Webley Revolvers: Arms of the Empire

Webley Revolvers: Arms of the Empire

The Webley revolver has gone down in history as an everlasting symbol of the British Empire. Initially entering into service in the 1880s, it would go on to be one of the longest serving handguns in military history, only being replaced in 1963 as standard, and continuing to serve in other nations to this day.

Beginning before the American Civil War, the firm of Webley & Scott offered revolvers for sale to governments and private citizens alike around the world. They were not the first company to produce a successful revolver, as that honor belonged to Colt. They were, however, positioned ideally to provide revolvers to the British military and the world at large. Their solid frame Constabulary and Bull Dog models gained huge followings among policemen and adventurers. But their true success came following successful trials in 1887.  The Webley family of revolvers adopted from this would serve the crown for almost 80 years.

The first model of Webley to serve was the big bore .455 caliber Mark 1. These were initially adopted to give British troops a powerful replacement for their old Beaumont and Adams revolvers. The new Webley was a rugged and easy to operate top-break revolver firing the big .455 slug at a medium velocity, providing good stopping power. As the British Army fought various colonial wars over the end of the 19th century, the Webley would be updated and modified as service reports indicated. These modifications would eventually result in the penultimate model of the Mark VI. Still firing the big .455 round, it would see favor as a trench fighting weapon in the First World War. Interestingly, the British (with their love of the bayonet) would even have Webley design and then issue a special bayonet just to go onto the Webley for close-in fighting. These were far from a widely issued item and only saw limited service, as they were impractical and made reloading the weapon dangerous due to its break action design.

Webley revolvers would go on to serve for almost 80 years with not only every branch of the British military, but also with every country in the British Commonwealth. Australia, Canada and India were all users of this powerful, even if somewhat dated, weapon. Not only that, but the British military allowed officers to purchase their own sidearms, and many would pick Webley products. In fact, some American soldiers would carry Webleys if they could get a hold of them. It is a little-known fact of history that when George Custer died at the Little Bighorn, he was reputed to have had two Webley produced Bull Dog revolvers on his body.

Not every weapon Webley made was a huge success however, as they are also responsible for the Webley-Fosbery series of automatic revolvers. These were a strange revolver and automatic pistol mashup, where the recoil would send the frame backwards, rotate the cylinder, and cock the gun again. Big and clunky, they were also not reliable in muddy conditions, so were quickly put aside as more suitable for museums or shooting ranges.

Webley’s other less-successful weapon was one of the longer served. This was their Mark IV model chambered in .38/200, adopted after World War I when Britain’s military was smaller and poorer than ever. It was designed to be cheaper to make and easier to shoot for untrained conscripts. Firing a 200gr bullet derived from the American .38 S&W short, it was quite weak ballistically compared to its older brother, the .455. There are reports of this bullet bouncing off foes at longer distances. Many troops who were issued this weapon would try to beg, borrow, or steal something with more punch. It was not as well liked, but it did fit the requirements, so it stayed in service long after it should have been retired. The British Government took this design from Webley, passing over them to make an almost exact copy of it at the Enfield Arsenal, but then gave Webley a contract to make them when demand outstripped supply.

This model and caliber would serve almost unchanged until 1963, when it was finally replaced by the Browning Hi-Power in British service.

Webleys were not done however, as they continue to see service with various countries’ police forces to this day. India is noted for still issuing this weapon to police and second line military forces. Indian civilians who are limited from owning firearms can buy a less-than-lethal firearm which is derived from the Webley design.

Meanwhile, many Webleys have enjoyed an extremely active retirement. Civilian models have always been popular in Canada. American shooters can get their hands on one of the many thousands that were sold here as surplus in the 1950s-1960s. Many importers would convert the .455 weapons to shoot shorter .45 ACP ammunition with the use of moon clips. While this is cheaper, there is some debate as to whether this is safe. The .38/200 models can be found quite cheaply, even today, as their issue ammunition is almost non-existent, and the similar .38 S&W is quite expensive. Nonetheless, if you get a chance to pick one up and shoot it, it’s hard not to imagine yourself leading a patrol of Tommies fighting the Germans in the trenches or hedgerows of France.