The only recoil-cancelling pistol made, this first successful British automatic may be largely forgotten today given the rise of the M1911, but it sported notable features for its time.
Story and Photos by Jim Dickson
Recoil and muzzle bounce are a fact of life for pistol shooters firing powerful calibers. The time taken to recover from that muzzle bounce is the biggest limiting factor on accurate rapidfire. Only one pistol has successfully engaged this problem and eliminated it: the Webley & Scott .455 automatic pistol. It accomplishes this miracle with its unique locking system. More on that later, but rapidfire is furthered by perhaps the best trigger pull ever put into a military pistol. Sights are big and easily acquired under combat conditions. Quality, fit and finish are up to the best of the pre-World War I commercial standards.
Another unique feature of this gun is the use of a powerful V leaf spring for the recoil spring, which offers significant advantages over a coil spring. The leaf spring can stay compressed or flexed indefinitely without losing strength, like a coil spring will. A properly made and polished leaf spring is also much less likely to break than a coil spring. Webley & Scott also made Best Quality double guns and no one makes a better leaf spring than the gun trade in the British Isles. Best Quality doubles have typically shot five to 15 million rounds and been as good as new. You won’t do that with coil springs without frequent replacements.
Leaf springs in American-produced guns typically have not been as well designed or made as these, so coil springs got the better reputation on this side of the pond.
Some folks said that the fact that the grip covers the recoil spring is a drawback because if the hard rubber pinch the fire out of your hand. I can find no record of this ever happening, though, and had it been a problem, the simple addition of a steel backing plate to the grip would have solved this.
There is a grip safety but no manual safety, as the English were aware of the problem of people being killed because they did not remember to take the safety off under the stress of a life-or-death situation. With the grip safety, or “back safe” as Webley called it, the gun was as safe to carry as a Webley revolver; unlike the revolver, however, it could be safely carried cocked.
The gun looks awkward, with its nearly 90-degree grip angle, but it was designed for British officers who all had boxing as part of their training. Punch the gun at the target and the sights seem to align themselves. The grip is small enough around for average-size hands but long enough for giant hands. It is a very easy pistol to hit with.
This is a full-size military pistol meant for open carry, but it is still not overly large. It weighs 39 ounces and is 81/2 inches long, of which 5 inches is the barrel.
Another unique feature of this gun is the two-position magazine. Drop the magazine down to the second magazine catch hole and the pistol becomes an effective single-shot. The barrel stays open after the last shot, so you just drop a new cartridge into the chamber and hit the slide release. If the enemy is at close-quarters with you and counting your shots, he may expose himself when he thinks you must change magazines. Instead, you just hit the magazine release, shove the magazine all the way up in the grip, and hit the slide release. This takes significantly less time than the fastest magazine change and there are times that this can become a big advantage. The magazine holds seven shots and is made of heavy 20-gauge steel.
THE DESIGN IS extremely simple with heavy massive parts that do not fail and are few in number. The firing sequence begins when the grip safety is depressed by picking up the gun. This makes the sear lever touch the trigger lever so that when the trigger is pulled, the trigger lever forces the sear lever to rotate out of its notch in the hammer so that the hammer can fall on the firing pin, discharging the weapon.
The barrel and slide are locked together at the moment of firing by a locking shoulder on top of the barrel that engages the slide. As the barrel and slide move to the rear under the force of the recoil, the barrel is forced down its two diagonal grooves on each side of the barrel, unlocking the barrel from the slide, while the downward unlocking motion cancels out the upward flip of the muzzle. This also transmits the remaining recoil into the almost 90-degree angle of the grip, where it is absorbed unnoticed straight into the shooter’s arm without any tendency to bounce the gun in recoil, so the gun remains steady when fired. Thus the remaining shots can be accurately fired at a much faster rate than with any other pistol.
The barrel strikes its stop in the receiver, enabling the slide to continue to the rear without it, while the big top-mounted extractor pulls the cartridge back out of the chamber until the ejector hits it and sends it flying. The powerful V spring is attached to a slide bar and it now slaps everything forward back into battery.
There is a very positive disconnector by which the barrel forces the trigger lever away from the sear lever when the barrel is unlocked, thus preventing the gun from being fired unless the barrel is locked into battery.
Field-stripping is extremely easy, foolproof and fast. This feature cannot be overrated in any firearm. Guns that are hard to strip may not get proper maintenance, and worse, may be reassembled wrong with fatal consequences in combat.
To take this pistol apart, remove the magazine and cock the gun. Pull the slide back ¼ inch, while pushing in the recoil lever stop stud located on the right side of the pistol to the rear of the trigger, thus locking the recoil spring. Now push the slide forward. Pull the slide stop to the right as far as it will go and pull the slide to the rear. The barrel can now be lifted up and out of the frame. Push the slide catch in and move the slide forward off the frame. That’s all there is to it. Having the barrel free to clean the corrosive primer residue with hot soapy water is a big help. Since the primers loaded by the British were the most horribly corrosive ever made, this is a very big deal.
The .455 self-loading cartridge it fires is also well thought-out. A semirimmed case enabled a one-way interchangeability with the .455 Webley service revolvers, which made the acceptance of another cartridge in the supply chain easier for ordnance to bear. The .455SL fires a 224-grain bullet at 710 feet per second.
It is blunt-nosed like the .600 Nitro Express for maximum energy transfer to the target. Both the gun and its cartridge were accurate out to 200 yards and this resulted in the Royal Horse Artillery ordering some with adjustable sights and shoulder stocks.
The pistol passed all the reliability tests the Webley factory and British Royal Ordnance could devise. As America was considered a rival and a country England might well go to war with at this time, they chauvinistically declared it more reliable than America’s new M1911. Events in WWI would prove this wrong, but the pistol still remains more reliable than most modern pistols.
This is an extremely well-thought-out gunfighter’s pistol. Unfortunately, all these features were wasted on most of its users since the British are a nation of shotgunners, not pistol shooters.
THE FIRST ENGLISH automatic was the Mars pistol of 1902, designed by Hugh Gabbett-Fairfax. W.J. Whiting, Works Manager of Webley’s, patented his first design in 1903. Prior to this, T.W. Webley had taken a license on the Mars automatic pistol in 1898 and instructed his protege, Whiting, to develop a military automatic from this. The next Webley automatic model was the M1904 in .38 and .455. This was followed by their first commercially successful automatic, the M1905 .32.
In 1906, a new model introduced the locking system and the basic design of the gun that would be adopted by the British military. The “back safe” grip safety was added in 1908 and other refinements were made. The number of inclined grooves were reduced to two on the barrel and the slide release stud was moved to a more easily used spot. The hammer safety was discarded. All the improvements were finished in 1909. Whiting was considered England’s best pistol designer of this era and he was assisted in this project by F.T. Murry and J. Carter. Webley could not afford to tool up and make this pistol without a government contract, though.
The Royal Navy came through with a contract in 1912. The first deliveries were not until June 1913, hence it was termed the “1913” model. The pistol was approved for “land,” meaning for use by the British Army, in 1916.
The Webley had an exposed barrel, like the M96 Mauser Military Pistol and the Luger, which proved its value in the mud of WWI. If the barrel is blocked with mud when it is fired, it will bulge, but the pistol will still function. A pistol with a slide over the barrel will jam because the slide cannot go over the bulge.
Eley Brothers was contracted to produce the ammunition in April of 1912 and the first ammo was delivered before the first guns were. It seems a bit unfair that Eley got the government contract when Kynoch had done all the development work, but that’s what happened.
The grand total produced of the Webley .455 automatics was a mere 9,298. Cost-cutting after WWI meant no more orders from the government. Surviving guns saw service in World War II as well, but most .455 automatics then were the 13,510 Colt M1911A1 pistols that the British bought chambered for the .455 self-loading cartridge. A great number of the remaining Webley .455 autos were imported to the U.S. after the war, along with the rest of the surplus guns that blessed these shores in the 1960s.
AS THE YEARS went by, the virtues of this remarkable automatic pistol were forgotten. In 1975, I was talking with the head of Webley & Scott when I mentioned the lack of muzzle flip and recoil of their M1913 .455 automatic. A look of surprise crossed his face and he immediately turned to one of his men and said, “Make some ammunition. We’re going to fire the Webley.”
The M1913 had joined the ranks of many stunning advances in firearm design that had been fielded and forgotten. Only big orders can keep one going. The old saying “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” has proven a fairytale over and over again to countless inventors.
Ammo is a problem since the cartridge is long out of production. Cases can be made from .45 auto rim cases by shortening them and thinning the rim down. I was able to find a nice spare barrel and had the chamber relined to .45 ACP. As .45 ACP cartridges are too long, there are some jams and I cannot recommend the practice of firing the more powerful .45 ACP in a gun intended for a weaker round.
The safe way is to load .45 ACP rounds to .455 Webley self-loading specs, paying particular attention to the cartridge’s overall length. The Webley requires cases with an overall length of 1.230 inches, where the standard .45 ACP factory loads are 1.260 to 1.270 inches long. The .45 ACP semiwadcutters are too short. Unless the case length is 1.230 inches, the cases stick in the magazine under recoil, throw off the timing, and lock the slide open after every shot. Remember, no gun should ever be used with improper ammo for it.
The Webley is a splendid design by England’s best pistol and revolver designer of his day. It offers unparalleled speed of fire and that can be a lifesaver at times.