Sunday, October 7, 2007

Range Report - Webley MK.1

There's no firearm quite like a Webley.

Well, OK, so there's the Enfield revolvers, but the hinged-frame breech-loading revolver is a distinctly British innovation, and the Webley revolvers are the archetypal example.

I procured mine on something of a whim, thinking it nifty and knowing a small amount about Webleys. If I had only known at the time that this weapon was approximately 120 years old...and, predictably, mine looks about that old, lacking almost completely in finish and resplendent in nicks and scratches. Miraculously, the bore is nearly factory-new, for reasons I can only speculate on. Its previous owners certainly took good care of the functional bits.

Being of 1880s vintage, it is chambered in the thoroughly manly .455 MK1 powder-of-color cartridge, which throws a slug the size of a bowling ball at a velocity slightly less than that of a good fastball. OK, so that may be a slight exagerration. Nonetheless, it is most proper cartridge for stopping a charging assailant at speedrock distances (and possibly setting him on fire with a flurry of slow-burning propellant, which was according to one historian was a not-uncommon occurence). Within 15 meters, the US Army determined it a superior manstopper to .45 Colt in the Thompson-LaGarde tests that resulted in the adoption of .45 ACP. Soft lead is bad enough, but performance could be improved with the MKIII "Manstopper" bullet, which is essentially a wadcutter with a hollowpoint. Declared unsporting by the powers that be, it didn't last too long but could no doubt be re-created by an enterprising chap with a properly-shaped bullet mould.

I was not expecting anything resembling practical accuracy from this piece; years of reading pieces regailing tales of a horrendous, lifetime-to-master double-action trigger had me skeptical, despite two solid months of dryfire practice. Fortunately, such fears were unfounded. Perhaps my Webley has seen a lot of action and consequently has nice, rounded corners on all the lockwork (a suspicion furthered by the unusable single-action sear notch); maybe the triggers aren't really so bad. Whatever the case, mine is butter smooth and nowhere near unusably heavy. Everyone who picked it up could easily hit a large pepper-popper at 15 yards; my esteemed SIG-toting compatriot additionally levelled 2 of 3 small poppers at the same distance, on his first time firing the gun. So accuracy is no problem. With practice, a plate rack should be no match.

The Webley was the fastest shooter of its day; the combination of double action and auto-ejecting break action allowed a positively unsporting rate of fire. My experiences confirm this line of reasoning; the DA is a fairly fast reset once one get the hang of it, and mastering the 'break-snap' ejects the empties efficiently and leaves the chambers ready for new cartridges. The only way one could speed up this cycle would be a speedloader, though a pocketful of shells is surprisingly quick. I may look into HKS S&W Model 25-2 speedloaders, since the period-appropriate Prideaux models tend to auction at prices exceeding what I paid for the original gun. I'm not that hardcore of a collector, and practically speaking paying $700 for some pressed and bent metal is a bit silly. Whatever the situation is with loaders, the Webley would function most decisively in a defensive situation; 255 grains of lead sends a strong message. When I get some more experience (read: the pros decide I'm not too much of a rank amateur) I fully intend to speedrock and mozambique with this old chap.

The problem (or charm, if you prefer) is this: the powder-of-color produces great torrential volumes of white smoke. There's no question that you're firing it, even with a functionally-deaf audience. I would no doubt have faced a lynch mob had the wind been blowing towards the firing line, but since it merely afflicted the ammo table it attracted mostly positive attention. However, after five rounds rapid fire, you simply cannot see the target, especially at night. I shoot at night. A work-around drill would be three rounds standing followed by three rounds from a crouch, which is, in a word, silly. Shooters were observed waving their off-hand about above the gun to clear the sight picture (don't sweep those muzzles, kids!).

Cleaning the gun proved that Goex is indeed the filthiest, most vile propellant one can possibly run through their firearm. In addition to some pesky leading from the hard-cast bullets, 45 rounds produced thick cakes of carbon fouling on every surface on or near the muzzle and barrel/cylinder gap. The area right around the blast shield is most problematic in this regard, as it is the confluence of three cylinders, which leave oddly-shaped gaps between each other and are hard to hit with a toothbrush or cloth. The relative imprecision of blackpowder loading, after the tenth-of-a-grain tolerances in centerfire autopistol cartridge loading, seems suicidally brazen (loading cartridges with a scoop? Dear God, my good fellow, do you not want your hands?). The use of MKII cases is both convenient and a safety precaution; even with the long, presumably .45-70 bullets seated on the rear cannelure (if I tried hard enough, I could probably pull the bullets out with my hands alone), there is plenty of chamber space but only enough cartridge capacity for 14 grains of Goex FFFg, which is 2/3ds the originally prescribed quantity and sufficient merely to push the bullet out of the barrel and onto the target. Trajectory seems sufficiently flat within 15 meters, and though one can actually see the bullet arcing downrange accuracy is not affected. There is a most amusing delay between the discharge of the firearm and the dulcet 'ping' of a steel target face.

The hesitancies experienced beforehand were made well worthwhile by the experience of operating a fine late-19th century firearm in its proper context, and I will no doubt revisit the experience in the future, perhaps to a more exacting degree with regards to target choice.

May the sun never set on the British Empire. God save the Queen.

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