Rock Island Auction Company

August 19, 2019

Semi Automatic Revolvers: The Webley-Fosbery and Mateba

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At the end of the 19th century, governments around the world began seeing the functional advantages of semi automatic pistols over single or double-action revolvers. As one technology fades out and is replaced by a newer offering, there are often designs that fall somewhere in the middle. The resulting designs blend the new with the old, and while some are able to adapt and succeed, most end up being relegated to the past as the full potential of a new technology is realized. Such is the case of the semi automatic revolver.

Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver

Webley-Fosbery Model 1902 Automatic Revolver

Lot 1685: Scarce Webley-Fosbery Model 1902 Automatic Revolver Chambered for 45 ACP. Available this September.

In 1895, George Vincent Fosbery developed what he called an “automatic revolver,” with a patent following in 1897. An unusual design, it relied on the gun’s recoil to rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer. The barrel assembly, cylinder, and hammer were all part of an upper assembly that moved back and forth on the lower frame of the revolver.

Initially, Fosbery’s design was based on a Colt Model 1876 revolver. After a couple years of testing, Fosbery approached Webley & Scott for assistance with his design.

Production began in 1901 at the Webley & Scott factory in Birmingham, England. Because of the partnership, Fosbery’s invention – which became known as the Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver – looked and functioned just like the standard top-break British service revolver of the day and also fired the standard .455 Webley cartridge.

The zig-zag grooves on the revolver’s cylinder are the model’s most iconic visual and functional distinction. When the top half of the revolver recoiled to the rear, the cylinder grooves were engaged by a stud on the frame. This engagement provided 30 degrees of rotation. As the recoil spring pushed the revolver forward, the cylinder rotated another 30 degrees and placed a new cartridge in line with the firing pin.

Webley-Fosbery Model 1902 Automatic Revolver

Lot 1685: Scarce Webley-Fosbery Model 1902 Automatic Revolver Chambered for 45 ACP.

The “make or break” moment for many firearms comes during military trials. Testing for the Webley-Fosbery by the War Department was conducted in May and September of 1901. The report was not positive. It concluded that the “mechanism proved unsatisfactory in the working” and that even with improvements, the gun would be at a disadvantage to semiautomatic pistols because “it requires to be loaded singly instead of the whole capacity of the magazine or chamber by one motion.”

Despite the less-than-flattering review from the War Department, the gun was well-received in other venues. When the gun made its debut at the Bisley Shooting Ground and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, it was met with great fanfare and copious amounts of positive press.

Unfortunately, commercial approval only goes so far; no military contract materialized and production of the Webley-Fosbery ceased.

During the gun’s entire production, only 4,200 were produced. Of that total number, almost all were chambered for the .455 Webley. Approximately 200 left the factory chambered for .38 ACP.

If Fosbery’s design hadn’t had to compete against semi automatic pistols for a place in the market, it may well have survived. Ultimately, the Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver fell victim to the rapid-paced change in firearms technology during the first half of the 20th century.

Webley-Fosbery Model 1902 Automatic Revolver

Mateba Autorevolver

Mateba 6 Unica Double Action Auto-Revolver

Lot 812: Mateba 6 Unica Double Action Auto-Revolver with Case and Extra Barrel. Available this September.

History is a wonderful teacher if you listen to the lessons it has to offer. If not, history tends to repeat itself, as it did with the Mateba Autorevolver. Emilio Ghisoni sought to improve the shortcomings of the Webley-Fosbery. His design was quite different from its predecessor.

While the Webley-Fosbery looked like a normal revolver at first glance, there was no mistaking that the Mateba was different. The revolver’s steel frame, swing-out cylinder, and aluminum barrel shroud were the only aspects of its design that could be considered normal. Visually, it had an interesting shape to the cylinder, an ambidextrous cylinder latch, an extended beavertail, distinctive grips, and a compensator.

It also fired from the 6 o’clock position instead of the 12 o’clock position, giving it an exceptionally low bore-axis.

Mateba 6 Unica Double Action Auto-Revolver

Lot 3953: Mateba 6 Unica Double Action Auto-Revolver with Case. Available this September.

Operation was similar to the Webley-Fosbery, though not exactly the same. The cylinder’s large, slab-like fluting and lack of other features are directly linked to the way the gun locks up and how it cycles. Cylinder latches to lock the chamber in place are located on the face of the cylinder instead of the outside edge. This eliminated the notches on the outside of the cylinder and also prevented a drag line from forming.

The first shot is double-action, with subsequent shots being single-action. While you can manually cock the hammer for the first shot, it isn’t necessary. Recoil moves the slide to the rear, cocking the hammer. The forward motion returning the gun to battery rotates the cylinder to the next loaded chamber and the gun is ready to fire. No cams, studs, or zig-zag grooves are used to rotate the cylinder.

Unfortunately, Ghisoni failed to learn from the Webley-Fosbery’s mistakes. He was forced to sell Mateba to a German firm in the early 2000s. By 2005, the company ceased to exist altogether. All told, fewer than 2,000 autorevolvers were ever made.

Mateba Unica 6 Double Action Auto-Revolver

Lot 808: Mateba Unica 6 Double Action Auto-Revolver with Case. Available this September.

Relegated to History

Ultimately, both the Webley-Fosbery and the Mateba Autorevolver sought to answer questions nobody had asked, and the majority of consumers ignored their answers. With almost a century of innovation between them, the end result was the same: the market had no place for a gimmicky revolver when there were plenty of good semi automatic pistols – and standard revolvers – to be had.

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