Right around the end of the Civil War Webley introduced a series of solid-frame double action revolvers in large calibers. These were adopted for the Royal Irish Constabulary, causing the model to be officially named the RIC. A short-handled variant for pocket-carry was also introduced, known as a ‘Bulldog.’ These became very popular, and were widely copied in Belgium, Spain and the United States. In the American west of the 19th C. these guns were widely carried by people as a concealed-carry weapon or ‘belly gun,’ to the extent that at least one author has dubbed them, ‘the gun that really won the west.’
While Webley only applied the name ‘Bulldog’ to guns of forty-caliber or larger, guns made in other places were often called ‘British Bulldogs’ regardless of caliber. In Belgium small caliber guns with folding triggers were referred to as ‘Puppies,’ though to the best of my knowledge none were actually marked as such. So here are my Bulldogs, starting with…
I found this gun on Gunbroker being sold for $50 as a parts gun. While it is proudly labelled ‘British Bulldog’ it is most likely Belgian-made. When it arrived I was surprised to find it was pretty much all there, and promptly assembled it into a functional gun. The hammer-spur had been crudely removed, so I smoothed that out first of all.
The gun was chambered in .320 revolver/.32 Colt, which is pretty nearly unobtainium these days. After carefully measuring the cylinder I bored it out to chamber .32 S&W, which I already reload and which has similar operating pressure to .32 Colt.
It’s missing the small part that causes the hammer to rebound to a safe position, so it can only safely have five of the six chambers loaded. I also needed to fabricate a replacement for the trigger-return spring almost immediately, but that was actually pretty easy.
Despite having a surprisingly smooth double-action trigger this was not an easy gun to shoot. Not only are the sights nearly useless, but locating my hand on the grip and preventing it from shifting under recoil was difficult. Something over thirty years ago I saw a gun in the case in a pawn-shop that had a feature that seemed designed to counter those problems, and since there was an extra screw-hole in the front of the grip frame I reproduced that feature for this gun-
I don’t know if this feature was original to the gun I saw it on or was added by the owner, but I haven’t seen so much as a picture of a gun so equipped on the Internet. It tremendously improves the gun’s shoot-ability without compromising conceal-ability.
You might notice that the sight is located surprisingly far from the muzzle. I am told that this may have been due to import restrictions on barrel length in some countries, and the sight was located so that the barrel could be cut short after import. I don’t know if this is true, but it makes sense.
Forehand & Wadsworth British Bulldog .38
Forehand and Wadsworth produced their British Bulldog models in America from 1880-1890. These were available as a five-shot in .442 Webley, a six-shot in .38 S&W and a seven-shot in .32 S&W. These revolvers were very popular as concealed-carry ‘belly gun’ or as a back-up to a full-sized revolver.
This .38 caliber example was purchased at a Washington Arms Collector’s show for rather too much money… It turned out that the cylinder pin was inextricably stuck in the gun, and it needed to be bored out to remove it. I very carefully did this after sourcing another from Numerich Arms. The trigger-return spring broke while I was sorting the gun and I had to fabricate a replacement.
The gun does not lock up particularly tightly, but it is shoot-able- though the useless sights make accuracy beyond a few yards a dubious proposition. The double action trigger is, again, surprisingly good. However because of relative lack of accuracy I don’t shoot this gun very often
The British Lion
This is a somewhat enigmatic gun; no one knows who made them for starters. This one has Birmingham proof and inspection marks, but that does not indicate British manufacture, merely that it was imported for sale in Britain. I suspect this was after Webley trademarked the name ‘Bulldog’ in 1878, that being the reason the gun is marked ‘British Lion.’ There is reason to suspect these guns were made in Belgium but this is not certain.
This gun is chambered in .450 Adams. While the ergonomics of the handle can best be described as odd, once you are used to that it is an excellent shooter. The sights- a blade front and a reasonably deep V-notch at the rear- are decently usable at five to seven yards. The gun is quite stout and well-made, giving up little if anything in quality to the Webley Bulldogs.
This was my first big-bore bulldogs, sold to me by a fellow on a Cowboy Action shooting board for a very reasonable price.
The Webley Model 1883 Royal Irish Constabulary
OK, this is not technically a bulldog, but the previous model of this gun was the ancestor of all Bulldogs, so it’s close enough in my book!
This was the second model of the famous RIC, incorporating numerous improvements over the original model. It is almost certainly the gun used by Dr.Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
This one is also chambered in .450 Adams. This cartridge was originally loaded with a 225gr. bullet over a charge of 13gr. of FFFFg black powder. Starting in the late 1880s it was loaded with smokeless powder and remained in use as a ‘2nd standard’ cartridge for .455 and .476 caliber revolvers until at least the end of WW1.
The grip of this gun is surprisingly comfortable and the double-action pull is excellent. The timing took a little work, but now the cylinder locks up very tightly. The sights are quite decent with a brass blade in front and a deep v-notch rear sight. Recoil is easily managed, the gun is reasonably accurate and it’s a real pleasure to shoot! I have to reload my own ammunition of course, but that’s no great hardship.
Bulldog revolvers are fun and interesting to collect and shoot; most were not fired much in their working life and are often in quite good condition as a result. Belgian-made Bulldogs and Forehand & Wadsworth revolvers can often be found in usable condition for a few hundred dollars. Webleys command a premium (as they should) and are usually found between $800-$1500.
The usual caveats apply, of course: Have the gun looked over by a competent gunsmith to determine whether it is safe to fire, and exercise great caution when determining the loads you will use. The safest bet is, of course, when in doubt don’t.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 20 November 2018