The Webley-Fosbery Semiautomatic Revolver

Considered the answer to a problem no one had, the self-cocking revolver known as the Webley-Fosbery was a unique firearm design that still intrigues collectors and shooters to this day.photo by Philip Schreier and from the NRA Museums

There he was before me in all of his 70mm film glory, perched atop a camel with the shimmering desert as a backdrop, leveling a Webley at a target in the distance.

The year was 1989 and I was at Washington, D.C.’s Uptown Theater watching David Lean’s re-release of the 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia.” The 1,300-seat theater was built in 1936, and I knew I was watching Peter O’Toole from the same seats my grandparents had viewed the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” almost 50 years previously.

O’Toole was mesmerizing, but it was his revolver that I was smitten by.

The Webley is a classic example of the British design tradition of function over form. English military handguns would never win any beauty contests, but their rugged dependability made their ugliness becoming. Beginning in 1887 and for 75 years after, Webley revolvers were the standard sidearm of Great Britain and her Commonwealth Forces.

None of the various Webley models (called “Marks” by the British) were as interesting or as revolutionary as the one designed by a holder of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for military valor. The Webley-Fosbery was patented by Brigadier George Vincent Fosbery VC in 1895 and introduced in 1901. What made it unique then, as it is now, is the fact that it is a revolver that is semiautomatic: the revolver rotates the cylinder and cocks the hammer automatically after every shot is fired.

The Model of 1903 fired a 265-grain bullet in .455 caliber. It was the only semi-automatic side arm that a British Officer could acquire that fired the standard British service cartridge.photo by Philip Schreier and from the NRA Museums

There has always been a love/hate relationship between American and British revolver designers. Samuel Colt’s patents in 1836 for a practical revolver gave him a monopoly on percussion revolvers for nearly 20 years. Rather than pay Colt royalties on his patents, firearms designers looked for ways to circumvent his death grip on the revolver market. British designers such as Robert Adams, William Tranter, and James Kerr, fashioned the actions of the revolvers they designed to be what we would call double-action but were, in fact, single-actions that used the pull of the trigger to rotate the cylinder and force the hammer to rise and fall on the next chamber. Colt’s single-action patents required the shooter to manually cock the hammer, take aim, and then pull the trigger to fire the cartridge. Colt marketed his design as being the one that gave the shooter the best shot at accuracy and denounced the single pull of the trigger operation of his English rivals as a method that placed too much effort and pressure in the hands of the shooter, thus throwing off aim. This was perhaps the first example of the trigger pull debate that continues day.

Fosbery was just one of dozens of designers who began to work out the details of designing a handgun that was semiautomatic, or, as they were called during the time, self loading. John Browning, George Luger, Hugo Borchardt, the Feederle brothers, and Theodore Bergmann all pioneered the designs for what we commonly know as semiautomatic pistols. Fosbery went in an entirely different direction by designing a classic revolver style (he initially used Colt Peacemakers as prototypes) that would be self-cocking in operation.

Available with wood and then hard rubber grips, the Fosbery Model of 1903 was available in an 8-inch target model with adjustable rear sights.photo by Philip Schreier at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum, NSW Australia

By literally cutting the revolver in half horizontally and placing a stationary stud in the lower frame that fit into a grooved zigzag channel cut into the cylinder, the force of the recoil from the first round would cause the top half of the frame to recoil rearwards, rotate the cylinder half a turn and cock the hammer. A large main spring would force the top part of the frame forward following the initial recoil, and rotate the cylinder the other one half turn. Now the gun was cocked and a new round was in battery, ready to be fired. The innovation was that it only required a few ounces or pounds of pressure on the trigger to release the hammer and fire the gun once again. No longer would a shooter have to manually cock the revolver, nor would he have to place undue pressure on the trigger to work the action of cocking the hammer and rotating the cylinder manually.

Two models of the Webley Fosbery in .455 were marketed: the Model of 1901 and Model of 1903. A Model of 1902 was introduced as an eight-shot in .38 caliber, but today only 300 or so of these are known to exist.

In 1902 and again in 1907, the Fosbery was tested by U.S. military authorities and briefly considered to replace the standard service sidearm then currently in use by the U.S. Cavalry. Although it performed well in loading and accuracy tests, as well as stopping power, the high tolerance of the slide and recoil mechanism did not fare well under the dust and dirt phase of the competition. The Fosbery was sidelined in favor of John Browning’s semiautomatic that became the fabled Model 1911.

The target model of the Fosbery found great favor with competition shooters, including the famous American Walter Winans who took Gold at the 1908 London Olympics in pistol shooting.

The British military was less impressed and never formally adopted the revolver, but hundreds were privately purchased by British officers. Pilots from the fledgling Royal Flying Corps appreciated the fact that the firearm did not eject hot shell casings when fired, thus preventing a hot shell casing from igniting the fabric covering most of the aircraft at the time.

Perhaps the Webley-Fosbery’s one brief moment in the limelight came during a brief scene in the 1941 classic film “The Maltese Falcon,” starring Humphrey Bogart. Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is shot dead by a gun that Bogey states was a "Webley Fosbery, .45 automatic, eight shot. They don’t make them anymore."

Well he had it kinda-sorta right…it was either a .455 six shot or a .38 eight shot. Webley did stop making them in 1918, when only 5,000 had been produced. Today they are considered the jewel in the crown of any British pistol collector’s inventory.