Most of us have heard an English proverbial “Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away”. One of those old weapons, a robust Webley revolver fits perfectly in that context, but with a small correction: “Old Soldiers never die; they simply fade into the background until the next war”.
A formerly reliable and deadly companion of numerous officers and privates of British Empire and Commonwealth, the Webley revolvers have succeeded the solid frame Adams .450 gun/cartridge’s combination, which showed a lack of effectiveness against the natives in the Afghan and Zulu Wars and the gate-loaded, oddball .476 Mark I and Mark II Enfield handguns.
The series had originated in 1887 with the introduction of the “Pistol, Webley, Mk I” and stayed in various marks as a standard issue service sidearm for the armed forces until 1963. Manufactured by the Birmingham-based Webley & Son Company and featuring typically clunky British appearance, the rugged, double action .455 caliber Mark I Webley sure isn’t going to win any beauty contest but the looks aren’t everything. This ingenious sixgun had most of the characteristics commonly associated with later Webleys. As the archetypical Webley revolver, we can recognize “bird’s beak” style grips, thickest frame, short four-inch barrel, lanyard ring, and V-shaped holster guides.
As top-break revolvers, they are constructed of the two-piece frame that hinges (“breaks”) down at the forward low end for ejection and loading. All Webley Self-Extracting Revolvers featured an ejector, which is actuated automatically when the frame is broken open, in the same time removing all six cartridge cases from the cylinder. These double action revolvers utilize an improved cylinder lock with lock lever on the left side of the frame, a rebounding hammer safety setup and V-shaped lock spring at the right side.
The Webley .455 revolver, also known as the Webley Top-Break Revolver and designated in Marks from I to VI served the British military until 1932 when they officially rendered obsolete with the adoption of the .38 caliber Enfield No.2 Mk I revolver. Owing to a critical shortage of handguns, though declared obsolete, the familiar .455 Webley Mk VI and the Webley Mk IV in .38/200 remained the favored sidearm of many British officers through World War Two. The last models finally being retired in 1963 alongside the Enfield No. 2 Mk I revolver by the adoption of the P-35 Hi-Power in 9x19mm.
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In addition, there were also six different marks of .455-caliber Webley ammunition and this is where the real confusion starts to appear. In other words, there were 6 Models/Marks of Webley pistols approved by the British Government and 6 main types of .455 ammunition without any correlation between them.
.455 Webley AMMUNITION
The .455 Webley rimmed cartridge with European designation 11.55×19.3mm R was using first in a stubby case black powder during the mid to late 1880s. It fired a large-caliber slow-moving .45 caliber bullets at the relatively low velocity of 650 ft. /s (190 m/s). It was rated superior to the .45 Colt in stopping power and represented an excellent combination of service revolver and cartridge providing relatively mild recoil, with good penetration and an extraordinary stopping power.
Using a.455-caliber lead bullets with a relatively slow muzzle velocity, the Webley was not, nor was it meant to be, a long-range firearm. Usually used at close range, the .455 ammunition made a big entering hole and often tumbled in tissue, as did MK VII variant of .303 ammo for SMLE. In fact, .455 Webley was intended to not exit, but to deliver all of its energy in the body of the target.
A four-inch barrel, Webley Mk I revolver introduced in 1887 was chambered for blackpowder .455 British Service cartridges officially known as Cartridge .455 Revolver, Mark I. The .455 cartridge was originally charged with 18 grains of blackpowder and a .45-caliber, 265 grain (17.2 gram) round nosed, hollow base bullet at velocities as low as 600 fps (180m/s).
In 1897, the Mark II Cordite loading eventually superseded Mk I featuring minor differences in bullet shape.
The third cartridge iteration, a .455 Webley Mk III cartridge, brought him notorious glory. The infamous “Manstopper” bullet was introduced in 1898 and was intended for police, civilian and colonial use. Basically, the Mk III round used a 218-grain lead bullet of “hollowpoint” design, propelled by cordite at a higher velocity. Mk III rounds were considered of “dum-dum” or “explosive” types and were particularly effective in India, where fanatics often displayed unusual resistance to standard projectiles. Unlike colonies, the MK III .455 cartridges were seldom used against “civilized” enemy troops. They were eventually prohibited for use by the military because lead wadcutter HP bullets were not compliant with the Hague Convention of 1899.
The next round, MK IV was a solid 220-grain flat-nosed wadcutter designed to comply with terms of the Hague Convention.
Introduced in 1914, using the same smokeless cordite propellant the .455 Webley Mk V features the same specs as the Mk IV bullet, but it was cast from a harder lead-alloy containing more antimony.
However, the use of ammo with solid lead bullets was becoming “politically incorrect” so the last mark of .455 ammo, the Mark VI, appeared in 1939. One reason was the Germany objection to the British Government for using lead revolver bullets in previous the First World War, so the British military dropped the lead load and went to 265-grain full-metal-jacketed (FMJ) bullet designated as Mk VI, delivering a muzzle velocity of 750 fps.
WEBLEY .455 REVOLVERS
It was about .455 Webley ammo evolution, as for the Webley .455 revolvers; they also went through a number of changes. The Webley`s various marks were ranging from the Mk I service revolver through the Mk IV, which rose to prominence during the Boer War of 1899–1902, to the Mk VI, introduced in 1915 during the First World War, which is perhaps the best-known model. Models Mk II and Mk III were similar to the Mk I but come with modifications to the cylinder cam, hammer, grip shape and related parts. Although officially adopted, most were not issued, and the ones that did had a very limited service life.
Prior to the mid-1930s, all of the variants of Webleys through nearly sixty years of service were chambered in the .455-inch cartridge but they were partly replaced by the lighter Webley Mk IV revolver chambered in .380/200 (.38 S&W). Although officially superseded by the smaller Webley-inspired .38 caliber Enfield No. 2 Mark I revolver in 1932, the big .455 Webley Mk VI remained in military service through World War II and briefly afterwards.
Officially adopted 9 December 1913, the Webley Mark V .455 revolver was the standard-issue handgun at the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. It replaced the Webley Mk IV known as the “Boer War Model” that had been in service for the previous 14 years. The Webley Mk V had 4-inch (100 mm) barrel and boasted 0.12-inch (3.0 mm) wider, case-hardened cylinders to allow for the use of recently introduced more potent Mk V cordite cartridge. The new nitrocellulose propellant-based cartridges used projectiles made from hard lead-alloy containing more antimony than the previous Mk IV cartridge.
As the war increasingly ramps up and the frontline changed into muddy trenches and new combat tactics, Brits have realized the need for the ultimate wartime handgun. An improved version of the Webley Mk V, the Mk VI became the standard-issue sidearm of the British Army. The Mk VI had a longer six-inch (150 mm) barrel that was 2-inches longer than previous marks, removable front sights and a squared-off “target” style grip a departure from the classic bird’s head grip found on earlier marks and models. Weighing at 2.4lb, the superb Mark 6 was the largest of the .455 Webleys but surprisingly well balanced with felt recoil akin to shooting .38 Special loads.
Adopted in 1915, the “ultimate” Webley .455 six-shooter was one of the most endurable revolvers ever designed. While retaining much of the original mechanism, the improved Mark VI adopted in 1915 for the Great War featured a rugged design to withstood abuse and dirt better than its contemporaries did.
Webley Mk VI accessories
As a true weapon of war, the Mk VI boasted several accessories particularly developed for it. Webley Mk VI revolvers could be used as a carbine using an optional custom-made stock, a very popular handgun add-on at that time. The Webley Mk VI was fitted with the shoulder stock from the Webley 1½ inch Very pistol, to convert it into revolver carbine. Webley & Scott was also known for production of number of single-shot, break open signal flare gun devices, and the stock for Mk VI is “borrowed” from the No 1 MARK I in 1 ½ Gauge flare.
In addition, the gun could be loaded with a ‘cartridge-packet holder’, a kind of stamped steel early “speedloader”, known as a Prideaux’s device.
The most interesting and at the same time most bizarre device for us history buffs was designed under the influence of the phenomenon of trench raiding refers to the bayonet for the pistol. It was one of a number of attempts to exploit an idea of close-quarters fighting in the trenches when a man equipped with a Webley might not have time to reload.
The so-called Greener-Pritchard bayonets were made from modified surplus French “sword-type” bayonets for a Model 1874 “Gras” Infantry Rifle. The Gras triangular-shaped blade was shortened to roughly 8 inches and adapted to attach to the Webley’s barrel with the cross guard behind the foresight with the base sitting against the frame,
The bayonet was undoubtedly a fearsome looking weapon of questionable utility, but it saw limited use and have been more of a psychological boost than a useful backup weapon.
There are many accounts of use Webley .455 Revolver by infantry personnel in the Great War since the sidearm had much greater suitability than the rifle for shooting in confined spaces in a trench system. In should be noted that handguns at the time of the WWI were regarded as principally one-handed weapons, not two-handed as is current.
To illustrate that, we have added a couple of cases from the Great War and that epoch using examples from the websites:
The Pistol in British Military Service – Worldwar1.com (www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/pdf/davidthomas.pdf)
Oswald Rayner – Spartacus Educational
- Lieutenant Baines of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry notes a stirring account of the use of his revolver at Nonne Boschen, First Ypres in late 1914. He fired 52 rounds of the 54 he carried, burnt his hand whilst reloading and brought down several Germans.
- Sergeant Cooper of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, under the covering fire of four of his riflemen, crawled through the wire and approached a blockhouse at Langemark in August 1917. He silenced the machine guns within by firing his revolver through the slit, capturing several machine guns and the pillbox garrison when they surrendered. He was awarded the VC for his actions.
- There are several recorded Canadian experiences. In trench warfare, the Canadian Corps experience was that soldiers often preferred pistols as weapons for trench raids. Describing these in 1917, an authoritative source notes: Few men carried rifles since they were allowed to bring their weapons of choice, bombs were the most popular, revolvers almost as favored, and some men brought clubs. A 1918 comment talks of the raid leader carrying a revolver and 25 rounds amongst his equipment. Each bomber was also meant to carry a revolver and 25 rounds, in addition to his grenades. Scouting and Patrolling notes the convenience of pistols for trench raids, but also makes the point that those so armed should be expert in their use.
- Some years ago, a British writer in, “Gun Digest” cited a case in WW I where a British officer with a .455 Webley, four-inch barrel, shot some 40 German troops in close order. Most died, and many of them were prisoners attempting to escape.
- Interestingly, despite claims of Webley revolvers being used as “Persuader” for officers to make soldiers do things they did not wish, there is limited evidence of this. However, here is a less known story when Lieutenant Moor VC of the Hampshire Regiment at Krithia in Gallipoli stopped a precipitate retreat of elements of 29th Division with his revolver, by shooting the leading four soldiers.
- Grigory Rasputin was assassinated on 29th December 1916. Soon afterwards three Russian monarchists in the Duma confessed to being involved in the killing. Rasputin was shot several times, with three different weapons, with all the evidence suggesting that MI1c (later MI6) officer, Lieutenant Oswald Rayner (the British Secret Intelligence Service in Petrograd,) fired the final fatal shot, using his personal Webley revolver in a Webley .455.caliber.
Without a doubt, .455 Webley revolvers were an enormously reliable, successful top-break design often proclaimed as one of the best military revolvers. However, the .455 Webley Mark VI was the last of the large frame, big bore Webley revolvers since the British military decided to replace the .455 with a lighter revolver in .38 caliber.
The Webley has released Mk IV revolver chambered in the .38/200 S&W for its 200-grain bullet load (.38 Smith & Wesson). Actually, it was initially a scaled-down version of the .455 Mark VI revolver of an impeccable craftsmanship, chambered for .38 S&W cartridge. Nevertheless, British adopted the Enfield No. 2, Mark I, a very similar revolver in .380 caliber made by the Royal Small Arms Factory.
Needless to say, both guns were of excellent quality and established a sterling record as reliable and strong weapons in combat. One curiosity item related to the both, Webley Mark IV .38/200 and Enfield No. 2 Mk I guns chambered for the .380 British round are their endurance to the bullets pile up in the barrel due to the squib load. That’s the term for a cartridge where the powder doesn’t burn much if at all lodging the bullet in the muzzle of the barrel. In military museums, revolver`s cutaways are exhibited with 7 stuck bullets in it, piled up on top of each other. As far as it is known, no injuries were inflicted on the shooter which tells us something about the strength of those wheelguns.
Firing large .455 Webley cartridges, the Webley revolvers proved to be a very reliable and hardy weapon, well suited to the adverse conditions of trench warfare. Both the Mk V and its successor, the Mk VI, are big, tough, accurate, and hard-hitting combat handguns intended as an officer’s close-in weapon, but .455 caliber Webley ammunition is no longer in military service and was officially declared obsolete long time ago.
Almost for sure, the gun enthusiasts and collectors of old firearms found themselves in a situation to desperately look for the rare, original ammunition.
After the World War II, thousands of Webley Mk VI surplus revolvers were imported to the US and converted to fire the rimless .45 Auto Colt (.45 ACP) cartridge, loaded in half-moon clips. However, it was not the best solution, since the Webley was not designed for the higher pressure of the .45 ACP cartridges. Therefore, in 1920, the Peters Cartridge Company released the .45 Auto Rim, basically a rimmed version of the .45 ACP, whose thick rim allowed it to be used in the Webley and revolvers of the same vintage without special adapters.
Today the .45 Auto Rim is considered an obsolete cartridge as none of the major ammunition makers are producing it, while the Italian firm Fiocchi and American Hornady are currently the only commercial manufacturers of the .455 Webley cartridge, its Mk II variant.
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