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Webley Junior Air Pistol
Perhaps best known as a manufacturer of handguns, the Webley name's association with firearms extends to the early 19th century. Brothers Philip and James Webley of Birmingham, England, were both established firearms manufacturers by 1835, and after James' death in 1856 and the closure of Samuel Colt's London factory in 1857, the path was clear for Philip and his sons, Thomas William and Henry, to enter and later to dominate the production of factory-produced British handguns which featured interchangeable parts.
Although of high quality, the hand-crafted nature of revolver manufacture in Britain during this period meant that output consistently lagged far behind demand. This situation began to change in 1887, when Thomas William Webley obtained machinery suitable to the task. The firm's military revolvers trace their roots to an initial 1887 British government order for 10,000 P. Webley & Sons double-action top-break Mark I Revolvers.
These six-shot auto ejectors with the distinctive bird's head butt and lanyard ring were chambered for the .455 Webley caliber ball cartridge, which remained the standard for Britain's military forces until after the Second World War. Modifications to the basic design in 1894 and 1897 led to the introduction of the Mark II and Mark III revolvers. As their product line evolved, so too did the company. During 1897, P. Webley & Sons merged with gun-making firms Richard Ellis & Son and W. & C. Scott and Sons, and the new company continued in business under the banner of Webley & Scott. The next revolver in this series and the first produced by the new company was christened the Mark IV, which made its debut in 1899 during the Boer War in South Africa.
The Mark IV revolver incorporated some of the best features of its predecessors, and was produced with a standard barrel length of 4 inches. Three, five, and six-inch barrels were also available. The Mark V, nearly identical to the earlier Mark IV except for its slightly larger cylinder which was intended to safely accommodate smokeless powder cartridges, was adopted on the eve of the Great War. In early 1915, the Mark VI came into service. Unlike earlier Webley Mark revolvers, the Mark VI featured a square-butt grip and a dull finish that was less reflective than the blued finish previously seen on the firm's military sidearms.
Many commercially-produced Webleys were manufactured as well, and these differ in their lack of military property marks and in the presence of commercial proofs. British government production of the Mark VI began in 1921 at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock after cancellation of cancellation of the Webley & Scott contracts, and, with the exception of external markings, these models were identical to the Webley-manufactured examples. The rugged Mark VI saw action in the hands of British troops through two World Wars, from the trenches of the Western Front to the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy, the drive across North Africa, up the Italian boot, and through France and Germany, and as well as in the jungles of the Pacific.
Some continued to soldier on through the Korean Conflict. Many surplus Webleys found their way to the United States over a ten-year period beginning in the mid-1950s, where their low price made them attractive to thousands for hunting, recreational shooting, and home defense. Most were converted to .45 ACP by milling the cylinder and extractor to accommodate half-moon clips, making them functionally similar to the Colt and Smith & Wesson Model 1917 revolvers used by the U.S. military. The .455 Webley cartridge also underwent an evolution during this period. The original Boxer-primed Mark I brass cartridge case measured 7/8-inches in length and contained a black powder charge topped by a 265-grain round-nose lead bullet.
The later Mark II was slightly shorter, and was Berdan-primed and charged with Cordite. The Mark III "man-stopper" cartridge used a flat-faced hollow point bullet, while the Mark IV and Mark V propelled a flat-faced solid wadcutter-type bullet. The only difference between these two was the composition of the bullet, with the Mark IV projectile made up of a lead-tin alloy, while the Mark V was a lead-antimony mix. The Mark VI, with its metal-jacketed bullet, was adopted in 1939 to comply with the Hague Convention. While not as powerful as the American .45 ACP, the fat .455 with its muzzle velocity of 600-700 feet per second, was an adequate military cartridge.
The Marks were not the only notable revolvers to be produced by Webley & Scott. In the summer of 1901, an automatic revolver designed by Colonel George Vincent Fosbery appeared on the market, and a second model made its debut during the following year. Both were available in a six-shot version chambered for the standard British military .455 caliber, and an eight-round type which chambered the .38 Colt Automatic cartridge. Fosbery had taken out a patent on his design as early as 1895, when he showed how recoil from a fired cartridge could be harnessed to cock the hammer and rotate the cylinder of a Colt Single Action Army revolver. Rejected by Colt, Fosbery applied his method to the Webley & Scott Mark II military revolver.
The Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver employed a grooved cylinder in which the upper portion of the revolver, which included the barrel and cylinder, moved independently of the lower frame. When fired, the top was forced rearward during recoil, which cocked the hammer for the next shot. A stud similar to a conventional cylinder stop engaged the cylinder groove, and the cylinder rotated half-way between chambers during this cycle. As the upper frame returned to its forward position under spring tension, the cylinder completed its rotation, aligning the next cartridge with the barrel and hammer.
The two-piece moving construction also had the advantage of reducing recoil. A thumb-actuated release lever located on the left grip opened the action, which pivoted upward and ejected spent cartridges. Reloading was accomplished either singly, or through the use of a quick-loader, which contained multiple cartridges for single-step reloads. Although rugged and reliable, and both faster and more accurate than conventional revolvers, the Webley-Fosbery was larger than both the standard Webley revolvers and most military automatics then in use.
Offered to the U.S. Army for testing in 1906, these arms, with their ingenious design, were rejected in favor of the John Browning-designed automatic pistol. Even though they were never formally adopted by Britain's War Office, some did find their way to the front with British officers during the First World War, and commercial models were available for another twenty years. The Webley-Fosbery achieved a certain notoriety in the Dashiell Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon, when detective Sam Spade correctly identified the firearm discovered at the scene of Miles Archer's murder for police officers unfamiliar with its design. Webley & Scott also produced and marketed auto-loading pistols in addition to their revolver line. The Model 1913 Webley-Scott .455 automatic was adopted by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during that year.
Although its sights were better than most European autoloaders, the Model 1913 was large and clumsy in its design, which weighed against it as a military pistol. In addition, these arms performed well when properly cleaned and oiled, but were so unreliable under combat conditions that they were subsequently recalled and replaced with revolvers or U.S.-made Colt Model 1911 pistols chambered for the British .455 cartridge. Despite their shortcomings on the field of battle, Webley & Scott automatics enjoyed success among Britain's competitive shooting community, where they won the prestigious Granet Cup.
The firm's revolvers also won all prizes in rapid shooting competition at the 1913 British National Rifle Association meeting at Bisley. An earlier Webley automatic pistol design which had been developed by William Whiting found favor with the London Metropolitan Police and the London City Police, both of whom adopted this pistol in .32 caliber in 1911. Aside from revolver and pistol production, the Webley name was also well-known for its association with other types of arms. The company remained in business through wartime expansions and later relocation to new facilities in 1958. Webley & Scott was subsequently acquired by the Windsor Group during that same year.
A 1965 purchase brought the renowned British gun-making firm of W. W. Greener under Windsor Group ownership, and in 1973, both were absorbed by the Harris & Sheldon Group. Within a few years, revolver production was limited to the Mark IV .38 caliber Police and Pocket Models, and the .32 caliber Pocket Model. Six years later, the company's shotgun production was established as a separate company under the name of W & C Scott, Ltd., and the firm's association with shotgun manufacture ended entirely with the sale of that unit to Holland & Holland in 1985.
By then, Webley & Scott had been acquired by the Pakistani firm of Ghulam Muhammad Dossul Engineering Limited of Karachi, and all production facilities were relocated to new facilities in Pakistan. Webley & Scott has also been a manufacturer of airguns for over 70 years, and these low-power sporting arms are now the once-famous gun maker's only remaining product.