The Webley-Fosbery was a revolver sold by the Birmingham-based Webley firearms company from 1901 until 1939, although production ceased in 1918 and the remainder were slow sellers. It was based on designs by Lieutenant-Colonel George Fosbery dating from 1895, and is unusual and interesting in that it is one of only three semi-automatic
revolvers ever sold, and one of a handful of revolvers to include a safety catch.
Traditional revolvers use the force of the firer's finger on the trigger to rotate the cylinder and, if double-action, to cock the hammer as well. Automatic pistols, on the other hand, use the recoil energy of each cartridge to force back the top part of the pistol (the "slide"), which contains a mechanism for throwing out the spent shell case, pulling a new shell from the magazine, and cocking the hammer.
The Webley-Fosbery combined the two ideas; it had a revolving cylinder, and looked for all the world like a contemporary Webley service revolver, but the upper half of the pistol was mounted on a reciprocating slide. As a cartridge was fired, the recoil pushed the slide back, moving the cylinder against a pin mounted to the frame, which mated with zig-zag grooves cut into the cylinder. This caused the cylinder to rotate and bring the next cartridge in line with the hammer. Spent shell cases were not ejected, and remained in the cylinder; as with contemporary Webley revolvers these were removed by 'breaking open' the frame like a shotgun.
The semi-automatic action had one big advantage over traditional revolvers. Because the trigger only had to release the hammer, its pull was a very light, which meant that it could be fired more quickly and accurately than a double-action revolver, and without the single-action fuss of having to manually cock the hammer between shots. For 'action' target shooting this was a big plus, with speeds of one aimed shot per second being common, heady stuff for a full-sized .455 pistol. Furthermore, the mass of the slide dampened the recoil of the .455 round, making the Fosbery comfortable to shoot, although the design did not tolerate limp-wristing.
The Webley-Fosbery was available in the standard British army pistol cartridges, the formidable .455 and, from 1902, the .38, although this chambering was very unpopular as the cartridges required a special adaptor to sit in the cylinder. The Fosbery was intended both for the civilian market and the military, as a sidearm for officers and cavalry, but the pistol was not a success, and remained a slow seller. In the years since 1895, when George Fosbery took out his first patent, the recoil-operated semi-automatic had become the new standard for self-loading pistols, as such designs could be smaller and lighter than revolvers, and with box magazines could hold more rounds and be reloaded more quickly. The Webley-Fosbery had thus been overtaken by other developments.
Military sales were not forthcoming as the design was felt to be needlessly complex and expensive. The British and Russian armies continued to use their cheap, reliable revolvers well into World War 2 as, in 1901, semi-automatic pistols were only a decade old and not yet fully debugged. Nonetheless the Luger P9, Mauser C96 and later the Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistols had, by the outbreak of the First World War, found acceptance with armies of Germany and the United States of America, and within a few decades the military revolver was an anachronism.
In military use, the Webley-Fosbery had thus shot itself in the foot; it was fiddlier and more expensive than revolvers but did not offer the same firepower as an automatic, on account of slower reloading and a cylinder limited to 6 or 8 rounds. Nonetheless officers in World War One were generally free to use their own personal pistols in the trenches, and many of the 5,000 or so Webley-Fosberys built no doubt lie rusting away under French motorway intersections and shopping centres.
The Webley-Fosbery was used as a murder weapon in Dashiell Hammett's 'The Maltese Falcon' (and also in the Humphrey Bogart film version), and Sean Connery wields one throughout John Boorman's barmy 1974 film 'Zardoz' (indeed, John Boorman himself is shot with the revolver whilst playing a nameless extra). Apart from that the Webley-Fosbery remains an obscure but valuable antique.