January 2001:

British Flag The Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver British Flag
Modified 1901 Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver
Image credit:  Dowell, William Chipcase, The Webley Story, Commonwealth Heritage Foundation, Kirkland, Washington: 1987  Page 210
Type:  Automatic Revolver
System of Operation:  Recoil
Caliber:  .455 Webley and .38 ACP
Capacity:  .455:  6 rounds, .38: 8 rounds
Sights front: Blade 
Sights, rear:  U-notch
Length: 11"
Weight (unloaded): 2.73 lbs
Barrel: 6" (.455 Service Pattern)

The early 20th Century was a time of rapid advancement in firearms development in general and with respect to self loading pistol design in particularly.  Despite the number of new self loading designs that simply didn't work, it was evident that the revolver's primacy as a service arm was rapidly drawing to a close.  Aiming to compete with the self-loader, Colonel G. Vincent Fosbery, V.C., adapted the Webley service revolver to an automatically indexing and cocking configuration.  On August 16, 1895 Fosbery took out a patent for a recoil operated self cocking and indexing revolver.  A prototype was constructed using a Colt Single Action Army revolver modified such that the barrel, cylinder, and action slid back and forth on the frame.  Improvements to the design led to additional patents being granted in June and October 1896.

In need of a partner with a strong financial position and manufacturing capability, Fosbery approached P. Webley & Son of Birmingham with the recoil operated revolver design.  (Editor's Note:  P. Webley & Son merged with W.C. Scott & Sons and Richard Ellis & Son in 1897 to form the Webley & Scott Revolver and Arms Co.)  Webley further developed the design, and introduced it as the "Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver" at the Bisley matches of July, 1900.  Production commenced approximately a year later.  Initial production was made in caliber .455 (the British service cartridge), with subsequent offerings including chamberings in .38 ACP.  (The .38 ACP chambering required the use of a moon clip like those used with US M1917 .45 ACP revolvers.)

The Webley-Fosbery's operating mechanism may best be described as a "recoil operated revolver."  There are three primary functional groups, the barrel and cylinder group, the body or action group which contains the lock and hammer, and the "recoiling frame" group which houses the trigger, recoil spring, grips and safety.  The safety deserves special note, as the Webley-Fosbery is one of the few revolvers ever to be fitted with a safety device.  The safety lever is situated on the left side of the frame at the top of the grip, and is "on" when pressed down and "off" when lying horizontally along the frame.  It can only be engaged when the pistol is cocked, and when engaged disconnects the hammer from the sear.
Schematic View of the Webley-Fosbery
Image credit:  Dowell, William Chipcase, The Webley Story, Commonwealth Heritage Foundation, Kirkland, Washington: 1987  Page 131

When the Webley-Fosbery is fired, the action group recoils freely to the rear, resisted only by the frame mounted recoil spring.  As the action group moves to the rear, a pivoting lever connecting it to the recoiling frame cocks the hammer.  At the terminus of rearward travel, the action group is forced forward and into battery by the recoil spring.  Indexing the cylinder is accomplished by means of a
Webley-Fosbery Cylinder Groove Patterns
Webley-Fosbery Cylinder Groove Patterns
Top:  1901 .455 Webley-Fosbery
Middle:  1901 .38 Webley-Fosbery
Bottom:  1902 .455 Webley-Fosbery
Image credit:  Dowell, William Chipcase, The Webley Story, Commonwealth Heritage Foundation, Kirkland, Washington: 1987  Page 136
stud-in-groove interaction between the cylinder and recoiling frame.  A diamond shaped stud is fixed in position atop the center of the recoiling frame, and engages zig-zag tracks in the cylinder.  In the 1901 Models, uni-directional cylinder rotation is ensured by having varying depths to the cylinder grooves and a spring loaded operating stud.  As the action group recoils, the stud's travel in the groove forces the cylinder to rotate one-twelfth a turn.  At the furthest point of travel in the V-shaped groove, the stud drops into the deeper return groove, and upon return to battery, imparts another one-twelfth turn, properly indexing the next cartridge for firing.

While efficient, the spring loaded stud mechanism was found to be needlessly complex, and in the 1902 and later models, the stud is fixed and the cylinder group bottoms are of a uniform depth.  Positive rotation control is accomplished by means of overshoot grooves set at the vertex of each V, such that the stud cannot return down the first leg of the V.

Production models of the Webley-Fosbery are marked on the barrel rib:  "Fosbery Auto Revolver," followed by "Made by the Webley & Scott Revolver & Arms Co."  The revolvers will also bear the Webley trademark "flying bullet" on the left side of the barrel lug, Birmingham proof marks on the barrel, cylinder, and frame, and the serial number on the right side of the frame.  After about serial number 200 the markings were changed to "Webley-Fosbery Automatic."  The cartridge markings were either ".38 Automatic" or ".455 cordite only."  The .455 marking specified the .455 cordite load specifically so as to ensure that the .450 Webley cartridge, a black powder load, would not be used - the .450 did not generate sufficient recoil to reliably cycle the Webley-Fosbery.

As noted before, the original 1901 models were superseded a year later.  Among the improvements was the removal of the cylinder retaining latch from the side of the action, near the pivot hinge point.  The latch, which was left over from the gun's Webley Mk. IV origins, was replaced by a spring loaded stud in the topstrap.  Cylinders were modified to accommodate the latch with shallow, rounded relief cuts milled onto the front edge of the cylinder.  The final modification was released in 1914.  On that model the cylinder was shorter than on earlier models, and modifications were made to the trigger spring and recoil lever to strengthen them.  The majority of Webley-Fosberys were of the 1914 pattern.

The Webley-Fosbery soon earned a devoted following among the British target shooting fraternity. The Country Gentleman magazine for July 1901 reported:

The six cartridges carried by the Webley-Fosbery can be discharged with good aim in six seconds.  We saw them discharged at the Bisley range in the course of a competition in little over seven seconds, so that  we can quite believe the claim that six seconds are sufficient to fire all six shots and get them near the bull's-eye on targets at revolver ranges.
One of the Webley-Fosbery's advantages to the target shooting community was that the trigger mechanism had nothing to do with indexing the cylinder.  As a result, let-offs were consistent, light, and smooth, permitting rapid and accurate shooting.  Famous target shooter Walter Winans (an American expatriate living in Great Britain) was a devotee of the Webley-Fosbery.  In 1902, Winans fired six shots into a two inch bull's-eye at 12 paces in seven seconds.  In a similar feat, using a speed loader, Winans fired twelve shots into a three inch bull's-eye in approximately 15 seconds.  Winans stated a preference for the Webley-Fosbery over the double-action revolver as he found it almost impossible to do accurate, rapid shooting with the double-action revolver.   Additionally, Winans preferred the Webley-Fosbery to self loading pistols as it offered the same rate of fire with the accuracy of a single action revolver.  Another advantage of the design was that a considerable portion of the recoil energy is absorbed in cylinder rotation, making the gun very pleasant to fire.
Webley was quick to cater to shooters' needs, offering the Webley-Fosbery with standard barrel lengths of 7.5", 6", and 4", as well as special barrels made to order, barrel rib variations, and grip shape and size variants.  Additionally, a single shot .22 adapter was available.  This consisted of a barrel insert and a single chamber which replaced the cylinder.  The adapters were serial numbered to the pistol for which they were originally ordered.
Webley-Fosbery 1914 Target Model
Webley-Fosbery 1914 Target Model
Image credit:  Dowell, William Chipcase, The Webley Story, Commonwealth Heritage Foundation, Kirkland, Washington: 1987  Page 209

The 1914 Model was sold with a full flap holster, and not a few of them made their way on officers' Sam Browne belts to France during the Great War.  Many reports suggest that the Webley-Fosbery was more susceptible to jamming when subjected to the dirt and mud than other types, and that this was the reason it was never adopted as a service arm.  Indeed, if a Webley-Fosbery fails to function, it must be cocked by hand, which also rotates the cylinder, thus converting it into an awkward single action revolver.  A more telling reason for the gun's being passed over is that it requires an absolutely rigid arm in order to function; when held loosely, the Webley-Fosbery has a tendency to fail to cycle; a condition akin to the results of "limp wristing" a modern autoloader.

Webley-Fosbery production ceased in 1918, but remained in Webley catalogues until 1939, with a total production of about 4,750.


Dowell, William Chipcase, The Webley Story, (Commonwealth Heritage Foundation, Kirkland, Washington:  1987)

The Webley Story is available from IDSA Books.  Click on the image to order:
The Webley Story

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