Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tally Ho! The Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver

I have a weakness. A large, fatal weakness that strikes me every month or so, when I am sitting in the doldrums with nothing to do, and I've known about this weakness for years. You see, I love Film Noir. Sideways rain, the harsh glare of a streetlight, dirty cities, trench coats, and crooked dames: these movies lovingly explored a dirty underbelly of American culture and crime. And in particular, I love Humphrey Bogart. So one day about a year ago when I was watching The Maltese Falcon, I took note of the appearance of a Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver! I've always vaguely known about these oddjob numbers, but it was pretty specifically mentioned and called out in the movie's script. (The Webley-Fosbery was also featured in the Sci-Fi masterpiece "Zardoz". We will not speak of this ever again). I've been kind of swimming around in the history of early semi-automatic handguns, so it's only fair that I do my best to share what I learned.

The Webley-Fosbery in The Maltese Falcon

Colonel George Vincent Fosbery, a Victoria Cross awardee (The Equivalent of the Medal of Honor. The highest award a British Military Subject can be awarded) patented and created the idea of a redesigned Webley Revolver, harnessing its backwards recoil to automatically cock the hammer back and revolve the cylinder. Fosbery's idea was to use a zig-zag pattern cut into the cylinder, with a fixed stud at the bottom. Upon recoil, the cylinder would both turn, and the upper part of the revolver rode on rails, to push the hammer backwards. He first experimented with backward energy cocking a hammer by implementing these ideas with a Colt Single Action Army*. This idea was only really conceived and prototyped in 1894, so the time line here is fairly important. At this point in time, workable semi-auto designs were still in their very early infancy. A few Steyr designs, an embryonic C96 and Borchardt in the works, and that's pretty much it. So really when you are looking back at this design from today's perspective, you might see it with a jaded eye. Instead try and consider what there was available at the time. A bridge between the accepted revolver and the new automatic was a phenomenal idea, and could have been very successful.

The Fosbery finally went into production, it's final design being adopted and produced by Webley & Scott Revolver and Arms Co, and guns started rolling off the line in 1901, but it's prototype made appearances at the Bisley Shooting Matches of 1900. Chambered first in .455 Webley, the standard service pistol caliber of the British Military, it was eventually also made in .38 ACP, with that version holding 8 rounds. Fosbery intended it to be used by the Cavalry, who never adopted it. Instead, it saw action in both the Boer War, African Colonies, and WW1, but it was never an issued service pistol, or even very common. Mostly it was bought by field officers who wanted a pistol that shared issued ammunition. The C96 was a great prestige item, but it had to be fed a non-standard cartridge. The pistol was not a great field piece: it was sensitive to dirt and grit getting into its cylinder zig-zags and rails. It is sometimes claimed that "Holding the pistol in a loose grip wouldn't allow it to cycle", but this is untrue. There is no feed ramp or really any gravity effect at all, limp wristing wouldn't have any impact on it's cycling.

The Pistol may have been a military failure, but it was popular with civilian target shooters. The pistol's weight and soft recoil allowed very fast followup shots. It was able to deliver a five shot string in 1.27 seconds. The trigger not being traditionally connected to revolving the cylinder ensured both a smooth and easy double action and single action pull. Althought somewhat popular, the Fosbery never became truly successful. Webley made 4750 of them and ceased production in 1915.

Oh yeah, this movie

Interestingly, the pistol could be special ordered with Metford Rifling: basically an older version of polygonal rifling. If you are familiar at all with British Military Rifles, you might be aware of the earlier Lee Metford, a rifle which featured this type of rifling and quickly was replaced with the Lee-Enfield: The Lee Action with Enfield Rifling (conventional twist).

Another interesting sideline: the Prideaux Speedloader. These were made for all Webley revolvers, and totally fascinating.

Prideaux Speedloaders, Commercial and Military

* A small side note: The Colt SAA can already be self cocking and fully automatic without any modifications at all. This is a story thats been floating around for years. Some person apparently did a poor tuning job on his SAA, cutting down his hammer spring. Upon firing, the force of discharge pulled the hammer right back again, with the trigger still being depressed, it discharged 3 extra rounds. I'd love to confirm this story, but at this point it stays in the "Maybe" pile.

Some links:
Vince Lewis: The Webley Fosbery
Wikipedia: The Webley Fosbery

1 comment:

  1. Having shot a W-F in .455, yes- limp-wristing keeps it from cycling properly. It still needs the energy to rotate it and to fully cycle the cylinder. The usual issue was it jamming between charge holes, and not fully cocking. Sometimes it even returned to the previously-fired charge hole~ REALLY FUN to shoot though...

    Love the bit on the speed loaders, too! Thanks!