Rollin White and Smith & Wesson—Chapter II

The following information on Rollin White and Smith & Wesson comes from Smith & Wesson Hand Guns by Roy C. McHenry and Walter F. Roper. Smith & Wesson Hand Guns is also available to purchase in print.

Although the repeating lever arms business had turned out very well for the partners, they were by no means ready to begin the manufacture of cartridge revolvers. Primary barrier was the Colt patent, which was not due to expire until the fall of 1857, but much remained to be done toward perfection of a cartridge revolver and the sort of ammunition they visualized for it. Consequently, they confined their activities to an experimental laboratory and made no move toward the establishment of a manufacturing plant.

When Daniel Wesson was making his first center-fire cartridges, he also developed a model revolver to accommodate them. What it was like is a question which cannot be answered today, but undoubtedly it satisfied the desire for convenience in loading and hence had cylinders which were bored through from front to rear. Percussion type revolvers of that period had chambers which were sealed at the rear and which served either wholly or partly as a breechblock. Loading necessarily was from the muzzle end of the cylinder. Wesson’s “T” shaped cartridges couldn’t be loaded in this manner.

He may or may not have experimented with the Flobert breech caps. Tradition says that he did and that the heads of the Flobert cartridges bulged so that they jammed between the cylinder and the frame and prevented the cylinder from revolving. The cartridge Wesson himself had developed was equally unsatisfactory because of the expense involved in installing the cap and the “anvils” required to explode it.

Here was a problem, the solution of which must have cost the inventor many a night’s sleep. Like so many practical inventions, the cartridge which Wesson finally evolved was so simple that everyone wondered why he hadn’t thought of it himself. In the process of forming the cartridge a small space was left where the base joined the column of the shell, and into this space it was possible to place enough fulminating compound to ignite the powder charge. No “anvils” were required, because the spur of the hammer struck the edge of the cartridge with sufficient force to pinch it against the cylinder wall and explode the fulminate. Daniel Wesson had produced a rim-fire cartridge and with inconsequential improvements it is still in use to this day.

The next step was to obtain a patent for the cartridge revolver which would shoot the rimfire cartridge, but here an unexpected difficulty developed. In order to explain, we will have to go back to the fall of 1854 when a young Hartford inventor applied to the Patent Office for an alleged improvement in revolver construction.

His name was Rollin White and he possessed no practical knowledge of revolvers, as his patent application proves. Cutting through the verbosity of his description, his invention called for a revolver with the chambers of the cylinder bored through from front to rear. He proposed to use “combustible cartridges” or loose powder charges and ignition was to be obtained by means of a Maynard primer firing through a “pierced wad or cardboard”—which evidently was to serve as the breechblock. Another section, worded just as obscurely, mentioned a magazine to contain the ammunition, but we need not fret ourselves about that.

White’s application was made some years after the U. S. Patent Office had been reorganized and the assumption is that he sent in some kind of model with his first papers—a wooden model, no doubt. After the examiners had scrutinized it closely, they were obliged to admit that it was a novelty in revolver construction—which it certainly was—and suggested that he send in his final fee.

Upon receiving his patent papers, young Rollin White donned his Sunday clothes and made a trip to the Colt factory where he asked for an interview with the corporation’s president.

When Colonel Colt was “in town”—which happened rarely in those days—he was an easy man to see. Never forgetting the days when he was a struggling inventor himself, he had a weakness for young men who were trying to make a start in life. In a very few moments, young White was ushered into Colt’s private office and invited to sit down in a handsomely upholstered chair. The great man smiled affably.

“Local boy, eh?” he said as he ran through the complexities of the patent claims with an expert eye.

“Yes, sir. Born and brought up here, Colonel.”

“Sure, sure. Glad to see you young fellows taking an interest in such things.”

White scarcely breathed while the great Equalizer mulled through the papers, and he gained no assurance from the frown which gathered on the colonel’s brow—not unlike the heavy clouds which precede an equinoctial storm.

“My Gawd!” the colonel finally exploded. “Do you mean to tell me that you got a patent for that?”

“Why yes, Colonel Colt…You can see the big seal on it, and everything.”

The colonel dropped the papers on his desk and laid his clenched fist upon them.

“Young man,” he said with a voice calculated to frighten any inventor out of his wits, “it’s a lucky thing for you that you never made a working model of this fool invention. Do you know what would have happened?”

“No, sir?” said White apologetically. “I thought it would work all right. And the patent examiners must have thought the same thing, for you see they have allowed my claims.”

“Claims be damned,” sputtered the colonel. “If you had made a revolver the way you’ve described it here, and if you had loaded it as it says in the papers, and pulled the trigger, it would have fired out the back of the cylinder instead of the front. ‘Cylinder bored clear through!’ And nothing but a wad of cardboard between you and the powder.’ The flame would have set off the charges in the other chambers and you’d have had your hand blown off and your eyes put out.”

Chastened but infinitely wiser as a result of the interview, young White went home with the intention of using his prized patent papers for starting a fire, but some subconscious prompting bade him stuff them in a pigeonhole of the family desk. There they gathered dust while he sought to forget about the hard-earned dollars that had gone into the hare-brained invention.

Did we say hare-brained? Like so many basic patents, White’s original design was impractical, but it gave him priorities on any revolver which had cylinders bored through from front to rear—which was the kind of cylinder Daniel Wesson had designed to chamber his new metallic cartridges.

The conversation between Colonel Colt and young White was history-making. Had the colonel visualized the possibilities of the patent he held in his hands that afternoon, the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Corporation would have had another exclusive improvement to benefit it after expiration of its patent rights on mechanically-turned cylinders. Instead, the Colts had to mark time with percussion revolvers while a cocky young rival rode to success on the crest of the metallic cartridge tide. Colonel Colt was spared the humiliation for one of his few bad decisions, for he died in 1862.

Back at the Smith & Wesson laboratory, Daniel B. Wesson had completed the design for a rim fire cartridge and a revolver with a bored-through cylinder which was to be breechloaded. Sketches and descriptions had been drawn and forwarded to Washington, but one morning they received a letter which said, approximately:


“Your letter of the ……the instant enclosing drawings and specifications covering your metallic cartridge revolver invention duly received.

“We regret to inform you that our preliminary search reveals that the feature ‘In a revolving chambered repeating firearm, the cylinder chambers thereof bored from end to end, to permit the insertion of metallic cartridges at the rear,’ directly conflicts with the patent issued to Rollin A. White under date of April 3rd, 1855 (copy enclosed).

“We would most strongly recommend that you communicate with Mr. White, with a view to obtaining the right to manufacture under his patent, at the earliest possible moment.”

Who went to Hartford and hunted up Rollin White, who made the deal with him, and what was involved in the deal are matters for idle speculation today. The records are silent. There is no reason to believe that he drove a hard bargain, because he must have been puzzled as well as surprised when he was offered money for an invention which the foremost revolver manufacturer in the country had told him was worthless.

But, young though he was, he demonstrated that he had an old head on his shoulders by reserving the right to manufacture under his own invention. To a very limited extent he took advantage of this clause in his assignment, and collectors who happen upon small .22 revolvers bearing a family resemblance to the Smith & Wesson (but with the name of Rollin White on them) know they have found a genuine curiosity. Whether or not the deal with Smith & Wesson restored White’s confidence in his inventive talents, he kept right on inventing. His firearms improvements were unimportant, but in other fields he was more successful. The White Sewing Machine, which is still being manufactured and doing very well for its stockholders, is made under his patent. Many years later, when the first automobiles were presenting their owners with engineering and maintenance problems beyond their knowledge, he brought out the White Steamer. The corporation which makes White Buses and Trucks is a grandchild of the outfit he started—corporatively speaking.

With the Rollin White patent assigned to them, Smith & Wesson were ready to acquire a plant and get ready to produce revolvers. They had to wait until the Colt patents expired in the fall of 1857, but there was plenty to be done—such as installing machinery and hunting up skilled mechanics who were capable of turning out the highest type work. They had located in the right place to find skilled gunsmiths, however, and many of the best men in the Springfield Armory quit their jobs to get higher wages from Smith & Wesson.

S&W were not the only ones who were waiting for the bell to signal the free-for-all in the revolver ring. Other firms had models ready to put on the market just as soon as the legal barriers were removed. Over at Ilion, N.Y., Remington was tooled up to produce solid-frame, percussion revolvers under the Beal patent. Allen & Wheelock were scrapping the tools they had used for their pepperboxes and single-shots and were installing machinery for another type of percussion revolver. And in addition to the old-timers, many firms recently organized were ready to take advantage of the patent lapse. Smith & Wesson had a certain advantage over the field because they had been planning so long for this day.

For weeks the Smith & Wesson factory had been on double shift, and in November of 1857 the first batch of S&W revolvers was ready for delivery. There are no records to prove that any of the guns were made prior to the expiration of the Colt patents, but the modern observer is obliged to conclude that the firm wasted no time in getting into production.

Alongside the building where the revolvers were being made was another structure with signs posted conspicuously: “EXPLOSIVES—DANGER—KEEP OUT.” In one department of this building were located the dies and stamps which turned the copper blanks into cartridge cases; in another, isolated by a heavy masonry wall, men wearing felt-soled shoes and padded gloves, worked with sudden death all around them. It was their job to mix the tricky fulminate with just enough wet mucilage to make it stick inside the annular fold where the base joined the wall of the cartridge case. So handled, the temperamental mixture was reasonably safe.

Comparatively speaking, this was child’s play for such Smith & Wesson workmen as had been with the firm when repeating arms were being produced. Placing a small quantity of fulminate in the bottom of a cartridge case was not to be compared with filling the entire hollow of a bullet such as had been used in the lever-operated weapons.

Nevertheless, the operation required care and caution. The amount of detonant used had to be gauged accurately and any residue had to be removed afterward, so that nothing was left to cause the cartridge cases to bulge when they were fired. No process had been perfected at this time for toughening the copper cases, which was undoubtedly the reason why Smith & Wesson had been content to make their first revolvers and ammunition of .22 caliber. Until the science of annealing had been perfected—probably by some coppersmith whose name never graced the pages of history—it was considered impossible to toughen the copper cases without making them brittle. Cartridges for arms with complete chambers that fully enclosed them, such as the Spencer and Henry rifle and the first deringers (named for the inventor, Henry Deringer), did not have to be toughened as much as those which were dependent on their own tensile strength at the moment of ignition.

In another department of the S&W cartridge plant, the copper cases in which the priming had dried were filled with powder and the bullets were inserted to their proper depth. Then the case was crimped around the projectile and as a final step a lubricant was applied to minimize the friction on the rifling and to reduce the corrosive action of the powder. Beeswax probably was the base of this lubricant, with some animal fats and oils added. Certainly no mineral compound entered into it, because in the 1850’s petroleum was known as “Seneca oil” and it was recognized as a palliative for rheumatic joints only.

When completed, the cartridges were our boyhood friends, the .22 shorts. In shape, size, powder charge and bullet they haven’t changed much in the 80 years since they were first designed and produced in that primitive S&W factory. Lesmok and smokeless powder have been substituted for black powder and the villainous mercuric priming of that older day is gone, but those first cartridges could be used in any modern arm of proper chambering. Assuming that the powder hadn’t deteriorated too greatly, the bullet would still be expelled after a fashion. Three grains of powder and thirty grains of lead: The figures are precisely what they were when Daniel Wesson concluded his experiments and said, “I guess they’ll do now.”

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Rollin White Patent and Smith & Wesson---Chapter II

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