The Webley company has roots extending into the 18th Century, and changed names a few times over the years. Initially a maker of bespoke firearms of a variety of sorts, they dipped their toes into the emerging revolver market in 1853 with the percussion ‘longspur’ revolver.
This was a very high-quality, hand-made weapon. Webley had hoped for an Army contract, but in the end they could not compete with Adams mass-produced pistols, which were less expensive and could more easily be produced in the numbers required.
In the 1860s they produced a solid-frame, double-action revolver, and in 1868 a variant of this was purchased by the British government for the Royal Irish Constabulary, causing the model to be named the RIC. A few years later they made a more compact version of the RIC called the Bulldog, and these became one of the most widely copied handguns of the 19th C., with versions being made in Belgium, the USA and Spain.
In the early 1880s the British army was dissatisfied with their Enfield revolvers, and issued a specification for a new gun. Webley’s response was the Mk.1, a large-caliber top-break with an auto-ejector similar to those used by S&W. This robust, large-caliber weapon was adopted by the army in 1887, and the first lot of 2000 guns was delivered within eight months. In subsequent years they made improvements to the design, which culminated in the Mk.6, which was produced in large numbers for WW1.
Earlier weapons, like the Mk.1, were re-issued to the Royal Navy at the outset of WW1, where some examples remained in use until the end of WW2.
After WW2 a large number of these guns were sold as surplus and found their way to the United States. .455 was not a common cartridge in America, and it was thought these guns would sell better in .45 ACP. To accomplish this the cylinders were cut back to use spring-steel clips to hold, and allow the extraction of, the rimless cartridge, similarly to earlier Colt and S&W New Service revolvers.
This proved problematic; .455 developed chamber pressures from 13,400-15,000 CUP; .45 ACP factory loadings run from 19,000-21,000 CUP. Effectively standard .45 ACP ammunition was the equivalent of a ‘proof-load’ for the Webley. In rare instances this actually caused the cylinder to fail, but more commonly it produced what came to be known as ‘Wobbly Webley’ syndrome, where the gun loosened up enough to render it unreliable. Another common malady of shooting surplus ‘GI’ jacketed ammo was excessive wear of the rifling. These guns were made for lead bullets, where the relatively soft steel of the barrel was not an issue. But the copper-cased surplus and commercial loads wiped away the rifling is fairly short order.
The use of copper-jacketed, stock .45 ACP ammo cause these guns to develop an undeserved reputation for being weak, unreliable and inaccurate. A steady diet of +P+ ammunition might produce similar results in many perfectly good modern firearms. Sadly most imported Webleys were damaged to one degree or another by shooting factory .45 ACP ammunition.
Last month I was contacted by a fellow and offered a Webley Mk.1. It was in reasonable condition and mechanically sound, and like most such guns had the cylinder cut for .45 ACP. We came to an arrangement and a couple of weeks ago the Webley arrived. It came with a single 6-round clip, so I immediately ordered 16 more. These are made by Ranch Products, and are robust, high quality and quite affordable.
The first thing you notice about the Mk.1 is that it is big. It makes a Colt Single-Action Army look positively svelte. I checked the revolver thoroughly, and was impressed with the fit, and the wonderfully smooth and stage-free double-action trigger. It’s not what you’d call a ‘light’ trigger, but it is so buttery-smooth it doesn’t really interfere with accuracy. The bore and chambers are in excellent condition. The gun’s original finish has aged into a mottled gray with bits of brown. there is little evidence of pitting, and most of that is on the grip-frame. The original horn grips are missing a chunk at the bottom of the left-side grip panel, which is somewhat uncomfortable in my hand. The serial number appears on the frame, barrel and cylinder, and indicates that this is an early gun, likely manufactured in 1888.
I’ve had a number of well-meaning folks tell me that I should only shoot black powder in this gun, but I believe this to be unnecessary for two reasons: One, the British switched to smokeless ammunition for these guns in 1892, four years after this gun was made. Two- among the various proofs is one that indicates this gun was Nitro Proofed at some point. Mind you, it very much needs to be shot with low-pressure, lead-bullet loads, but it will be fine with smokeless rounds within the proper pressure range.
While I don’t think I am going to refinish or otherwise alter this gun, I did need to do something about that grip. I have a chunk of dense, close-grained hardwood of an unknown type, that I bought at a building-supply salvage place. It makes pretty nice grips, and I made a set for the Webley. They look nice and are quite comfortable.
I researched the loads that people were using successfully in these guns and determined that my .45 ACP ‘Match Load’ ought to be fine. I took the gun to Champion Arms indoor shooting range at the first opportunity and tried it out. The load seemed to work well and shot to point-of-aim at seven yards,producing very reasonable double-action groups.
The new moon-clips arrived Thursday, and I decided to shoot this gun in Saturday’s Action Shooting International match. I needed a holster and a way to carry extra clips, so Friday was devoted to making those. These came out well and were very useful at the match. Surprisingly concealable for a large man such as myself, too.
The gun performed flawlessly at the match. I didn’t, but I did alright. Reloads were fast and smooth and accuracy was excellent if I did my part. I’m really quite enamored with this revolver!
This Webley is accurate, easy to shoot and can be reloaded as quickly as a modern revolver. While there are undoubtedly better choices, this gun would be a viable option for self-defense even in the 21st century. There aren’t a lot of 19th C. guns you could say that of!
Michael Tinker Pearce, 11 June 2019
P.S.: I’ll discuss the specifics of using this gun in an action shooting match in a future post, as well as more information about the clip-holder and how I made it.