Factory Engraved Merwin, Hulbert & Co Pocket Army Revolver
- Product Code: FHG-2315
- Availability: In Stock
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 principles of 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, and in some cases the sole, distributor for a variety of new metallic cartridge firearms. These included guns 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 made 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. This led 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 eventually 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. These guns were introduced in 1876 and were produced well into the latter part of the 1880s. They were manufactured 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 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 an otherwise 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 pulling a 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 action caused any spent cases to be ejected, leaving the unfired ones in the cylinder 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. Fresh cartridges could then be inserted in the empty chambers through the sliding loading gate on the right side of the frame. When the action was open, a second catch could be depressed on the left side of the barrel, allowing the barrel and cylinder to be removed from the arbor pin and separated from the frame. This unique feature of the design 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 (aka “Army” or “Frontier”) revolvers were often sold with both short and long barrels. This allowed the owner to use a longer, more accurate 7” barrel for holster carry, but swap to a concealable 3 ¼” 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 that were centered in the middle of the cylinder. The very earliest of these guns, known as “first firsts” for “First 1st Models”, 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 detent in the barrel release catch that kept the barrel from being removed from the frame of the gun unless that small pin was depressed while pushing in the barrel catch. All three of these features were very short lived, making the “1st – 1st Model” Frontier Army Revolvers extremely rare and very desirable for collectors today. Many of the earliest Frontier Army single action revolvers also had mottled orange and brown “hard rubber” composite grips that were very attractive and are also 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 3rd model), 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 in the center of the cylinder. 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 most of 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 (aka “Peacemaker”) 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 revolver than they ever did with their large frame Frontier Army series.
Like most 19th century gun companies, Merwin, Hulbert & Co offered a wide variety of extra cost embellishments and upgrades, like engraving and grips of various materials other than the standard composition hard rubber. It was the medium frame Merwin & Hulbert revolvers that were often made as presentation and showpiece guns, with extensive engraving and high quality grips. While the top engravers of the era like Nimschke, Ulrich, and Young are known to have enhanced Merwin & Hulbert revolvers, this was typically on a one-off, contract basis for a retailer like Hartley & Graham of New York. Factory engraved Merwin & Hulberts were typically enhanced with a type of “punch dot” engraving that was simpler to render and less time consuming than traditional European hand cut engraving. This allowed Merwin, Hulbert & Co to offer these decorated guns at a much lower price than their competition. Engraving motifs included geometric and floral designs as well as game scenes and even the likenesses of people, such as Calamity Jane! The cardboard boxes for these punch dot engraved guns were sometimes marked “Intaglio Floral” in reference to the engraving. Sometimes the engraving was further enhanced by the addition of red (and more rarely green) lacquered dots within the engraving, to make it appear the gun was inlaid with rubies and emeralds. These enhanced guns often had upgraded grips as well, including mother of pearl or ivory, and the grips were sometimes decorated with carving as well.
Interestingly, those who really appreciated fine firearms in the late 19th century 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 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 19th century gave a number of Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers as gifts during his lifetime.
Offered here is a FINE condition example of a Factory Engraved Merwin, Hulbert & Company 3rd Model Double Action Pocket Army Revolver. The 3rd Model series of Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers were introduced in 1883, the same year that the “Pocket Army” was introduced as well. The 3rd Model features that instantly differentiated it from the earlier 1st and 2nd Models were the introduction of a topstrap on the frame, the change to standard cylinder flutes rather than “scooped flutes”, along with the availability of a double action model, as well as the original single action lockwork. The 3rd Model remained in production through about 1889 but was officially superseded in 1887 when the 4thModel was introduced. The primary differences between the 3rd and 4th models were the introduction of a barrel rib, similar to those found on Smith & Wesson revolvers of the time, and the change from an integral front sight to a pinned front sight. The 3rd Model sights were an integral part of the barrel, while the 4th Model used a removable front sight that was mounted in a groove in the barrel rib and pinned in place, similar to the system used by Smith & Wesson. It is not clear exactly how many 3rd and 4th Model Merwin Hulbert & Company revolvers were produced, due to an erratic serial numbering system and an 1891 fire that destroyed all of the Merwin, Hulbert & Company records. It is believed that at most only a few thousand of the revolvers were produced.
This 3rd Model revolver has all of the classic features typical of that model, with a top strap, traditional cylinder flutes, round barrel without a rib, an integral front sight and the double action trigger mechanism. It also features the most important features for a “Pocket Army”, beyond the marking on the frame; the short and easily concealable 3 ¼” barrel and the smaller “bird’s head” grip that terminates in a handy “skull cracker” projection.
The revolver is nickel plated, as were nearly all of the company’s firearm production. Research has indicated that only about 5% of all Merwin, Hulbert & Company production was blued. As noted, the gun has the standard 3 ¼” pocket sized barrel. The gun is also decorated with the classic Merwin, Hulbert & Company “Intaglio Floral” punch dot engraving with flowing vines and geometric patterns covering the large majority of the gun. Most Merwins that are so decorated also featured a central panel scene on the reverse action access plate, between the grip and the recoil shield. In this case, the scene is that of three birds (possibly partridges) in the brush. The gun was also enhanced with the application of the enamel dots within the engraving, and traces of the applied color are present within the engraving in the eyes of the birds and in some of the geometric boarder lines. The gun was further enhanced with gold wash on the cylinder and a lovely set of smooth ivory grips.
The left side of the frame is crisply marked in two lines, below the cylinder: CALIBER / WINCHESTER followed by a much larger 1873, indicating the revolver is chambered for the .44 Winchester Center Fire cartridge (also known as the .44 WCF or .44-40). The left side of the short round barrel is marked in two lines:
HOPKINS & ALLEN MFG CO NORWICH, CONN. U.S.A.
PAT. APR. 17, 77. JUNE 15, 80. MAR. 14, 82. JAN. 9, 83.
The lower right side of the frame is marked in two lines:
MERWIN HULBERT & Co. N.Y.
All of the markings are very crisp and clear, and completely legible, with the engraving equally sharp and crisp. Like most Merwins except for the latest production guns, this one has a serial number in addition to an assembly number. The serial number is 7135 and is found on the lower right side of the skull cracker projection below the grip. The assembly number 4905 is present on the frame under the left grip, on the rear face of barrel lug, and on the rear face of the cylinder. While the ivory grips are not directly numbered to the gun, they are both marked 30 on their interiors. Overall, the revolver retains about 70%+ of its original nickel plated finish. The nickel has been lightly cleaned and has a mostly bright appearance in most areas, while some of the protected areas and the nickel under the grips has the expected slightly frosted and milky appearance of 100+ year old nickel plating with appropriate age patina. There is the usual finish loss and thinning along the high edges and contact points as well as the usual flaking and loss around the sharp edges of the engraving. The largest areas of obvious loss are in the cylinder flutes and on the cylinder itself and a thumb sized area of worn loss on the lower left side of the barrel lug. The backstrap and gripstrap also show moderate loss of finish as well. Most of the areas of worn and flaked loss have developed a moderately oxidized brown patina. The gun also shows some scattered light marks from handling and use. The color case hardened hammer retains about 80%+ of its coverage but retains little of the vivid mottled colors. Instead, it has a mostly dull smoky blue-gray color with only traces of mottling. The triggerguard has a similar smoky bluish-gray patina that is lighter and grayer on the bottom of the bow and that shows some traces of vibrant color at the front and rear webs where the guard connects to the frame. The trigger retains no blue to speak of and has a silvery gray patina with some scattered oxidation and discoloration. There are also some patches of deeply oxidized minor surface roughness on the backstrap, while the balance of the guns shows only flecks and freckles of such oxidation and shows no pitting to speak of. The cylinder was originally gold washed as another level of adornment and the rear face still retains about 50% of the thinning gold. The exterior of the cylinder retains only some minor traces of gold, primarily in the cylinder stop slots.
The revolver is mechanically functional in the single action mode and the mechanism remains very crisp, operating flawlessly that way. The revolver cycles, indexes, times and locks up perfectly when cocked by hand. The double action mechanism needs some attention, as pulling the trigger does not fully cock the hammer before releasing it. The double action pull still rotates the cylinder with correct timing and appropriate indexing, but only lifts the hammer to about the half cock notch before releasing it. As the trigger is much “slicker” that most double action Merwin revolvers, this may be the result of a period action job to give the gun a better trigger pull, but in so doing essentially removing the double action capability. The locking system of the revolver works flawlessly 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 even retains some very strong “suction”, and the barrel and cylinder do draw back quite briskly when the action is opened and released. The mechanism also locks the gun up securely, exactly as it should. All of the frame screws remain fairly crisp and sharp with only some very light slot wear. However, none of the screws retain any of their nitre blued finish. The innovative sliding loading gate functions smoothly and opens and closes exactly as it should. The bore of the revolver remains in NEAR FINE condition and is mostly bright with fine, crisp rifling. The bore shows some even frosting in the grooves as well as some scattered light pitting along its length. The original integral front sight remains in place on the top of the barrel near the muzzle and the original skull cracker is present on the bottom of the grip frame. The two-piece smooth ivory grips are in about FINE condition as well. The grips are solid and complete and free of any breaks or repairs. As is typical of old ivory, they are starting to develop a yellowish-brown patina and have numerous small grain cracks that are non-structural. These are most noticeable around the grip screw escutcheons. The grips also show the hairline pattern that is typical of old ivory with the grain of the ivory taking on a darker, brownish color and giving the grip the appearance of having dark vein patterns. There is also some discoloration on the edges of the grips from the oxidation of the backstrap. While it is impossible to know for sure if these are factory ivory grips or simply period added grips, they fit the gun very well with only some minor shrinkage at the upper frame junction and show discoloration related to the oxidation of the metal of the gun that could only occur over an extremely long period of time. The grips have a great look and patina and certainly enhance the “Old West” appearance of this lovely revolver.
Overall, this is really is a very attractive, FINE condition and fairly crisp condition example of the scarce and popular Factory Engraved Merwin, Hulbert & Company 3rd Model Double Action Pocket Army Revolver. The revolver is in the most popular and desirable Merwin caliber, .44-40, and is in the classic “Pocket Army” configuration. These large frame Merwin, Hulbert & Company revolvers saw use by the good, bad and the ugly during America’s westward expansion 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 very nice addition. Don’t miss your chance to own very nice example of a mid-1880s Merwin, Hulbert & Company 3rd Model .44-40 Pocket Army revolver with wonderful factory engraving, a gold washed cylinder and great period ivory grips.