July 21, 2023
By Joe Engesser
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One of the lesser-known names in Old West wheel guns was also arguably the finest. Meet the Merwin Hulbert, a line of cartridge revolvers that were ahead of their time in terms of precision machining, technology, and innovation.
While ultimately out marketed by the likes of Colt and Smith & Wesson, Merwin Hulbert revolvers found a niche with late 19th-century city police departments back East, saw use with lawmen and outlaws on the American frontier, and today they’ve become an important piece of Old West gun collecting. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each revolver model.
With a devastating fire in early 1900 destroying most of the Merwin Hulbert & Company records, information on the firearms maker can be fragmented and difficult to verify. Much of what we know today comes from Art Phelps and his 1992 book, ‘The Story of Merwin Hulbert & Company Firearms.’
Phelps’ research explores the early career of Joseph Merwin and his involvement in firearms marketing and manufacturing with Merwin & Bray in the 1850s. Like Oliver Winchester, Joseph Merwin was first and foremost a businessman and financier, though Merwin also played a role in gun design during his next venture with the Hulbert brothers of Brooklyn, New York.
In 1868, Merwin entered into a partnership with well-known firearms importers and exporters William and Milan Hulbert. Their new company, Merwin, Hulbert, and Co., or simply Merwin Hulbert, also sold a vast array of sporting goods and offered an extensive mail-order catalog nearly two decades before Sears.
A company promotion from 1870 advertises, “Arms, Ammunition, Fishing Tackle, Cutlery, Sportsmen’s Goods of all kinds, styles, and prices." Featured firearms included Ballard’s breech loading rifles, Merwin & Bray’s single shot pistols, the Spencer, Henry, and Winchester rifles and carbines, and numerous European shotguns.
An incredible Merwin Hulbert revolver for sale this August, this historic inscribed factory panel scene engraved Merwin Hulbert & Co. open top Pocket Army SA revolver features relief carved Mexican eagle grips.
Merwin Hulbert owned a substantial interest in numerous arms and ammunition manufacturers, including the Phoenix Rifle and Ammunition Company, the American Cartridge Company, and Hopkins & Allen. The latter would be selected as the manufacturing subsidiary charged with producing the new Merwin Hulbert revolvers in their Norwich, Connecticut factory.
Author Art Phelps repeatedly emphasizes the standout quality and precision of the Merwin Hulbert revolver design. Hopkins & Allen also developed a more affordable nickel-plating process compared to their competitors, offering their customers nickel-plated Merwin Hulbert revolvers for the same price as their blued versions. Customers valued both the appearance and the resistance to wear and corrosion that nickel plating provided, so it’s no surprise that less than 5 percent of Merwin Hulbert revolvers were produced with blued finish.
Another defining feature of the Merwin Hulbert revolver is its twist-open barrel design and unique extraction system. This unusual mechanism allowed the user to rotate the barrel 90 degrees in order to pull the barrel and cylinder forward to allow the selective ejection of fired cartridge cases. For most models, opening the revolver was accomplished with a sliding button on the underside of the frame that is pushed back toward the trigger guard. Then the barrel can be twisted and pulled forward along with the cylinder. The unfired cartridges with bullets are long enough to be held in the cylinder while empties fall clear. As Merwin Hulbert stated in their advertising, “An inclined screw action on the base pin starts the shells, overcoming any resistance.”
Quick barrel removal is another notable advantage offered by Merwin Hulbert revolvers, accomplished with the press of a single lever when the gun is open for extraction. Not only does this feature allow for easy cleaning, but the user can swap out their barrel with minimal time and effort. Many Merwin Hulbert revolver models came with a shorter and a longer barrel, offering customers both a holster and pocket option in a single revolver.
The Merwin Hulbert revolver extraction and barrel removal mechanisms are a testament to 19th century arms innovation and the high-level precision machining performed by Hopkins & Allen. As one Merwin Hulbert period advertisement proudly proclaimed, “The Pocket Army is made with an interchangeable 7 inch barrel that enables it to be changed into a belt revolver. No tool required. The barrel can be changed in three seconds.”
Demand for cartridge revolvers was surging in the late 1870s, but the competition was fierce. Merwin Hulbert revolvers faced off against the Colt Single Action Army, the Remington Model 1875, and the Smith & Wesson No. 3 Model. Each wheel gun found a niche, but Colt took a sizable lead thanks to large military contracts, a simple and sturdy design, and its popular chambering options.
Despite their premium manufacturing quality, the Merwin Hulbert revolver was offered at a competitive price point. An 1883 advertisement in the Billings, Montana ‘Daily Herald’ prices the large frame Merwin Hulbert Pocket Army “.44 Cal. Frontier size” at $16.50, similar to the cost of a Colt SAA.
Like the twist-open Merwin Hulbert revolver design, Smith & Wesson large-frame top breaks of the era relied on tightly fit precision manufacturing. The Smith & Wesson No. 3 and the Schofield held an advantage over the Merwin Hulbert in terms of reload speed since the latter requires the user to insert one cartridge at a time through a loading gate. In its favor, the Merwin Hulbert revolvers feature a shroud around the rear of the cylinder to shield the action from dust and grime, a clear advantage out on the frontier.
During their 12-year production run, Merwin Hulbert & Co. produced numerous revolver variations. In general, small and medium framed five-shot Merwin Hulbert & Co. revolvers were designed for the city-goer while their larger framed sixguns were created with the frontier and military market in mind.
Some of the Merwin Hulbert revolver naming conventions can be confusing at first glance. For instance, the Merwin Hulbert “Pocket Army” models are hefty sidearms that compare in size to the Smith & Wesson Schofield. The smaller interchangeable barrels allowed users to carry these sturdy sixguns in a coat pocket, an ideal feature for the discrete traveler or someone hoping to circumvent the increasingly common no-carry ordinances being implemented across the Old West.
The earliest Merwin Hulbert revolvers were single actions with open top frames. Later Merwin Hulbert variations standardized top straps, and double action models were produced in every frame size. Another notable feature was the bird's head butt found on many Merwin Hulbert revolvers. Colloquially called the “skull crusher,” this beak-shaped projection on the bottom of the grip allowed the revolver to function as a backup weapon if ammo ran dry or to buffalo an unsuspecting miscreant if less than lethal force was desired.
Small and medium framed Merwin Hulbert revolvers were chambered in .38 and .32 centerfire. Early large framed models were offered in a proprietary .44 Merwin Hulbert cartridge as well as Smith & Wesson’s .44 Russian, the later chambering being produced as part of a bid to win Russian military contracts.
Later large framed Merwin Hulbert revolvers were chambered in .44-40 WCF, the most common chambering for the popular Winchester Model 1873 rifle. Like Colt's “Frontier Six-Shooter” of 1877, the Merwin Hulbert Army revolver could now be paired with the Winchester rifle, an advantage that went well beyond simple convenience. As Frank James pointed out, “When a man gets into a close, hot fight, with a dozen men shooting at him all at once, he must have his ammunition all of the same kind.”
Merwin Hulbert revolvers were a popular option with the New York Police Department and other law enforcement agencies throughout New England. Out West, the Merwin Hulbert struggled to gain a foothold, though the wheel gun found favor with the likes of lawman Pat Garrett and outlaws such as Bob Dalton, Pearl Hart, and the infamous Jesse James.
Joseph Merwin heavily pursued military contracts as well and struck what appeared to be a promising deal with Russia in 1876. Three shipments of revolvers were delivered to the Imperial Russian Army, but the Tsar decided to renege on payment. Merwin spent the better part of the next three years unsuccessfully attempting to collect on the agreement.
According to author Art Phelps, sales of the Merwin Hulbert revolvers were hindered from the start by their association with Hopkins & Allen. Despite the fact that Merwin Hulbert revolvers were produced with the highest standards in mind, Hopkins & Allen had developed a longstanding reputation as a lesser-quality bargain brand, and having their name stamped on any product would have been a potential turnoff to certain buyers.
Even before the financial blow the company suffered due to its failed Russian contract, Merwin Hulbert suffered a crippling series of setbacks. Numerous lawsuits dealing with patent infringement were filed against Merwin Hulbert, including a devastating suit from Smith & Wesson over the Merwin Hulbert “Baby Merwin” revolver, which was a close copy of the Smith & Wesson Model 1. Joseph Merwin also wrestled with several failed investments like the bankruptcy of the Evans Repeating Rifle Company in 1879.
The October 28, 1880 issue of Menasha, Wisconsin’s ‘Saturday Evening Press’ states, “The failure of Merwin Hulbert & Co., dealers in arms and ammunition, New York, is announced. Liabilities estimated between $150,000 and $250,000; stock valued at $150,000.”
After Joseph Merwin passed away in 1888, the business was reorganized as Hulbert Brothers & Company. Financial troubles continued to plague the venture, which was finally forced to liquidate in 1896. Hopkins & Allen continued to survive as a manufacturer, but their factory, machinery, and records were lost to a fire on February 4, 1900, a disaster described in a New York Times headline as “$500,000 FIRE IN NORWICH.”
Hopkins & Allen persevered and rebuilt, focusing primarily on small caliber single shot rifles and eventually obtaining a contract to produce Mauser bolt actions for Belgium. Their efforts were again hindered in 1905 when their new warehouse was robbed bare, including their entire inventory of military rifles. Hopkins & Allen struggled on for another decade before finally calling it quits in 1916 and being purchased by Marlin Firearms.
Though not as famous today as their iconic Colt and Smith & Wesson competitors, Merwin Hulbert revolvers have been featured on screen in films such as 1980's ‘The Long Riders’ and 2015’s ‘Bone Tomahawk,’ and in the 1997 TNT miniseries ‘The Rough Riders.’ Numerous attempts have been made to produce Merwin Hulbert replicas, but so far no one has managed to get past the prototyping stage. For collectors, shooters, and fans of Old West history, owning an original Merwin Hulbert remains the only game in town.
An unsung wheel gun of the Wild West, Merwin Hulbert revolvers were reliable shooters with a precision design that offered greater resistance to wear and tear compared to other options of the era. In addition to their innovative extraction system and the ability to quickly swap out the barrel, the attractive Merwin Hulbert nickel plating made owning these stunning revolvers an object of pride, and today some of the finest known examples are offered at Rock Island Auction Company.
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Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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