Very Fine Allen & Wheelock Lip Fire Army Revolver
- Product Code: FHG-3439
- Availability: In Stock
The firm of Allen & Wheelock was a true powerhouse of American arms manufacturing during the middle of the 19thcentury. Unlike the major American arms producers of the era like Colt and Remington, Allen & Wheelock concentrated upon manufacturing arms for civilian sale rather than focusing on trying to obtain government military contracts, although some products were designed with that goal in mind.
The company was founded in 1831 when Ethan Allen started to make cutlery in Milford, MA. Allen specialized in making the knives and tools needed for cobblers. Allen then moved his small facility to North Grafton, MA where he added a cane gun to his line of shoemaker’s tools. In 1836 Allen introduced his “Pocket Rifle”, a single action, under hammer, long-barreled rifled pistol in .31 caliber. With the initial success of this product, Allen pursued the design and patent of a double action pocket pistol, and eventually the pepperboxes that would be the mainstay of his firearms product line for the next 20 years. In 1837 he brought his brother-in-law Charles Thurber into the business, creating Allen & Thurber, and in 1842 the company moved to Norwich, CT, where it would remain until 1847. In 1847, the firm moved to Worcester, MA, where it would remain until it went out of business in 1871. In 1854 Thomas Wheelock, another of Allen’s brother’s-in-law joined the company, and it was rebranded as Allen, Thurber & Company. In 1856 Charles Thurber retired, and the company known as Allen & Wheelock came into existence. In 1865, after Wheelock’s death the previous year, the company was renamed for the last time as E. Allen & Company. This new company included more of Allen’s extended family, his son’s-in-law Sullivan Forehand and Henry Wadsworth. After Allen’s death in 1871, the 34-year-old company would change names again, this time to Forehand & Wadsworth, and the Allen name would be left to history. During that 34-year history, the company produced thousands of firearms ranging from single shot percussion pocket pistols and multi-barrel percussion pepperboxes to rather innovative and complicated large frame percussion revolvers and even some of the first truly successful cartridge revolvers.
The development of Allen’s “Lip Fire” self-contained cartridges were truly revolutionary, especially because the rimfire cartridges of the era that were offered by Smith & Wesson in their Model No 1 and Model No 2 revolvers were only .22 and .32 caliber respectively, while Allen offered self-contained handgun cartridges in the much larger calibers of .36 and .44. Unfortunately, the production of Allen & Wheelock Lip Fire and Rim Fire series of revolvers was brought to a screeching halt due to litigation from Smith & Wesson. Smith & Wesson was defending the bored through cylinder patent of Rollin White, which they had purchased the exclusive rights to. Allen managed to produce his sidehammer rimfire revolvers for slightly more than three years, from about 1859 until November of 1863, before the patent infringement suit shut down the production of that product line as well. His revolutionary Lip Fire revolvers saw a much shorter production life, with the guns being introduced in late 1860 or early 1861 and being put out of production by the November 1863 court order. Despite these setbacks, Allen persevered, continuing to manufacture percussion revolvers, and long arms, including a drop-breech cartridge rifle and double-barreled shotguns with metal wrists. Allen also produced a successful line of single shot, cartridge derringers that did not infringe upon the Rollin White patent.
Allen’s innovations in revolver actions, and self-contained cartridge designs earned him numerous patents. His use of large-scale production techniques and interchangeable parts also made him a leader within his industry. While certainly not as famous as Samuel Colt, Eliphalet Remington or Oliver Winchester, the contributions of Ethan Allen to the American firearms industry were important and long lasting, and his high-quality arms offer a worthy and wide array of collecting possibilities.
The Allen & Wheelock Lip Fire revolvers were more innovative in terms of their ammunition than from a mechanical or functional standpoint. The Smith & Wesson rimfire ammunition was produced with expensive priming compound distributed through the entire rim of the cartridge, as there was no way to know where the hammer would fall on the rim and cause the ignition. The Allen concept changed the conventional circular cartridge rim to a small “lip”, about one eighth of the diameter of the cartridge casing, and this lip engaged a slot machined into the rear of the revolver cylinder. This meant that hammer would hit a specific part of the case rim, and the priming compound only had to be in that location, not throughout the rim of the case. The resultant savings in the amount of primer compound needed was tremendous, and this saved money. As Allen had patented his unique ammunition, he became the only source for it, and thus controlled the market, which was both a good and a bad thing as it turned out. Foreseeing the coming Civil War, Allen realized that a cartridge revolver, chambered for a “military sized” round, would be very enticing to the US military, and he concentrated his efforts towards the production of a .44 caliber “Army” and a .36 caliber “Navy” model. Unfortunately, the US military was hesitant to acquire arms that required “patent” ammunition, as this meant the military was dependent upon the manufacturer to keep a sufficient supply of the ammunition available and was at the mercy of the supplier in terms of the ammunition cost. The US military hierarchy preferred to acquire percussion revolvers that could be supplied with conventional paper cartridges produced in US Ordnance Department arsenals and by contractors without the restrictions of “patent” ammunition. As such, Allen’s Lip Fire revolvers were only purchased privately by some officers and men on a fairly small scale. However, the US military did acquire some of his large frame percussion revolvers for general issue. The Lip Fire revolvers appear to have been developed concurrently with Allen’s large bore percussion center hammer models, which were quite similar in appearance and operation, with the exception of the parts that were specific to either percussion or cartridge operation.
The Allen & Wheelock Center Hammer Lip Fire “Army” Revolver was the large bore, .44 caliber revolver of his Lip Fire series. Like all of the Allen “Center Hammer” revolvers, it used a single-action mechanism but fired Allen’s proprietary, self-contained .44 Lip Fire Cartridge. It is estimated that between 250 and 500 of these revolvers were produced from about mid-1860 until November of 1863, when a court order ended production of Allen revolvers with bored through cylinders. As a result of the relatively small production numbers, this scarce revolver is often missing from even advanced collections of Civil War era secondary martial revolvers. The Allen & Wheelock Lip Fire Army revolver had a round six-shot cylinder and a 7 ½” half-octagon/half-round barrel. They guns were produced with two different styles of loading gate, with the earliest production guns having a gate hinged at the top and the later production guns having one hinged at the bottom. The guns were also produced with two different styles of grips. One grip type had a standard taper, which is the most commonly encountered version. The other version had a pronounced “flare” towards their bottoms. The guns used a unique cam-action trigger guard to actuate the ejector, which removed the spent cases from the cylinder. This same mechanism provided the loading lever action for the percussion version of the gun, the Center Hammer Army Revolver. The revolvers were blued, with color case hardened hammers and triggerguards, and the two-piece smooth walnut grips were varnished. The guns were “serial numbered”, where were really batch or assembly numbers, on most of the major components. The numbering locations including the frame under the grips, on the front or rear face of the cylinder, on the cylinder arbor pin, on the ejector rod, inside the grips and on many of the internal parts. The only other markings usually found on the Allen & Wheelock Lip Fire Army Revolver was the two-line address and patent date mark found the left side of octagon portion of the barrel. The most commonly encountered marking read:
ALLEN & WHEELOCK, WORCESTER, MS. US
ALLEN’S PAT’S SEPT. 7, NOV 9, 1858
Offered here is a VERY FINE condition example of an Allen & Wheelock Center Hammer Lip Fire Army Revolver. The gun is 100% complete, correct, and original. While it made sense from a business standpoint for Allen to monopolize the manufacture of the special Lip Fire ammunition required for the revolvers, it also meant that ammunition could easily become scarce, especially on the western frontier during the latter part of the 1860s and during 1870s. As a result, most Allen Lip Fire Army revolvers encountered today have had their cylinders slightly modified to accept more readily available .44 Rimfire ammunition. This gun has had chambers of the cylinder so altered. It is also possible that Allen did this modification for some of his later production guns, in an attempt to increase their marketability. While a pure Lip Fire revolver has a flat face for each chamber on the rear the cylinder, with a recess for the “lip” of the cartridge only, the rimfire modified guns have a small recess machined into the rear of each chamber that allows the rimfire cartridges to seat in the cylinder chambers. The gun is one of the later production Lip Fire “Army” revolvers, with a loading gate that is hinged on the bottom, rather than the top. This was an improvement over the weaker and less ergonomic top-hinged gate that was initially used on the guns. The other improvement incorporated on these 2nd model revolvers was the addition of a pin cast into the right side of the frame upon which the hammer rotated. The first pattern revolvers had the side plate screw enter from the right side of the frame and double as the hammer screw, but this system proved to put too much tension on the screw. The improved system allowed the screw to enter through the side plate on the left side of the frame and engage threads on the new hammer stud. The revolver also has the most commonly encountered standard profile grips with a normal taper and no flare at the bottom. The revolver is clearly and crisply marked
ALLEN & WHEELOCK, WORCESTER, MS. US
ALLEN’S PAT’S SEPT. 7, NOV 9, 1858
on the left side of the octagon portion of the barrel. These marks are often weak or poorly applied and it is nice to see such a crisp, clear marking. The serial (or really assembly) number 324 is located on the lower left grip frame (concealed by the grips), on the rear face of cylinder, on the cylinder arbor pin and on the inside of the left grip panel. Interestingly the interior of the combination ejector lever and triggerguard is not numbered and does not appear to have been numbered at any point in time. The right grip is not numbered because the interior of the grip had to be slightly relieved to allow the slightly oversized mainspring to clear the grip. The unique spring shape indicates that it is original and is not a replacement. The grip fit is perfect, and the condition of the grip panel matches the other one perfectly, so it is clearly not replaced either.
As noted, the gun is in VERY FINE condition and remains extremely crisp throughout. The frame has a smooth lightly oxidized gray patina with some strong traces of the original blued finish in the protected recesses around the recoil shield and under the hammer at the rear of the frame. The frame also shows some freckled surface oxidation scattered here and there. Allen’s bluing was very fragile, and the finish tended to flake off quite easily, making any Allen & Wheelock revolver with even traces of original finish a real find for collectors today. The barrel retains a substantial amount of original blued finish, rating around 50% or so. The blue is strongest on the octagonal portion off the barrel with most of the primary loss there being due to wear along the sharp edges and thinning. The round portion of the barrel shows more moderate wear with a more mottled combination of thinned blue, plum coloration from faded and worn blue and a smoky gray patina. The frame is completely smooth with no pitting and only a couple of very minute areas of the most minor pinpricking, along with the previously mentioned flecks of minor surface oxidation. The barrel shows some scattered flecks of minor surface oxidation here and there with a few tiny areas of very light surface roughens but is otherwise quite smooth and free of any real pitting other than around the face of the muzzle. The cylinder has a medium smoky gray patina that matches the balance of the revolver well, with a flecked “salt & pepper” pattern of surface discoloration that evenly distributed over its external surfaces. The cylinder is mostly smooth with a thumb sized patch of more moderate surface oxidation on the side that shows some raised roughness. This should be visible in the photos. The hammer retains about 60%+ of its original case coloring, which retains some vivid mottling, although it has faded and mixed with a silvery-gray patina and some light surface oxidation around the edges and contact areas. The loading gate retains some nice traces of case coloring, while the loading lever shows only the most minute traces on the interior, protected surfaces. The cylinder arbor pin retains some nice traces of blue as well. The bore is in about VERY FINE condition and remains almost entirely bright and shiny with crisp rifling its entire length. Only some lightly scattered oxidation and some very light pinpricking is present, scattered along the length of the bore. The revolver is mechanically EXCELLENT and still functions as crisply as the day it was made. The revolver, times, indexes, locks up and operates exactly as it should. The bottom-hinged loading gate still locks crisply into the closed position and operates correctly as well. The triggerguard actuated ejector system works exactly as designed and still operates smoothly. The original brass blade front sight remains in place on the top of the barrel, near the muzzle, and has an attractive, untouched mustard patina. The two-piece walnut grips are in about VERY FINE condition as well and are free of any breaks, cracks, or repairs. The grips retain about 70%+ of their original varnish and show only some moderate wear and finish loss along the high edges and contact points, as well as on the bottoms. The grips remain very crisp and sharp, but do show some scattered bumps, dings and handling marks, appropriate to the age of the revolver.
Overall, this is a really very attractive example of a relatively rare Civil War era revolver. When these rare guns are encountered, they are typically found with little or no finish and most are somewhat crudely altered to rimfire in a less than crisp manner. This lovely pistol shows perfect machining and may well have had the chambers modified at the factory prior to sale, as this is not the work of a frontier gunsmith. These revolvers are only occasionally found offered for sale, and due to their relatively small production numbers even many advanced Civil War era pistol collections do not have one of these revolvers. This gun displays extremely well, retains some very nice original finish, and is 100% original, complete and correct. If you have been waiting to get a really crisp Allen & Wheelock Lip Fire Army with some nice original finish on it, here is your chance to own a really nice revolver that would be difficult to upgrade without spending a lot more money.