World War I Handguns
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino
The Webley MKVI certainly fits the criteria British ordnance people evidently set for their service revolvers: big, ugly, underpowered and top break. I recently read the opinion of a now deceased gun’riter saying he thought the Webley MKVI .455 was the best combat revolver of its day. To that I enthusiastically disagree. The only place it could better either Colt’s or S&W’s Model 1917 .45 ACPs is it has a replaceable front sight whereas theirs are silver-soldered (Colt) or forged integral with the barrel (S&W). That made it easier to zero if a taller or shorter sight was needed for zeroing.
US Model 1917s were chambered for a more powerful cartridge, a 230-gr. bullet at 830 fps versus a 262-gr. bullet at 650 fps. The ’17s could be quickly reloaded with a pair of three-round “half-moon” clips. In fact the U.S. supplied .45 ACP pre-loaded in those clips. The Webley’s rounds had to be replenished one at a time. In my collection, the Colt Model 1917 and Webley MKVI match weight at 39 oz. but my S&W Model 1917 only weighs 35 oz.
Webley began their series of top break revolvers circa 1887 with the MKI and continued revamping it until the MKVI appeared in 1916 midway through World War I. Most of the earlier “marks” came with 4″ barrels although some were available with the 6″ length. As far as I can tell the MKVI came only with a 6″.
Webley MKVI .455 as adopted by the British in 1916. Gun in background is the 12 gauge
also used in World War I. Canvas holster and ammo pouch made by World War Supply.
The Brits dropped the Webley MKVI in 1928 in favor of the smaller .38 Enfield No. 2.
.455 To.45 ACP
The top-break Webley is opened by pushing down on a rather large lever positioned to the left side of the hammer. Simultaneously the barrel is pushed down while the extractor is pushed up popping all empties free of the chambers. After each chamber is loaded, the barrel’s then pushed up to lock in place. Firing is the same as any other double action, by pulling the trigger or by cocking the hammer first and then pulling the trigger. Grips are made of some sort of checkered synthetic material.
Webley MKVIs stayed the official British military sidearm from 1916 until 1928 when the smaller and equally underpowered Enfield MkII .380 was adopted. However, along with all other armaments when the British declared war on Germany in 1939, they were woefully short of the Enfields so thousands of MKVIs were kept in service.
Starting in the 1950s most of the remaining MKVIs were sold off to the American market. Over here .455 Webley factory ammunition was not common. To make the MKVIs sell better many had their chambers faced off to handle .45 Autos in half moon clips. I knew this 15 years ago when searching for an MKVI to use when writing my book Shooting World War II Small Arms. Regardless, in an initial fit of enthusiasm I bought the first MKVI I encountered without looking to see if it was altered or not — it was. Luckily a friend was looking for just such a Webley and took it off my hands. The next one I checked thoroughly and still own. Let that be a lesson to you if you’re looking!
British .455 factory ammo is still made by Fiocchi in Italy (far left) and some
were recently made by Hornady (2nd from left).
The ammunition maker Fiocchi of Italy still produces .455 Webley with a 262-gr. lead alloy bullet. For a time Hornady made some for a distributor with 265-gr. lead alloy bullets. To American eyes these bullets look strange, with long cone-shaped noses, but they actually duplicate the original FMJ .455 military bullets. RCBS even offers a hollowbase bullet mold of that configuration in their special order section. I have that mold, but looking for a less time-consuming alternate found Hornady’s 255-gr. RN/FP Cowboy bullet shoots nicely in the .455 Webley. A charge of 4.0 grains of Bullseye propels it to about 700 fps.
While my opinion is the Webley MKVI .455 was not the best combat handgun of its day, it’s not the worst either. The prize must go to Russia’s Model 1895 Nagant 7.62mm. More on that another time.