By Branko Diklitch for CanadianGunBlog.com
As a member of the Commonwealth and neighbor to the USA, Canada’s early military pistols have been a mix of American and British pistols and calibers. Canada’s first military pistol round was the .45 Colt, chambered in the Colt 1878 Double Action Revolver. By the beginning of World War I Canada settled on the British .455 Webley round chambered in a variety of Webley, Smith & Wesson, and Colt revolvers.
Canadian Army officers, like their British counterparts, purchased their sidearms at their own expense. The only stipulation being the pistol they chose should be chambered in the official caliber. The Canadian government also purchased pistols to issue as needed to other ranks. Therefore, there are many old .455 revolvers still available on the Canadian surplus market. They are also relatively affordable, and unlike many of the .455 revolvers in the US that have been converted to fire the .45 ACP cartridge, most of the Canadian examples are still chambered in the original .455 Webley.
The Colt New Service Revolver came out of a long process of improvements to the Colt Model 1889 Double Action. The Model 1889 was Colt’s third and most successful attempt at producing a double action revolver in the 19th century. By the time the New Service came out, most of the troubles experienced with the earliest double action models were a thing of the past. The New Service did undergo a few modifications with the initial design having a resemblance to the Model 1889. By World War I this pistol takes on the classic look associated with this model. This is a big and heavy revolver, but in hand feels quite balanced and it points well. The trigger pull in both single and double action is heavy by modern standards but one does get used to it. The design of the New Service retains the solid frame that Colt started to use on their revolvers since 1873, but the swing out cylinder makes reloading very easy. The fit and finish on these guns are excellent and very reminiscent of the best 19th-century gun making. The New Service has a solid Canadian history, the government purchased these pistols for the Boer War, World War I and World War II. The RCMP also carried this model as their official sidearm from 1905 to 1954.
The New Service in my collection was manufactured in 1916 and has commercial London proof marks with no government marks at all. The caliber is stamped on the left side of the barrel as 455 Eley instead of 455 Webley. Some suggest that Colt refused to put the name of a competitor on their guns, and instead used the name of one of many ammunition manufacturers. Since my New Service was privately purchased, all I can say with any certainty is that it was shipped from the Colt factory to England, where it was proofed in London and sold during the Great War. I suspect it was sold to a Commonwealth officer going off to the front. My New Service definitely shows classic signs of use. This gun ended up in British Columbia and came to my possession through a friend who purchased it from an estate.
The challenge with shooting revolvers chambered in .455 Webley is sourcing ammunition. Fiocchi recently stopped manufacturing their .455 Webley MK II ammunition, while Hornady did make a run of MK II brass but these are hard to find now. Bertram still makes .455 Webley MK I brass but it’s not for the penny pincher. The fine folk at International Shooting Supplies imported some for me, but by the time the cases crossed the border from the US I paid $160 for 60 cases. After loading and firing ten of these I resigned to put them back in the box and they now sit on my shelf. The Bertrams may be nice brass but I do not want to lose any of them at that price. Being of Eastern European stock and knowing that suffering is the key to life I decided to make my own .455 Webley cases.
The .455 Webley case comes in three main variants. The first is the MK I, this is a black powder era version with a case length of .860”. The MK II came along after the British switched to smokeless powder, and experimentation showed that the British military powder (Cordite) performed better in a shorter case. Therefore, the MK II was shortened to .750”. There is also a North American variant known as .455 Colt. This one has the longest case at .886” All three of these have a rather thin rim when compared to both the .45 Colt and .45 Schofield which can both be reformed into the .455 Webley. I personally chose to use the .45 Schofield brass because the rim on this case has a diameter close to the .455 Webley as opposed to the .45 Colt that has a very small rim diameter. The length of each case can be trimmed quite easily, I use a Lyman case trimmer to do the job. Reshaping the rim, however, is a bit more involved.
Luckily for me, a friend of mine decided to make his own .455 Webley cases a few decades earlier. His solution to the rim issue was to have Chris Wilcox, a very competent British Columbia gunsmith, make a rim cutter. I borrowed the cutter and trimmed down my .45 Schofields from their .060” rim thickness to .037” +- a few thousandths. If one gets the rim to between .035” to .040” they will work. The cutter is a very simple tool. The case is inserted in until the teeth contact the front of the rim. A mandrel is placed inside the primer pocket and used to spin the case so the teeth cut away the excess brass of the rim. This operation can also be done on a lathe. The critical part is to cut from the front of the rim and not the back so that the primer pocket depth is not reduced. Having purchased a batch of .45 Schofield brass at a gun show that was already trimmed to .860” I chose this as my compromise length and cut the rest of my Schofield brass to this length. These cases are cheap and I can live with losing the occasional one at the range.
I am using two types of bullets with this caliber. The 262 grain hollow base conical bullet that closely approximates the original and the 255 grain Lyman 454190. Both are sized to .452” The bore on my New Service as well as all the chamber throats are .452” I do not have a bullet mould to cast the original projectile, however, Jet Hunter from the Canadian Gunnutz Forum makes and sells these, and so I purchased some. I cast the Lyman bullet from an alloy that is one part tin to thirty parts lead. I stay away from using wheel weight (a commonly available lead alloy) due to the variation in the tin and antimony content and instead scrounge for pure lead. So far I have been able to keep casting with mostly free sourced lead. The tin I purchased from a commercial shop to ensure purity.
When it comes to powder there is a lot of different choices out there, and many shooters have worked uploads and have made the information available. At first, I wanted to reproduce the velocity of the Dominion Cartridge Company .455 Colt which was supposedly loaded to 770 fps. I started with a very mild load of 4 grains of Alliant Unique powder to begin with and went up to 5 grains. I found that 4.5 grains gives a pretty mild and fairly accurate load at just over 600 fps with both the Lyman and the Original bullets. I use the Lee .455 Webley reloading dies to do my reloads and find with the 4.5 grains of Unique I do not have to give a heavy crimp to the bullet when it is seated. I did load some of the shorter Hornady MK II brass and managed to get around 630 fps with only 4 grains of Unique and the Original bullet. So there is something to the British decision to reduce the case length to get better performance.
The New Service is a strong gun and I am sure it would handle stronger loads than I currently shoot. If however, one is using a Webley MK VI Break Top Revolver I strongly recommend being cautious and erring on the side of mild loads. Whichever .455 you chose to shoot, ammunition can still be made. In the end, it may require sweat, cursing and the occasional bit of blood, but it’s worth it to get these old guns to shoot again.