One of the many reasons we enjoy Adam Firestone‘s posts for RU is the way he brings history to life in unexpected ways. His encyclopedic knowledge of weapons is a wonderful resource for authors, no matter what time period they write in. Welcome back, Adam!
The arms trade has always been convoluted and results in fascinating, unlikely twists of fate. These factors lend themselves nicely to authors of both historical and speculative fiction. For example, who could have predicted that President Kennedy would be assassinated with an obsolete Italian military rifle? Or that German Mausers, manufactured for the Nazi war machine would one day arm the nascent Israeli state? Or that American factories in New England would churn out over a million Russian infantry rifles for the Czar’s army? One of the most interesting twists in the history of arms and men was the use of American revolvers by the British Army during World War One. This month, we’ll examine the yeoman service provided by Smith & Wesson and Colt to the British Expeditionary Force as well as Kitchener’s New Army.
By the late autumn of 1914, it had become evident to all but the most callow of observers that Britain’s involvement in the grand continental slaughter that became the First World War would be neither brief nor inexpensive. Equally evident was the fact that Britain’s professional army was simply too small for the rigors ahead, and would require substantial augmentation. (Indeed, by the end of the war, the total number of British killed in action (KIA) would far exceed the total number of troops initially sent to France in August 1914.)
While the manpower to flesh out the British forces could and would be found, finding the weapons and ordnance with which to equip the swelling ranks was another matter entirely. In many cases both domestic and imperial facilities were simply unable to provide the demanded production volume. Consequently, the British looked to not only to other sources for standard issue war materiel, but to substitute standard equipment as well. One example of this wartime policy can be seen in the adoption of the American-made Remington/Eddystone manufactured Pattern 1914 .303 rifles. Another is the case of the .455 caliber service revolvers.
At the beginning of the war, the .455 Webley Mk. V was the standard British service pistol, and was supplanted in 1915 by a product improved variant known as the Webley Mk. VI. The top-break Webleys were well designed, reliable, and accurate arms whose only fault was that they could not be made rapidly enough to fill the demand created by a burgeoning British military. To meet this demand, the British turned to the foremost manufacturers of revolvers in the world, Colt and Smith & Wesson.
Both manufacturers immediately responded with variants of their large frame revolvers chambered for the British service .455 cartridge; Smith & Wesson with a version of the .44 caliber frame Hand Ejector and Colt with a version of the New Service model. Both companies benefited enormously from the wartime contracts, producing more revolvers for the British military than almost any other customer to that time. In many ways the British orders were windfalls that saved both companies from ruin.
Colt New Service Revolver
A solid frame, double action design with a swing out cylinder, Colt’s New Service model revolver was the company’s large frame, heavy caliber offering from 1898 to 1944. Proving to be extremely popular with military and law enforcement clients, the six shot revolver was offered in a bewildering variety of chamberings, including .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .38-40, .38-44, .44-40, .44 Smoothbore, .44 Special, .44 Russian, .45 ACP, .45 Auto Rim, .45 Smoothbore, .45 Long Colt, .450 Eley, .455 Eley and .476 Eley. All the New Service variations were numbered in a single series from 0 through approximately 357,000.
Factory barrel lengths were 4.5″, 5.5″, and 7.5″, with the 4.5″ barrels being markedly less common than the other two. Standard finish was a mirror-polish blue with a color case hardened hammer, ejector rod tip, and lanyard swivel. Screw heads and the trigger were a bright fire blue.
In 1909, Colt improved the original New Service lockwork. The small leaf springs in the hammer strut and the cylinder locking bolt were replaced with coil springs. A small pivoted fly was eliminated from the from the rebound lever. The net result of these changes was to strengthen the lockwork and reduce the chance of parts breakage. Perhaps the most important product improvement was the addition of the “Colt Positive Lock,” a hammer blocking safety in the form of a steel bar that slid between the hammer and frame that prevented the firing pin from striking the primer if the hammer were inadvertently dropped while being cocked, or if the gun were dropped on a loaded chamber. The only way this locking mechanism could be disengaged was by pulling the trigger all the way to the rear.
The bulk of New Service production from the time of these improvements in 1909 until the middle of 1911 (23,000 to 53,000 serial number range) was earmarked for the Model 1909 US Army, Navy and Marine Corps revolvers. Between 1911 and 1914, the majority of New Service revolvers went to fulfill law enforcement contracts. For example, during this time, approximately 1,000 going to the Cuban “Guardia Rural,” between 300 and 400 going to the Canadian Royal North West Mounted Police, and some 230 to the New York State Police. However, the order that was to put the New Service “on the map” was not long coming.
In 1914, England found itself embroiled in the First World War and in desperate need of revolvers. Large orders were placed with Colt, and 5.5″ barreled New Services cast in the role of .455 British military revolvers began to surface in significant numbers around serial number 65,000 in 1914, and continue until the middle of 1917 with serial number 139,000.
Colt was to manufacture upwards of 55,000 .455 New Service revolvers for British and Commonwealth armed forces. The majority of these were directly purchased by the British government and bear broad arrow government acceptance markings, as well as various inspection and proof marks. Not all New Service revolvers used by British forces in the war will bear official markings. British officers were expected to furnish their own kit, with a sidearm being only one of the required items. As a result, many British and Canadian officers purchased New Services commercially for use as their personal sidearms. These personally purchased sidearms may bear personal engravings, but are devoid of official markings. Most of the wartime New Service revolvers chambered for the .455 cartridge can be identified by a capital letter E stamped on the grip frame under the left grip.
The earlier British contract guns, specifically those manufactured and delivered in 1914 have the same highly polished, mirror-like blue of the regular commercial production guns. As the contract progressed, the finish went first to a satin blue, and later to a flat military finish. While in English service, some were refinished by a method known as “stoving” which involves painting the firearm in question with a black enamel and then baking the finish on in an oven.
Smith & Wesson .455 Hand Ejector, Second Model
In contrast to the Colt New Service, which had originally been offered in .455, the .455 Hand Ejector (First Model) was specifically manufactured to meet the needs of a military organization. In fact, the .455 Hand Ejector was the first N-frame revolver produced in large quantities by Smith & Wesson.
In the summer of 1914, Smith & Wesson’s new president, Walter Wesson (D.B. Wesson’s oldest son) received an urgent communiqué from the British government requesting the manufacture of a .45 caliber revolver that would chamber the British .455 Mark II cartridge. The factory’s response indicated that Smith & Wesson could supply the revolver immediately, and a sample of the .44 Hand Ejector First Model chambered for the British cartridge was sent on to the British purchasing authorities.
The British responded that the gun was too heavy, and that the locking system in the extractor housing was too finely made and could easily be jammed by dirt. However, before the gun could be redesigned, the British sent an additional communication indicating an immediate need for revolvers, and stating that the sample style would be acceptable until such time as the redesign work could be completed.
The factory began conversion of the .44 Special cylinders to .455 and made use of a set of .45 Colt (Note: .45 Colt was a cartridge type – no barrels were swapped from Colt revolvers!) barrels that had been produced for commercial sale. In accordance with England’s urgent request for revolvers, the first guns were completed on September 24, 1914. Six days later, a lot of 250 had been built. The production rate continued to increase, and by January 19, 1915, Smith & Wesson had completed 5,461 revolvers for the British military.
The basic design of the .455 Hand Ejector was identical to the .44 Hand Ejector First Model, having a 6.5″ barrel and blue finish. In the great hurry to produce the guns, the factory converted any unfinished frame on hand to the British caliber. As a result, the first group of 666 frames was completed and serial numbered within the .44 Hand Ejector series. The new production frames that had not been serial numbered were assigned a new serial number series beginning at 1. This resulted in a duplication of serial numbers for the first 666 frames.
The .455 Hand Ejector built upon Smith & Wesson’s triple lock system is known as the .455 Hand Ejector First Model. The change from the first model type having the shrouded extractor rod, to the light weight barrel lacking the shroud (called the .455 Hand Ejector Second Model) began in January 1915 as the first of the new barrels and frames were being completed. By the time this change occurred, the serial number series for the .455 Hand Ejector had reached 5,000, and the changeover from a heavy, lugged barrel to a lighter barrel with no lug takes place between serial numbers 5,000 and 6,000 as the factory used up the older parts.
By June 1915, Smith & Wesson was in full production of the second model .455 Hand Ejector. Production figures for June indicate that some 1,450 guns were produced. By July production had increased to 3,460 guns, and by December it had reached 5,690 revolvers per month where it stayed for the remainder of the period of performance. When production ended on September 14, 1916, Smith & Wesson had manufactured some 74,755 .455 Hand Ejectors, of which 69,755 were the Second Model type.
All of the .455 Hand Ejectors made for the Commonwealth forces were shipped from the Smith & Wesson factory to the New York City office of the Remington Union Metallic Cartridge Company, which was acting as the British purchasing agent. The revolvers were then distributed to England and Canada, where they were inspected, proofed and accordingly marked. In February 1916, Smith & Wesson manufactured an order of 724 of the military style Hand Ejectors chambered for the .45 Colt cartridge. In April 1916, as the production of the .455 Hand Ejector Second Model was drawing to a close, enough parts were discovered to complete 691 First Model guns, which is why collectors may find First Model guns with serial numbers that do not correspond to the appropriate serial number ranges.
It is a a common historical misconception that the American contribution to the Allied war effort during the Great War were limited to large quantities of fresh but poorly equipped troops. It is true that the many Americans found themselves under French or British command, and that many American units found themselves supplied with automatic weapons, artillery, and armor that derived from British or French sources. Equally true however is the fact that much of the Allied war effort was paid for with American dollars, that Allied supplies were moved with American trucks, and that many of the aircraft flown by the Allied air forces were powered by engines made in the United States.
More to the point, American factories supplied tremendous quantities of small arms to the Allied armies. Some were made to foreign patterns, such as the Berthier rifles made for the French by Remington-UMC, the Mosin-Nagant rifles made for the Russians by Remington and New England Westinghouse, and the Pattern 1914 rifles made for the British by Winchester and Remington (at both the Ilion and Eddystone plants). Some, like the Colt New Service and the Smith & Wesson .455 Hand Ejector were indigenous American designs. These arms served the British and Commonwealth armies well, and were highly regarded by the soldiers to whom they were issued.
Indeed, in testament to the American guns’ durability, reliability and accuracy under the worst conditions imaginable, a large number of British regimental museums today show the American guns, and not the British Webley, as an integral part of a First World Soldier’s kit. The martial .455 Colts and Smith & Wesson revolvers are highly collectible, as both examples of the epitome of the art of the revolver, and important historical artifacts in their own right.
Do you have any questions for Adam about the American contributions to the Allied war effort in World War I?
Ines Johnson is our Visiting Professor Monday, March 16 at Romance University!
Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.
Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.
Check out Adam’s blog here: http://adamfirestoneconsultant.blogspot.com/
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