an elegant weapon for a more civilized age

These days, saying the word "Webley" in a gunny geek crowd is a good way of determining if the folks you are speaking to are younger than me, my age, or older, but the honest truth is pretty much everyone who watches movies and likes firearms knows the name and the somewhat peculiar top-break reloading action. Well, here is some more information to flesh out that familiarity.

"Webley" is actually short for "The Webley and Scott Revolver and Arms Company Ltd of Birmingham", a once-Great British firearm manufacturing company founded in 1897 out of the combination of P. Webley & Son and W & C Scott and Sons (the former dating back to at least 1834) and closing in 2005. The name was eventually purchased by an airgun company in 2008 and the doors were re-opened, but the production of all Webley-branded products – which is now limited to airguns and shotguns – appears to have been moved to Turkey, although an insolvency meeting was held in 2011 with no outcome published that I could find. Unfortunately, the company’s eventual demise and sell-out can arguably be traced to once-Great Britain’s draconian firearm laws.

However, in their time, Webley & Scott produced some amazing firearms, not the least of which are the Mars Automatic Pistol (a handgun that is still considered "ridiculously overpowered" even to this day) and the Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver (yes, you read that right).

The handgun that put the company on the map of every movie-watcher and part-time gun aficionado, however, was known as nothing more than the Webley Revolver, or the Webley Self-Extracting Revolver if you want to get verbose. We Americans typically know them as the Mark series, spanning from I to VI; in reality, the revolvers were not given that designation until 08 November 1887, when the British Army formally adopted the .455 Webley revolvers as the, "Pistol, Webley, Mk I". The Mark II was adopted 21 May 1895, the Mark III on 5 October 1897, the Mark IV on 21 July 1899, the Mark V on 9 December 1913, and the final variant, the Mark VI, on 24 May 1915. All of the Marks had distinct and quantifiable improvements on their previous brethren (for example, increasing the cylinder diameter to use higher-pressure powder), and all but the Mark III found their way into extensive British service, starting with the Second Boer War in 1899 and running all the way through the Malayan Emergency ending in 1960 and beyond.

To begin with, the Mark series were chambered in .455 Webley; however, by the end of World War I, the British decided that particular caliber was maybe a bit of a handful for their soldiers, so they started looking for alternatives. To put things in perspective, the hottest .455 Webley loading of the time was a 224 grain bullet going 700 feet/second at the muzzle, generating around 250 foot-pounds of energy; in comparison, that is about what you can expect out of a modern warmish (but not +P) .38 Special round. Apparently limp wrists were mandatory accessories for British officers (which, given the way they trained with these, seems kind of funny).

Upon hearing of the War Office’s desires, Webley teamed up with Kynoch Ltd (who apparently make much more interesting ammunition these days) in order to develop a stronger load for their old Mark III designs, which were chambered for a .38 caliber bullet; the end result was a 200-grain bullet sitting on top of enough powder to push it 630 feet per second at the muzzle, generating about 180 foot-pounds of energy. In other words, they re-invented the .38 Smith and Wesson cartridge decades before, and developed a .38-caliber .22lr round.

But it worked. In fact, it worked well enough that the British government thanked Webley very much for their development, then figuratively walked across the street to Enfield and asked them to make this revolver, with enough changes for it to be an "original" design, of course. Webley was a bit put off by this, and tried suing to little success. However, as was probably predictable given Enfield’s history, they were not able to keep up with the production demands of a nation gearing up for another war, so Webley was contracted to make their updated revolvers, annoyingly called the Mark IV.

The .38/200 Mark IV has almost nothing in common with the .455 Webley Mark IV aside from their names, so the latter is generally called the "Boer War Model". Why the former could not have been the Mark VII, I do not know.

But all of this history and backstory brings us to this guy:



Do not worry, you have seen him before, not only in his exploded glory, but also featured elsewhere. Given that I am of the Indiana Jones / Torchwood generation, and have a particular fondness for break-action revolvers, the conversation with Dennis was appropriately amusing, considering I had to find out about it being for sale by way of a third party, and that he is literally right down the road from me.

Anywise, when he brought it over and we started poking around with it, I knew it had to have a good home based off what I knew about it, and the firearm only got more interesting when I started taking it apart.

Webley07First, it is a Webley Mark IV; it says so on the frame (well, kind of, the striking was not perfect).

Webley06Second, I know it is chambered for .38 – 767; it also says that on the frame. "But wait! They are supposed to be chambered for .38/200, right?" Right – the case for those cartridges is 0.767 inches long.

Third, to follow the theme, it also informs me that it was proofed to 3.5 tons per square inch, or 7000 psi. By way of comparison, the SAAMI cartridge pressure standard for 9mm is 35,000 psi, and .22LR is 24,000. "Anemic" would be a wholly generous way of describing the .38/200 / .38 S&W (at least those rounds loaded for Webleys; I understand Smith and Wesson revolvers can take a bit more pressure), since proof pressures are meant to be above standard operating pressures.

Webley12Fourth, this firearm really can be stripped almost all the way to bare metal using nothing more than a flathead screwdriver and an American nickel, and the latter is optional (but boy does it fit the cam lever lock screw well). A pin, not a screw, is used to hold the bolt / cylinder catch in place, though, so I did not bother removing it, but I found this gentleman’s directions more than helpful.

Webley08Fifth, this particular Webley was fabricated in 1964, or, at least, its frame was. To begin with, the serial number on the side of the frame – 37### – has that "B" stamped directly above it. It turns out that "B" is not just a proof mark, but is instead part of the serial number itself, as better shown by the serial number hiding beneath the grip panels; this gentleman’s documentation, that number was struck somewhere between 1964 and 1968.

Webley09But that does not narrow it down to exactly 1964, does it? Nope. But this proof mark does. What you see there is a pair of crossed halberds, with what could be a "P" in the left quadrant, a "B" in the right, and a "5" in the bottom. According to this document (see pages 4 and 6), the Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House used that stamping pattern between 1950 and 1974, with "PB" indicating 1964, and the "5" being the inspector’s number.

Webley04And while the date is pretty much set with those two stamps, a third stamp – the "BNP" with a crown over it, which stands for "British Nitro Proof" – was struck on the cylinder, frame, and barrel assemblies, and according to this handy-dandy listing of proof marks (*.pdf warning), that particular stamp was only used after 1954.

While the frame was made in 1964, the cylinder is harder; its serial number is "B 49 # ##", which puts its production date between 1968 and 1970.

Webley13Sixth, mine is thankfully not mutilated with a pointless cross-bar safety, but it was fitted with a drop safety, the external indication of which is the extra, protruding screw on the right side of the frame above the trigger. This screw operates as a hinge point for an internal linkage that connects the trigger to a little steel bar that goes up a machined groove to (kind of) block the hammer unless the trigger is actually pulled. From experimentation, though, the springiness of the steel leaves something to be desired in regards to its efficacy at its current role.

Seventh, whoever fitted it with that safety did not even so much as blow out the frame after it had been installed. There were still metal shavings all over the place.

Webley03And now we get interesting. To the left of the serial number you see a Star of David with what appears to be a bracket laid down on its side inside it. To the right, there is a circle with a "y" with a really long tail underneath it. It turns out that is not a bracket, nor is that a "y".

Webley10The former is a "nun", and the latter is a "tsadi", and as you probably have guessed by now, the two being stamped on the receiver indicate this was sold to Israel at some point, probably back when the country was still new and was desperate for any and all firearms they could get their hands on. The tsadi would seem to indicate Israeli Defense Force usage, given that it is the first letter of "Tzahal", which is the Israeli name for the IDF, but the line between IDF and "police" was somewhat… vague back then. In all likelihood, it was carried around by civilian or military police, and then somehow found its way back here without importation marks (I hypothesize that "in someone’s luggage" is a wholly acceptable explanation up until a few decades ago).

Webley11The only two stamps I have not been able to sort out are on the pistol grip underneath the grip panels – a "Z" and a "V", without any crowns, halberds, or any other decoration. If it were really an N (but it is definitively not), it might possibly indicate use by the Royal Navy, and if the V had a crown with it, it would indicate it was "Viewed" (i.e. accepted as useable), but that does not appear to be the case.

Webley05Yeesh. Do you think our kids will have as much fun taking apart our guns and trying to figure out what we were scribbling on them? In other news, someone needs to take the Brits’ stamps away from them; it is almost like they were trying to create a Victorian style of hieroglyphics.

Me, I would just love a break-top revolver that could take modern .357 Magnum loads… it can be done, it has been done, but apparently there is just not enough of a market to really bother. More the shame. 

Of course, now for the important question: do you think this was made for the .455 Mark IVs or the .38 S&Ws? (Immaterial in any case, since I am unwilling to pay the tax stamp necessary to find out…)

(Note: Most of the information in the paragraphs preceding the pictures came from the List of Changes in British War Material, by way of Wikipedia. I do not have a good link for the former – it is apparently a periodical put out by Her Majesty’s Stationer’s Office, and free copies do not appear available online – and I do not consider the latter a link-to-able source (although most of the data is mirrored here). If anyone has any better information, or a good single-source link for the history of Webley revolvers, feel free to let me know.)

14 thoughts on “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age”

  1. I’m glad it went to a good home. You sound like you will love this piece like I did. Politics are forcing myself and my wife to move out of the state I was born in and will always love, (Masochistic as that sounds) Some of the collection, no matter how well loved had to go to finance the move to a state that doesn’t think it’s OK to make several hundred thousand of it’s residents felons over night. Use it in good health sir, and may it always work as truly, and reliably for you as it did for me.

  2. My favorite part of that manual is what follows this line;
    The characteristics of the pistol are :-
    all of which are still valid.

    Technically it cant be a mark series as mark is really only the British of version, variant or model.
    It is commonly used for cars too (or was until i left there)
    One example.

    A Webley always make me think i should grow a handlebar mustache, and order people to walk towards machine guns in a nice line while i have tea. (probably served by a non white person dressed funny)

  3. The first gun I bought back in 1990 was an Enfield No 1. Mk II*. I saw it in the gun case, liked how it looked, knew it was from WWII and, most importantly, could afford the $150 tag. I thought it was a Webley at first and didn’t know the history of the Webley and Enfield designs until later. I also got an expensive lesson in the difference between .38 Special and .38 S&W. One is common and cheap. The other is not. (I should have been tipped off when they didn’t have any ammo in stock to sell me and gave me three loose rounds out of a dusty jar of misfit cartridges they kept on a shelf).

    One of these days I’ll pick up a .38 Webley to go with my Enfield and I’ve got my eye out for one of the .455 guns as well.

    Btw, the Webly Indiana Jones used is the more rare Webley Green.

  4. Now I need to take a cold shower.

    My first gun was a .22 bolt-action when I was 7. First gun I bought was a Rossi .357 Magnum, but my favorite that I own is a Smith & Wesson 686+ with a 3-inch barrel(that I would one day like to take down to a gun smith and have swapped out for a 6-inch barrel)

    Now, speaking of top-break revolvers, if I ever have unlimited money, I’m going to find a place that does custom jobs and get Vash and Knives’s .45 Long Colt revolvers( made.

    And now I also need an MP-412 Rex, apparently.

  5. Lovely article. The stock is for the .455. If it does fit, it’s either new or it’s been altered. The otiginal stocks were for a single shot flare gun Webley made during and after WWI. They had a ridge along the bottom of the stock grip frame that mated with a groove in the flare gun grip, to stiffen the joint due to the extra recoil.

  6. Nice work!! I want one to go with my ’42 Ishapore No.1 Mk.III* – a big old .455 bulldog. It would match my 1909 New Service Colt that goes with my 1898 Krag.

  7. @ Jay G.: I BLAME YOU. This is your fault!


    @ Turk: On the one hand, I am sorry you had to sell off this all-too-gorgeous piece, but on the other hand, I am happy to hear you are heading out to Free America. Or, at least, Free-er America.

    I promise to take good care of it, and shoot the everloving hell out of it :).

    @ dave w: I confess the “unsuitable for firing by deliberate aim” part confuses me – are they endorsing point shooting, or did that phrase mean something different a century ago?

    And, yeah, it is a series number, but we Americans have a tendency to hijack names and such to make things easier for us ;). Still does not explain why this would could not have been VII, though…

    Do not forget the white gloves, by the by!

    @ Rob Reed: Yeah, Indy put me on the path to Webleys, with the eventual plan of acquiring an example of every Mark, but then I found out about the Green, and just how much those go for… if you can find them.

    That is not going to happen!

    And, if nothing else, I figure .38S&W will guarantee I get into reloading…

    @ julie: It was interesting to dig all that information up; some of it was buried deep.

    My understanding is that a fair number of them made it down your way, but I would guess they have probably disappeared or been disappeared by now.

    @ Volfram: We were just talking about a bottom-cylinder-firing break-top revolver on GBC… I had forgotten about Vash’s! As long as the internals were simpler than the Rhino, it might actually sell…

    @ staghounds: That looks like it might be a new-production stock, but good to know. Like I said, it is not really worth the $200 stamp, much less the necessary defacement of the revolver.

    @ NotClauswitz: And, hey, it comes in an MHI-approved caliber, too! 😉

  8. @ Linoge:
    I think they are comparing deliberately and without undue haste picking your target or part thereof at a distance with a rifle and ‘ oh shit, there’s an enemy just come around the corner of the trench and i dont have time or space to maneuver my enfield with bayonet’ Not that an officer would have one anyway.
    So i guess yes, point shooting must be what they mean.

  9. @ dave w: Ah, yeah, that I could buy – you are not going to ‘aim’ a pistol like you do a rifle; their turn of phrase just threw me for a loop.

    @ Old NFO: Thankfully, .38 S&W ammo is still available (!) and has not gone up in price nearly as much as more-common calibers. A load should get here tomorrow :).

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