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October 8, 2014

Fantastic Flops: The Walch Revolvers

By Joel R Kolander

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Typically, we like to write about the guns that will be appearing in an upcoming auction. Not only do we hope to make it interesting for anybody with an interest in firearms, but also to help generate some excitement about the sale. That said, I’d like to take the time to write about an item that RIAC just sold in the September 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction. To be completely honest, there were many guns in that auction that deserved a story, whether it was due to their design, rarity, or historical provenance. This one happened to catch my eye the week of the auction, and it was just too late to give this fascinating little handgun the attention it deserved. This firearm is none other than the Walch Ten-Shot pocket revolver.

This particular gun came about in the mid-19th century when new firearms designs seemed about as common as battles with Native Americans. In 1835 Samuel Colt would patent his revolver (even though gunsmiths across the Atlantic figured it out first) and by 1856 Smith & Wesson was producing the first cartridge revolvers. While these were the designs that history would eventually find the most successful, thousands of other designs were invented and have roots prior to 1870: cane guns, palm pistols, harmonica pistols, duckfoot pistols, trapdoors, dropping/falling block, Deringers, pinfire cartridges, the Gatling gun, the Henry rifle, interchangeable parts, the percussion cap, Lefaucheux mutli-round pistols, Sharps, LeMat, Spencer, and Volcanic ammunition. This doesn’t even mention some of the classics that came later in the 19th century like the early Winchesters, the early Colts, the first machine guns, the development of semi-automatics (rifles and pistols), bolt action rifles, and others that continue to dominate the landscape of firearms even to this day. In other words, it was a booming time for firearms innovations.

One of those innovations was the Walch Revolver. John Walch was a man trying to do what so many others were, invent a firearm that fired more quickly. Colt’s revolvers were selling like hot cakes by the mid 1800s and everybody wanted a piece of the pie, no matter how vigorously Colt defended his patents. Walch decided to kill two birds with one stone. He took the popular revolver design and reasoned that one could carry more firepower with superposed rounds in each chamber.

Now the idea of superposed or “stacked charge” firearms is nothing new. In fact, the idea stretches all the way back to the 1500s and matchlock weapons. Those early matchlocks and flintlocks often achieved this by having multiple ignition points down the same barrel (lots of flintlock hammers/frizzens) or a single sliding ignition source that could be positioned around various touch holes in succession. Walch’s idea was not so different; it involved multiple hammers, a little creativity, elongated chambers, a lot of confidence, and some help from well-known places.

Walch lived in New York and in 1859 patented his revolver with extended cylinders to accommodate two superimposed loads with two triggers and hammers, as well as two percussion nipples per chamber. In this initial version, manufactured in .36 caliber, it would fire 12 rounds via single action in the following manner: load your cap and ball percussion revolver, place caps and prepare to fire. First, cock the first hammer, which would rotate the cylinder and set the first trigger. Pulling the first trigger would release the first hammer, which would strike the according percussion cap. The spark from said cap would be directed via a drilled hole to powder on the forward-most charge and the round would fire. Repeat again for the second hammer and trigger which, having no redirected spark, would function as a standard percussion revolver.

Inset from Walch’s patent, showing the percussion nipples, indicated by the letter “V,” and the bullets indicated by the letter “n.” Note now the uppermost nipple would send a spark via a “tube” to a resevoir of powder to ignite the first round.

He patented two designs in 1859 (pat. no. 22,905) and several different varieties would be produced that fired 10 shots, 12 shots, .36 and .31 caliber ball, one or two triggers, spur triggers, and various arrangements of the nipples. The two Walch revolvers sold by RIAC in September 2014 were a configuration not listed on the initial patents. As one can see from topmost picture, these versions involve spur triggers, 10 shots (2 per cylinder), ten nipples which run the circumference of the cylinder, and the left hammer is a standard hammer. The hammer on the right, however, curves slightly to the right before curving back and again becoming parallel to the barrel, as shown in Walch’s patent drawing at left.

To fire these revolvers, both hammers must be cocked at once (a task requiring two hands, even for a burly gent like myself). Upon pulling the trigger the first time, the hammer on the right would fall to a nipple offset slightly to the right of the barrel. Much as before that spark would be directed down a “tunnel” through the cylinder, meet with the powder of the forward-most shot and discharge the first round. Pulling the trigger a second time, released the “left” hammer, which was actually centered behind the barrel much like a standard revolver, and fire the rearmost shot in a fashion identical to a standard percussion revolver.

Since the idea of superimposing two charges was not knew, neither were the dangers. However, Walch proceeded with his design, and if the language of his patent is too be believed, he was confident that he had solved the problem. It reads,

By ramming the ball down, the recess of the ball will become compressed, and thereby the above-mentioned grease or composition will be forced out of the same, filling in every part between the ball and the barrel. by this arrangement the chamber will be well greased and the barrel by each discharge will be thereby well cleaned. by the forcible pressing out of the grease so as to fill every crevice between the ball and the changer every danger is likewise prevent by which the after-charge might be ignited when the forward charge is fired off, and as this forms a perfect air-tight packing for the ball the powder will have more force and be able to send the ball a greater distance… and that without materially increasing the size of the parts or adding to the complexity of the same, and my fire-arm is perfectly secure, and the forward charge is in all instances first exploded.

1896 does not refer to a year of manufacture. This revolver was formerly part of the famous U.S. Cartridge Company collection assembled during the late 19th Century by A. E. Brooks. The U.S. Cartridge Co. collection number “1896” is stamped on both grips below the grip screw.

In his patent letter, not only does Walsh make several exaggerated claims about his gun, but it also provides us with a handy outline of why this gun failed.

1. The Quintessential Seal. If loaded with great attention to detail, yes, there could be an airtight seal formed between chambers, allowing the revolver to fire as designed. However, if that seal was not formed properly, by say Civil war soldiers firing and loading while locked in mortal combat, not only would the gun be less powerful, but it could potentially fire both shots at once. This would, at best, waste a precious round and at worst, cause an explosive malfunction of the revolver, injuring or killing the shooter. That seal could also be compromised by…

2. Corrosion issues. Walch also speaks of the grease being discharged and leaving the barrel “well-cleaned.” For anyone that has shot or even read about black powder, you know this is a load of hooey. Black powder is notoriously unclean and when left behind can cause rust and pitting, neither of which is conducive to the “airtight seal” required for this pistol to fire as intended. The tiny channels inherent to its design, were difficult to clean resulting in rust and pitting and would have negatively affected the very thing the revolver was supposed to do.

3. Complex Design. The fowling that Walch claims would be cleaned away by the grease during firing, would also wreak havoc on the more complicated mechanism. Documented time and time again in firearms design, more parts generally equals more things to go wrong. Simple design is revered for a reason, and with black powder weapons it was a necessity. More moving parts would foul much more quickly and seriously affecting reliability. The revolver’s complexity also subjected it to higher manufacturing costs.

4. Low Power. Walch talks about his airtight seal delivering a bullet with more force, but what he doesn’t talk about is his chambers. Yes, he mentions that the chambers are elongated, but loading two charges into one still requires a much smaller bullet as well as a smaller powder charge. This results in smaller bullet, being fired at a lower velocity – not exactly desirable traits in a revolver hoping to win a military contract.

In fact, the power of the revolver was so low, that Jeff Kinard references the following Civil War story in his book, Weapons and Warfare: An Illustrated History of Their Impact,

“Elisha Stockwell, a Wisconsin private, recounted an incident in which he and a fellow soldier armed with a Walch attempted to supplement their rations in a farmer’s pig sty: “Reeder shot several times before he would give up. That gun wouldn’t kill a hog, and the pigs got so wild we couldn’t get near them.”

Despite its less than stellar performance, sales, and design (allegedly only 200 of the Walch 12-shot revolvers were ever produced), the gun is still sought by collectors for several reasons. First of all, as perhaps you can guess from the production number just mentioned, is its rarity. There are not a lot of surviving copies out there, about 3,200 of the primary two models, so any collector would be happy to obtain one at the right price. Second, this was a pistol produced during the Civil War era and it is known that some Union soldiers privately purchased and carried them. Third, the examples sold by Rock Island Auction Company in two separate lots, an iron and brass variation of which approximately 1,500 – 2,000 were made, were manufactured from 1860 – 1862 for John Walch and his partner J.P Lindsay (inventor of the Lindsay Two-Shot) by the New Haven Arms Company. You read it right. The same factory that was producing Henry rifles, was also making these scarce and lesser-known revolvers. Walch founded and owned the Walch Firearms Company, but had no manufacturing facilities. Eventually, he would contract the Union Knife Company, located in Naugatuck, CT and the New Haven Arms Company to produce the .36 Navy Models and the .31 Pocket Models, respectively. Add together the rarity, Civil War use, and the tie to Henry rifles, and you’ve got a trifecta that any collector would be hard pressed to refuse.

Sources:

Weapons and Warfare: An Illustrated History of Their Impact by Jeff Kinard
ISBN: 1-85109-470-9 or 1-85109-475-X

http://www.google.com/patents/US22905

http://www.rockislandauction.com/viewitem/aid/62/lid/1280

http://www.rockislandauction.com/viewitem/aid/62/lid/3113

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