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TheRaider.net Features Articles The Webley Revolver
 
The Webley Revolver
by Michael French - posted on July 1, 2008
 

The late 19th century, after the American Civil War and the height of the British Colonial Empire in the Victorian era, was a time of Western expansion. There was just enough lawlessness to make frontiers lands of opportunity, just enough "unexplored" territory to make the Earth a mysterious place and just enough technological advancement to bring human beings to those thresholds for the first time.

In America, this was the time of the "Wild West" where pioneers, cowboys and gunfighters clashed in the open ranges with Colt Peacemaker "six shooter" revolvers and Winchester rifles. However, while the famous Colt did made its way outside the United States, there was another revolver that would dominate for the next 75 years, find its way into the hands of British colonial soldiers as the sidearm of choice and see action in both World Wars: The Webley Revolver.

Indy's Webley
Indy's Webley in the
Last Crusade.

Manufactured by British firearms maker Webley & Scott, the venerable Webley revolver line is known for its heavy construction, with a break-top design and six-round capacity and the vast majority firing the powerful .455 calibre round. The first notable Webley revolver, known as the Webley-Green, was produced in 1879 and has a distinctive round "ducks head" grip. Indiana Jones fans will recognize this pistol as the sidearm chosen by Dr. Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

However, the real history of the Webley revolver is arguably more adventurous, and at times, more heroic that Indiana Jones' fictional adventures.

In 1887, the British Army needed a good revolver to take the place of the inferior Enfield sidearms (a situation that would repeat itself in World War II, but more on that later). Webley & Scott rose to the challenge with the .455 calibre Mark I (MK I) and the weapon was officially adopted in November of that year with an initial order of 10,000 MK Is.

One of the first major conflicts that the Webley participated in was the second Boer War in what would become South Africa that took place from 1899 to 1902 when the British and the Boers, New Zealand colonials who wanted self-government, found themselves at odds. This was the war that made heroes out of Winston Churchill and Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the eventual founder of the Boy Scouts. At that time, the Webley had evolved into the Webley Mark IV (MK IV) and, with its use of the powerful .455 calibre round, was a popular purchase by British officers headed into Africa.

When World War I broke out in 1914, MK IVs and newer Webley Mark Vs (MK V) were the common models in service. However, due to the rapidly escalating scale of the war across Europe and the Middle East, the British Army quickly pushed for the advancement and adoption of the Webley Mark VI (MK VI) in 1915. This Webley would become the most famous of all the Webley revolvers. Proving to be extremely reliable and built like a tank, the MK VI was more than capable of holding up to the filth of trench warfare without failing its owners, whose lives literally depended on the working condition and ruggedness of their revolvers.

Webley Mark IWebley MK VIWebley Fosbury
The Webley Mark I, Webley MK VI & the semi-automatic Webley Fosbury.

World War I was a shocking transition in the way mass combat was conducted, with mechanized warfare just coming into being while some old holdover items and methods were still visible. Mounted cavalry, sabres and the continued reliance on bayonets ran alongside tanks, artillery shells, biplanes and machine guns. With this transitional mentality came odd items for both the Webley Revolver and its German rival, the C96 "Broomhandle" Mauser semi-automatic machine pistol. Both weapons had optional shoulder stocks made for them to allow them to become carbines and the Webley even had a bayonet of its own!

Lawrence of Arabia
The Webley MK VI in Lawrence of Arabia.

The MK VI was the largest of the Webley revolvers, with a distinctive full six-inch barrel, and can be seen in many World War I films, most notably in Lawrence of Arabia as the title character's weapon of choice. The pistol is also anachronistically carried in many pre-World War I set films, including the British colonial films, Zulu, Khartoum, Gunga Din and The Four Feathers. Interestingly, in most of these pictures, the events are set before 1887 and hence, before the adoption of even the Webley MK I by the British Army! The Webley MK VI's appearance in these films can be attributed to the large numbers that were made between 1915 and 1923.

Another notable Webley revolver was introduced in World War I and used briefly by the British "Tommies": The Webley Fosbury. This was the worlds first semi-automatic revolver and was only used in a limited capacity in the war due to an understandably complicated mechanism that jammed easily in harsh conditions of the trenches and proved unreliable for combat. This revolver did make a notable cameo as a key plot point in the Humphrey Bogart classic, The Maltese Falcon.

Enfield revolver
The Enfield revolver.

After the heroes of World War I and their Webley MK VI revolvers returned home, it wasn't long before the Nazis came to power in Germany and World War II began. By then, the now-legendary MK VI was considered obsolete and the Enfield revolvers were now back in the hands of British soldiers. Yes, the company whose products were deemed unsatisfactory were back and history repeated itself. Enfield could not produce them fast enough and they were considered mere carbon copies of the Webley MK VI. In fact, Enfield revolvers looked almost identical to the MK VI. Webley & Scott sued Enfield for patent infringement and, in what can only be described as poetic justice, were also approached by the British government to produce more revolvers to bolster British arms numbers because Enfield just couldn't get the job done.

Webley introduced a new MK IV, but this revolver had little in common with the Boer War revolver. In actuality, the gun was based on the Mark III (MK III). This new pistol was chambered for .38 calibre Smith & Wesson rounds and became the standard sidearm for both the British Army ground soldiers and Royal Air Force fighter pilots fighting in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Webley MK IV .38
The Webley MK IV .38

The Webley MK IV .38, as it is known, can be seen in many World War II movies involving the Royal Air Force and British ground battles. The pistol also makes appearances in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as the title character's weapon and in the remake of Flight of the Phoenix as a weapon used by desert raiders.

At the same time the new Webley MK IV was rolling out of the factory, another Webley revolver made a triumphant resurrection. Due to the loss of many British weapons at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1939, the British government ordered all the retired MK VI revolvers back into service! The venerable MK VI would now serve in both world wars!

The Webley MK IV .38 revolver remained in service through the 1970s in many foreign police forces and India still produces the ammunition for the revolver despite its rarity among both private citizens and government agencies today.

Webley in 'Indy 4'
Indy with his Webley in
Crystal Skull.

The Webley Revolver, in all of its incarnations, was a weapon that can tell stories of times long gone. Adopted at the height of British Colonialism, this is the weapon that would have likely been carried by British and western explorers into the hearts of Africa and Asia, the deserts of the Middle East and parts beyond. In fact, the weapon was carried by fictional British adventurer Allan Quatermain in both of the Richard Chamberlain films of the 1980s. By both historic and fictional heroes alike, the Webley has been a mainstay. The revolver went with British soldiers into colonial battles in the wilds of Africa during the Boer Wars, fought in the trenches of World War I, accompanied the RAF fighter aces in the tense dogfights of World War II and made its way to the silver screen and into the hands of the greatest fictional adventurers of our day, including Indiana Jones.

With its distinctive Victorian design, its unusual signature break-top design (clearly seen in Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and its lanyard ring, the Webley hearkens back to a now-mythic age of excitement, discovery and romance.

If early 20th century adventure has a revolver, it must be the Webley.

 

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