The Webley Revolver: The Seminal British Combat Wheelgun

On September 15, 1916, the French 6th and British 4th Armies launched a coordinated attack against the Imperial German 1st Army along the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. The attack was intended to hasten victory for the Allies and represented the third phase of the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle on the Western Front during World War I. More than three million men clashed in a protracted industrialized maelstrom of death and carnage. A million men were killed or wounded. The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest conflicts in all of human history.

Of all the many-splendored contrivances to characterize mankind’s newfound love affair with war on an industrial scale, one of the most remarkable was the tank. British Mk 1 tanks first saw action during this engagement. Their performance and the lessons learned from this early armored assault changed the way men kill each other.

The Mk 1 came in two flavors. The male version sported a crew of eight, two 6-pounder cannon, and three Hotchkiss 8mm machineguns. This 28-ton monster lumbered along at a top speed of 3.7 miles per hour. The female version was a ton lighter and carried four .303-in Vickers guns as well as a single French Hotchkiss. Female tanks were crammed to the gills with machinegun ammunition and served as support for the cannon-armed male versions. They were both noisy cacophonous death traps that poisoned their crews with noxious fumes and struck sheer terror in the hearts of the enemy.

The commander of one of these female tanks was a British Lieutenant named Arthur Herbert Blowers. He had christened his new war machine “Dolphin.” Its unit designation was D5.

Blowers and his crew steered D5 across no-man’s land fueled by a toxic combination of petrol, testosterone, and raw unfiltered courage. The Germans scattered before their machine, some falsely thinking that these lumbering behemoths were demonic beasts clamoring forth from the bowels of hell. Once the Germans recovered from their initial shock they attempted to swarm the cumbersome vehicles, attacking with machineguns, hand grenades, and artillery in the direct fire role. Ultimately most of the British tanks were disabled or destroyed, though the chaos they had sown among the German ranks was unprecedented.

D5 was ultimately immobilized by artillery fire. Blowers and his men expended their entire load of belted ammunition for all five of their machineguns, killing countless Germans in the process. When the Dolphin’s offensive capability was spent Blowers and his surviving crewmembers evacuated the tank and headed back toward friendly lines on foot.

The Webley revolver Lieutenant Blowers carried in combat is on display in the Bovington Tank Museum in Southern England.

Lieutenant Blowers carried nothing more than his six-shot Webley revolver as a personal defense weapon. Crawling through fetid German trenches stacked deep with corpses both fresh and otherwise, Blowers and his crew picked their way across the most dangerous terrain on earth. As they moved from trench to trench and crater to crater they encountered small groups of German soldiers dazed by the ferocity of the assault. The subsequent combat was close quarters and pitiless, the outcome frequently decided by the revolver, the cold steel of the bayonet, or the sharpened edge of an entrenching tool. By the time Lieutenant Blowers reached the sanctuary of the British trenches, he had expended 103 rounds through his Webley. That horrible day Lieutenant Blowers earned the Military Cross, Britain’s third-highest award for gallantry in action. For his part, Blowers was just thankful to be alive.

The Gun

The Mk IV .38-caliber Webley revolver rendered yeoman’s service throughout WW2. Though outdated by other more advanced designs, it nonetheless remained in active English military service until 1963.

The Webley Top-Break Revolver, also known as the Webley Self-Extracting Revolver, served as the standard-issue service pistol for the British armed forces from 1887 until 1963. The Webley saw production through a variety of Marks in both .455 and .38/200 chamberings, but the basic action remained the same. For its day the Webley represented the state of the art.

The initial 1887 military order for the Webley Mk 1 revolver was for 10,000 copies costing three pounds apiece. While the British government was obviously a prolific customer, countless copies were sold as private purchase sidearms to English officers deploying overseas. Early combat action in the Boer War as well as World War I cemented the Webley’s sterling reputation.

The most revolutionary aspects of the Webley design were its double action/single action trigger combined with its top-break action. The DA/SA trigger allowed the gun to be fired one-handed in confined spaces while also allowing the weapon to be manually cocked in the single action mode for additional precision. The top-break design allowed the pistol to be broken open for rapid extraction. Individual rounds had to be laboriously loaded one cartridge at a time, but the extraction process removed all six empties with a quick snap of the wrist. At a time when the Colt Single Action Army was still considered a militarily viable handgun, the Webley offered some remarkably advanced capabilities.

Wartime Webleys were marked “War Finish,” presumably to remind the world that the British were still superlative gunmakers when they weren’t immersed in Total War.

The Webley name was first associated with a family of cap and ball revolvers produced in 1853. These handguns evolved over time to include the Webley Bulldog revolver, a radically shortened vest pocket version introduced in 1872. George Armstrong Custer was known to have carried a brace of Webley Bulldogs at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

George Armstrong Custer carried a pair of Webley Bulldog revolvers on his person at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Charles Guiteau used a Webley Bulldog revolver to mortally wound President James Garfield in 1881.

In 1881 a disgruntled lawyer named Charles J. Guiteau bought a Webley Bulldog with ivory grips along with a box of ammunition and a penknife for $10 from his local hardware store. After firing a total of ten rounds into the trees along the bank of the Potomac River to get familiar with the weapon he used the gun to mortally wound President James Garfield. Guiteau chose the ivory grips because he felt they would look more attractive when the assassination weapon ultimately ended up in a museum. The Guiteau revolver was eventually stolen from the collection in the Smithsonian. Its current whereabouts are unknown. For his trouble, Guiteau was hanged five months after the shooting.

Early general-issue Webley revolvers were chambered for the heavy .455 rimmed cartridge. Many of these massive WW1-era wheelguns have had their cylinder faces shaved to accept much more common .45ACP rounds. However, the pressures generated by .45ACP cartridges exceed those of even the proof loads used to test the Webleys so they should not be used in these guns.

Breaking the Webley open deployed a star-shaped extractor and ejected all six empties simultaneously.

Later WW2-era Mk IV .38-caliber Webleys launched a fairly anemic .38/200 round known on this side of the pond as the .38 Super Police. This cartridge pushed a 200-grain soft lead bullet to around 600 feet per second. However, this relatively long bullet was minimally stabilized. It was therefore thought that the bullet would tend to wobble and become unstable in flesh, thereby enhancing its destructive potential downrange.

When supply could not keep up with demand the British also developed the .38/200 Enfield No 2. This gun bore an esoteric similarity to the Webley but had a unique set of mechanical guts. The Mk1* was the same Enfield revolver with the hammer bobbed back for Double Action Only operation. This was done to minimize the possibility of armor crews catching their hammer spur on something within the confines of an armored vehicle.

Though the .455 Mk VI Webley had been declared obsolete, it was not fully culled out of active British service until 1947, serving alongside its smaller more docile cousin throughout the war. More than 600,000 Webley revolvers saw service. Wartime guns are typically marked “War Finish” as a tacit reminder that Webley was producing these guns as quickly as possible. Apparently even in the midst of total war the British were still concerned about their reputation as fine gunmakers.

The Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver employed a sliding top half that automatically indexed the cylinder and cocked the hammer.

One of the most unusual adaptations of the Webley design was the Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver. Produced between 1900 and 1915, this bizarre automatic wheelgun incorporated a sliding upper half that reciprocated via recoil forces, rotating the cylinder and cocking the hammer automatically. The Webley-Fosbery included a manual safety catch and had a smooth and light trigger that made it popular with target shooters. Webley-Fosbery revolvers are to be found in only the most advanced gun collections today.

Denouement

The Webley revolver was a generation behind the autoloading designs fielded by the US and the USSR. On the left is the US M1911A1. On the right is the Soviet Tokarev TT33.

British combat weapons are festooned with some of the most fascinating markings. This shows that the gun is proofed to 3.5 tons.

The Webley revolver soldiered on alongside much more advanced autoloading designs for decades past when most modern militaries had long since cashed in their wheelguns. The soft-shooting personality of the gun, particularly in its small-caliber Marks, combined with the rugged design meant that the weapon was both reliable and effective in combat. Variants saw action in places like Burma, North Africa, Italy, Normandy, Belgium, and Holland. Though the Webley is a bit cumbersome compared to more modern designs it is a sweet-shooting handgun that remains prickly even today.

Arthur Blowers, shown here in his sixties, ultimately died of natural causes at age 89. Heroes such as this secured the blessings of liberty for current generations.

Arthur Herbert Blowers died in Spixworth, Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom of natural causes in 1980 at age 89. His bold assault near the French village of Flers when he was 25 attained its objective and enabled the infantry to advance past obstacles previously thought to be insurmountable. The rugged British revolver that he carried that bloody day is on display at the Bovington Tank Museum in Southern England, a mute but tangible connection to a time when the world tried desperately to kill itself.

 

Technical Specifications

Webley Mk IV .38

Caliber                 .38/200

Action                  Double Action/Single Action

Capacity               Six Rounds

Weight                  2.4 lbs

Length                  10.25 in

Sights                    Fixed Front Post, Rear Notch

 

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Ray September 20, 2019, 7:10 am

    I bought a .455 Webley revolver with an original Pritchard Pistol Bayonet for $400.00 it turned that the original Pritchard Pistol Bayonet alone was worth $1,400.

  • Stephen Miller September 12, 2019, 4:46 am

    The Webley auto revolver was also used in the Sean Connery fantasy movie “Zardoz”. Both my boys learned to shoot on a Webley 38 S&W with a War Finish. It is now an heirloom in the family and I have been threated with death by both my sons if I ever get rid of it. I bought it in 1972 for $25.

  • Mel Rissler November 8, 2018, 7:53 pm

    I hate to have to correct your excellent article, but your comment about war finish is incorrect.
    A great deal of British and Australian weapons and tools were marked war finish to denote that they were finished to be non-reflective, so as not to give away the position of the user. Do not polish! Everything today seems to be either dull plastic or camo. Same reason.

  • PD Rhodes November 5, 2018, 11:31 am

    Always like to read/see your articles/with excellent pics.
    First class stuff.

  • Al Moonight October 29, 2018, 5:13 pm

    I think you mean “external similarity,” not “esoteric similarity,”

    Esoteric, ” designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone “

  • Bill Ferrell October 29, 2018, 11:52 am

    The semi-auto “Webley-Fosbery .44” (?) is referenced in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon

  • ted williams October 29, 2018, 7:56 am

    What a poor, weak article on such a proud heritage of firearms mafucturing. Most of the info leaves me wondering which gun you are reading about and a lack of pictures of the earlier Mks and ammunition left this reader poorly informed. Webley did not make the Mk1* Enfield as the author should know. The design and contract infringement wound up in court w/Webley winning back the War Dept. contract

    • Rotaman October 29, 2018, 1:30 pm

      Well, I enjoyed the article. I learned something new. It was good to hear about a true war hero. Too bad some people just feel a need to gripe and complain. Civility sure is lacking in the world today.

  • IDAN GREENBERG October 29, 2018, 7:35 am

    Another enjoyable article from Dr. Dabbs. But the British .38/200 is interchangeable with the .38 Smith & Wesson and not to be confused with the .38 Super, which is a semi rimmed auto pistol cartridge, loaded to a considerably higher pressure than the cartridge for this revolver. The 38 Smith & Wesson pre dates and is much different than the .38 Smith & Wesson Special as well, and is not interchangeable with it. And President Garfield, was not killed with a .455 Webley, but one of the earlier Webley Bulldog Cartridges, such as the .44 Webley, or possibly the .450 Webley, which are older, shorter, less powerful rounds. Tragically what killed President Garfield was infection, caused by the sorry state of U.S. surgery hygiene at that time, including lack of sterilization of the surgical instruments used and the incompetence of the physician in charge of the President’s care. Great story about Lt. Blowers and great photos in the article.

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