In the vast world of firearms, no two words could be more at odds with one another than ‘semi-automatic’ and ‘revolver’. Leave it to the British to try and join these two under one unorthodox design—the Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver. Measuring nearly a foot long and weighing in at a far-from-delicate three pounds (unloaded!); she was a heavy, unwieldy piece of hardware done up in quintessential British form.
Though most folks are at least somewhat familiar with the classic film The Maltese Falcon—where Humphrey Bogart erroneously identifies the Webley-Fosbery as an eight-shot .45 caliber “Foresby”—here’s a photo of Sean Connery as Zed in the film Zardoz, gripping one in all his hairy chested glory (right). You’re welcome.
The year was 1896, just prior to the time when semi-automatic pistols began making their entrance onto the world stage en masse. Lieutenant Colonel George Fosbery of the Queen’s British Indian Army’s 4th Bengal European Regiment [takes deep breath], winner of the Victoria Cross, and wearer of an immaculate moustache—designed and patented a revolver of his namesake that did away with the characteristically long trigger pull common to double-action revolvers. He sold the design to the renowned pistol manufacturer Webley and Scott, and upon its introduction to the public in 1900, the Webley-Fosbery quickly became a favorite of competitive pistol marksmen. Word was, the automatic revolver could be fired very quickly while still maintaining excellent accuracy. It wasn’t long before the design was pitched to the military as an ideal cavalry sidearm. Though never formally adopted by the British army, some officers purchased examples privately and went on to carry them in the Boer Wars and World War I. Reports from the field suggested that, because the action needed to stay clean to function (it turned out to be a great deal more sensitive to dust and grime than other revolvers of the era) wartime conditions rendered it largely undependable. In total, less than five thousand Webley-Fosbery’s were manufactured from 1901 to 1915.
One of the instantly recognizable design features of this revolver is the unusual zigzag grooves machined into the cylinder. After the revolver is charged (actually pulling the cylinder and barrel assembly back like you would if it were a semi-automatic pistol—a somewhat clumsy, two-handed operation) and fired, the inertia produced by the weapon’s recoil causes the cylinder to move along those grooves, rotating it to the next chamber as the hammer is cocked for the subsequent shot.
The Webley-Fosbery was chambered to the stout, if a little slow-moving, .455 Webley caliber, as well as an eight-shot model chambered to .38 Colt ACP. The .455 Webley was the preferred caliber of British sidearms through WWII, and was largely considered a “man-stopper.” Its 265-grain bullet delivered about 250 ft/lbs of energy—on par with a modern .38 Special. Not much of a “man-stopper” by today’s standards.
All in all, chaps, this is a bloody ace weapon that just had some hard lines (bad luck) in regards to timing—day late and a dollar short, as it were. Had it come out a decade sooner, every Tommy proudly sporting the colors of the Union Jack would have been clamoring for one. Personally, I think it’s the mutt’s nuts, even if its design was a bit arse about face, eh?
Featured image courtesy of the National Firearms Museum.