Factory Engraved Merwin & Hulbert DA .38 Revolver - Simply Wonderful
- Product Code: FHG-1600-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
The story of Merwin & Hulbert & Company is a somewhat confusing one, which may one day be more clearly delineated through additional research. The firm is probably the most famous and successful “gun making company” that never actually manufactured a single gun, and whose principles appear to have had no design input into the revolutionary arms that they 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 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, Winchester and Remington, and imported and distributed high quality English arms as well. Merwin succeeded in securing several US and state military contracts during the American Civil War (primarily for Ballard rifles & carbines) and continued to expand his retail and wholesale distribution business during the course of the war. By 1866 Edward Bray left the company and Charles Simkins became a partner, leading the company to change its name to Merwin & Simkins, and later that year Merwin, Taylor & Simkins, when Charles Simkins also joined the venture. By 1869 the short-lived partnership was dissolved, and 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 20 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 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 brought to market 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 1880’s, in a variety of frame and action configurations, but always in a .44 caliber format, including 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 finest made revolvers of their time, but Merwin, Hulbert & Company did not make 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 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, unlocking the action of the revolver. This allowed the user to rotate the cylinder, forward portion of the frame and the barrel to the right and push it forward. This caused and 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 (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 ““ 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. As production continued and improvements were made, a top strap was added to the frame for strength, and the cylinder flutes were changed to the more traditional flutes that run 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 double action mechanism were marketed at “Pocket Army” revolvers. Merwin also introduced an 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 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 name, but also with the name of the actual manufacturer, Hopkins & Allen. Had the source of production remained a secret, the Merwin & Hulbert Army revolvers may well have eclipsed the Colt Single Action Army as the most successful 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 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 Army revolvers were even tested by the US Ordnance Bureau and found to be superior to the Colt M-1873 then in service on a number of points, 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 of the revolvers that had already been shipped! In the end, as Merwin & Hulbert historian and author Art Phelps notes, Joseph Merwin “died of a broken heart”. Between his failure to make his guns the success they should have been, the duplicity of the Russian’s in their dealings with him and the los of his $100,000.00 investment in the Evans Repeating Rifle Company, Merwin appears to have finally succumbed. Even though his partners continued to operate the company until 1892, their success was limited, and they appear to have achieved greater acceptance and success with their .38 and .32 “Pocket Model” revolvers. The revolvers were initially offered in 1878 as “medium” frame, spur trigger, .38 caliber guns. However, they soon evolved into double action revolvers and by the early 1880’s were offered in two frame sizes and two calibers. The double action pocket revolvers were sold in “Medium” and “Small” frame sizes, with the medium being available as a 5-shot .38 or a 7-shot .32. The small frame was only available as a 5-shot .32. The double action pocket revolvers soon became popular with city and municipal police departments, many of which were just starting to arm their patrolmen during that era. According to research by Art Phelps, the December 31, 1886 annual report for the Cincinnati Police Department showed some 365 medium frame Merwin & Hulbert revolvers were purchased that year for a total expenditure of $2,998.35, or just under $8.22 per revolver. His research indicates that the medium Merwin & Hulbert saw use with the police departments of the cities of Detroit, Miami, Cleveland, Charleston, and Boston, just to name a few of the larger ones, as well as with a significant number of smaller New England towns and cities. It is interesting to note that Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who ambushed and killed Bonnie & Clyde, privately purchased and carried a medium frame seven-shot .32 Merwin & Hulbert. Additionally, famous western sheriff Pat Garrett, who killed Billie the Kid, was presented with an inscribed .38 Medium Frame Merwin & Hulbert in September of 1881 from the “grateful citizens of Lincoln County”. 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 cut engraving. This allowed Merwin & Hulbert 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.
Offered here is an EXCELLENT condition example of a Merwin, Hulbert & Company “Automatic” 38 Caliber Double Action Revolver, with “Intaglio Floral” factory engraving. These medium frame double action revolvers were introduced in 1879 or 1880 and remained in production through the late 1880’s and probably until the company’s demise around 1892. As with all Merwin & Hulbert revolvers, it is not clear exactly how many 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 only a few thousand of these revolvers were produced, but probably more than of its larger brother the Pocket Army. The term “automatic” in the official Merwin & Hulbert product name for the revolver refers to the automatic extraction mechanism, that same as found on the larger “Frontier Army” models. In fact, Merwin & Hulbert used the term to describe all of its automatic extraction revolvers. The medium frame, 5-shot .38 (or 7-shot .32) were both chambered for the proprietary Merwin & Hulbert calibers of .38 Merwin & Hulbert and .32 Merwin & Hulbert. For all practical purposes, there was little difference between .38 M&H and .38 Short Colt or .38 S&W Short, nor was there a reasonable difference between the .32 M&H and .32 Short Colt or .38 S&W Short, and the ammunition appears to have been used somewhat interchangeably during the 1880’s and 1890’s, with any of the .38s or .32s having been used in a gun of that caliber. The guns were available with 5 “, 3 ““ and 2 ““ barrels, as well as with multi-barrel sets. This factory engraved Merwin, Hulbert & Company DA “Automatic” .38 has a 5 ““ barrel, is chambered for .38 M&H, has a lanyard ring on the bottom of the square butt and has a folding hammer spur. The gun features about “ coverage punch dot engraving and has fancy mother of pearl grips. The top of the 5 ““ ribbed round barrel is marked in two lines: MERWIN HULBERT & CO. NEW YORK U.S.A. / PAT. APR. 17, 77. JUNE 15, 80. MAR. 14, 82. JAN. 9, 83.. The there are very few other markings on the gun. The left side of the frame, below the cylinder is marked in a single line: 38 CAL.. The bottom of the butt is marked with the assembly number 24 / 546. While this is typically where you expect to find the serial number, on some Merwin & Hulbert revolvers this is the assembly number, and the serial number is concealed by the grips. On this revolver, the matching assembly number 24 / 546 appears on the rear of the cylinder and on the rear of the barrel web. Under the left grip is the serial number, 1546. The folding hammer spur is marked: Pat’d / Jan. 27, 85. As the hammer spur is so small, the top half of the word “Pat’d” is not stuck on the spur. This is typical of the markings on Merwin folding hammers. Overall, the revolver retains about 90%+ of its original nickel finish. There are some very tiny and minor areas of flaking around the muzzle and the butt where the assembly number is struck. There is also significant thinning and wear to the nickel along the backstrap of the revolver. There is some pinprick flaking within the punch dot engraving along the barrel, and some lightly oxidized freckling is just starting to appear in these areas. The pistol was part of a very old estate collection in Northern Virginia that has been in storage since the 1970s, and as a result some traces of old grease and dried oil are present scattered around the exterior of the revolver, and somewhat more is noticeable within the action of the gun. The overall condition of the revolver and its outstanding amount of original finish is well depicted by the photos below. As is typical of 19th century nickel finishes, the finish shows some scattered patches of minor frosting from age. The bore of the revolver rates about EXCELLENT+ to NEAR MINT and is mirror bright with crisp rifling. The bore shows some only some very lightly scattered frosting in the grooves, and some very lightly scattered pinpricking. The folding hammer retains about 60%+ vivid case hardened colors, with some minor fading and light edge wear noted. The trigger retains about 40% of its case coloring, which is most evident on the wider web at the rear of the trigger. The revolver is mechanically excellent and the double action mechanism works flawlessly in both double and single action modes. The revolver cycles, indexes, times and locks up perfectly. 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 medium frame revolver mechanisms are not known for having the “suction” of the large frame mechanism, and none is noted in this example. The mechanism locks the gun up securely, exactly as it should. All of the screws remain crisp and sharp with practically no slot wear. The innovative sliding loading gate functions smoothly and opens and closes exactly as it should. The revolver features about 3/4 coverage engraving, with the feature being a deer on the left side of the frame, between the grip juncture and the triggerguard. The balance of the left side is decorated with floral splays and motifs that continue on the cylinder and the barrel. The right side of the frame is decorated with geometric lines and lineal floral engraving. Most sources note that it is somewhat uncommon to find extensive frame engraving on both sides of Merwin & Hulbert revolvers. The two-piece, fancy mother of pearl grips are in equally wonderful condition, rating about VERY FINE+ to NEAR EXCELLENT condition, with no breaks or repairs noted. There are a couple of tiny slivers missing from the right grip at the upper frame junction, but this is minor and barely noticeable. There is also very tight and barely noticeable surface crack in the left grip, near the grip frame. This appears to be stable and almost disappears in the fluorescence of the grips, but is mentioned for exactness. The condition and state of preservation of this high grade a Merwin, Hulbert & Company “Automatic” 38 Caliber Double Action Revolver is truly remarkable.
Overall this is a really EXCELLENT condition example of the Merwin, Hulbert & Company “Automatic” 38 Caliber Double Action Revolver. The gun is simply stunning, retaining nearly all of its original nickel finish, along with the wonderful factory engraving and the lovey mother of pearl grips. Over the last two to three decades, the guns of Merwin & Hulbert have really come into their own and have finally achieved a notable place in realm of historic and collectible firearms. Today’s collectors appreciate the quality craftsmanship and mechanical engineering of what quite possibly were the finest made revolvers of the late 19th century. As a result, Merwin & Hulbert prices have climbed steadily over the last few years and are continuing to increase. The desirability for high condition examples, oddities and factory engraved specimens have driven the prices for those guns at an even greater rate. This has resulted in very high condition factory engraved Merwin & Hulberts selling for as much as 3 to 4 times the price of a comparable condition revolver without the factory enhancements. This is a really outstanding, investment grade example of a factory engraved a Merwin, Hulbert & Company “Automatic” 38 Caliber Double Action Revolver, in a rarely encountered state of preservation. This gun will be a wonderful addition to any collection of Merwin & Hulberts, of high condition or engraved guns of the old west, or simply as a long-term investment. As a good friend of mine and long time dealer in antique arms likes to say: “Pretty always sells”, and this gun has “pretty” in spades!SOLD