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1st Year of Production 1st Model Merwin, Hulbert & Co Frontier Army Revolver

1st Year of Production 1st Model Merwin, Hulbert & Co Frontier Army Revolver

  • Product Code: FHG-2157
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $4,495.00


The story of Merwin & Hulbert & Company is a somewhat confusing one, which may one day be made clearer through additional research. The firm is probably the most famous and successful “gun making company” that never actually manufactured a single gun! Even more amazing is that the principals involved with the company appear to have had no design input into the revolutionary arms that they marketed and sold! 

 

The firm had its genesis in 1859, when Joseph Merwin and his partner Edward Bray started a firearms and sporting goods store in New York City. Merwin was certainly a shrewd businessman and a visionary when it came to new and innovative firearms designs. Very quickly, Merwin became the primary (in some cases the sole) distributor for a variety of new, metallic cartridge firearms, including those produced by Plant’s Manufacturing Company, Eagle Arms, Daniel Moore, Ballard patent firearms (as produced by Dwight, Chapman & Company and Ball & Williams), Bacon Manufacturing Company (eventually Hopkins & Allen), and eventually the Evans Repeating Rifle Company, just to name a few. Merwin also worked as a sales agent for such major firearms manufacturers as Colt and Remington, and eventually Winchester. The firm also imported and distributed high quality English arms. Merwin succeeded in securing several US and state military contracts during the American Civil War, primarily for Ballard rifles and carbines, and continued to expand his retail and wholesale distribution business during the course of the war. By 1866, Edward Bray had left the company and Charles Simkins became a partner, leading the company to change its name to Merwin & Simkins, and later that year to Merwin, Taylor & Simkins, when Charles Taylor also joined the venture. By 1869, the short-lived partnership was dissolved, and a new partner, William Hulbert, joined Merwin, forming Merwin & Hulbert. About three years later, the half-brother of Hulbert joined the partnership, and sometime around 1872 the name of the company changed again to Merwin, Hulbert & Company. The company would continue to operate under that name for the next twenty years, even though Joseph Merwin would die in 1879. 

 

During his first decade in the firearms business Merwin became an investor, partial owner and eventually the controlling partner of what would become the Hopkins & Allen Company; formerly the Bacon Manufacturing Company of Norwich, CT. He would also invest some $100,000 dollars, a significant sum at that time, in the Evans Repeating Rifle Company of Mechanic Falls, ME. Merwin’s goal appears to have been to bring revolutionary firearms market that offered superior fit, finish and operation to those of his competitors. The first products offered by Merwin, Hulbert & Company were a series of large frame revolvers, initially in single action, and eventually in double action as well. The first guns were introduced in 1876 and were produced well into the 1880s, in a variety of frame and action configurations, but always in a .44 caliber format. The calibers offered included the .44 Merwin & Hulbert, .44 Russian and .44-40 (.44 Winchester Center Fire). Merwin’s hope for these large frame revolvers was to secure lucrative US or foreign military contracts, which were an essential part of any major 19th century firearms manufacturer’s business plan. 

 

The revolvers that Merwin brought to market were probably the most technologically advanced and possibly the best-built revolvers of their time, but amazingly, Merwin, Hulbert & Company did not actually manufacture any of them! Rather the Hopkins & Allen Company manufactured them all under Merwin’s watchful eye. This very fact is probably responsible for the lackluster success of a truly impressive product. The Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers utilized a revolutionary system for loading and unloading. After placing the revolver on half cock, the action was opened by depressing a spring loaded catch on the lower left side of the forward portion of the frame and pulling a similar catch under the frame to the rear. This unlocked the action of the revolver. This allowed the user to rotate the cylinder, the forward portion of the frame, and the entire barrel to the right, and push it forward. This caused any spent cases to be ejected, leaving the unfired ones in the cylinder chambers. Fresh cartridges could then be inserted in the empty chambers. The tight mechanical tolerances of the design actually made the action “suck” itself back together, and with a simple twist, the gun was closed and locked up and ready to be put back into service. The unique design also made it possible for users of the revolvers to swap barrels in a matter of seconds, with no tools or mechanical skill necessary. As a result, Merwin & Hulbert large frame revolvers (aka “Army” or “Frontier” models) were often sold with both short and long barrels. This allowed the owner to use a longer, more accurate 7-inch barrel for holster carry, but swap to a concealable 3 ¼-inch barrel for situations where a more discretely carried weapon was appropriate. 

 

The earliest versions of the “Army” pattern revolver were manufactured with a squared butt profile, in single action, with an open top frame and with “scooped” cylinder flutes. The very earliest guns, known as “first firsts” for “First 1stModels” incorporated a hammer with a “hump back” profile, two screws in the lower left side of the frame to allow the removal of the trigger mechanism, and a small spring loaded safety ball detent in the barrel release catch that kept the barrel from being removed from the frame of the gun unless that small ball was depressed while pushing in the barrel catch. All three of these features were very short lived, making the “1st– 1stModel” Frontier Army Revolvers extremely rare and very desirable for collectors. 

 

Many of the earliest Frontier Army single action revolvers also had mottled orange and brown hard rubber grips that were very attractive and are highly sought after by collectors today. Merwin abandoned the use of these grips fairly early in the production life of the Frontier Army due to the expense to produce them. As production continued and improvements were made, a top strap was added to the frame for strength (known as the 3rdmodel), and the cylinder flutes were changed to the more traditional flutes that ran from the face of the cylinder back towards the rear, without the scooped out profile. The guns were also made available with a more concealable “bird’s head” butt with a metal “skull cracker” projection on it. These “bird’s head” guns with a short barrel and a double action trigger mechanism were marketed as “Pocket Army” revolvers. Merwin also introduced a relatively inexpensive “punch dot” engraving system that made embellished and highly decorated guns less costly and more easily within the reach of average customer. Despite the revolutionary designs and meticulous attention to fit and finish, Merwin, Hulbert & Company had only moderate success with their large frame handguns. This appears to be due to the fact that the guns were marked not only with the Merwin, Hulbert & Company name, but also with the name of the actual manufacturer, Hopkins & Allen. Had the source of production remained a secret, the Merwin, Hulbert & Company “Frontier Army” revolvers may well have eclipsed the Colt Single Action Army as the most successful civilian handgun in the west. However, Hopkins & Allen had made a name for themselves in the manufacture of inexpensive, low to mid quality arms, and even though the Merwin, Hulbert & Co. arms were anything but low to mid quality, the association with Hopkins & Allen severely hampered sales. As Art Phelps opined in his book, The Story of Merwin Hulbert & Co. Firearms,  “…if Merwin would have insisted and prevailed upon the Hopkins and Allen Co. partners to keep their cheap name off his most perfect guns ever made”, things would have worked out much differently for Merwin, Hulbert & Company. 

 

Examples of the Merwin, Hulbert & Company Army revolvers were even tested by the US Ordnance Bureau and found to be superior on number of points to the Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army then in service, but no contracts were ever forthcoming. Joseph Merwin did eventually manage to obtain a Russian contract for “three ship loads”of his Army revolvers, but the Russian’s defaulted and never paid, resulting in not only the loss of the cash, but also the loss of the revolvers that had already been shipped! In the end, as Merwin, Hulbert & Company historian and author Art Phelps notes, Joseph Merwin “died of a broken heart”. Between the failure to make his guns the success they should have been, the duplicity of the Russian’s in their dealings with him and the loss of his $100,000.00 investment in the Evans Repeating Rifle Company when it failed, Merwin appears to have finally succumbed. Even though his partners continued to operate the company until the early 1890s, their success was limited, and they appear to have achieved greater acceptance of their medium frame, .38 caliber double action pistol than they ever did with their large frame Frontier Army series. 

 

Interestingly, those who really appreciated fine firearms in the late 19thcentury developed a real affinity for their high quality products. Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers were owned or carried by number of famous frontier lawmen and notables. These luminaries included Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (who ambushed and killed Bonnie & Clyde), who carried a medium frame seven-shot .32 caliber Merwin, Hulbert & Company DA revolver, Pat Garrett (the killer of Billie the Kid) who was presented with an inscribed .38 Medium Frame Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolver in September of 1881 from the “grateful citizens of Lincoln County” and Diamond Dick of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, who carried a Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolver as well. More notorious frontiersmen known to have owned and carried Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers include Bob Dalton, Sam Bass, and John Wesley Hardin, just to name a few. Even Theodore Roosevelt, probably one of the most gun savvy outdoorsmen of the late 19thcentury gave a number of Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers as gifts during his lifetime.

 

Offered here is a NEAR EXCELLENT condition example of a Merwin, Hulbert & Company “1st– 1st” Frontier Army Revolver. This is the earliest version of the 1stModel Frontier Army, as classified by Art Phelps in his book on Merwin, Hulbert & Company, and according to Phelps these revolvers were manufactured circa 1876. These extremely desirable, early production single action revolvers are easily identified from the later production 1stModels by the presence of the “hump back” hammer, two screws above the triggerguard on the left side of the frame and the ball detent pin at the bottom of the barrel release catch. The guns also feature the desirable early Merwin features of “scooped” cylinder flutes and open top frame (without a top strap). Additionally, this gun also has a wonderful pair of factory original, early production, mottled orange and brown composite grips. As is typical of about 95% of Merwin, Hulbert & Company production, the revolver is nickel-plated. It is not clear exactly how many of the 1stModel Frontier Army revolvers were produced, due to an erratic serial numbering system and an 1891 fire that destroyed all of Merwin, Hulbert & Company records. It is believed that at most only a few thousand of all of the large frame revolvers were produced, and significantly fewer were of the early open top pattern, and only some of the earliest production guns have the scarce “1st– 1st” features. 

 

The left side of the frame has no caliber marking under the cylinder, indicating the pistol is chambered for the .44 Merwin & Hulbert cartridge. The revolvers chambered for .44 Russian were marked “Russian Model” and the ones chambered in .44-40 were marked “Caliber / Winchester 1873”. The .44 Merwin & Hulbert cartridge was comparable to Smith & Wesson’s “44 American” cartridge but had a slightly longer case. The top of the 7” round barrel is marked in a single line:

 

MERWIN HULBERT & Co. New York, U.S.A. Pat. Jan, 24. Apr. 21. Dec. 15. 74. Aug 3. 75. July 11. 76. Apr. 17. 77. Pat’s Mar. 6, 77.

 

The left side of the barrel is also marked in a single line: 

 

THE HOPKINS & ALLEN Manufacturing Co. Norwich, Conn. U.S.A.

 

All of these markings remain clear and fully legible, with most of the lettering remaining extremely crisp and sharp. Only the first two words of the left side barrel legend, “THE HOPKINS,” are weak, apparently from some cleaning in that area. The serial number 135 is present on the bottom of the flat grip frame. Like the majority of Merwin, Hulbert & Company arms, the gun is assembly numbered on the major parts. In this case the assembly number 139 (not to be confused with the serial number) is found on the left side of the frame under the grip, on the rear face of the cylinder, on the rear face of the lower barrel web, on the cylinder arbor pin and in pencil inside the left grip. All of these parts bear the matching number 139. It is worth noting that the earliest production Merwin, Hulbert & Co revolvers often show a serial number that is only a few digits away from the assembly number. In fact, I sold a “First-First” Frontier Army a few years ago that was serial number 944 and assembly number 954! This begs the question as to why the serial number was not used as the assembly number. I would hypothesize that the guns were assembly numbered during production, with the serial number applied at the end, when the gun was completed. This would explain why the earliest guns often show assembly numbers that are very close to the serial number, while later production guns usually show a major difference between the assembly and serial numbers. As later production guns often show assembly numbers as much as 10,000 higher than the serial number, this suggests that the assembly numbers were used consecutively through all of the production, regardless of model, with serial numbers applied in different series depending on model. This could allow a serious researcher to survey surviving guns to determine both the overall production numbers for Merwin, Hulbert & Co based  upon assembly numbers and production quantities by model based upon serial numbers.

 

As noted, the condition of the gun is NEARLY EXCELLENT. Overall, the revolver retains about 90%+ of its original nickel finish. There are some very tiny areas of minor flaking and bubbling scattered here and there over the entire revolver, much like lightly scattered pinpricking on a blued gun. The largest areas of finish loss are along the sharp edges of the gun and mostly notably due to flaking in the scooped cylinder flutes. Most of the areas where the nickel has flaked now show a lightly freckled, oxidized brown patina. The balance of the revolver shows only some very light wear and loss to the nickel, all of which looks like real world carry wear. The nickel has dulled with age and has developed a milky, somewhat frosted and slightly hazy patina that is fairly common on nickel plated guns from the 19thcentury. Due to the reflective nature of the nickel finish and the bight photographic lighting, there are some reflected anomalies that look like discolorations on the pistol; these are not actually present on the gun and are only reflected optical illusions from objects in my office. These same anomalies have created a strange brownish cast to the top of the barrel in the front facing picture, which appears to be a reflection from the orange-brown grips. The hammer retains about 60%+ original mottled case coloring, which has faded and dulled losing some of the vivid color but retaining strong mottling. The trigger shows traces of its original case hardened finish, mostly in the protected areas, with the balance being a smooth, dull, blue-gray color. The bore of the revolver rates about FINE. It is mostly bright with fine, crisp rifling. The bore shows some very lightly scattered frosting in the grooves along its length, as well as some lightly scattered pinpricking and minor pitting nearer the muzzle. The revolver is mechanically excellent, and the single action mechanism works flawlessly exactly as it should. The revolver cycles, indexes, times and locks up very crisply. The locking system of the revolver works correctly as well, with the forward portion of the frame, barrel and the cylinder unlocking, rotating and sliding smoothly forward as they should. The revolver mechanism retains little of its “suction” (where the action draws itself closed about halfway after it has been opened and released), but still operates smoothly and correctly. The mechanism locks the gun up securely, exactly as it should. All of the screws remain relatively crisp and sharp with very little slot wear, with the exception of the wedge screw in the barrel, which shows moderate slot wear. The innovative sliding loading gate functions smoothly and opens and closes exactly as it should. The two-piece, mottled orange and brown hard rubber composite grips are in about EXCELLENT condition. They are completely original and fit the revolver perfectly. The interior of the left grip panel is pencil numbered to the gun. The grips are solid and free from any breaks, cracks or repairs. The grips show only some very minor wear and handling marks, and the impressed checkering remains very crisp and sharp.


The revolver includes a very nice, period Mexican Loop holster that fits the revolver perfectly. The holster remains in VERY GOOD condition, showing only moderate real world wear and some finish loss from carry and use. The stitching remains tight throughout and the embossed decorations remain mostly clear and crisp. The hostler appears to have been with the revolver for a very long time and fits it like a glove.

 

Overall this is a really ABOUT EXCELLENT condition example of the scarce and desirable Merwin, Hulbert & Company 1st– 1stModel Frontier Army Revolver. The Frontier Army is a scarce gun in its own right, as the open top, scoop fluted Frontier Army revolvers were only made for a few years, during the height of America’s western expansion. The fact that this is one has the earliest production features and the rare mottled orange grips only makes it rarer and more desirable. These large frame, long barrel Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers saw use by the good, bad and the ugly during the heyday of the American West and are an important part of old west firearms history. Every serous collection of pistols from the American West needs at least a couple of Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers in it, and this one would be a really great addition to your collection. Over the last few years the prices of Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers have steadily increased, along with their desirability and popularity. Very high condition examples of the large frame revolvers are commanding higher and higher prices every day, and often result in strong competitive bidding at auctions. This is a great chance to add a very high condition 1stModel Merwin, Hulbert & Company Frontier Army that is a very early gun that has all of the most desirable and early features, to your collection. It is a gun that can truly be the centerpiece of any serious old west revolver collection and really has a great "old west" look  with the accompanying holster. Until about two decades ago, these revolvers were under appreciated and even today they often remain undervalued. With Colt Single Action Army revolvers in this condition regularly bringing low to mid five figure prices at auction, I don’t think it will be long before the much rarer Merwin, Hulbert & Company guns start to give the Colt Single Actions a real run for their money in the value department. Don’t miss your chance to own a high quality, 1stproduction year Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolver now, before the prices double over the next few years.


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