Rise and Fall of the Whitney Wolverine
By Joel Kolander
The design of the Whitney Wolverine might have some thinking it’s a bit out of place among the other collectible and antique firearms that usually grace Rock Island Auction Company’s catalogs and articles. After all, this is no antique, Western, or military arm made with steel and wood! It looks like it would be more at home with Buck Rodgers, the crew of “Lost in Space,” or in the pages of an old “Speed Carter” or “Flash Gordon” comic book. Yes, the Wolverine owes much of its design, method of manufacture, and untimely demise to the era in which it found itself birthed. That post-WWII era was what the New York Times and many others dubbed, “The Atomic Age.”
In that age was a man named Robert “Bob” L. Hillberg. Bob had an interest in firearms from an early age, an interest he credits largely to his outdoorsman father and his gift of a Browning Auto-5 20 gauge shotgun to the high school junior that endured countless disassembling and reassembling in his Minneapolis, Minnesota boyhood home. Through the years he purchased more firearms, became familiar with mechanical drawing thanks to his father’s accomplishments as an artist and draftsman, and obtained early employment in machine operation for large local companies such as Ford, Minneapolis Honeywell, some local flour mills, and others. With this basic experience, Bob began building some firearm accessories and still had a passion for the internal workings of a firearm. It was always a hobby for him, even after he graduated high school and left for the University of Minnesota’s School of Mines as an student of mining engineering.
While attending college his career as an engineer, machinist, and gun designer encountered an unexpected and pleasant opportunity. In 1936-37 Bob had designed and developed a new submachine gun that utilized the Colt .38 Super and actually built a working model of it at the U.S. Naval Air Station, Wold-Chamberlain Field, Minneapolis where his duties as a reserve member gave him access to the machine shop. Well, in 1938 summer vacation rolled around and with his working prototype and drawings in hand, Bob ventured up to Connecticut to sell the gun to Colt. The legendary manufacturer, already manufacturing Thompsons (which were selling poorly), and with no war going on, didn’t have much need for a new SMG design at the moment, but they instantly recognized Bob’s ability and offered him a position.
Snatching this opportunity of a lifetime by the tail, Bob accepted and began working in many various positions for Colt resulting in a wide variety of skills and training in many different areas of firearms manufacture. Obviously, this would be a huge benefit for the young designer as his career developed. Two years later, in 1940, Hillberg would turn that experience with Colt into a position in the research engineering department at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Corporation. In his time there he developed a new 20mm aircraft cannon and began work at home on a personal side project of a new military carbine to enter into the U.S. government’s competition for just such a rifle.
Two years later, and taking the designs for the cannon and the carbine with him, Hillberg left for the Ordnance Department of Bell Aircraft, returning him again to his aspiration of working with firearms. Now he was a project engineer and was up to his eyeballs in firearms ideas and projects, which author Antonio J. Taglienti, who penned the authoritative work on Hillberg & his Wolverine, lists as: “Boeing B-17 turrets, .50 cal machine gun feeding systems, gun mounts, boosters, gun sight systems, bomb racks, rocket releases, and a 20 mm continuous belt feed mechanism for submarines and ant-aircraft guns.” Hillberg even had a prototype of his carbine made and interests were piqued in both Canada and Russia, but WWII ended before any further headway could be made. In fact, Bell closed their Ordnance Division after the war and Hillberg went to work for Republic Aviation again making the feed systems, gun mounts, and bomb racks that he had familiarized himself with at Bell.
Hillberg’s employment at Republic bears special mention because even though he was again working in the aviation sphere, his heart still remained true to firearms engineering. At his home, Hillberg realized that the three most popular cartridges at that time the .22 LR, .32 ACP, and .380 ACP were all .006 inch different in overall length. Combined with his passion for small arms, Hillberg set about designing a single pistol utilizing replaceable barrels and magazines that would be capable of firing the three distinct cartridges. His new compact pistol was called the “Hillberg Tri-Matic” and it used many characteristics revered by Hillberg: simplicity, efficiency, easy assembly/disassembly, and low cost of manufacture. These qualities made Hillberg a good designer favored by his employers, but they also would be his calling cards for many of his designs, including the Whitney pistol.
It wouldn’t take long for the man with firearms design in his blood to return to that industry and in 1951, Hillberg went to work for High Standard with the intention of making the Tri-Matic. However, High Standard kept him busy with projects ranging from gas operated sporting shotguns, to the military applications such as a .308 NATO tank machine gun and the U.S. military’s brief flirtation with replacing the M1911-A1 with a sidearms capable of firing a 9mm Parabellum utilizing a delayed blowback action. In his development of these military arms, he became familiar with a machining company called Bellmore-John Tool Company, a much smaller organization than the established High Standard, but one that had an excellent reputation. Long story short, working for BJT would give Hillberg much more control over his own direction, so he approached the company and began working for them in 1954.
Already having a desire to design and make a new .22 caliber pistol, Hillberg’s first order of business after this hire was to begin putting pen to paper and making his long time ideas a reality. Working out all the kinks took Bob into 1955, when the first prototype of the Whitney pistol (still dubbed a Tri-Matic at that point) was made at the BJT facility entirely by hand, it functioned flawlessly and was given the serial number 1. Hillberg now had full drawings and a functioning prototype with a sleek, space-age appearance. It was time to make some money for all his hard work and what would happen next would determine the fate of the company and the pistol.
BJT being a small company, Hillberg wanted to either sell the gun outright to an established manufacturer or “else have it produced and marketed by one of the leading gun companies on a royalty basis” according to Taglienti. After all, BJT was just a machinist shop. They made dies, tools, and patterns. They didn’t have the production facility, workers, marketing team, etc. necessary to successfully bring a new sporting pistol to the American public. Despite these setbacks, BJT decided to produce the new pistol themselves, which meant they were going to need a lot of capital to build a new factory, hire new skilled workers, machinery bought, and marketing to be done. The two men had plenty of experience with the engineering portion of firearms, but were somewhat helpless when it came to sales and marketing.
To that end, Hillberg and Howard Johnson, execs at BJT, were referred by a friend to see one Mr. Jacques Galef, a nationally known firearms distributor who was able to help said friend when he was in a jam. Galef was immediately impressed with the pistol and even more impressed with its performance at a local firing range where the gun was fired by Hillberg so quickly that Galef swore it was the fastest firing pistol he’d ever seen! Never mind that Hillberg could make most any semi-auto fire that quickly and tried to tell his potential client just that, Galef was won over. He would market the gun and placed an order for 10,000 pistols.
Hillberg and Johnson left the demonstration in New York City as elated as any two men should be who have just completed a major step toward success. Soon thereafter, April 1955 to be specific, a contract was drawn up and agreed to by both parties. In it Galef agreed to purchase 10,000 pistols as originally offered and to furthermore purchase no less than 10,000 in every subsequent calendar year. For his guaranteed repeat business, Galef would maintain exclusive distributorship over the pistol. The men at the newly formed Hillson Firearms (named by combining HILLberg & JohnSON) had also determined a market strategy. Hillson Firearms was intended to manufacture an entire line of sporting arms using this little .22 pistol to get their foot in the door of the firearms industry. That in mind, they priced their pistol for wholesale at $16.53/piece. In their minds, it would realize minimal profit in turn for getting their name out there at a price attractive to firearms enthusiasts. In the authoritative book, “The Whitney Wolverine,” Taglienti states, “It appears somewhat amazing in retrospect, that Johnson and Hillberg felt they could produce a pistol and wholesale it to the distributor for $16.53 each, and realize a reasonable profit from this, even considering the relative value of 1955 dollars. Nevertheless, their cost studies had shown this to be entirely possible, and they eagerly entered into the agreement.”
After securing their financing at the First National Bank and Trust Co. of New Haven with their signed letter from Galef, Hillson Firearms began not only choosing a location for what was to be their factory, but also began considering a name change. Those two birds were to be taken with a single stone, when they renamed Hillson Firearms to Whitney Firearms, Inc., inspired by historical inventor Eli Whitney. Not only is his name well known to school children everywhere for his invention of the cotton gin, but the Whitney name is especially well known to firearms collectors thanks to Whitney’s manufacture of U.S. Model 1785 muskets (among others) at the turn of the century as well as being an innovator behind the interchangeability of gun parts. It didn’t hurt that the name was public property, enjoyed rich associations with American history and invention, and was already revered locally. To Hillberg, there was also the added symbolism of Eli Whitney’s innovation combined with his desire to produce high quality guns at a low cost, while remaining easily serviceable. The upstart company with its new moniker even sought to obtain the land that the old Whitney Armory had occupied. However, that land was now owned by the New Haven Water Company, who had no desire to sell. A new property was quickly discovered within a mile, but the location was technically in neighboring North Haven, Connecticut and not the manufacturing center of American firearms, New Haven. It mattered little. The company would still list New Haven on most of its materials and even on the side of the pistols. If only the problems to come were as simple to resolve.
In 1956, production started slowly, as it does for many manufacturers until they get their feet wet. The good news was that it was ever increasing and profits were expected to be seen soon. Only when summer rolled around, so did the grim realization that by selling the pistols at $16.53 per unit, they were lucky to break even. They changed a few things to cut costs, but the only thing that could have truly saved the fledgling gun maker would have been a +$3.00/unit change to their contract with Galef – not exactly something a savvy businessman would agree to. That summer the factory was pumping out around 330 guns per week and with each one, the company was losing money.
The problem with selling on the cheap and making marginal profit is that one’s success is based on sheer volume. The hopes are to supplant the mark up with the sheer number of items sold, even if each one earns a minimal amount. Undercutting the competition is one thing, selling for a bargain is another. The situation became even more dire when Galef sent word for the company to hold back on their deliveries to him. He already had a warehouse full and they weren’t exactly selling as well as anyone had hoped they would. Taglienti describes it succinctly when he writes, “This was a devastating blow to Whitney. They were locked into Galef by the exclusive distributorship contract and weren’t permitted to sell to anyone else. But now Galef didn’t want anymore!” Whitney needed to expand their sales and quickly or they’d become bankrupt more quickly than their little pistol could shoot.
Finding new prospects seemed promising at first with interest coming in from the West Coast and large chains such as Sears and Montgomery Ward. Any new contracts would’ve paid a royalty to Galef and saved the company from going under, but the deal fell through. They even had an offer to sell them in Mexico, but poor sales and new import laws squashed the deal. They even tried to redesign the gun, changing the very cosmetics which gave the Whitney its appeal. However, not wanting to risk the headache and fund drain of a legal battle with Galef the pair simply decided to sell what they could to repay their debts. They sold to a Charles E. Lowe Sr. in 1957, a fellow machinist who owned a shop in neighboring Newington, Connecticut, and who was made fully aware of the current company’s situation. Hillberg and Johnson walked away from the business they had built after constructing only 10,793 pistols of which 10,360 were delivered to J.F. Galef & Son. It would have been a crushing moment for the lifelong small arms designer who was on the verge of seeing his dreams come true.
Lowe changed the name from Whitney Firearms, Inc. to Whitney Firearms Co. and was keen on resuming production of the pistol, the design no longer being bound by agreements. Production began slow, but was slowly gaining momentum as ads began appearing in some of the nations most well-known firearms magazines.
However, in February of 1958, J.L. Galef & Son brought suit to the new company claiming breech of contract. Whitney claimed they were in no violation: not only had the prior agreement been satisfied with the delivery of 10,000 pistols, but they weren’t even the same business. They claimed that Lowe had not purchased the business, but had personally bought only the physical assets and patents and then leased those to the new company. The lawsuit threatened to go on for some time and sales were slow for the new company and its owner. Besides, if Galef won the suit, all the profits from the pistols piling up in the Whitney warehouse would be awarded to him. Production stopped. The case was eventually settled, but all the excitement and energy surrounding the pistol had vanished. Instead of picking up manufacture again, the new Whitney Firearms Co. decided to liquidate and sold the remaining 1,100 pistols wholesale to miscellaneous distributors. It was the end of a journey once as promising and bright as a shooting star, but that faded just as quickly.
Why Did It Fail?
There are many supposed reasons the pistol fell short of success. Obviously the binding agreement with Galef was a huge contributing factor for several reasons: nonadjustable price, little to no profit, and a factor not yet discussed was that Galef was only selling them via the mail (a legal and common practice at that time). Whitney had expected to see their guns in the windows and cases of firearms and sporting goods stores across the country, but the young manufacturer had no idea of Galef’s mail order practice until they began receiving their warranty cards back from their buyers. Whitney had zero input or knowledge on how Galef was going to conduct sales and marketing of the pistol.
Another issue may have been the lack of a consistent name. Most guns, or products in general, go by one name during their lifespan. The Whitney pistol went by many. It began as a product by Hillson Firearms and was at that time still known as the Tri-Matic, even though the design of the original Tri-Matic and the Whitney pistol had little in common and the original was only ever built as a prototype. When the deal was first struck with Galef, the company still bore the Hillson name and briefly an ad appeared for the Hillson-Imperial. Nevermind that the Hillson name never appeared on one of the Whitney pistols, it is likely the marketing efforts of someone at Galef.
If you recall from earlier, Galef was extremely impressed at the pistol’s initial demonstration. So impressed, he exclaimed that, “it shoots like lightning!” He all but insisted it should be called the Lightning, so this name too appeared in advertising placed by Galef. The name was never placed on any of the pistols. At long last the name “Wolverine” was given to the little plinker, but there is no single reason as to why. Some again give the origin’s credit to Galef and him wanting the pistol to be associated with wild animals and the outdoors, things that were commonly used in their marketing. Alliteration is never mentioned as a reason for the name “Wolverine,” but it’s hard to imagine it had no bearing on the decision. The other possibility is that because Bob Hillberg himself was a college football fan, specifically that of the university of Michigan Wolverines, he chose the name in honor of his beloved team. It would be a short-lived tribute as a business only miles away from the original Whitney plant, the Lyman Gunsight Company, had already used the name for one of their scopes. The owners being friends, Whitney dropped the name to preserve the friendship and avoid legal battles.
The third reason can perhaps be more generally summed up as, “the market.” The Whitney pistol had some stiff competition from any number of sources:
- Other more established plinking pistols could be obtained at the same cost or cheaper than the Whitney
- Other handguns were carried in stock and didn’t have to be ordered like the Whitney
- A boom of military surplus rifles and pistols were available on the cheap, giving buyers more variety and bang for their buck.
It also had a style that the market may not have been ready to support and an aluminum frame that may have felt “cheap” and light to a market accustomed to heavy steel which was associated with durability and quality.
Ultimately, the gun and the company tied to it would flounder after less than three full years of on again off again production, robbing Hillberg of his much deserved success. In fact, much of his early work would indicate the man was to receive no accolades at all! His work on several prototypes all seemed to miss going to full production. The weapons that he developed designed for insurgencies, such as the Winchester Liberator shotgun, saw no real lifespan and another compact weapon, the Colt Defender Mark I, an 8 barreled, 20 ga. shotgun designed for law enforcement, was introduced during the national recession and put out to pasture in 1971. Trying again with the COP 357 Derringer, a back-up break action pistol for law enforcement, Hillberg’s design again bit the dust as it was too bulky and had a heavy double action trigger pull (a design feature that Hillberg considered essential for simplicity in use). Thankfully his work with various firearms and aeronautic companies throughout the years had earned him many patents such as several pistols, shotgun components, safeties, early gas operated shotguns, barrels, grips, and what appears to be a folding shotgun stock extremely similar to that popularized by the Franchi SPAS-12.
Hillberg is an absolutely brilliant engineering mind that deserves much more recognition than he receives. His was a labor of love that never really saw the success that he desired and some say deserved. Robert L. Hillberg passed away on August 12, 2012 at the age of 94, but not before he got to see his Wolverine design reborn in 2005 from black polymer courtesy of the Olympic Arms Company. To see the rekindled interest in his old pet project would be a source of pride for any engineer or designer.
Note: This blog was originally published on our old blog site on 5/30/2014
Taglienti, Antonio J. The Whitney Wolverine: .22 Caliber Semi-automatic Pistol. Woonsocket, RI: Mowbray, 2008. Print.