Search This Blog

Friday, February 19, 2016

Adams Patent: The First Double Action Revolver

Lot 615: Alexander Thomson Marked, Adams Patent Double Action Revolver

There are a lot of "firsts" in the world of firearms and with those "firsts" comes a great deal of misinformation and seemingly pedantic clarifications. For example, Colt did not make the first revolver, no matter what Wikipedia says. Conversely, when many folks think of the first semi-automatic pistol they incorrectly think of Hugo Borchardt's strangely beautiful C-93. While that is an early entry into the field of semi-automatic pistols, it is in fact predated by the Schönberger-Laumann of 1892. Borchardt enthusiasts or others wanting to maintain their fact's "correctness" counter by saying that the Borchardt was the first commercially successful semi-automatic.

That's where the mountains of confusing clarifying details begins to cloud history.

Now, the Borchardt isn't the first semi-automatic pistol, it's the first commercially successful semi-automatic pistol. By adding those two little italicized words, the claimant's statement remains true. However, to a society not mired in nuance, and more often focused on the biggest, fastest, first, longest, or other measurements of superlative magnitude, this aggrandizement can be misleading and often times, downright incorrect.

To that end, in researching this article, even the Schönberger-Laumann 1892 is referred to as the first commercially sold semi-auto pistol. Was this because the man who designed the pistol, Joseph Laumannm, had built earlier functioning models before he signed over his patents to the Gebruder Schönberger company? Is he predated by another pistol all together yet unearthed in my research? In any case, one can see how a quick clarifying term can change a gun's claim to a prestigious historic title. This is even worse when it comes to revolvers! Claims abound when it comes to: the first revolver, the first cartridge revolver, the first successful double-action (DA) cartridge revolver, the first standard issue revolver, the first modern double action revolver, and so on ad nauseum.

Nothing is wrong with acknowledging the contributions of the gradual improvements to firearms throughout history. Small improvements over time lead to big, finalized changes. Do you think Winchester would be famous without Walter Hunt, Lewis Jennings, Smith, Wesson, King, or Henry? In fact, too many inventors and contributors throughout history are often not given their due proportional to their influence. However, one must remain accurate in historical attribution. The first revolver was not invented by Samuel Colt. The first semi-auto service rifle was not the M1 Garand. The first lever action was not the Winchester. The first rimfire cartridge was not invented by Smith & Wesson.

The First Double Action Revolver

Robert Adams was a British gunsmith and inventor born in 1809. The general mentions of him historically are for his work at the London arms factory of George & John Deane. It was under their employ, on August 22, 1851, that he was granted a British patent for a revolver design that functioned in a revolutionary way (no pun intended). Adams' patent covered a new design of gun that indexed the cylinder, cocked and dropped the hammer, all with a single pull of the trigger.

At the same time Samuel Colt's revolvers were selling like hotcakes in the United States. His Colt Walker (1847), despite its limited production, was extremely effective for the men who used it (despite problems with ruptured cylinders), and it soon saw improvements in the subsequent models such as the Dragoon (1848), Baby Dragoon, and the 1851 Navy. Some of these weapons he brought to the 1851 Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations (a.k.a. The Great Exhibition of 1851) held at the Crystal Palace in London's Hyde park. Like many similar shows it sought to display each nation's products to each other and the world. For manufacturers, there could be no better time to make a name for one's self or to show off one's wares to big buyers and governments from all corners of the globe. There were only two revolvers on display at this exhibition (though other manufacturers such as Lefaucheux were present), a display by Colt and a booth of George & John Deane showing the new revolver design by Robert Adams. A collision course had been set.

The Deane & Adams revolver on display was a five-shot revolver was likely chambered in .500 caliber (12.7 mm). Other calibers would come later, such as the 1851 Infantry in .440 (11.2 mm) and the 1851 Pocket in .320 (7.65 mm).  In that huge expo building of glass and iron, the Deane booth of firearms was the only one that had brought a decorated firearm - a single revolver described as "ornately engraved." Colt, who had brought a large display, had only brought his plain, machine-made pistols, giving the Adams the lion's share of the public's attention. To add further insult to injury, the Deane brothers won a prize medal for their display, while Colt was issued an Honorable Mention. The burgeoning arms maker quickly turned the new found attention to his advantage, and found himself running against Colt in the military trials that began September 10, 1851 at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.

The Adams had several advantages over its American counterpart. First and foremost, it was a double-action revolver, and requiring only one hand to operate was seen as a large advantage. In fact, the revolver was solely a double action (DAO), with the hammer spur having been removed so that a shooter could not cock it manually. They were virtually hand-made and thus had a higher quality and fit than the Colt. The Adams took less time to reload than the Colt, fired a larger cartridge, fired it more quickly, weighed less, and did not experience a single misfire during the trials. It also utilized a solid frame with the barrel and frame being created in one forging, giving the gun additional strength, an important benefit before the introduction of more sophisticated metallurgy techniques. In the two hour test, the Adams fired 25 times with no misfires, but the Colt suffered four.

However, it had its disadvantages as well. The same hand fitting that gave the gun its high (though somewhat inconsistent) quality and solid feel, slowed production, eliminated part interchangeability, and increased its cost; something Colt did not suffer with his machine-made guns. It offered no recoil shield, its longer DAO trigger pull hurt the gun's accuracy, and the percussion nipples had not been hardened, sometimes resulting in several problems, but most notably their occasional fracturing upon detonation of the percussion cap. Also, while the rapid fire of the double action was appreciated, the lack of a single action option was viewed as a detriment.

As ordnance boards around the world tend to do, they chose the more traditional design and signed a contract with Colt that resulted in an overall sum of 9,500 revolvers going to the Royal Navy and 14,000 to the British Army (5,000 of which were produced in America). This purchase of mostly Model 1851 Navy revolvers was made despite the fact that the Ordnance Board did not approve either revolver. Perhaps this contract is what caused Colt to build his London factory, that "officially" began production on January 1, 1853. The mass-production and assembly lines were an eye-opening experience for the European gunsmiths of the day. Charles Dickens even came to tour the factory and wrote about his experience in the May 27, 1854 issue of his magazine, Household Words. Despite the Colt contract, many British officers still recognized the quality and higher stopping power of the Adams revolver, often buying them out of their own pockets.

While Colt was busy selling his single actions and being content with his military contracts, Adams was stoking the fires of improvement and commercial sales. He was putting immense pressure on Colt in retail sales and was so successful at such that the Deane brothers made him a partner, changing the name of the business to Deane, Adams, & Deane. He also kept improving his revolvers. By adding a bullet rammer similar to one in use by W. & J. Rigby (known today as John Rigby & Co), he quickly eliminated one major objection to his revolver.  To address the lack of single action operation Adams designed a system of his own, but eventually preferred that of Lieutenant Frederick E. B. Beaumont, to which he bought the patent. By incorporating the improved DA/SA action and hammer spur in his weapons, which were now being manufactured more cheaply and quickly, he had removed nearly every objection to this revolver. The newly improved revolvers are known as Beaumont-Adams revolvers and began production in 1856 (patent date for Beaumont is Feb 20, 1855). By the time production rolled around, they had also substituted the Rigby bullet rammer for one designed by James Kerr, Adams' cousin.

Lot 2461: Engraved and John Clough & Son Retailer Marked Beaumont-Adams Double Action Percussion Revolver
Note the newly added ramming lever flush to the left side of the barrel and the hammer spur.

This put both revolvers squarely in the middle of the Crimean War (Oct 1853 - Feb 1856), where each saw much more arduous testing than that of the Ordnance Board. The Colts were found to be more rugged, but the rapid firing, large caliber DA Adams revolvers held their own. Two readily available quotes best describe the reputations of the two weapons. The first is a letter from Crimean War soldier J. G. Crosse from the 88th Regiment of Foot, who felt compelled to write a letter to Adams after he experienced the following:

"I had one of your largest sized Revolver Pistols at the bloody battle of Inkermann, and by some chance got surrounded by the Russians. I then found the advantages of your pistol over that of Colonel Colt's, for had I to cock before each shot I should have lost my life. I should not have had time to cock, as they were too close to me, being only a few yards from me; so close that I was bayoneted through the thigh immediately after shooting the fourth man."

It is worth noting that the Russians also valued the Adams revolvers, often taking them as war trophies and eventually reproducing their own copies of the gun. The Colts, on the other hand, suffered from the reputation of being slow and under-powered, accusations made even more severe by the previous letter.The following letter was written by Lieutenant Colonel George Vincent Fosbery during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It reads,

"An officer, who especially prided himself in his pistol shooting, was attacked by a stalwart mutineer armed with a heavy sword. The officer, unfortunately for himself, carried a Colt's Navy pistol of small caliber and fired a sharp-pointed bullet of sixty to the pound and a heavy charge of powder, its range being 600 yards, as I have frequently proved. This he proceeded to empty into the sepoy [an Indian soldier] as soon as he advanced, but having done so, he waited just one second too long to see the effect of his shooting and was cloven to the teeth by his antagonist, who then dropped down and died beside him. My informant told me that five out of the six bullets had struck the sepoy close together in the chest, and all had passed through him and out of his back."

It wouldn't take too many stories of men having their heads split open to turn the tides of opinion against the Colt revolvers. Beginning in 1855, Beaumont-Adams revolvers were ordered for the British Army and the War Department, most being chambered in .479 caliber. British officers, who had to purchase their own sidearms at this time, also favored the domestic product. With the loss of the military contract and the immense popularity of the Adams in the retail market, Colt was forced to close his London factory in 1856 (some sources say 1857), approximately four short years after it had opened. Some say that the experience in London soured Colt against double actions, which he never produced produced in his lifetime. Colt died in 1862; the first DA was the less-than-rugged Model 1877 "Lighting." Even rival Remington had a solid frame DA dating back to 1862 (pat'd 1858).  Even after their founder's passing, Colt seemed to be ignoring the writing on the wall.

Lot 621: Four European Double Action Revolvers
Only the 3rd from the top is not an Adams Patent.
Unfortunately for Adams, the view from the top would not last long.  In 1856 he had a falling out with the Deane brothers, left that partnership, took most of his patents with him, and founded the London Armoury Company on February 9, 1856. He had some help again from his cousin James Kerr, who would later develop the Kerrs Patent Revolver. By 1857 there was trouble in the provinces and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 cemented the Adams' position as the official sidearm of the British Army. When it came down to it, the practicality of the gun's rate of fire and large caliber were deemed more important than the suffered accuracy of the double-action.

Eventually, Adams would have his disagreements with the London Armoury Co. as well. He would sell his interest in the company, leaving it to Kerr, but would keep the rights to his revolver and have them produced under license, even by his most recent employer. This turned out to be remarkably prescient on Adams' part as the issue that sent him away was the increased production of infantry rifles at the expense of the production of his revolvers. The new rifles were to be sold to the newly formed Confederate States of America, the primary buyer for Kerr. At the end of the American Civil War, London Armoury lost its biggest client and went out of business the following year.

The standard issue revolvers Robert Adams made would only be replaced in 1867 by those made by his brother, John Adams. The pistols from John's Adams Patent Small Arms Company would remain the official revolvers of the British Army until they were replaced by the Enfield Mark I in 1880, the same year of Robert Adams' death.

-Written by Joel R. Kolander


Ezell, Edward C. Handguns of the World. A Comprehensive International Guide to Military Revolvers and Self-Loaders. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1981. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment