handle/holder that included two screwdriver bits and a recoil-spring clamp. Ammunition was issued in packets of seven rounds each, wrapped in appropriately marked and dated paper tied with string. Similarly-dated, slightly more substantial pasteboard packets would be issued during the pistol’s official service life, circa the mid-1930s.
Ultimately, some 8,000 Mark I Webley .455 self-loaders would be manufactured. Though they were issued in small numbers, most went to the Royal Navy. They would make scant use of them, though the guns were generally regarded as robust and reliable.
One of the main problems in properly evaluating a Mark I is the availability of ammunition. Military ammunition, which is too collectible to be used for extensive shooting, as well as sporadic batches of custom ammo can be found by the astute scrounger. As well, .455 SL was loaded commercially by Kynoch and Eley for a number of years. Boxes of those do turn up occasionally. While not cheap, it is at least affordably shootable. It was a box of Kynoch FMJ 224-grainers that miraculously appeared at the Chantilly, Virginia, gun show shortly prior to the preparation of this article that allowed us to perform more than a cursory run-through of our test Mk I.
The pistol, though really not weighing the same as Colt’s Model 1911, for some reason seemed to have a more gravitas about it. Perhaps it’s the gun’s no-nonsense appearance; perhaps it is something as simple as the grip angle. When you hold it out, there is no question that you are handling a serious piece of hardware.
Ammunition was easily loaded into the magazine, and the mag solidly snapped into its well. The trigger pull, while offering about 1⁄8-inch of take-up, tripped the hammer at 6 pounds. That’s not great, but it was just about what one would expect from a period military piece. For comparison, we also tested the single-action pull of a 1916-dated Webley Mk V and it came in at just a half-pound more; however, there was no take-up.
The pistol was fired standing and from a rest at 15 yards. Rested shots came in slightly left to point of aim and running an average of 2¼-inches. Offhand spreads were exactly an inch more.
Reliability was excellent, recoil negligible and performance and handling characteristics of the pistol, superlative. It was highly praised by all three shooters who had a go with it.
We also tried shooting the piece single-shot by using the cut-off device. While it unquestionably worked as advertised, we all felt that it was rather a curious feature. Still, at the time, it probably satisfied some of the more ossified members of the selection committee, and Webley probably felt that it was a small-enough price to pay to get the company’s pistol approved for military service.
There is little doubt that the Mk I Webley & Scott Self-Loading was a practical, serviceable arm. Unfortunately, it was introduced to a service deeply, and not all that incorrectly, invested in double-action revolvers. Even as late as World War II, Britain was one of the few nations that fielded a revolver as its primary issue handgun.
Civilian sales of the various W&S auto pistols proved the guns to be practical and relatively popular. The military, however, was a harder nut to crack. Thus, the impressive .455 auto never really had all that much of a fighting chance.
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