The London Armoury Company Kerr’s Patent Revolver is one of the most distinctive and recognizable of all Civil War era handguns. The side mounted hammer and removable side plate were not common features in large bore handguns of the era and result is a unique silhouette. The Kerr patent revolver was invented by James Kerr, who was awarded two patents for improvements to Roberts Adams earlier revolver design. Kerr had been a founding member of the London Armoury Company, which was established on February 9, 1856 and of which Adams was the Managing Director during the late 1850s. It is interesting to note that Kerr was Adams’ cousin and had previously worked with him at Deane, Adams & Deane.
Initially the London Armoury Company (LAC) focused on producing Model 1854 Beaumont-Adams patent revolvers with an eye towards obtaining lucrative English military contracts. When significant orders were not forthcoming, the company shifted its focus to manufacturing the British Pattern 1853 “Enfield” rifle muskets for both the English government and private sale. This caused a rift within the company management that culminated with the departure of Adams from L.A.C. and the elevation of Kerr to the position of factory superintendent. With the departure of Adams, and the perceived need to offer some form of revolver for sale, the company purchased Kerr’s patent rights and started to produce the Kerr patent revolver in 1859.
The first pistol was completed in March of 1859 and was tested at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock on April 25, 1859. The pistol was typical of large bore English percussion handguns of the era, in that it the standard offering was 54-Bore (about .442 caliber) and had a 5-shot cylinder. The gun was manufactured with barrel lengths that varied slightly, with the earliest guns having barrels around 5 ¾” in length and the later pistols having slightly shorter barrels that varied between about 5 ½” and 5 5/8”. While the large majority of the pistols produced were in 54-Bore, a small number of very early and very late production pistols were manufactured in 80-Bore (approximately .387 caliber). The majority of the pistols used a single action mechanism, not a double action mechanism as the trigger position makes many people believe. The hammer could only be cocked by pulling it back manually but pulling the trigger could rotate the cylinder. This was a byproduct of the cylinder locking system, which relied upon a pivoting arm that was actuated by the trigger. This arm locked the cylinder in place when the gun was fired. This was very different from the standard spring-loaded cylinder stop found in the frames of most American made revolvers. This system also eliminated the need to machine stop slots in the cylinder, as the rear face of cylinder was where the arm locked it into position. Only a handful of Kerr revolvers were manufactured as “self-cocking” (double action) revolvers, and they are very rare today. The Kerr also featured a unique, frame mounted cylinder arbor that was removed from the rear of the pistol (much like on the Colt side hammer, aka “Root” designs), instead of the more common location at the front of the cylinder. This made the pistol easier and safer to manipulate when the cylinder had to be removed from the pistol. The early production Kerr revolvers had a small setscrew on the left side of the frame, forward of the cylinder that prevented the cylinder arbor pin from being withdrawn from the rear of the frame. The later production revolvers had a frame mounted spring on the lefts side, similar in appearance to the Model 1851 Adams patent safety, which retained the arbor pin. Early production revolvers had a wide groove in the topstrap, while the later production guns had a flat topstrap without a groove. The early guns also had a loading lever that pivoted on a screw located at the lower front edge of the frame, under the barrel. The later production guns moved this pivot point higher and closer to the cylinder, making it somewhat stronger and allowing more torque to be applied to the lever when loading tight fitting ammunition. Most of these early features are phased out in the upper 2,XXX to middle 3,XXX serial number range, although some of the features appear somewhat randomly through about the middle of revolver production, suggesting that sometimes older parts were used to complete orders when time was of the essence.
Although the design was reliable and fairly robust, the London Armoury Company did not find any British military contracts forthcoming for their pistol. Between the introduction of the Kerr in 1859 and the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, only about 1,000-1,500 of the revolvers were manufactured, and even fewer were sold. Most of these pistols were sold commercially (both in Great Britain and in the US), with about 100 of them purchased by an English Volunteer unit: 1stSussex Artillery Volunteers.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Caleb Huse (the South’s primary purchasing agent in England) engaged the London Armory Company to produce all of the Kerr’s Patent revolvers that they could for delivery to the Confederacy. It is believed that nearly all of the L.A.C.’s output of Kerr revolvers from April of 1861 through the close of the Civil War were produced on contract for the Confederacy, with about 9,000 pistols produced and shipped to the south during that time. It is also estimated that the London Armoury Company produced about 70,000 Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Muskets during the same time frame. The estimate regarding revolver production is based upon the extant examples with Confederate provenance or marks, which tend to primarily exist in the 1,500 to about the 10,000 serial number range (although a handful of legitimate CS inspected Kerr’s do in the 7XX to 1,5XX range). To date, at least three separate Confederate government contracts have been identified for the purchase of Kerr revolvers. Two were army contracts, and one was a 1,000-gun contract for the Confederate Navy. The Naval contract was quite early, as reference to the purchase of Kerr revolvers by CSN Commander James D. Bulloch was made in a diary entry by Confederate purchasing agent Major Edward Anderson dated August 6, 1861. Many of the army contract Kerr revolvers were financed through the Charleston, SC based firm of Fraser, Trenholm & Company and delivered by their subsidiary John Fraser & Company. A minimum of 3,160 Kerr revolvers were delivered directly to Confederate arsenals by Fraser. In addition to the three government contracts, an unknown number of Kerr’s Patent revolvers were acquired speculatively for sale privately and to the Confederate military once they reached the south. This may account for the number of Kerr revolvers that exist today with unquestionable Confederate provenance, but without the JS/(ANCHOR) Confederate inspection mark. One of the standard indicators of CS importation and usage of a Kerr revolver is the presence of the JS / (ANCHOR) inspection mark that is found on the front of the wooden grip of the pistols, below the grip frame tang. This is the inspection mark of John Southgate, who acted as a “viewer” (arms inspector) for the Confederacy. However, the absence of this mark is not necessarily an indication that the pistol was not a CS purchase. As the information above outlines that the majority of Kerr’s over serial number 1,500 and below 10,500 were produced on contract for the Confederacy, although it appears unlikely that many (if any) guns above the 10,000 range were ever delivered to the Confederacy. To date, the lowest numbered Kerr to bear the JS/(Anchor) inspection mark that I am aware of is in the lower third of the 7XX range, and the highest verifiable mark is just under 10,000. Over the years, a number of Kerr’s with spurious JS/(ANCHOR) marks have been noted, often found on guns that did not have them when they were first documented during the past 20-30 years but have had them “magically” appear over the course of time. The best concrete documentary evidence of how high the CS used serial numbers of Kerr revolvers ranged is the Squad Roll of Lt. Julian Pratt of Company H of the 18thVirginia Cavalry. This document lists the pistols in possession of his squad of cavalry in July of 1864. On the list are seven Kerr revolvers that range between #9240 and #9974. Since the Confederacy would continue to import Kerr pistols throughout the end of the war (the last documented shipment was 8 cases in March of 1865), it is not unreasonable to extrapolate CS contract guns being produced into about the 10,500 serial number range, although few likely arrived. It is interesting to note that two of the Kerr revolvers on the Pratt Roll are known to survive today, and revolver #9974 does not have a JS/Anchor mark.
While very scarce today, a number of Kerr revolvers were imported with a complete set of accouterments and accessories that would have been included in a cased set. According to Payne Ledger, some 900 Kerr revolvers arrived at the port of Wilmington, NC on October 31, 1864 (more than 3 months after Lt. Pratt’s guns were logged in his roll). These guns also had the following accessories:
“Spare Nipples & Cloth Bags, 900 Powder Flasks, 900 Cleaning Rods, 450 Steel Nipple Keys, 180 Bullet Moulds, 180 Mainsprings, 180 Trigger Springs, 90,000 Skin Cartridges, 108,000 Percussion Caps.”
The guns were delivered by the blockade-runner Hope and were part of the consignment purchased through John Fraser & Company. Five hundred of the guns and their associated accouterments were subsequently delivered the Selma Arsenal, and the other four hundred and their accessories were delivered to the Richmond Arsenal. The presence of accessories like cleaning rods, powder flasks, cloth bags and the combination gun tools (“steel nipple keys”), suggest that the guns were purchased as cased sets, and were subsequently repacked into the standard 20 guns per box lead lined cases that most Kerr revolvers were delivered to the Confederacy in. The powder flasks and cloth bags were certainly of limited utility for guns that were designed to be used with pre-made paper or skin cartridges. Bullet molds were typically delivered to the Confederacy at a ratio of 1 for every 20 long arms, but in this instance, they were delivered at the ratio of 1 for every 5 pistols. The cleaning rods would certainly have been useful in the field, but this is the only report I can find of cleaning rods being purchased by the Confederacy for use with revolvers. All of this suggests that these accessories originated in cased Kerr revolver sets. It seems quite likely that additional cased sets were acquired on a speculative basis for delivery to the south as well. Today all of these accessories are extremely rare, most especially the special Kerr revolver combination gun tool & cone (nipple) wrench. With the conclusion of the American Civil War, the London Armoury Company quickly succumbed to the loss of its largest, and only, major customer. The company closed exactly one year after the end of the American Civil War, in April of 1866, and it believed that the remaining factory assets and machinery were sold to a gun making company in Spain the following year. The Spanish had been producing an unlicensed copy of the Kerr since 1862, primarily assembling the guns from Belgian made parts. This had proved a somewhat unreliable system of production and made it difficult to obtain parts for repairs. By obtaining the actual machinery, it was possible to keep Kerr patent revolvers in Spanish service through the Spanish American War period (primarily as cartridge altered guns). James Kerr himself did remain in business for some time after this and assembled and sold Kerr revolvers from the existing stock of parts. This accounts for the post 11,000 serial numbered pistols occasionally encountered – occasionally in relatively nice condition. On a side note, collectors and researchers have long debated the correct pronunciation for James Kerr’s last name. According to Val Forgett Jr. gun collector, researcher and current owner of Navy Arms, his extensive research indicates that even the British disagree about the pronunciation, but the most correct pronunciation would almost certainly be KARR, while the next most common pronunciation would be KARE. The Americanized pronunciation is CUR.
The Kerr’s Patent Revolver offered here is a very late production gun in about FINE condition. The gun was retailed by James Kerr after the dissolution of the London Armoury Company, but manufactured prior to the London Armoury Company’s failure and may have been one of the last of the Confederate contract guns that was never delivered. The gun is serial numbered 10,615on the right side of the frame and on the cylinder. The lock plate of the pistol is clearly engraved with the standard LONDON ARMOURY Co marking as is the topstrap of the revolver. The interesting mark is the additional engraving on the narrow top flat of the barrel that reads:
JAsKERR & Co (SUCCESSORS) 36 KING WILLIAM ST LONDON E.C.
This address was the old London Armoury Company address, which Kerr remained at until he relocated to 54 King William Street circa 1870. The standard KERR’S / PATENT two-line oval cartouche is present on the left side of the frame as usual. The right side of the frame is engraved: KERR’S PATENT 10,615 and the matching serial number 10,615 is engraved on the cylinder as well. Alternating (Crown) / V and (Crown) / GP London commercial proof marks are also found between the chambers of the cylinder. The left upper flat of the octagonal barrel is marked near the frame: L.A.C. along with the commercial London view and proof marks of a (Crown) / GP and (Crown) / V. The pistol is marked with the typical London Armoury Company assembly numbers. The number is present on the face of the cylinder, inside the trigger guard, on the trigger web and inside the bottom of the frame. The assembly number is 230 and matches in all of these locations. These assembly numbers are often illegible due to wear at the face of the cylinder and inside the frame, and only the number in the triggerguard typically survives clearly readable. The original cylinder pin retention spring is present and secure, and the action of the pistol works perfectly. The timing and lock up are very good as well. The original loading lever is present and functions smoothly also. The gun retains about 25%+ of its original blued finish overall. The barrel retains strong traces, maybe 5% of its original bright blue, but has flaked much like a Starr revolver and now has a mostly mottled gray and blue-gray appearance. The frame retains about between 10% and 20% of its original blued finish, with most of the loss again being due to flaking. The cylinder retains about 85%+ of its original blue and is rather striking, with most of the loss being edge wear along the face of the cylinder. The lock plate and hammer retain about 20%+ of their original case coloring, which has dulled and faded substantially, and has a developed a mottled smoky gray patina with some traces of vivid color in protected areas. The loading lever retains a similar amount of case coloring, showing similar fading, dulling and a matching patina. All of the edges and markings of the pistol remain extremely sharp and crisp. Like most Kerr revolvers, this one has a lanyard ring in the butt cap. The butt cap retains minute traces of its original finish, which had blended with a smooth plum-brown patina. The original brass post sight is present on the end of the barrel near the muzzle and remains full height with the original crowning to its end. The bore of the pistol is in about VERY FINE+ condition and remains quite bright and sharp. The bore retains very crisp rifling and shows only some lightly scattered pinpricking and minor pitting in the grooves. The one-piece checkered walnut grip is in about VERY FINE condition as well. It retains extremely sharp checkering over most of its surface, with only the most minor indication of handling and light use. The grip is free of breaks, cracks, chips or repairs, and have a rich chocolate brown color.
Overall this is a very nice example of a late production Kerr’s Patent Revolver with a very interesting additional address on the barrel, indicating sale by James Kerr in the post-London Armoury Company period. The pistol is about FINE condition and remains very attractive. The gun is absolutely 100% complete and correct in every way and is in perfect mechanical condition. This will be a wonderful addition to your collection of English percussion revolvers and is a perfect bookend to show the last of the English made percussion Kerr revolvers, which were soon supplanted Spanish made percussion and later cartridge Kerrs. This gun is very reasonably priced for its crisp condition and were it JS / (ANCHOR) marked would be priced at least twice as high, making this a gun very good deal.