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Fine Webley-Bentley Revolver by William Rowntree

Fine Webley-Bentley Revolver by William Rowntree

  • Product Code: FHG-JM100
  • Availability: In Stock
  • $2,995.00


On 4 December 1852, Joseph Bentley received British Patent No. 960/1852 for a percussion revolver, and on April 4 of 1854 received an additional patent for “improvements to the revolver”, No. 768/1854. Bentley was a long time Birmingham gunmaker, who specialized in handguns and was listed in the directories of the time as a “Pistol Maker”. He opened his business in 1829 at 11 Steelhouse Lane, where he was listed as a “Saddle Pistol Maker”, specializing in the single shot, muzzleloading “military sized” handguns of the period. By 1839, he was working towards producing the new, innovative repeating pistols and received his first British Patent, shared with gunmaker George Stocker. Their patent, No. 8,024 issued on April 9 of that year, was for a pepperbox revolver. In 1844, he received British Patent 10,280 for “nipples mounted parallel with the bore of guns”, a concept essential to the eventual manufacture of revolving percussion pistols with a multi-shot cylinder and a single barrel, rather than the simpler “pepperbox” concept. It was, however, Bentley’s 1852 patent for a “self-cocking” (double action) revolver design that would make his name synonymous with many of the major British handgun makers of the mid-19th century. His design was for a double-action only revolver with an open frame, a spurless hammer, and unlike the Colt design, one that did not incorporate a bolt-stop in the bottom of the frame that engaged a slot in the cylinder’s side to ensure positive lock up when the gun was indexed. Instead, Bentley’s system locked the cylinder from the rear when the trigger was fully pulled by pivoting an arm actuated by the trigger to engage the side of a wing on the rear of the cylinder that prevented the cylinder from rotating out of battery. Rather than incorporating a half-cock in the mechanism to free the cylinder to rotate for loading, Bentley devised a simple hammer nose safety that allowed the hammer to be rested just off the cones on the rear of the cylinder, with the safety pressing against the frame. Pulling the trigger to fire the gun automatically disengaged the safety device. Bentley’s revolver was designed with a cast, malleable iron frame with an integral grip frame, and a wedge retained barrel that was secured to the central cylinder arbor pin that screwed into the rear of the frame. It is likely that the use of the Philip Webley patented “wedge frame” design gave rise to the long-standing reference to most of the revolvers produced along these lines as “Webley-Bentley’s”, essentially a misnomer. Bentley certainly produced his own pattern of revolvers that did incorporate the wedge connection system between the frame and barrel, but the guns were otherwise based entirely on his own patents or designs in the public domain. Webley likely never produced a Bentley patent revolver, but likely sold some made by other Birmingham gun makers with his own retailer mark on them, thus lending to the confusion. However, the huge number of “Webley-Bentley” revolvers produced in Birmingham during the mid-19th century had little to do with either of the gunmakers. 

 

Many of those “Webley-Bentley’ guns were cheaply made, had the general appearance of the Bentley design, but were quite different. These “Webley-Bentley” guns rarely incorporated Bentley’s patent hammer safety, instead relying upon the simpler, frame mounted spring safety found on the Model 1851 Adams revolvers. These cheaper guns were almost always produced with a removable side plate for access to the action that was based on the Bentley double action lockwork. Bentley manufactured revolvers, on the other hand, were made with solid cast iron frame without side plates, always used his patented hammer safety and were nearly always produced with his own patented loading lever system (covered under Patent No. 768/1854) that was based upon the Colt system. Interestingly, it appears that Bentley did not produce many these guns, with British authors Taylerson, Andrews & Firth noting in The Revolver 1818-1865 that extant examples of Bentley Revolvers are found in the 1 to 850 serial number range, with an “A” pre-fix appearing around #200. They suggest that his production of this model may have only been around 850 pieces, making a real Joseph Bentley made Bentley revolver rather scarce. They further note that most of the guns are marked by Bentley, although a handful do exist with the names other Birmingham gunmakers and retailers, however these are far from common. Bentley would receive additional patents during his lifetime, including No. 780/1856 for a percussion breechloading rifle and No. 2657/1857 for additional improvements to his loading lever. Joseph Bentley would go on to partner with Charles Playfair, forming the firm of Bentley & Playfair and would leave the trade in 1864.

 

The Webley Wedge system was developed by the famous Birmingham gun maker Philip Webley as a lower cost production alternative to the solid frame revolvers being offered by Adams and Tranter. Rather than machining the entire frame and barrel from a single forging as was done on those revolvers, Webley used a Colt style wedge to secure the two primary components of the revolver together. The front / upper component was the barrel and topstrap, while the lower component was the grip strap and lower frame, which contained the action. Most of Webley’s revolvers used the Joseph Bentley patented lockwork and were what modern gun makers would term “traditional double action”. Which meant that they could be cocked manually and fired in “single action” mode for accurate shooting or could be fired in “double action” mode, by simply pulling the trigger. This latter method was faster, but the long, heavy trigger pull associated with the pull of the trigger rotating the cylinder, cocking, and then releasing the hammer, inhibited accurate shooting. Philip Webley (1813-1888) went into business with his brother James as a gun and gunlock maker in 1834 in Birmingham, and in 1838 established himself on his own at 84 Weaman Street.  In 1859 the name of the firm was changed to that of P Webley & Son, and it continued under that name and at that address through 1883, expanding to more Weaman Street properties in 1884 and operating until 1893, when the firm was combined with the W & C Scott company to become Webley & Scott. The firm remained in business under several names and owners, working in a number of different areas of the gun trade, until the year 2000. While Webley was responsible for the design that mated the wedge frame and Bentley’s lock work, it appears that he retailed more of the guns than he manufactured, and the guns were produced by a variety of Birmingham makers during the late 1850s and early to mid-1860. Many of these revolvers were not marked with anything other than patent numbers on the frame and a retailers’ name on the top strap, which indicated who sold the revolver.

 

The revolver offered here is a classic example of what may collectors would call a “Webley-Bentley” in that it combines the features of both designers. It is also void of serial numbers or “patent” markings, suggesting that this may well have been a patent infringement revolver, particularly since it combines features from several different patentees. The revolver is of two-piece construction that has a wedge that secures the barrel and topstrap assembly to the frame. The presence of the topstrap immediately indicates that this gun is not a traditional Bentley patent revolver, as the Bentley guns were made without a topstrap. The action is of the double action only type with a spurless hammer and only the long, heavy pull of the trigger will fire the gun. The trigger pull rotates and indexes the cylinder, raises the hammer, and drops the hammer when trigger reaches the limit of its travel. This is similar to both the Bentley double action system and the Adams Model 1851 action. The revolver does not use the Bentley patent hammer safety, but rather the more commonly encountered Adams 1851 patent style frame-mounted spring safety that engages when the trigger is lightly pulled and effectively creates a half-cock position that allows the cylinder to rotate freely. The loading lever is of the Bentley patent style, with a simple Colt-type toggle system that is retained by the Bentley style pin in the bottom of the barrel that engages a hole and latch in the loading lever. Another interesting feature is the six-shot cylinder, which is uncommon as most English revolvers of this genre were produced with five-shot cylinders. In my opinion, this combination of features categorizes the gun as a Webley-Bentley.

 

This particular example is a much higher-grade gun than typically encountered among “Webley-Bentley” Revolvers. The gun is void of any markings that would confirm who the manufacturer was and bears no patent markings or serial numbers. It is only marked with a retailer’s name on the topstrap and with Birmingham commercial proofs on the lower left angled flat of the barrel and between the chambers of the cylinder. The topstrap is neatly engraved in a single line:

 

W ROWNTREE . BARNARD CASTLE & PENRITH

 

William Rowntree was listed in the period business directories as operating in Barnard Castle, County Durham from 1847 to 1865. He also maintained a place of business in Penrith, County Cumberland during the late 1850s as well. Both towns are located in the northern regions of England, about 175 miles north of the Birmingham gun making region, and about 100 to 125 miles south of Edinburgh, Scotland. It is not clear from the limited available information if Rowntree was simply a retailer or a gun maker as well, however, a number of sporting shotguns are also known with his mark. Based on the style of the revolver, with the early Adams type self-cocking clockwork and the exaggerated curve to the grip strap, I would think this revolver would have been manufactured in the mid-1850s, but it could be a later pistol as well. There is simply not enough information available on the maker or from this pistol to determine a more exact time frame for production and sale than mid-1850s to 1865, when Rowntree went out of business. The pistol is a fairly high-grade revolver and may have at one time been a cased gun.

 

The pistol is a percussion six-shot, self-cocking (double action only) revolver in 80-Bore, nominally .38 caliber. The revolver has a 5 ¼” octagon barrel and is just under 10 ½” in overall length. It has a Bentley pattern loading lever under the barrel, and the typical Webley-Wedge frame topstrap. The grip is curved in an exaggerated fashion and features a storage compartment in the butt for the storage of percussion caps or spare percussion cones (nipples). The pistol is in VERY FINE condition overall and retains about 80%+ original bright blue on the barrel and top strap. The lower frame and grip strap retain about 10%-20% faded and worn blue, mixed with a smooth smoky gray patina. The cylinder retains about 30%+ original case coloring, which has faded substantially and mixed with a mottled smoky gray patina as well. The loading lever retains about 50%+ vivid case coloring, with some fading and toning to silver and gray. Most of the color remains in the knuckle and hinge area of the lever. The frame of the revolver is very nicely engraved with tight Arabesque foliate scroll motifs, and the triggerguard is engraved with matching motifs. The butt cap is engraved with a swirling pinwheel floral motif and retains about 20%-30% faded case coloring. The edges of the frame, top strap and muzzle are all lightly engraved with a delicate geometric boarder patterns. The metal remains mostly smooth throughout with some freckles of surface oxidation here and there, but mostly on the cylinder. The cylinder also shows some scattered light pinpricking on the cylinder. The action of the revolver functions perfectly and the revolver times and locks up exactly as it should. The original framed mounted hammer safety is present on the left side of the frame and retains its spring tension, but the small tip of the safety that engages the hammer nose inside the frame has broken off. This is common on English revolvers with this style of hammer safety, and it is a typical issue on Adams, Tranter and other English pistols of the era. The broken tip keeps the safety from engaging properly and operating as it should. The cylinder retains all of its original cones (nipples) and they are all in fine condition. The loading lever functions exactly as it should and securely snaps into place on the Bentley style pin at the end of the barrel. The pin is screwed directly into the barrel and the hole is drilled all the way through the barrel and into the lower land of the rifling. This is visible when the bore is inspected from the face of the muzzle. The pin does not interfere with the rifling or project into the bore proper of the gun. The bore of the revolver is in FINE condition, with crisp and deep seven-groove rifling present. The bore is mostly bright with some scattered oxidation and frosting that is primarily in the grooves. The original front sight is dovetailed in place at the end of the barrel as well, with a small notch at the top rear of the topstrap serving as a rear sight. The spring-loaded butt trap cover of the pistol functions smoothly and exactly as it should. The pistol remains 100% complete, correct, and original. The one-piece checkered walnut grip is in VERY FINE condition, with sharp checkering throughout and showing only some scattered light wear and handling marks. There is also a tiny chip of wood missing at the lower top edge of the grip where it meets the frame, a chip so tiny is it barely noticeable but is noted for accuracy. The rear of the grip is mounted with an attractive German silver shield shaped escutcheon, intended for the monogram or coat of arms of the owner. However, the shield remains blank and un-engraved.

 

It is well established that “Webley Wedge” pattern revolvers were imported by the South during the course of the American Civil War. While little definite information about quantities or exact specifications has been established, the general consensus is that most of the revolvers were of the pattern with a top strap and a Colt / Bentley style loading lever under the barrel. More than likely both the 80-Bore (.38) and 54-Bore (.44) caliber revolvers were purchased, as they essentially equated to the standard .36 “Navy” and .44 “Army” Colt models which were the standard by which all percussion revolvers on both sides were rated. The famous “Pratt Roll” of percussion revolvers in the hands of Company H of the 18th VA Cavalry CSA as of July of 1864, indicates that of the 16 revolvers counted, 7 were Kerrs, 2 were Tranters, 2 were “Bentley” revolvers, 4 were “unknown” and one was a “Webley” (#5054). While this revolver is hardly the quality that one would expect to see in the hands of an average cavalry trooper, it could well have been a privately purchase revolver utilized by an officer. It may well have crossed the ocean as part of the speculative cargo in a blockade-runner and not as a Confederate central government purchase item. No one will ever be able to know for sure, short of finding receipts for the sale of Mr. Rowntree’s revolvers to the Confederacy. One thing is for sure, both Webley wedge pattern revolvers and Bentley pattern revolvers were used in at least some small quantities by the Confederacy, and they are very scarce revolvers on the American market today. While these were intended as “cheap” alternatives to the more expensive Adams and Tranter revolvers in England, and were produced in some quantity there, US examples are simply scarce. Adams and Tranter revolvers appear on the market with much more frequency than any Webley Wedge style percussion revolver. Overall, this is a really lovely example in a high state of condition that functions well and is in the less often encountered 80-Bore chambering. This revolver would be a wonderful addition to any collection of secondary martial revolvers from the Civil War era, especially one that focuses on imported arms.

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