EPU Gun of the Week

Webley Mk IV

Originally posted February 8, 2017

Today's Gun of the Week is an old friend I'm surprised I haven't written about before.

Webley Mk IV, left side

Behold the Webley & Scott Mk IV .38/200 service revolver, a pistol whose origins were marred by controversy (some would say treachery), but which ultimately went on to become a highly successful military and police service weapon.

To really cover the story of the Mk IV, we need to go back to 1880, more than 50 years before our particular gun came along. In that year, the British Army replaced its first cartridge revolvers, which were conversions of an 1860s cap-and-ball design, with the Enfield Mk I, a .476-caliber, double-action revolver featuring an odd "selective extraction" system that was supposed to enable users to remove spent casings while leaving unfired rounds in the gun. It didn't really work correctly in practice, and it had the strange side effect that, even though the Enfield was a top-break revolver, it had to be loaded through a gate, a round at a time, like a Nagant.

Between that and the underwhelming performance of the .476 black powder cartridge, the Enfield was not popular with the troops, and it was withdrawn from British Army service after only a few years (although, oddly, the North-West Mounted Police—precursors to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—kept using them until 1911). Its replacement came in 1887 from the Birmingham firm of P. Webley & Son, and was adopted as Pistol, Webley, Mk I. It featured a top-break design with automatic simultaneous extraction, a single- or double-action trigger, and the new .455 Webley cartridge, which was considered a much more satisfactory stopper of men than the old .476.

Over the next few decades, the Webley .455 revolver was improved and updated a number of times, culminating in the Mk VI, which was adopted during World War I. This series included a Mk IV, introduced during the Boer War in 1899, but—a bit confusingly—that is not the Webley Mk IV we are concerned with here. That series of marks was specifically for the .455-caliber ones.

After World War I, the British Army took a hard look at its handgun procurement and decided that the .455 Webleys were too big and heavy to be ideal sidearms. In the '20s, they carried out a series of ballistic tests not entirely unlike the American Thompson-LaGarde trials of a decade or so earlier, attempting to determine the most effective caliber of pistol ammunition to issue. Interestingly, the British tests arrived at the opposite conclusion: that the .38/200 cartridge (so called because it was specified with a bullet weighing 200 grains) was just as effective as the old .455 had been. The British Army duly put out a call for a .38-caliber revolver to replace its Webley .455s.

As it happened, the Webley company (called Webley & Scott since a merger in 1897) already had a .38-caliber revolver line, developed for police and civilian sales. At the Army's call, they immediately updated the latest in that line, the .38 Mk III, and offered the Mk IV for consideration in 1928. And here's where it all gets a bit shady. The candidate pistols went to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock (the "Enfield" in "Short Magazine Lee-Enfield", among others) for evaluation. When all was said and done, the Army returned the test guns to their manufacturers and said thanks for your time, but we've decided to make our own this time around. Thus was adopted the Enfield No. 2 Mk I.

As soon as the No. 2 appeared in 1932, the trouble started. You see, this is a Webley & Scott Mk IV.

Webley Mk IV, right side

And this is an Enfield No. 2 Mk I.

Enfield No. 2 Mk I, right side

... Yeah.

Webley & Scott instantly sued, and frankly, you can't really blame them, can you? Of course they lost, because they were suing the government for stealing from them, which pretty rarely works, seeing as how the courts are part of the government. Enfield's representatives pointed out that the two revolvers had no parts commonality (the No. 2's lockwork, in particular, was significantly changed from the Webley design), and blandly insisted that their gun was entirely the work of the arsenal's Assistant Superintendent of Design, Captain H.C. Boys (later of Boys anti-tank rifle fame). And that was that. Claim denied.

Webley knew—everyone knew—that Boys's contribution extended pretty much entirely to changing bits so they wouldn't interchange with Webley parts any more, but like the old saying goes, you can't fight City Hall. (Even another branch of the British government, the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, tacitly recognized that this was a scam when they awarded Webley & Scott £1,250 for contributions to the development of the Enfield No. 2.)

detail, Webley Mk IV top of frame with marking: WEBLEY & SCOTT LTD

(As an aside, military procurement organizations pull this kind of nonsense pretty much whenever they can get away with it. The original U.S. Army Jeep was another example of government theft at its finest: the company that won the competition to develop the Army's new reconnaissance vehicle, American Bantam, couldn't produce them in great enough quantities—or so Ford, one of the unsuccessful bidders, claimed. Did the Army perhaps arrange its payments such that they would help capitalize the expansion necessary to fulfill its orders? Of course not. They simply took the design off AB, leaving them more or less crippled by the development costs, and gave it free of charge to Willys and Ford to manufacture. Which is why you know the Jeep, but have probably never heard of American Bantam.)

And now, as they used to say on Monty Python's Flying Circus, the punch line. Not long after the dust had cleared over the Mk IV/No. 2 scandal, World War II happened, and suddenly, the British Army needed a shit-ton of pistols in a big ole hurry. RSAF Enfield couldn't build No. 2s fast enough...

... so the Army adopted the Webley Mk IV as an official sidearm also. (And pressed a lot of the .455 Mk VIs in its inventory back into active service.) Although where the American government would have invoked some war production emergency power and forced Webley to make Enfield No. 2s, the British at least had the grace to just buy Webleys.

The one we have here seems to have been produced for commercial sale; it lacks British military markings, and I'm not sure if the military ones had branded grips.

detail, Webley Mk IV with hammer cocked, left side

This shot shows most of the important mechanical features. The single/double-action hammer is shown here in the single-action cocked position, which reveals its fixed firing pin. Note that the action has a rebound feature; when you release the trigger after firing, the hammer comes a little way back, so that the firing pin is not resting on the fired cartridge, and won't go forward again until it's been pulled all the way back. This is a helpful safety feature in any revolver, but particularly necessary with the Webley's fixed firing pin and top-break action. If it weren't there, and you loaded all six chambers and then closed the revolver, you might fire the round at top dead center, which would be awkward.

We also have a good view here of the breaking action itself, with the hinge at the front and the latch at the back. Note the large, serrated release lever, positioned for the (typical, right-handed) operator's thumb. A man would have to have pretty mighty thumbs to actuate that with the rest of the hand still gripping the pistol normally, I must say. At any rate, the idea is that you press that lever with your right thumb and fold the pistol smartly, but not violently, open with your left hand gripping the barrel.

detail, Webley Mk IV broken open, with extractor partly deployed

When that happens, a cam inside the hinge mechanism actuates the extractor, which pops out as shown and pushes all six empties out. At the end of its travel, the extractor (which is spring-loaded) snaps back into its rest position automatically, ready for reloading. If you opened the pistol briskly enough, the expectation was that the extractor would actually push the empties all the way out, and they'd fall to the ground without needing any more intervention from you. If not, turn the pistol over and give it a shake, and unless something has gone terribly wrong they should fall out. Then you put fresh rounds into the chambers (I assume something like a speed loader was probably available, but I've never seen one), close the works, and you're ready to go again.

The .455-caliber Webleys work in exactly the same way, just with a larger cartridge. I should divert here for a moment to note that many .455 Webleys were converted to take American .45 ACP ammunition when imported to the US after the war. This was a bad idea. Not only are .45 ACP bullets not quite the right diameter (.452", so they'll work, but not get a whole lot of benefit from the rifling), .45 ACP cartridges develop significantly higher pressures than .455 Webley, pressures which the revolvers were not proofed for. It wasn't as much of a problem immediately after the war, when most of the .45 ACP ammunition floating around was wartime GI ball, but nowadays, with standard factory loads running hotter than GI standards of the time and a few truly gonzo "+P" versions on the market, this is just asking for trouble. It's why I don't have a Mk VI: I have not yet found one that hasn't had the .45 ACP treatment for a price I'm willing to pay.

Anyway. Bit of a digression, but an important safety tip. TLDR: If you're going to shoot a Webley that's been converted to .45 ACP, be prepared to make your own ammunition and water it down some, because modern commercial .45 ACP is too hot for them.

Speaking of ammunition, it's hard to get .38/200 nowadays, but fortunately, that was basically one specific loading of the much more common .38 Smith & Wesson cartridge, which is still manufactured. Again, it pays to keep an eye out and make sure you're using a fairly mild load, but then there aren't really hotrod factory loadings of a cartridge as lightweight and obsolescent as .38 S&W. This cartridge was also marketed as .38 Colt New Police for use in the Colt Police Positive revolver, because Colt didn't want to put "Smith & Wesson" on one of their products. (This kind of thing turns up repeatedly in firearms history; see also the .30 Winchester Center Fire, aka .30/30.) Also, note that .38 S&W is not the same thing as .38 S&W Special (manufacturers of which usually omit the S&W these days), which is much longer.

There's not much more to tell about my Mk IV. As I said earlier, it doesn't have military acceptance markings or any obvious police marks, so I assume it was a commercial gun. It does have what looks to be a proof or test mark of some sort on the cylinder (visible in the left-side close-up above), and quite a number of odd markings on the face of the cylinder:

detail, Webley Mk IV cylinder, rear face

I'm not sure what's going on here. Some of them seem to have been crossed out, and none has any obvious meaning. There are no import markings on this one, so presumably it entered the country sometime before 1968.

I bought this revolver 20 years ago, at a gun show in the arena near San Francisco charmingly called the Cow Palace. It came as part of a set with a non-functional Mauser C/96 "Bolo", and by "part of a set" I mean I asked the guy how much he wanted for it and he said, "Hell, if you're buying the Webley, you can have the Mauser if you want it, it don't work." Because of the interesting way in which California's handgun laws worked at the time (and may still work, for all I know), I had to meet up with the seller at another gun show out in the Amador Valley a couple weeks later to actually take delivery. I was reminded of this last year, during all the kerfuffle here in Maine about how requiring background checks or delays for purchases at gun shows would mean the end of the Second Amendment and, indeed, life as we know. Sure, that was a bit of a hassle, but it wasn't exactly the end of the world.

The Mk IV would remain in British service until the 1960s. They were also used by the British police, and police in various parts of the empire, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, into the '70s, and remained in production for commercial sale until 1978. There is still a company called Webley & Scott in the firearms business, making high-end shotguns and hunting rifles as well as airguns (including a nicely detailed .177-caliber airgun replica of the Mk VI), but I think it's one of those familiar stories where the original company went bust and someone bought the trademarks. For a while, a year or two ago, they had a thing on their website where if they got enough commitments for deposits, they would put the Mk VI back into production; but that seems not to have worked out. That page is gone, and they never got in touch to ask for my money. (Of course I was up for that, are you kidding?)