October 20, 2022

The Volcanic Pistol: The First Smith & Wesson Handgun

By Seth Isaacson

Share this post:

The first Smith & Wesson handgun was not a revolver, it was a lever-action pistol. The Volcanic family of firearms was an important experiment in the evolution of both repeating arms and self-contained cartridge ammunition, and the venture brought together some of the greatest names in American gunmaking.

An outstanding example of a Volcanic Repeating Arms Company lever action Navy pistol. Available this December.

What Came Before the Winchester Rifle?

While names like Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, and Benjamin Tyler Henry are well-known in the firearms world, the story of the Volcanic pistol and its Henry and Winchester successors started with Lewis Jennings and Walter Hunt. Based on Walter Hunt’s Rocket Ball cartridge patent (#5701, August 10, 1848) and Lewis Jenning’s movable ammunition carrier patent (#6973, Christmas Day, 1849), the Jennings was the first commercially produced stepping stone in the story of the Winchester family of lever action rifles.

The Jennings lever action repeating rifles like this example that sold at Rock Island Auction Company in December 2021 for $17,250 were produced by Robbins & Lawrence Co. in Windsor, VT from from 1848-1851.

The Jennings design took some inspiration from the ambitious but flawed Hunt Volitional repeater, retaining the sliding internal bolt, the Rocket Ball cartridge, and the tubular magazine running beneath the barrel. With a separate locking block at the rear of the breechblock and a solid arm that moved the breechblock in both directions, the Jennings action would resurface nearly four decades later with a similar concept that John Browning employed in his Winchester rifle designs from the Model 1886 and onward.

The origin of the Volcanic pistol and carbine is often overshadowed by its Henry and Winchester successors, but it’s a tale no less engrossing.

Horace Smith’s later revision of the design, the Smith-Jennings rifle, was also produced by the Robbins & Lawrence Company for a brief period around 1851. The firm’s foreman, Benjamin Tyler Henry, was in charge of making improvements to the mechanism, and Smith would soon partner with Daniel Wesson to manufacture what would become known as the Smith & Wesson lever action pistols.

A New Haven Arms Company Volcanic carbine with a scarce 21-Inch barrel.

Smith & Wesson, Volcanic Arms, and New Haven Arms

Production of the Smith-Jennings rifle ended by 1852. The following year, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson formed a partnership (aptly named “Smith & Wesson”) to produce an improved version of the firearm with an improved ammunition at Smith’s shop in Norwich, Connecticut. Courtlandt Palmer, a New York businessman who’d been funding the manufacturing of the Jennings rifle, re-assigned the Hunt, Jennings, and Smith rifle patents to the new Smith & Wesson venture and fronted around $10,000 for tooling and startup costs. Benjamin Tyler Henry was also brought on board as shop superintendent.

Only around 1,700 pistols were manufactured c. 1854-1855 by Smith & Wesson before the venture was reorganized into the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. Of those, only 500 were these larger No. 2 pistols.

Even with its design improvements, including the now self-primed "Volcanic" rounds, the Smith & Wesson lever action pistols didn’t find much traction and this early iteration of the Smith & Wesson Company lasted only 17 months. Hoping to recoup some of his financial losses, Courtlandt Palmer reorganized the venture into the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1855 and brought investors on board, including a shirtmaker named Oliver Winchester who would become the company’s Vice President.

An exceptional New Haven Arms Company lever action No.1 Pocket pistol.

Hampered by underpowered ammunition and facing stiff competition from revolver manufacturers like Colt, the Volcanic pistol and carbine saw sluggish sales and the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company nearly went under in early 1857. Oliver Winchester effectively dissolved the company later that year, but the savvy businessman still saw potential in the lever action concept. Winchester purchased all the Volcanic patents and assets for $40,242.51, renamed and relocated the company to New Haven, and continued to produce the Volcanic repeater design with New Haven Arms Company until 1860.

Two consecutively numbered rare documented iron frame New Haven Arms Co. Henry lever action rifles, the successor to the Volcanic pistol design.

The Volcanic Pistol Design

Based on the Smith & Wesson No. 1 and No. 2 lever action firearms, the Volcanic pistol and carbine frames were composed of gunmetal, a bronze/brass alloy that was rust-resistant and gave the weapon a distinct look shared by the later Henry repeating rifle and “Yellowboy” Winchester 1866. The Volcanic pistol was offered in a pocket model with a 3.5 to 4-inch barrel length and a target model with a 6-inch barrel length, both chambered for a .31 caliber Volcanic round. The Volcanic Navy pistol came in a 6-inch and an 8-inch barrel length chambered in .41 caliber.

The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company only manufactured an estimated 1,500 Navy pistols with 8-inch barrels between July 1855 and April 1857.

The Volcanic used a refined variation of the toggle action design introduced by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. The main advantages of the Volcanic repeater included its magazine capacity, rapid rate of fire, and the fastest reload of the era. Magazine capacity ranged from 6 rounds for the pocket pistol to 10 rounds for the Target and Navy models, while the Volcanic carbine models offered between 18 and 30 rounds depending on barrel length.

The Volcanic pistol in its numerous design iterations.

Who Named the Volcanic Pistol?

It’s not unreasonable to wonder if the Volcanic repeater earned its nickname from the gun’s impressive rate of fire, comparable to the fiery eruption from a volcano. One popular assertion is that the Volcanic pistol’s name was coined by a review in Scientific America in 1854. However, the first mention of the name Volcanic doesn’t appear in the magazine until the November 29, 1856 issue, many months after the Volcanic moniker had already been adopted by the manufacturers.

“Col. Hay, of the British army, recently tried his hand with the ‘Volcanic Repeating Pistol,’ a Yankee invention. The pistol used on the occasion was an eight-inch barrel, which discharges nine balls in rapid succession.”

A No. 1 pistol manufactured by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson in Norwich, Connecticut, circa 1854-55.

In the following issue of Scientific American from December 6, 1856, the magazine’s clarification hints that the more official model designations for the Volcanic pistol variations were not as well known. “The American pistol with which Col. Hay of the British Army executed such accurate shooting at 300 yards distance, as noticed by us last week, is that of Smith & Wesson, of Hartford, Conn.”

A New Haven Arms Company No.1 Pocket pistol.

Whatever the true origin of the Volcanic name, it appeared in print as early as February 1855, already seemingly a well-established term, and was prominently featured in advertisements by all three companies that produced the Volcanic repeater design.

The Rocket Ball versus the Volcanic Cartridge

Though the Rocket Ball and Volcanic cartridge are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between the two types of ammunition. Walter Hunt’s Rocket Ball cartridge was intended to avoid some of the shortcomings found in needle guns, including their fragile firing pins and reliability issues when paired with early paper cartridges.

Patented in 1848, Hunt’s design borrowed heavily from the Minié ball, including the cavity at the base of the cartridge. Hunt extended the hollow and packed it with a powder charge. No primer was included with this design, so weapons using Hunt’s Rocket Ball ammunition required external ignition either in the form of a percussion cap or pill of mercury fulminate.

Notable differences are apparent between the Rocket Ball and Volcanic cartridges.

Volcanic ammunition was similar to the Rocket Ball but added a priming cap to the seal at the base of the bullet. These Volcanic rounds were true self-contained cartridges that sped up the loading process. Unfortunately, neither the Rocket Ball or the Volcanic cartridge contained enough powder charge to deliver much muzzle energy.

An incredibly scarce Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. 200 Count No. 2 Volcanic cartridge tin with ammunition sold for $43,125 in September 2020.

“(The Volcanic) used a lead bullet with the base hollowed out,” firearms historian Jim Supica explains. “Powder was packed into the bottom and you bought the bullets pre-loaded. The problem was, the amount of powder loaded was not great and so the Volcanic fired a low-power round.”

According to Volcanic Firearms by Edmund E. Lewis and Stephen W. Rutter, the .41 caliber Volcanic cartridge, the larger of the two Volcanic calibers, relied on a 6.5-grain charge of black powder to push a 100-grain projectile to a muzzle velocity of 260 feet per second. For perspective, a few years later the Henry rifle would use a 28-grain charge to propel a 200-grain bullet to a velocity of 1,125 feet per second, more than four times its Volcanic predecessor. Needless to say, this lack of power made the Volcanic far too feeble to serve as a reliable manstopper or hunting arm.

Was the Volcanic Pistol Effective?

Like many early gun innovations, the Volcanic repeater saw its share of flaws. Not only was Volcanic ammunition underpowered, the firearm also suffered from misfires, gas leakage, cartridges that rapidly fouled the barrel, and no means of extraction in the event of misfire or squib. Each No. 2 Volcanic pistol cartridge box issued the following warning: “If, by accident, a ball should miss fire, it must be carefully pushed back with the rod, leaving the carrier down.”

Volcanic ammunition was also a pricey investment by the standards of the time. A box of 200 rounds in .31 caliber cost $2.00, while the same number of rounds in .41 caliber would set a buyer back $2.40. This was a significant expense considering an entire Colt revolver of the period could be purchased for less than $20.00 and a muzzleloading pistol for half that or less.

Wheelguns of the era, like this 1857 manufactured Colt Model 1851 Navy percussion revolver, were regarded as more reliable than the Volcanic pistol.

Operating the Volcanic pistol one-handed and working the lever beneath the Volcanic’s trigger to advance the next cartridge would have been a difficult task, especially from horseback. Given that the Volcanic offered a similar rate of fire to the average mid-19th century revolver, the primary advantages of the Volcanic design were a faster reload and greater ammunition capacity for the Volcanic carbines and larger Volcanic pistols.

A February 1855 column in the Louisville Courier-Journal praised the design and claimed that the Volcanic pistol, "may be discharged thirty times in fifty seconds. It is so contrived that it is not liable to accidental discharge. There is no priming, no caps, and therefore no danger to the eyes from any ignition near the breech. Neither is there any recoil so as to jar the arm or disturb a sure aim."

The New Haven Arms Company manufactured fewer than 1,000 Volcanic carbines between 1857 and 1860.

On the matter of accuracy, the November 29, 1856 account in Scientific America also cast the Volcanic pistol in a favorable light, though the story defies imagination and feels like an exaggeration at best.

“The Colonel fired the arm 27 times, making a number of shots which would do credit to a riflemen. He first fired at an eight-inch diameter target at 100 yards, putting nine balls inside the ring. He then moved back to a distance of 200 yards, and fired nine balls more, hitting the target seven times. He then moved back 100 yards further, a distance of 300 yards from the mark, and placed five of the nine balls inside the ring, and hitting the ‘bull’s eye’ twice. The man who beats that may brag.”

The Legacy of the Volcanic Repeater

As the shop superintendent at Smith & Wesson, Volcanic Repeating Arms, and New Haven Arms Co., Benjamin Tyler Henry became intimately familiar with new advancements in ammunition and lever action technology. After their first business venture had been bought out, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson turned their attention to developing the .22 Short rimfire cartridge and a revolver design to accommodate this revolutionary ammunition. Benjamin Tyler Henry scaled up this cartridge design in 1858 with the .44 Henry. Now all Henry needed was a gun to go with it.

The Smith & Wesson Model No. 1 became the world’s first widely produced, fully self-contained cartridge revolver and its patents allowed the company to successfully corner the cartridge revolver market for the next two decades.

Building off the Volcanic design, the Henry rifle included a larger frame, an ejection system, and a barrel adapted for the new .44 rimfire cartridge. The patent Henry was awarded in 1860 would spell the end for the Volcanic repeater and serve as the blueprint for a generation of Winchester rifles to follow.

An Exhibition Grade Gustave Young panel scene master factory engraved, gold plated Winchester Model 1866. The “Improved Henry,” or what would become known as the Winchester Model 1866, became the first lever action rifle to bear the Winchester name.

The Volcanic has seen little fanfare on the silver screen over the years, with the notable exception of being wielded by Clint Eastwood in the finale of 'For a Few Dollars More' from 1965. More recently, the Volcanic pistol is prominently featured in 'Red Dead Redemption 2' and 'Red Dead Online', introducing a whole new generation to the father of the Henry and Winchester lineage.

The Volcanic pistol, a popular handgun in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Buying and Selling a Volcanic Pistol

In terms of rarity, history, engineering, and a gun design that would bring together three of the greatest arms inventors of all time, the Volcanic repeater is a gun collecting cornerstone. With fewer than 8,000 Volcanic repeaters produced in total, all Volcanic firearms are rare treasures today, and Rock Island Auction Company offers some of the finest historic examples from Smith & Wesson, Volcanic Arms, and New Haven Arms Company for sale in our Premier Firearms Auctions.

The Navy pistol was manufactured by the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company c. 1856-57.

Unique weapons like the Volcanic pistol carry a fascinating history, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos each week that dive deeper into the stories behind your favorite firearms. From pieces on the evolution of the Colt Gatling gun, the revolver vs the pistol, the Colt Paterson and its early revolver predecessors, and the Gyrojet pistol, a 20th-century experiment in self-contained cartridges, we thoroughly explore the history of the gun and the inventors who pushed the boundaries of firearms technology and shaped our world today.

The Winchester Model 1873, one of the successors of the Volcanic repeater.

Sources:

Volcanic Firearms, Edmund E. Lewis and Stephen W. Rutter

Smith & Wesson, Roy G. Jinks, and Sandra C. Krein

Evolution of Winchester, R.B. McDowell

Handguns of the World: Military Revolvers and Self-loaders from 1870 to 1945, Edward C. Ezell

Recent News

Comments

Please login to post a comment.