Mike Searson writes [via Ammoland.com]
What do Frank Hamer, Jesse James, Pat Garret, Pearl Heart and Bob Dalton have in common? They all carried revolvers made by the same company and the models in question were not built by Smith & Wesson, Colt or even Remington. From the diminutive 32 S&W to the thundering 44 WCF, the model they carried and treasured was considered the most advanced revolver of its time with many features more impressive due to the brief window in history in which they were made. The company was known as Merwin Hulbert and very few of their revolvers have survived the past 125 or so years . . .
Joseph Merwin was a firearms distributor of the late 19th century who sold revolvers, rifles and shotguns manufactured by other companies under his name. His first venture of this sort was based in what was then the firearms wholesale center of the world: New York City. His first effort was known as Merwin & Bray Co. In 1873 after Bray left the business, Merwin took up with William and Milan Hulbert, who owned a 50% stake in the Connecticut based firm of Hopkins & Allen.
Hopkins & Allen was not known for producing the best revolvers in the world, but their nickel plating process was said to be second to none and Merwin knew he could offer superior nickel plated revolvers for the price that other companies were offering in blue. These innovative revolvers were branded as “Merwin, Hulbert and Company, New York“, even though they were built in the Hopkins & Allen plant in Connecticut.
The new company soon acquired Phoenix rifles, Evans Rifles and American Cartridge Company (ACC); they were on their way toward becoming a 19th Century Freedom Group. ACC was responsible for producing ammunition with Merwin Hulbert’s own head stamp of “MH”. These rounds were actually 32 S&W, 38 S&W, 44 WCF and a straight walled 44 that was dimensionally similar to 44 Russian.
However due to a different bullet weight and powder charge, the round was considered unique.
Merwin Hulbert was unfortunately beset with a score of financial problems ranging from a loss of payment for three large arms shipments to Russia to the bankruptcy of the Evan’s Rifle Company and an associate of the Phoenix subsidiary stealing the majority of the company account, leaving them literally bankrupt by 1881.
The company stabilized but never fully recovered. After Merwin’s death in 1888 the name was changed to “Hulbert Brothers & Company” and in 1896 the brothers sold their stakes to Hopkins & Allen. Merwin Hulbert revolvers were produced by Hopkins & Allen until 1916 when they in turn, went bankrupt and their machinery was bought by Marlin Firearms.
What made Merwins so different from their contemporaries was that the revolvers open up via a twisting action to the side, instead of a break top or being a solid frame.
The cylinder is held in place by vacuum pressure and uses no springs. Likewise, the tolerances are so tight that on a loaded revolver only the empty cases will fall free, leaving the unfired rounds in the cylinder.
A secondary benefit to this design is that the shooter can change barrel lengths without head spacing, timing or cylinder gap issues and the rear of the cylinder is completely covered by a cupped rim on the frame to prevent dirt and debris from entering.
Another innovation found on Merwin Hulbert double action revolvers includes the incorporation of a folding hammer for pocket carry. This gives the shooter the option of cocking it for a better trigger pull when necessary.
The bulk of Merwin Hulbert’s revolvers were large frame center fire double action and single action six guns intended for use on the frontier or as a military pistol. In working condition with no finish left, these revolvers sell for thousands of dollars with pristine or engraved versions going for much more.
The author’s personal Merwin revolvers come from the medium frame lines. These were the pocket pistols of their day and while still expensive, can be had for a more reasonable price.
The single action version sports a 3 ½” barrel and its chambering of 38 MH meant it was intended as more of a pocket or hideout gun. The hammers do not fold on these miniature single action revolvers and they could be had with either a square or round butt.
This particular example was acquired from a sporting goods retailer who dismissed it as a Hopkins & Allen “suicide special” as that is how the revolver is marked. The price was less than $100 and its value is easily five times that.
Our second Merwin is the double action version and it was marked “Merwin Hulbert & Company”, but as the name was not familiar to that seller, he priced it as if he would any other nickel plated revolver from that time period, $150.
These medium frame revolvers and the small frame double actions chambered in 32 S&W (which held 7 shots) are more commonly found than their big bore counterparts and can be had for somewhat reasonable prices, but only a few thousand of each type was ever made so the supply is rapidly drying up and thanks to the internet, most sellers are savvy to what they have.
There has been an attempt to manufacture these revolvers using modern machinery and materials; however that venture unfortunately turned out to be mostly smoke and mirrors with a number of would-be owners losing deposits they placed for orders that will never be filled.
Some collectors disparage the smaller pocket sized wheel guns from the 1800s in favor of the full size “holster” models, but these little ones are precisely what Hamer and Garrett carried as lawman in the way of back up revolvers. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer famously used his 32 Merwin in a gun fight where he emerged as victor, proving that the diminutive 32 will get the job done with mere black powder loads if the shots are placed correctly.
In 2009 an attempt was made to revive the brand, but like the Merwins of old, the dream was deferred and a parent company (Broadsword Group) was left to the task of refunding deposits for revolvers that were never produced. A number of companies have been in the planning stages to make their own versions, but until that becomes reality, all we are left with are these handsome relics of the late 19th century.
About Mike Searson
Mike Searson’s career as a shooter began as a Marine Rifleman at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire adult life as a Gunsmith, Ballistician, Consultant, Salesman, Author and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1989.
Mike has written over 2000 articles for a number of magazines, websites and newsletters including Blade, RECOIL, OFF-GRID, Tactical Officer, SWAT, Tactical World, Gun Digest, Examiner.com and the US Concealed Carry Association as well as AmmoLand Shooting Sports News. Home page: www.mikesearson.com FB: www.facebook.com/mike.