March 13, 2019
In 1957 Great Britain noted the 100th anniversary of the Great Indian Mutiny, the fiercest of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” of the 19th century. By coincidence, the Mutiny saw the first real use of revolvers in combat by British officers, and they stayed in service for a century. As the British Army noted the centennial of the Mutiny, it also phased out the last of its revolvers, replaced by the Browning Hi-Power semiautomatic pistol.
That is really an astonishing record of service. The iconic British revolver is, of course, the British Webley Double-Action revolver. It was the official military sidearm for 75 years, but British officers and colonial officials also carried Adams, Tranter, Colt, and even a few Smith & Wesson revolvers, especially in the years from 1857 until the Webley’s official adoption in 1887.
There were many variations of the British Webley Double-Action revolver, but the Webley Mark VI—the revolver most commonly used in the Great War of 1914–1918—is typical. It’s a double-action top-break chambered for the .455 Colt, a cartridge only slightly less powerful than the .45 ACP. In other words, it has stopping power to spare. And since the Webley ejects all its empty cases at once, it can be reloaded quickly and provides impressive firepower in a sustained fight.
The British Webley Double-Action revolver evolved into its final form through rigorous testing by the military, both on shooting ranges in England and in battles of all descriptions, large and small, in the outer reaches of the Empire, fighting Pathans, Malay pirates, and the Mahdi’s Dervishes.
Like American troops in the Philippines fighting Moro tribesmen, British soldiers often found themselves on their own, facing fanatical natives who took a lot of stopping, and bit by bit the Webley evolved into an excellent tool for that purpose. In 1897 T.W. Webley patented his “Man-Stopper,” a 218-grain bullet with a cavernous hollowpoint. It was outlawed soon after by the Hague Convention, but it could be employed against bandits and rebels in undeclared wars. The standard .455 Colt bullet, a 265-grain lead roundnose, still did the job, if not quite so spectacularly. (For modern users, Hayley’s Custom Ammunition offers man-stopper bullets in several calibers, including .45.)
In today’s world, a Webley may seem clumsy and old-fashioned. It’s neither as racy-looking as a Colt Peacemaker nor as slick as an S&W Model 27, but when you need to stop an onrushing something or other, it is highly effective. As well, if your revolver runs dry and you have no time to reload, it makes a pretty effective club.
Always looking for ways of expanding the capabilities of infantry weapons, English manufacturers offered detachable shoulder stocks, bayonets, and a variety of speed-loading devices for the Webley. One user noted that with the bayonet fixed, the stock in place, and a bandolier of .455 Colt ammo, a man felt “well-armed indeed.”
In many ways, the British Webley Double-Action revolver in its various forms is very similar to the Lee-Enfield. It combines features others have abandoned or found inferior, yet taken together, they add up to a very effective firearm. If the Lee-Enfield is a great battle rifle, the Webley is a great combat handgun. The Lee-Enfield cocked on closing, had a detachable bolt head, and locked up at the rear—all features others had long-since discarded. But it was slick, fast to operate, accurate, and offered tremendous firepower. Similarly, the Webley top-break design was decidedly out of fashion by 1900, but it ejected all six empties simultaneously, allowing fast reloading. If you just needed to replace one or two rounds, you could open it part-way and do it quickly and easily. It offered close-range stopping power and lots of it.
Shooting a Webley seems awkward at first, but you soon adjust and start knocking over plates with loud and decisive clangs, then reloading quickly and doing it again. Suddenly, this old-fashioned warrior is not so quirky and anachronistic after all, and you realize why the Brits clung to it for nearly a century and nicknamed it “the Peacemaker of the Empire.”