Webley and Scott .455 Revolver
By David Tong
The British, notably along with the Americans and Russians, became enamored with the large bore revolver for issuance to cavalry troops, officers and other combatants unable to wield a rifle due to table of organization doctrines of the time. Philip Webley & Son were the makers of a series of large frame, double action revolvers that served the Empire well, replacing arms produced by the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock. (The firm later merged with W & C Scott in 1897 and the resultant company became Webley and Scott.) They made both solid-frame (gate loading), as well as top break designs that featured simultaneous ejection of empty cases, much like the earlier Smith & Wesson Russian and Schofield revolvers.
After the close of Samuel Colt’s English factory in 1857, Webley saw a marketing opportunity to offer what they considered a superior product and the company started producing these revolvers at about the same time as the U.S. Army adopted the Colt Single Action Army (SAA) .45. They thus were already technologically more advanced in providing for trigger cocking so early in the development of cartridge revolvers. Most of these revolvers already featured the top-break design, which is far faster to extract and reload than the extremely slow gate loaded (and unloaded) SAA.
The British Army was unusual in that it required officers to supply their own sidearms and these were ordinarily the officer’s only armament. The notion was that officers should concern themselves with leading troops, not necessarily shooting as combatants. However, the need to police the Empire meant that the rapid development of .455 - .476 caliber revolvers for close quarters combat proceeded with haste.
In 1887, the military trials to replace the gate-loaded Enfield handguns caused the adoption of the 4” barreled Mk. I .455 Webley. It was the first of six sub-variations. The revolver underwent further development, including changes to the butt shape, improvements in metallurgy, heat treatment of many components and changes in barrel length as a result of combat use.
The cartridge also changed over time. Most of the rounds contained lead round-nosed, flat point bullets weighing 265 grains. The earliest Mk. I rounds were charged with black powder, although this was replaced with Cordite smokeless powder strands before the turn of the century. One interesting development was a 218 grain cylindrically shaped bullet with hollowed ends. The base cavity obturated in the barrel for gas seal, while the cup point was to provide expansion.
While this cartridge was intended for police, civilian and colonial use, this “Manstopper” round was banned by the Hague Convention of 1899. The British government duly changed the bullet to a full metal jacketed round nose design. Standard muzzle velocity (MV) of most of the rounds was approximately 650 fps, although the last Mk. VI FMJ was purportedly driven to a leisurely 700 fps.
The round was one of the participants during the 1904 Thompson-La Garde ammunition trials for the U.S. Army. The .455 round was deemed somewhat better than the SAAs .45 Colt cartridge though I cannot fathom why, as it drives its bullets some 30% slower. Perhaps Thompson and La Garde bought into the British notion of “dwell time energy transfer” more than either the kinetic energy theory or the more modern view of enhanced penetration with expansion, but agreed that “no less than .45 calibre” was mandatory for a sidearm with a non-expanding bullet.
The actual subject of this article is the most produced version, the Mk. VI, and shooting impressions comments are from my brother, who owns it. Adopted in 1915 during WWI, it replaced but did not entirely supplant the earlier Mk. IV, the so-called “Boer War” model of 1899. Produced using heat treated and casehardened steel and upgraded smaller components, it served through WWI in great numbers.
Some general specifications of the Webley Revolvers (all Marks):
There are several noteworthy design features. First is the fitment of larger than average sights, with plenty of light showing around the front sight, to ease rapid aiming. These square post and notch sights were far better than any other handgun of the era. Second, the automatic and simultaneous extraction and ejection feature means that the Webley .455, despite quibbles about its anemic stopping power, was perhaps the finest military combat revolver ever produced. It could be loaded with a stamped steel early “speedloader” device, so this was faster than even our own Models of 1917 Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers using issue “half-moon” clips. Third, the design was rugged and withstood abuse and dirt better than its contemporaries. Fourth, there is a pair of triangular wings ahead of the cylinder worn by most of the British service revolvers. These were to ease re-holstering in the issue flap holster, just a reminder of the thoughtfulness that went into the piece.
The stocks and butt shape were better than any of its contemporaries. There is no need for aftermarket grips or a Tyler T-Grip adapter, as the butt is comfortable in stock form.
Cleaning the barrel/cylinder gap was easier than any other revolver, because the design incorporated beveled surfaces adjacent to the integral barrel shank and top strap. This also allowed a lot more powder residue to collect before that cleaning was required. Unlike a swing-out cylinder design, the Webley like all top-breaks have a cylinder and barrel in unit so alignment is potentially more accurate. Finally, the revolver benefited by not requiring much in the way of hand-fitting in mass production under wartime exigencies.
There are issues, as there are in all designs. The top break design is considered weaker than a solid-frame one. This is surely correct if truly high-intensity cartridges are to be used, or if the lock and the hinge areas on both frame and barrel/top strap are not of proper heat treatment. The .455 round operated at an average MAP of only 14,000psi, so it didn’t detract from the overall durability of the revolver.
The design uses a number of U-shaped leaf springs to power various parts, some even externally mounted, and these are potentially more failure prone than coil springs. While there is no disputing this in theory, in reality parts breakage is rare and the design proved robust.
The barrel, top strap and the cylinder’s rotation boss are one piece and damage to any of them would render the piece “hors de combat.” Compared to a swing-out cylinder design, whose individual parts could be replaced by a depot-level armorer, this is a major consideration, especially for a privately purchased arm where parts inventory would be an issue, as in the case of the Boer War.
Even as a big-bore devotee, I have marked reservations about a .45 caliber round with a MV of only 700 fps, though there haven’t been a glut of reports that the round failed to do its job adequately. Chalk that up to a lack of documentation either way.
However, on the face of later evidence, a .38 caliber 176 grain or 200 grain FMJ round moving at about the same speed doesn’t appear to be an improvement, especially when the primary reason for the .455’s replacement by the Enfield No. 2 .38/200 revolver was supposed to be the .455s recoil, which is mild by modern standards.
The design, while accurate enough for 2”-3” groups at 25 yards, is not as good as American-made revolvers capable of 2” or better with service ammunition. I wonder how much difference this makes in practice. The double-action trigger pull is certainly sub-standard by today’s commercial standards. I can only opine that the M1917 Colt New Service in .45 ACP and Russian Nagant 7.62mm M1891 were even worse. The Webley revolvers, as well as their Enfield No. 2 .38 British caliber replacements, were in turn removed from service only in 1963 by the adoption of the P-35 Hi-Power in 9x19mm.
Shooting it provides no surprises. My brother reports that felt recoil is akin to shooting .38 Special standard pressure loads in an N-framed Smith & Wesson and the sights are well-regulated. The single-action pull is crisp, if heavier than we’d like. Extraction and ejection are both also crisp, positive and far less clumsy than using a conventional swing-out cylinder with its separate extractor/ejector rod.
At the same time, the limited cartridge case capacity and the lack of appropriate diameter JHP bullets means that the Mk. VI is going to be shot as a historical trinket and not in anger. It’s also too darn big for a carry piece, but it would work in a nightstand drawer. Too bad, I sort of like the beast.
“Beast” is right. It is certainly no thing of beauty. I liken it to the Glock of today. It is an inelegant, ugly tool, to perform an ugly job. It works and caliber .455 revolvers served Britain for sixty years with distinction in both World Wars and even in Korea, after it had been officially withdrawn from service. Hornady has even tooled up to produce 265 grain LRN ammo for it now, so they and the Italian firm of Fiocchi (Mk. II 262 grain LRN) can keep these old beasts shooting for we Luddites that (mostly) prefer our arms designed before 1920!
Copyright 2011 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.