My interest in fine things mechanical isn’t limited to bicycles. During the 1980s and 1990s, I collected, used and competed with firearms of various types until it was considered politically expedient to effectively ban the ownership of pistols and rifles by law-abiding, responsible private citizens, leaving them instead in the possession of criminals, terrorists and the police. If anyone is interested in the effect this ban has had on firearms-related crimes, I would refer them to House of Commons Firearm crime statistics Standard Note: SN/SG/1940, dated 30 January 2012.
Before anyone decides to have a pop at me (yet again) on the grounds that banning them is fully justified, since private individuals shouldn’t be allowed to possess potentially lethal instruments which can cause death or injury through incompetence or deliberate or negligent acts, and which may be stolen and used to commit crimes, I will say just two words: motor vehicles. Having got that off my chest, I want to make a couple of (light-hearted) complaints: First, when a person in a film opens a revolver, and swings out and spins the cylinder, why is it considered necessary for it to make a whirring noise? I owned Webleys, Colts, Smith and Wessons and various other breech-loading revolvers dating from the 1800s through to the 1990s, and not one made any noise when doing this. It’s as bad as the “Hollywood Sit-up”, which you must have seen many, many times. This is when the character supposedly wakes from a bad dream, and immediately sits bolt upright in bed. Not only does this not happen in real life, it’s become so cliche as to be laughable.
Second, will authors please do their research before writing crime thrillers, and stop confusing revolvers with automatic (strictly speaking, semi-automatic) pistols? In particular, please don’t refer to someone releasing the safety catch on a revolver, as I’ve read many times. They don’t have a manual safety catch, because (unlike automatics) their design makes a manual safety unnecessary. See Handgun Basics for an excellent comparison of the two types in layman’s terms. Of all the revolvers I’ve seen, handled and owned, none had a manual safety catch. Except for this one:
I apologise for the quality of the photo; it’s from a photograph I took about 25 years ago with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. This was one of two Webley-Fosbery semi-automatic revolvers I owned. This one was the long-barrelled Target Model, and the other was a six-inch barrelled version which was the personal sidearm of an officer during the First World War. (To digress, this officer gave the revolver to his son, Peter Bannister, who drowned when the newly-commissioned submarine HMS Umpire was accidentally rammed and sunk by a British trawler in July 1941). I believe that the manufacture of these revolvers ceased shortly after the First World War. The Webley-Fosbery was designed by Lieutenant Colonel George Vincent Fosbery V.C., and manufactured by Webley. You will see that there are zig-zag grooves in the cylinder. A fixed stud on the lower frame (the lower frame being everything below the barrel, cylinder and trigger assembly) locates in these cylinder grooves. The barrel, cylinder and trigger assembly (“the upper assembly”) can slide back in the lower frame against spring pressure, and as it does so, the stud rides in the grooves, rotating the cylinder for the next shot, and the hammer is also cocked in readiness. The cocking process is done either manually, by pulling the upper assembly back, or by the recoil from a shot. If the pistol needs to be carried so that it is cocked and instantly ready for use, then the safety catch can be engaged. The safety catch is the lever which can be seen to the rear of the trigger, partially covering the upper part of the wooden grip.
These revolvers are capable of fine accuracy, and the great marksman, Walter Winans, performed some impressive feats of accurate, rapid-fire target shooting in the early 20th. century. I used my target Fosbery with some success for competition shooting at club level against modern revolvers (I read many years ago that if you don’t blow your own trumpet, someone else will use it as a spittoon) and one of my targets dating from April 1987 is photographed below. I have included a one pound coin in the photo to give an idea of scale. This target shows a perfect score of 120 points out of a maximum of 120 from 12 shots. This would have been from a distance of 25 yards, if I remember correctly. I see from my annotation of the time that I was using ammunition that I had hand-loaded myself. I used to buy coils of large-diameter lead wire, cut it into appropriate lengths, and pressure-form (swage) these lead slugs into bullets in dies which had been made to my own specification. The term “HBWC” stands for “Hollow Base Wad Cutter”, basically a flat-nosed bullet with a hollow base, which cuts neat round holes the calibre of the pistol in the target, making it easier to establish the score. Round-nosed bullets make smaller holes than the actual bullet diameter, surrounded by tears in the paper, making it difficult to calculate scores. The “265gr” refers to the weight of the bullet in grains. 9mm bullets for police and military use generally weigh between 115gr and 147gr, so the .455s are a substantial lump of lead. The “3.3gr no. 3” refers to the charge of 3.3 grains of Number 3 nitro powder.
The photo is of the centre of the target used for “Police Pistol” competition, a mixture of static and turning targets from varying distances and times allowed to shoot the required number of shots for each stage of the competition. The complete target is a representation of a criminal pointing a pistol directly at the shooter. Because the figure in the target was wearing sunglasses, we used to refer to the target as “The advancing holidaymaker”. To illustrate my point about round-nosed bullets versus wadcutters, the following photo is of a target I shot with six rounds of the same calibre of bullet, .455, but with round-nosed ammunition.
I owned various revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, dating from the 1870s until what was then the present day, including three Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnums, but none compared with the beautiful workmanship and engineering and finish of the de luxe Webleys, as built for wealthy target shooters or officers who wanted something superior to the service-issued revolvers. For those officers who could afford them, Webley made super-de-luxe models to The Wilkinson Sword Company’s exclusive specifications, which Wilkinson would retail under their own name to wealthy officers buying their swords and other equipment from Wilkinson. When I was carrying out research into Webley revolvers, the Wilkinson Sword Company very kindly allowed me to view their collection of pistols and examine their sales ledgers in their sword museum in Acton, and the ledgers revealed sales to some very illustrious characters indeed; in a future post, I intend to write about a couple of them.