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Seventeen years is a long time to wait, especially when you’re watching the hottest arms market is history pass you by. That was the plight of almost all arms makers during the period 1855 through 1872 when competing gun manufacturers were enjoined by patent restrictions from producing the latest revolvers . How could they manage to capitalize on that fast escaping market?
Here’s what happened and here’s what they did:
In 1855 Rollin White was issued a U.S. patent (No. 12649) for an extremely complex and impractical pistol that had a cylinder that was automatically reloaded from a vertical magazine hung on the side. It was rife with levers, gears and numerous moving parts. Hardly noticeable among all of the gadgetry was a golden feature, the bored-through cylinder, allowing metallic cartridges to be inserted from the rear. While White may not have realized the significance of that isolated feature, another man did. On
October 31, 1856, D.B.Wesson wrote:
I notice in a patent granted to you under date of Apr. 3, 1855 one claim =viz= extending the chambers of the rotating cylinder right through the rear end of said cylinder so as to enable the said chambers to be charged from the rear end, either by hand or by means of a sliding charger operating substantially as described. Which I should like to make arrangements with you to use in the manufacture of firearms. My object in this letter is to enquire if such an arrangement could be made and if so, on what terms. By replying to the above at your earliest convenience you note conforming at favor.
I am sir yours respectfully
Those simple words set off a chain of events that would ensure Smith and Wesson’s success and frustrate the competition until 1872, bypassing the Civil War and well into westward expansion. The concept was simple and elegant. Rimfire cartridges, pioneered by Smith and Wesson, were the obvious perfect match for the concept. Initially only available in .22 caliber, soon .32 caliber rounds were produced and before the end of the Civil War, rimfire cartridges up to .56 caliber were widely available.
A royalty agreement was made between S&W and White. Payment on a per gun basis should have made him a rich man but there was a sneaky little clause hidden in the agreement – White was required to defend any challenges to the patent. There were numerous such challenges because of infringements resulting, in disastrous legal expenses. Even though the courts ultimately found for White, he never recovered financially. (Even then, the lawyers came out on top).
So there you were, an arms manufacture, salivating at the possibilities, and watching S&W sop up all the gravy. What did you do? Different manufacturers took different approaches. Some played by the rules and developed arms that circumvented the Rollin White patent. Others ignored the patent protection afforded to S&W and just went ahead and produced handguns that infringed on the patent. As we will see, the circumventors produced a bizarre collection of designs that loaded cartridges from the front of the cylinder, often requiring specially designed cartridges. The infringers went merrily ahead and produced arms with bored-through cylinders. Some actually got away with their transgressions while others were subject to costly and humiliating lawsuits. Several firms, Brooklyn Arms, Moore and Pond hedged their bets and did both.
Lets look first at those who played by the rules:
Plant Manufacturing Company (New Haven, CT) and Eagle Manufacturing Company (New York City) manufactured similar design front-loading pistols using similar proprietary metallic cartridges. Cartridges were cylindrical with a cupped base whose rims contained fulminate, thus they could be loaded easily from the front of the cylinder. (see The Cartridge Hound Department, this issue for details)
Connecticut Arms Company (Norfolk, CT) manufactured a graceful pocket pistol using the same “cup fire” cartridges as did the Plant and Eagle arms
Brooklyn Arms Company ( Brooklyn, NY) produced one of the most complex pistols in which sliding chambers moved forward to admit standard .32 caliber rimfire cartridges into the rear of the chambers, thus barely avoiding the patent restrictions of the White patent. A similar, infringing version was also produced.
Moore’s Patent Firearms Company (Brooklyn, NY) and National Arms Company (Brooklyn, NY) produced one of the simplest complying pistols, a compact spur trigger revolver utilizing a unique .32 caliber “teat fire” cartridge, a slightly flared mouth and a projecting “teat” filled with fulminate, enabled this cartridge to be inserted from the front of the cylinder. National Arms also manufactured a .45 caliber version of the design. The .32 caliber version was quite successful, 30,000 having been made. Moore also produced a highly popular seven-shot rimfire pistol that found great favor with Union troops. More than 5000 were made before the S&W patent litigation cut matter short. See the following section. Lucius Pond hit the market with a design that rivaled the Slocum in complexity and concept. Separate chamber liners were slid forward from the front of the cylinder, enabling .32 caliber rimfire cartridges to be loaded. The chamber liners were then returned to position. An angled “arm” prevented the chambers from being lost during this action.
Pond also produced an infringing design as described and pictured in the following section
Colt Patent Firearms Company – Colt had too much to lose by infringing on S&W’s patent. They made a single stab at the circumvention market with the well-known Thuer Conversion of their percussion line. The system was complex but had a few advantages: ➢ The converting parts were a separate “kit” that could be removed allowing the gun to easily revert to percussion ➢ It was, unlike other complying weapons, a full size military pistol ➢ The cartridges were reloadable using tools supplied with the gun In spite of the touted advantages, the system didn’t achieve popularity and much of the inventory was sold to foreign buyers.
Now for the “bad boys” who unconscionably ignored and infringed on the White patent Bacon Manufacturing Company (Norwich, CT) manufactured numerous infringing pistols, most notable were those in .38 rimfire. Four distinct variations are known. Brooklyn Arms Company (Brooklyn, NY) manufacture a .32 caliber rimfire version of the Slocum patent revolver shown above. Moore’s Patent Firearms Company (Brooklyn, NY) the popular Moore seven shot revolver was a clear infringement. No only that, it shamelessly copied many of the mechanical details from the Colt percussions. E.A.Prescott (Worcester, MA) – Prescott produced a series of pistols, one of which looked very much like the Smith and Wesson No. 2 Army, a double insult! Lucius Pond (Worcester, MA) – The Pond complying pistol is shown above in Figure 8, alongside the two examples of the Moore teat fire revolver. They all got their come-uppance when the judge made findings on the patent infringement lawsuits that were favorable to Smith & Wesson. As a partial settlement, the remaining inventory of pistols from the losers were ordered to be turned over to Smith & Wesson. Guns so ceded with marked in a variety of ways, see Figures 13 and 14. There were probably others who “jumped the gun” as the 1872 expiration date approached. If you ever wondered why Colt’s first true cartridge revolver was the 1872 “Open Top” now you know! In a future article we’ll look at the wild world of Colt’s experimental toolroom as they tried to figure out what to do with their unsold inventory of percussion revolvers.
• Jinks, Roy, History of Smith & Wesson, Beinfeld Publishing, Inc., North Hollywood, CA, 1977
• McDowell, Bruce, A Study of Colt Conversions and Other Percussion Revolvers, Krause Publications, Iola, WI, 1997
• Winant, Lewis, Firearms Curiosa, Greenberg Books, New York, NY, 1955