Additional photos courtesy of Webley Archives, Neil McCrossen and Victor Nelson
Inter-war Webley Seniors, and John Atkins pays tribute to a friend and fellow enthusiast, John McCrossen
I n my four- part series on the first Webley ‘Mark I’ Air Pistols running over February, May, June and July last year, I mentioned that the early Mark I pistol in .22 calibre was a personal favourite of my friend, Jeff Hyder. Since then, I’ve been asked which was my own favourite model of the Webley range of pistols down the years.
Whilst the post- war, fully- developed Webley ‘Seniors’ are superb examples of British engineering of the ‘50s – the quality extending almost into the mid-‘60s with the early ‘Premier’ A & B Series that replaced the Senior model, I’d go back further in time to the pre- war years and say, my alltime favourite is the ‘slant grip’ Senior first announced in late 1935 until the outbreak of World War Two, that replaced the squarer- gripped first Seniors of June, 1930 to December, 1935, seen as the top four pistols in my group in Figure 1.
The old, near vertical grip-frame Webley pistols are desirable now, of course – especially the versions meant for export like the Stoeger ‘Mark II Target’ models and ‘Seniors’, both with attractive chequered walnut grips meant for the American market. A fine example, serial number S1784 appears top right of the group. It’s just a personal preference, but the prewar ‘slant grip’ models hold a particular fascination for me. Along with the slant grip Mark Is, these were only made for about four years, so are less easy to find than some other Webley models.
Webley & Scott’s odd illustration, seen in Figure 2, depicts the new frame Senior cocked, with the exact shape of the new slant grip not yet fully resolved; scanned from a print from either a broad engraving, or scraperboard illustration – it’s difficult to tell which – that was found in Webley’s own archive material. The transitional pistol still has an old- style long barrel and there’s been no attempt to remove the oldest feature, the adjustable trigger screw, from the days of the very earliest Seniors, which had inherited features of Mark I pistols, namely the adjuster screw and leather piston head – rather than the later, phosphorous bronze piston ring. This makes me feel that the artist was working either from a very old Senior, or an earlier picture, and simply put the slant grip onto an old- style pistol.
The change of grip shape can be pinpointed to December 1935, when an editorial appeared on Page 762 of The Meccano Magazine titled: ‘New Grips for Webley Air Pistol’ – which read: ‘For a considerable time the shape of the grip of the Webley Air Pistols, although it did not detract from accuracy, has been subject to criticism. It is of interest to our sporting readers, therefore, to know that the makers, Webley and Scott Ltd. have now been able to introduce a new type of grip for their Mark I and Senior Models. The new grip, in addition to improving the general appearance of the models, gives greater comfort in use and will materially add to the efficiency of the pistols. Interested readers can secure a copy of a descriptive leaflet on application to Webley and Scott Ltd., Weaman Street, Birmingham 4, free of charge on mentioning the “M.M.”’ This December 1935 M.M. issue, along with other periodicals, was the first to show the slant grip pistol illustration in a small advertisement. I found the
original proof of this also among the Webley material, and the scraperboard illustration is shown in Figure 3 giving a more accurate representation of the new slant grip Senior. Broadly executed, it was clearly only ever meant to print very small.
Jeff Hyder informs me that during early 1935, Webley decided to alter the basic air pistol straight or vertical grip design by the introduction of a new style of angle grip frame configuration, but the persons responsible for the decision are unknown. However, the changeover date of 1935, which used to be based on magazine advertisements, can now be substantiated by Webley’s own stocktaking records of that year and by records kindly supplied by Victoria Drop Forgings Co. Ltd. (still trading) who were suppliers of the separate trigger guard steel forgings, which required profiling and milling before they could be fitted to the pistol bodies. Whilst the precise date of the slant grip pistol introduction to the public is now clear, the actual production changeover is probably not so clear cut. When Jeff interviewed retired Webley employees on this question, they replied that there was no fixed date but a gradual changeover from one type of pistol to another because Webley would use up existing stock of body forgings and finished components of straight- gripped pistols as serial numbers ran up to 50,000 for the Mk. I and 7,000 for Seniors
Early slant grip model Seniors without cording ( grooves) around the grip frames appear as Figure 4. Top: Serial no. S7097 with holster made by the previous owner, a retired saddler who sold me the pistol for £ 5 in the early 1970s, whilst below is Senior no. S7272. A .22 calibre Webley Senior serial no. S11781 with surviving pellet envelope, spare washers and unworn brush, housed in original cardboard box is pictured in Figure 5. The original orange envelope is correctly marked for .22 Special pellets but erroneously also printed: ‘No. I Bore’ beneath (instead of No. 2 Bore).
Assuming steady production flow, the table I included in May 2017 made it possible to arrive at the approximate date when individual Mk. I and Mk. II Target Model air pistols might have been made. Joining the ‘Junior’ model air pistol in production from 1929, the first 90 ‘Seniors’ replacing the Mk. II Target Model were produced from June 1930, but unfortunately, the records then come to a dead end and tell us no more. Approximate datings for Seniors can only be estimated from serial numbers over the period of mid-1930 until late 1935 when 7,000 old-frame pistols were produced. After which, 12,000 new-frame pistols were made, S19000 being the highest number known to collectors for a late pre-war Senior.
The 1930s publicity photograph reproduced as Figure 6 for the new Webley slant grip Senior was taken by Monger & Marchant, commercial photographers, London and was found among old Webley material. It was probably used somewhere, rather than rejected because Webley never wasted anything if they could use it. The serial number of the early slant grip pistol featured in the photo shoot was S7652. The lockable, 12/6d ( 62½p) pistol case in the photo is already showing some rubbing wear to the usual place (lower right) of the gold lettering on black, first type trade label, and also to the green baize lining.
WEBLEY VALVESPOUT LABELS
The shape of the protuberance, or boss at the root of the leakproof, ‘Valvespout’ oil can is clearly seen in the old photograph. To the best of my knowledge, all original Valvespout- type Webley oil cans of this period had this same shape, and any that do not match are reproductions and probably not genuine. Figure 7 shows a genuine Webley oil can that accompanied a fine Webley ‘Service Mark II’ air rifle I bought from a Mr. Milner in the mid-1970s for £ 38, so it must have been a good one because my usual payment for a Service Mk. II then was £15 tops. I also purchased his brother’s 2nd Series model for £3 because it was a relic and needed a complete rebuild. He threw in a June, 1938 Webley catalogue, as well as the dented oil can. As it had no label, I asked if it was ever marked ‘Webley’ or ‘Valvespout Brand’ (oil which came in an identical tin). Mr. Milner remembered it well as having a Webley label – since lost. There were no fake or reproduction Webley tins around in those days. However, the replacement label is an old reproduction with a subtle change to one of the quotation marks – or ‘speech marks’ – to identify it as such. John McCrossen, whilst miraculously still keeping the original oil inside, removed the bad dent long ago for me. He gave me a reproduction label he’d made, to stick on. John pointed out that he had made a tiny alteration to his repro labels by turning the ‘99’ mark following the word ‘ WEBLEY’ into a back- to-front ‘66’! This was to enable any of his labels in circulation in the future to be identified as reproductions. I’ll continue to look at prewar slant grip Webley Seniors next month, but for the rest of my space, I hope you will join me in to celebrating the happy life of well- known Webley collector, John McCrossen.