The Best Double-Action Revolver You've Never Seen
June 27, 2014
The inscription reads "Andrew C. Berry from Frank E. Davis." I have no idea who those gentlemen were, but Mr. Berry must have been a person of some importance because it's engraved on the backstrap of my Merwin & Hulbert Pocket Army revolver.
The company that made this gun went out of business in 1892. That was 121 years ago, and the gun you see here is at least 125 years old. However, it is, in my opinion, the best DA revolver ever designed.
Most shooters today are unfamiliar with Merwin & Hulbert revolvers. They are relatively scarce and seldom seen, especially those in extremely good condition. However, among those who appreciate fine revolvers — and especially double actions — Merwin & Hulbert revolvers have a mystique all their own.
Researching the history of this revolver, and the firm that made it, often ends in frustration because there is so little information available. Here is what's known. Joseph Merwin opened a gun store in New York City in 1859. He had a partner named Edward Bray. Bray quit the partnership in 1866, and Merwin took on Charles H. Simkins as his new partner in 1867, creating a firm called Merwin & Simkins. Charles Taylor soon joined the partnership and the firm's name was changed to Merwin, Taylor & Simkins. That partnership lasted a year. Next, Joseph Merwin joined with William A. Hulbert around 1869 (sources are unclear as to the exact date) to form Merwin & Hulbert. Hulbert's half-brother joined the firm three years later, and the name was changed to Merwin, Hulbert & Co. Joseph Merwin died in 1879, but the company retained the use of his name until 1892.
Joseph Merwin was neither a gun designer nor an inventor, but supposedly he owned at least half of the stock of the Hopkins & Allen Co. Hopkins & Allen was the actual manufacturer of all the Merwin & Hulbert revolvers, and this is where a large degree of public misperception, or just plain and simple irony, enters the picture.
You see, Hopkins & Allen had a terrible reputation for manufacturing large numbers of cheap, poor-quality revolvers and small-bore rifles.
There is no record regarding who designed the Merwin & Hulbert revolver with its unique cartridge extraction system, but collectors of these arms have divided all Merwin & Hulbert large-frame revolvers into distinct variations and two different product lines. The revolver that's the subject of this report is a Third Model Pocket Army. The alternative Merwin & Hulbert revolver was the Frontier, and most authorities believe there were far more Pocket Army models produced than Frontier models, but no one really has any true idea as to how many of either product was manufactured before the firm ceased doing business. All of the firm's records were lost in a fire sometime in the late 1880s.
The First Merwin & Hulberts
Merwin & Hulbert revolvers were manufactured in large- and medium-size frames. Apparently the medium frames were very popular because they are plentiful at gun shows and on auction sites, but it's the large-frame Merwin & Hulbert revolvers that have always fascinated me.
They were contemporaneous with Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers. They were clearly "fightin' guns," and after you examine an example like the revolver here you can draw no other conclusion than that they were better built. In truth, they have been described as the finest revolvers of their time.
The first large-frame Merwin & Hulbert revolvers were single actions. The first two models — or generations, if you will permit the use of a modern phrase — were open top, i.e., they had no topstrap over the cylinder. Many of these models are seen with cylinder "scoops," which appear to the modern eye as unfinished flutes that don't go all the way to the end of the cylinder.
Sometime after 1883 Merwin & Hulbert developed a double-action revolver design for its Third Model Pocket Army revolver. The Third Model was the first Merwin & Hulbert design to feature a topstrap, but it operated in the same manner as all Merwin & Hulbert revolvers.
I've always wanted to know just how good this design really was because it is so ancient when compared to modern firearms. The truth is, despite its age, it is simply amazing in practical terms of how good it really is.
The Unique Design
What separates the Merwin & Hulbert design from all other revolvers is the way the cartridges are extracted from the cylinder. It takes both hands to operate, and after pulling the hammer to halfcock but while holding the grip in the strong hand, the shooter grasps the barrel forward of the cylinder and with his thumb pushes a button on the bottom of the frame forward of the trigger guard. Then he twists the barrel and topstrap assembly to the right. Once the topstrap clears the frame, the entire barrel, topstrap, and cylinder assembly are pulled forward.
The cartridges appear to be sucked out of the cylinder and left in the open space created between the back of the cylinder and the recoil shield. (They aren't sucked out; I'll explain in a moment.) The top three empties fall away quite easily, and with a quick shake the remaining spent cases fall away as well.
To close the action, push the entire barrel, topstrap, and cylinder assembly to the rear and rotate it to the left, locking it all back in place. It is quick and easy and far faster than systems that rely on ejector rods to push out each individual case.
It loads in almost the same manner as the Colt single action. There is a loading gate on the right side of the frame. Pushing it down exposes a loading port, and with the hammer at halfcock the cylinder rotates freely for insertion of each round as the cylinder is rotated through the sequence.
The additional design features of the Merwin & Hulbert Pocket Army leave little doubt that this gun was designed for fighting. A lot of modern custom pistolsmiths charge plenty extra for "spikes" on the bottom of their tactical fighting pistols. Well, the Pocket Army was the originator of that concept. The point you see at the end of my revolver's grip is not there to dig taters. It's to fight with if you can't get the gun reloaded in time. The hole in its middle is for the lanyard to make sure you keep it with you during the ensuing melee. Unfortunately, there is no record of any sales of these revolvers to any military forces.
Shooting the Pocket Army
One of the things I wanted to do with this revolver was test it in the same fashion as Shooting Times would if it were a new product just released. The problem is that this revolver was built before the introduction of smokeless powder and modern ammunition. A solution was provided by Hornady, in the form of "cowboy" ammunition in .44-40, which is loaded specifically for cowboy-style shooting competitions. Even though it is a modern smokeless powder load, I think it is of sufficiently low pressure so as not to be a threat to the value and integrity of this old "test" revolver.
Because of my interest in double-action revolvers, I wanted to shoot the Merwin & Hulbert Pocket Army almost exclusively using the double-action trigger pull. My Chatillon trigger pull scale showed the double-action trigger scaled between 14.0 pounds and 14.5 pounds through repeated tests. The single-action trigger scaled exactly at 5.0 pounds on my RCBS trigger pull scale, and it never varied through multiple tries. That's impressive as well and is probably the reason why it shot the tightest group — 4.0 inches, center to center — using only the single-action trigger.
The double-action trigger pull can best be described as a two-stage double action. The initial resistance is pretty high, then it softens midway through its travel and allows the shooter to "stage" the cylinder and hammer, which is then followed by a short crisp let-off of the trigger. However, I must report that was true only on five of the six chambers in the cylinder. One of the chambers, or cylinder ratchets really, wouldn't allow me to stage the trigger as the hammer would always fall before I was ready.
The sights on the Pocket Army reflect the design thoughts of that time and period — they are minimal. Yet, surprisingly, I found more definition with the sights on this gun than I did with my 3rd Generation Colt Single Action Army. The Colt was originally chambered in .44-40, and years ago I sent it to Colt to have an extra cylinder in .44 Special fitted to it. It shoots well in .44 Special, not as well in .44-40, or at least it didn't with this ammo. I used the Colt and a prewar Smith & Wesson Heavy Duty I had Hamilton Bowen rebuild years ago and rechamber in .44-40 as comparisons to the M&H Pocket Army. The Pocket Army outshot both of them with the Hornady ammunition, and I think that was due to the thin nickel front sight being clearly defined in the V-notch of the rear sight. I never lost it once throughout my testing.
My initial double-action groups at 25 yards were poor, but as I got used to the two-stage trigger pull on the Pocket Army, my groups tightened. My worst six-shot group at 25 yards measured 8.25 inches, but that was still better than what I shot with the Colt! (My best six-shot group with it and this ammo was 8.50 inches.) My best six-shot group with the Pocket Army fired solely through a double-action trigger pull was 6.50 inches, center to center, at the same distance. On one of my other groups fired with it using the double-action trigger pull, I put five rounds into a group measuring only 4.00 inches, center to center, but the sixth round opened it up considerably. That's when I discovered the cylinder ratchets wouldn't let me stage the trigger on all six chambers. It still beat the Hamilton Bowen S&W; I could shoot only a 6.75-inch, six-shot group at 25 yards, double action only, which, all things considered, is a heck of a recommendation for the Merwin & Hulbert Pocket Army revolver.
Other authors have written that the Merwin & Hulbert design would only drop the fired cases when the action was opened while retaining the loaded cartridges. That may have been true with older ammo, but it isn't true with the Hornady cowboy loads. Their overall length is not great enough to keep the bullet nose inside the cylinder chamber when the action is opened, and as a result even the loaded rounds fell out when emptying the fired cases.
The fired cases are not sucked out of the cylinder, rather they are pulled out through interaction of an extractor flange that surrounds the center pin just in front of the recoil shield and catches the cartridge rim. It is for this reason that Merwin & Hulbert revolvers must be loaded through the loading gate and not while the action is opened.
The Merwin & Hulbert design is probably the easiest revolver in the world to disassemble for cleaning. All you have to do after opening the action is depress the latch on the left side of the barrel/topstrap assembly and the whole affair slides off the center pin. The cylinder comes with it and more or less drops free of the assembly, leaving you with three main components: the barrel/topstrap assembly, the cylinder, and the remainder of the revolver. Cleaning from this point is pretty straightforward as is the gun's reassembly.
Some writers have said the Merwin & Hulbert design didn't work all that well with blackpowder cartridges. The residue from firing would bind the gun up due to its close tolerances and create difficulties in operation after a few rounds. I can't say because I don't like to work with blackpowder, but it's reasonable. I had no trouble with smokeless-powder ammo. Clearly, this is a gun created well ahead of its time.
There are probably many reasons why the Merwin & Hulbert design and the company that manufactured it failed. Regardless, the Merwin & Hulbert Pocket Army you see in these photos is one of the finest double-action revolvers ever made. I don't know who Frank E. Davis was, but it is obvious that he knew revolvers and appreciated Andrew C. Berry to the point that he presented him with the best available at the time — then and maybe even forever.