The Ugly Duckling

The Ugly Duckling

An ungainly amalgamation of several ideas, this six-shooter proved to be better than the sum of its parts.

One thing you can say about British military revolvers--they certainly have distinctive appearances. And while they ran the performance gamut from serviceable to top-notch, one thing is sure: Few will ever win a beauty contest. And perhaps the best case in point is the Enfield revolver.

When one mentions "Enfield revolver," the image that comes to most minds is the .380 Webley-looking repeater of World War II fame. Actually, the first Enfield revolver appeared in the latter part of the 19th century, and aside from the fact that it was double action, it had virtually nothing in common with the later handgun

Prior to the introduction of the Enfield, the British military had been saddled with a succession of solid-frame double-action Adams revolvers that chambered a relatively anemic .450 cartridge. This black powder round pushed its 125-grain lead bullet out at around 650 fps for a muzzle energy of some 211 ft.-lbs. It was often found to be less than effective when confronting some of Queen Victoria's more determined adversaries. Recognizing this, the War Department set about to design a new, more powerful cartridge and revolver for its forces.

What finally emerged in August 1880 was totally different from the earlier solid-frame efforts. The gun employed an unusual simultaneous extraction system designed by Americanized Welshman Owen Jones and a double-action lockwork with rebounding hammer, patented jointly by Britisher Michael Kaufmann and Belgian Jean Warnant.

The ingenious, slightly eccentric design involved a frontally pivoting hinged frame, secured at the rear of the top strap by a knurled latch. The gun was loaded in the usual manner, one round at a time through the loading gate, which also served as a backward cylinder stop. In the original Mark I, the cylinder rotated freely clockwise even with the gate closed, though the later Mark II's cylinder was locked completely and rotated for loading only when the gate was open.

The Mark II loads like a solid frame but features simultaneous -- if not particularly efficient -- extraction. The case in the bottom chamber would often stick.

When six rounds had been fired, to quote the 1886 North West Mounted Police Manual and Firing Exercise for the Winchester Carbine and the Enfield Revolver, "Hold the revolver in the right hand with the barrel pointing upwards to the left front at an angle of 30 to 40 degrees. Place the thumb on the catch and press it back, then with a smart jerk of the wrist, throw the barrel forward when the cartridge cases will fall out...The bottom case may occasionally require to be removed by revolving the cylinder."

So basically what you had here was a gun that loaded like a solid frame but which featured simultaneous extraction. Not only that, the extraction was even recognized at the time as being not particularly efficient, as the case in the bottom chamber would oftentimes stick in the action, requiring a separate motion or vigorous shaking to dislodge it--especially when the gun was fouled with black powder residue.

This was due in part to the fact that, unlike later systems, in the Enfield the star extractor was held captive and the cylinder pulled forward, leaving a thick arbor in its wake--just perfect for seizing cases.

The Mark I Enfield revolver, as it was termed after the arsenal where it was built, initially had the forward portions of the chambers rifled and the internal parts nickel-plated (both later eliminated.) The six-inch round barrel was rifled with the system of Scottish gunsmith Alexander Henry (of Martini-Henry rifle fame.) Overall length of the piece was 111⁄2 inches, and it weighed two pounds, eight ounces.

The Mark II Enfield revolver was adopted in 1882, a scant two years after the introduction of the Mark I (bottom). Both were a combination of features by American, British, and Belgian designers.

The top-strap portion of the frame was a separate piece and the foresight of a slightly angular configuration. Grips were checkered walnut, capped with an iron plate which incorporated a lanyard ring.

The cartridge designed for the gun had a 265-grain, .455 diameter hollow-based lead bullet propelled by 18 grains of black powder for a muzzle energy of 289 ft.-lbs. Overall length of the round was 1.47 inches as opposed to the .450's 1.14 inches. As bullet and case diameter of the two rounds was very close, it was noted by the War Department that .450 ammo could be used with the Enfield in an emergency.

In December of 1881, the "Cartridge, S.A. Ball, Pistol, Revolver, Enfield B.L. (Mark III)" was adopted. It differed from its predecessor in having a bullet diameter of .477 and a deeper hollow base inset with a clay expanding plug. The round was designated the .476.

In 1882, a second pattern of Enfield revolver was sealed. According to the War Department: "The main points in which this pistol differs from Mark I are as follows--the top strap is part of the body. The stock is not checkered, and is secured to the body by means of a stock-cap screw. A locking arrangement has been added to prevent the cylinder revolving accidentally when the pistol is in the holster. This is thrown out of gear when the shield [loading gate] is open. A cam on the shield locks the hammer when the shield is open, and so prevents accidental discharge of the pistol when it is being loaded. This pistol takes the same cartridge as Mark I."

The author's Mark II shot poorly, although that's not completely unexpected as its trigger is not exactly easy-shooting and its bore a bit oversize for the available loads.

In 1886, a Royal Navy lieutenant was killed when his Mark I fell from its holster onto its hammer, accidentally discharging a round. This caused, in 1887, for a further safety device to be added to the gun that prevented the hammer from being forced forward while in the rebound position. Guns with this modification were m

arked with an "S" on the left side of their frames.

Initially the Enfield was issued to the Royal Navy, Royal Irish Constabulary and the Canadian North West Mounted Police, as well as to troops in India and to several colonial governments. Unfortunately for the Mounties, some shipping glitches caused the guns to be sent without their proper ammunition, and they were forced to load their new Enfields with .450 for a time.

While it was remarked by many that the gun was a tad on the homely side, it was nonetheless acknowledged to be rugged and functional. The .476 cartridge's extra oomph was also appreciated, and the piece could certainly be cleared much faster than the Adamses, which relied on under-barrel ejector rods.

This Mark II was originally issued to the North West Mounted Police, as indicated by this grip stamp. Markings include the NWMP mark, "CANADA" and the issue number.

On today's collector market, Mark Is are certainly scarcer than Mark IIs, though the latter are also elusive. I've been lucky enough to have a Mark I in my collection for a number of years and just recently purchased a Mark II that is listed as having been featured in "Dracula," "The Phantom" and "Mighty Joe Young," but I know it was also used by Preston Foster in the 1940 Cecil B. DeMille epic "North West Mounted Police" and by John Cleese in "Silverado" (actually at my suggestion when the movie was being made.)

The real plus, though, is that it was an actual Mountie revolver, and though the stamping is worn, the grips still have an NWMP/CANADA marking, along with the gun's issue number. While showing use, it was still very serviceable, and despite having been fired with blanks, the bore was quite good. It was dated 1884 and exhibits the double-broad arrow "sale" mark, indicating it was officially and properly released from government stores. Having been sent to Canada early in its career, this Mark II escaped being fitted with the upgraded safety.

I took the revolver to the Angeles Range in Lakeview Terrace, California, (angelesranges.com) along with some of my own black powder handloads that were concocted from .455 Colt brass, FFFg black powder and 290-grain hollow-based .451 pure lead bullets, as well as with some smokeless Dominion 265-grain .455 Colt factory ammo for a control.

Our Mark II was first loaded with the handloads, the "shield" properly freeing the cylinder when opened. The gun could be loaded as quickly as any Single Action Army that I've tried and has the slight advantage that the cylinder can be rotated when the hammer is down, in the rebound position.

First groups were fired from a rest at 25 yards. The wide, paddle-shaped hammer spur allowed the gun to be easily thumb-cocked against a pretty serious mainspring tension. While on the paper and hitting pretty much at point of aim, groups with either type of ammunition were somewhat disappointing. As the bore mikes out at .457, frankly it's amazing the piece shot as well as it did.

The single-action trigger pull was crisp enough, coming in at seven pounds, followed by a lengthy return trigger action, caused by the double-action hammer rebounding mechanism. This also was not conducive to good accuracy. The double-action is hefty, requires a long pull, and is by no means as smooth as that of the earlier Adamses or later Webleys. It certainly appeared to be rugged enough, though I can't imagine these guns ever being tack-drivers, even with the proper .476 load (currently unobtainable except as collector ammo.)

Mark II Enfield revolvers were stamped on their frames with the "VR" (("Victoria Regina") sovereign cipher, date and place of manufacture. Mark Is did not have this.

Extraction of the spent cases presented little problem, but the Colt cases are slightly shorter than the original .476s, and just about every time the bottom case had to be shaken free from the frame. After several cylinders of black powder loads, the action bogged down to a noticeable degree, though it still kept on working.

Overall, my general impressions of the Mark II was good. Because of the Enfield's unorthodox appearance, it has gotten something of a bad reputation over the years, and it was replaced by one of the finest military revolvers ever: the Webley stirrup-latch top break.

Civilian versions of the Enfield were never manufactured and this, to some minds, might constitute a vote of no-confidence. Still, Enfields continued to be used well into the 20th century, and perhaps this hard, long service life explains their relative scarcity today.

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