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When thinking about guns of the Wild West, you can’t help but conjure up images of lawmen and outlaws armed with firearms made by Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson. While these are accurate images, it isn’t a complete picture. Plenty of companies filled the niche market of inexpensive yet functional firearms. Not everyone decided to (or, sometimes, could afford to) carry the “name brand” guns, so they went with perfectly serviceable firearms whose names and histories are relatively obscure in today’s world.

Before Merwin & Hulbert, there was Merwin & Bray. Begun in 1856, the company tried to carve out a place in the competitive revolver market of the mid-19th century. In an attempt to circumvent the Smith & Wesson-held patent by Rollin White for bored through cylinders, Merwin & Bray manufactured a cupfire revolver. The front-loading design effectively skirted White’s rear-loading patent, but it didn’t take off. By 1874, Merwin & Bray called it quits and went separate ways.

After splitting with Mr. Bray, Joseph Merwin teamed up with the Hulbert brothers, William and Milan, who owned a 50% share of the Connecticut-based manufacturer known as Hopkins & Allen. A deal was struck where Hopkins & Allen would make the actual firearms, but they would be marketed under the Merwin & Hulbert name.

All told, more than a dozen different models were created and sold as Merwin & Hulbert revolvers. The most interesting feature of the guns was that their barrels twisted sideways and were pulled forward with the cylinder to remove spent cartridges. Because the tolerance was so tight, suction pulled the barrel and cylinder back to the frame. Their large-frame Frontier Model was designed to compete directly with the Colt Model 1873 Single-Action Army, Smith & Wesson’s Model 3, and the Remington Model 1875.

While still chambered for .44 caliber cartridges, the Pocket Army was essentially the Frontier Model, but with a 3.5” barrel – half the length of the Frontier’s 7” barrel.

To keep up with concealable options offered by the larger companies, Merwin & Hulbert made the Pocket Model, which featured a six-shot cylinder chambered for .38 caliber cartridges. Smaller still, they also offered a model with a five-shot cylinder chambered for .32 caliber cartridges.

Another smaller option, known as the “Baby Merwin,” was a copy of the Smith & Wesson Model 1, which held seven rounds of .22 Short ammo. Smith & Wesson sued, won, and the remaining parts were destroyed.

In 1894, the company declared bankruptcy and its holdings were liquidated in 1896. Hopkins & Allen continued to sell guns under the Merwin & Hulbert name until the company folded in 1916.

(Firearms courtesy of NRA Museums)

Logan Metesh is a firearms historian and consultant who runs High Caliber History LLC. Click here for a free 3-page download with tips about caring for your antique and collectible firearms.

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  1. Whole lotta folks back then carried pocket guns instead of the full sized holster guns. For a number of reasons. Cost. Concealibility. Convienence. Legal issues. Gun control was a thing back then, too.

    Sears did a booming business in pocket guns. I remember one add from the time that advertised a .44 caliber “bulldog” revolver and a box of ammo for 3 dollars, plus shipping.

    Every homestead needed a rifle or shotgun. More than one of each if possible. A handgun was a luxury item.

    Townies probably made up the majority of the handgun purchases back then.

    • There are photos of Wyatt Earp carrying his pistol(s) in his belt, near appendix, otherwise dressed rather elegantly. It was reported that in cold or wet weather he carried a pair of six-guns in his large coat outer pockets: he’d had these pockets lined with rubber to keep the pistols dry.

      • People from that era tend to dress in loose fitting layers. It would be easier then to conceal a small pistol, or several small pistols, than it would be with the fashions of today.

        I’ve heard that Earp was a non drinker. Gave him a real edge on the hard drinking riff raff he was up against. And that he knew which saloons and stores had shotguns behind the counter. He was never far from heavy artillery when it was needed.

  2. I have an old gun catalog listing them being sold in 1884 . Way ahead of their time in design features such as interchangeable barrels. I would love to have the double action pocket Army in .44 C.F. (44.40) with an extra 7 inch barrel. $16.00 for the Pocket Army + $4.00 for the extra barrel.

    A TV Western hero in the 50s should have carried one. Maybe we would have good reproductions today.

  3. Many new customers I encounter know of only two ways to load a revolver: the swing-out cylinder or a loading gate.
    Personally, I’m intrigued by top-break actions. I read somewhere a Russian company dabbled with a modern .357 top break for export to the U.S. but the idea came to naught. Pity, a lefty like me would love one.
    Every time I look at contemporary revolvers like Ruger’s LCRx, I wonder what the hybrid aluminum/steel construction could do as a top break.
    Any Ruger reps out there listening?

    • Are there any aluminum-frame top-breaks?

      In my time behind the counter I don’t believe I’ve ever met one…

    • I’m a big top-break fan too. I’ll take a S&W model 3 over a Colt SAA any day. I’d love for Ruger or Smith to put out a new top break. I’d snatch one up in a second.

      • A top break revolver over a Colt SAA? You must be very new to both revolvers and shooting. Hint: there is a reason top break revolvers are no longer in general production.

    • The state run armory in India is making a short barrel copy of the Webley in .32 specifically for sale to women (there’s an epidemic of rape in India these days). Despite the short barrel, it’s hardly concealable being as big and clunky as Webley’s are. And it retails for $400 which few Indian women could afford. Add to that all the legal hurdles to obtain a permit and it all smells like a sick joke. Fact is, in India it’s far easier to get any number of cheap, compact semi-autos on the black market.

  4. top break revolvers are their own line of cool. I had an 1889 s&w .38s&w. hard to find ammo for, and the trigger guard along with all the springs would fall out around the 6th shot, but she was fun to shoot, no real recoil, and a pop to compare to a cap gun.

  5. The M&H required twisting the barrel out of the frame and pulling forward to eject spent cases.I believe reloading was was done by means of a loading gate. Weird but classy.

  6. I’ve never seen one in person but I have read about them. The only one I remember in a Western is in Diablo (2016). I’m sure there were in others I’ve seen where I didn’t identify it. I’ve read some big name Old West figures liked them and at least owned, if not carried, them. I’d really like to see one in person. I need at least look for a video to see how they really worked as I’ve only seen still pics of the action and cylinder system.

  7. There was a company a few years back that was advertising reproduction Merwin & Hulbert revolvers – in the big-bore calibers, as I recall. The price was somewhere north of $1k. The company accepted deposits for these revolvers, but as far as I know never produced a thing and went out of business, with the depositors getting screwed out of their money. I later heard that one of the Italian gun companies famed for reproducing Old West handguns was going to repro the M&H, but nothing ever came of it – it’s a complex piece of machinery. I’d LOVE to have a repro M&H revolver – it would cost some coin, but it would be worth it.

    As to break-top revolvers, I have an Italian repro S&W No. 3 New Model in .45 Colt. It shoots very well and I really enjoy it. I also have my grand-dad’s old nickel-plated break-top in .32 S&W short that he got from the Sears catalog back about 1905. It’s a bit rough on the inside, but still shootable if I want to. It’s not very accurate, since the bore tolerances back then and now were somewhat different – the shots often keyhole, even at short range. Not something I’d stick in my pocket for a trip into the neighborhood! Family lore says this is the revolver grand-dad (a farmer) used to carry to town on Saturday night when he went partying back in the 1910’s. That’s believable, since I have a photo of him being held up by two other guys and looking somewhat out of it. Another heirloom piece I have is the S&W 1917 revolver my dad brought back from WWII. He was a company driver in the 33rd Div and didn’t like his M1911A1 issue sidearm, so he traded it to a Filipino for the revolver. It is rough on the inside, too – obviously shot with corrosive-primed ammo and not cleaned properly. I won’t shoot it, but it’s a nice memory piece.

  8. I would love a modern reproduction of a Merwin-Hulbert revolver. Such an cool design, and quiet modular as well. You could replace the barrel with a shorter or longer one, just like the open top Colt percussion revolvers. Have a long barrel for carrying on the frontier, a shorter barrel for conceal carrying in civilization… or at a card table.

  9. I have a couple of break top S&Ws made in the 1880s. One is a double action Model 2 in .38 S&W and is very handy, a pocket gun for sure. The other is what was marketed as the Double Action Frontier made in 44-40. This was the model John Wesley Hardin was carrying when killed. It did him no good! The Frontier has the original holster which looks nothing like the holsters you see in movies. This holster covers nearly the entire gun protecting it. The whole quick draw thing was more an invention of dime novels and later Hollywood than it was reality. A guy named Arvo Ojala is greatly responsible for the low slung, steel lined holsters (although others made that claim too) that are ubiquitous in movies from the 50s and until very recently. Ojala grew up on a Yakima area ranch and went to Hollywood where he taught shooting, at least and imitation of shooting and gun spinning to the movie stars. He was in film himself his most famous role being that of the guy that gets shot each week in the opening scene of Gunsmoke. He and James Arness had since of humor and once changed the opening scene as a joke on the director and crew:

    The reason you see nothing but Colt SAAs an Winchester 92s in early westerns is that they were being made up until the start of WWII. The studios stocked up on them and used them to stand in for other firearms in all westerns no matter the time period. Take the forearm off and an 1892 becomes a Henry. The Colt and Winchester both shot the same 5-in-1 blanks too which was handy and safe.

    Of course now with all the replicas available there are variety of more period correct firearms available which some directors take advantage of. Others still stick with the anachronistic choices as easier and on the grounds that few people know or care. After all movies are fantasy and the whole Wild West thing is mostly myth anyway. It is odd that the movies now being made have more period correct firearms (or at least replicas thereof) than the early movies when the so called Wild West was living memory and in the case of early silent films still existed, Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery” being an example.

    I remember seeing a 1950s movie that was supposed to take place in the 1890s or early 1900s where the actors carried Colt Model 1889 double action revolvers which of course had swing out cylinders. You rarely see that even though they are period correct. A Model 1889 Colt just doesn’t look “western” in most people’s eyes.

    There was a company that claimed they were going to come out with a replica M&H but it never came to be. I think it would be an expensive gun to reproduce. On the good side people did get their deposits back.

    Oh, as a side note these old revolvers still shoot and if made before 1899 no 4473 is required. They are not considered firearms by the ATF and in fact can be sent through the mail. Obama missed that loophole! That is the US of course. The laws are different everywhere. I know in Canada if the gun shoots a readily available round such as the .38 S&W or the .44-40 it is not exempt. Their regs list all the rounds that are not exempted but as far as I can determine they missed a big one. The .44 Russian. Many S&W Model 3s were made in this caliber and it is available. I am not sure how they missed it but I am sure they’ll correct it if they haven’t already.

  10. I have collected top-break revolvers since 1972 (bought my first one – an S&W – at a Tucson gun show for $25). About 20 years ago, sellers suddenly noticed that no one had built top-breaks for about 75/100 years, and th prices started going up. you won’t wee an S&W top-break in 75% condition now for under $400, and the .44 or .45 single actions (New Model No.3, Schofield, etc) will set you back around $3000 for a nice one. The Merwin & Hulbert is an amazing job of precise machine work – on a really fine condition M&H, when you rotate the barrel/cylinder 90 degrees and pull it forward to eject the fired cases it will create a bit of a vacuum, and the cylinder/barrel assembly will be sucked back slightly into the prior position. The top-latch is a semi-circular keyway cut – very complex and probably took a master machinist to cut on a lathe. OK, I probably have some issues with top-breaks, and may need an intervention. Or at least one more S&W Model of 1891 Single Action top-break revolver …

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