Years ago when the movie Tombstone came out, we had the misfortune of seeing it in a theater in Florida. It was one of those theaters where the local inbreeds like to talk to the screen. I think they were expecting the actors on screen to answer, but I digress.
In one of the early scenes, Big-Nosed Kate, played by Joanna Pacula, draws a small revolver and points it at the temple of a bartender who’s seeking to end Doc Holiday’s life with a shotgun.
An inbreed in the audience shouted, “Dumb bitch, you need to cock that Colt for it to do any good!”
Of course, in this case, the directors knew more than the inbred. The handgun used on screen was an Old West double-action revolver, known as the British Bulldog.
These were popular five-shot revolvers in the late 19th century. In fact, we took a look at one of the full sized “Ulster” variants last September. However, that little revolver in Ms. Pacula’s hand is way too small to be one of the full-sized revolvers of that time period.
It’s a Baby Bulldog. Although they never really went by that name back in the day, it’s a fitting description.
The British Bulldog design dates to the late 1860s, with Webley & Son officially cataloging them by 1872 for commercial sales. Of course, with the Civil War at an end and Westward Expansion in full gear, their biggest potential market would be the United States.
The Bulldog was one of the greatest revolver concepts of that time period. It was a solid-frame design with a loading gate, held five rounds of ammunition (mostly .44 or .45 caliber cartridges now lost to history), used a swing out ejector rod, and had a short barrel for concealment plus a ubiquitous bird’s head grip and usable frame-mounted sights.
Its main problem was that Webley could not satisfy the demand. Unlicensed and licensed copies from Belgium, France, Ireland, Pakistan, Spain, and the United States churned out of factories in order to fill orders.
Believe it or not, the Belgian copies were the worst of the lot, which seems to be the case with most pre-twentieth century firearms from Belgium. The Irish copies were authorized and perhaps the best made, but were few in number. The US versions were mostly made by Forehand & Wadsworth, and the company downsized the model into an even more compact design.
This is the version we used for this article, a palm-sized five-shot Baby Bulldog in .38 S&W. For being close to 130 years old, this little pistol shoots nice cloverleaf type groups at close range and shows no signs of internal wear or any evidence of slowing down. The grips may be small, and if you’ve ever heard the adage of only needing two fingers to hold a handgun, this little guy bears that out.
There is a dark side to these little pistols though. While we can all watch a Western and be thrilled by seeing little revolvers like this come from corsets, garters, crotch holsters, and pockets of lawmen, gamblers, prostitutes and pimps, one of these pistols was involved in a presidential assassination. A .44 caliber Belgian-made British Bulldog revolver was used to murder U.S. President James A. Garfield.
On 2 July 1881, disgruntled lawyer Charles J. Guiteau, who was angry that President Garfield had not appointed him to a federal post, used one to kill the president.
Weeks prior, Guiteau scoured gun shops, pawn shops, and hardware stores in search of a British Bulldog revolver with ivory grips. His reasoning was that he thought the ivory would look nicer than the wood or rubber grips when the revolver would be put on display in a museum after the fact.
When he located one, his dream was slightly deferred as ivory handles cost an extra dollar. Putting his lawyering skills to use he walked out of the shop with an ivory-handled bulldog, 25 rounds and a penknife for the princely sum of $10.
After his trial, Guiteau’s Baby Bulldog was displayed in the Smithsonian Institution. Decades later it disappeared and was supposedly recovered even later, but the “replacement” has wooden grips, not ivory.
Not too many of these revolvers have survived to the modern day. Many were scrapped during the Second World War in metal drives and a lot more were given to children as toys, since most of the calibers for which these were chambered had not been produced in any quantity in the post-black powder era.
Still, if you find one that is not a RATS Gun (Rusted All To Shit), they offer a window into Victorian times and the Old West. Remarkably, most of them still work well.
Declare for Morning Wood!