Merwin, Hulbert & Co.—Too Good, Too Soon
By John Taffin
As we have none of the photos, here is a link to their website:
The resurrected Colt Single Action Army, the 2nd Generation arrived in 1956 or the same time this then young teenager really got interested in sixgunning. The original Colt Single Action Model P arrived in 1873 and would remain in production until just prior to World War II. By then the machinery was pretty well worn out and there wasn't much demand for single actions. All this changed in the early 1950s with the advent of television which would soon spend a lot of airtime showing old B westerns as well as instituting dozens of new western TV shows. A new demand was created and the Colt Single Action Army was returned to production. I paid $125 for the first 7 1/2” .45 to arrive in my area in late 1956/early 1957 at a time I was making 90 cents an hour.
I thought that Colt was just about finest western sixgun ever. Then I found my neighbor who was about 10 years older than I was not only had an original Colt Single Action .44 but also another single action I had never heard of up to that point. That second .44 was not a Colt but rather a Smith & Wesson, the New Model #3. Up to that point in time I always considered Smith & Wesson as a manufacturer of double action sixguns; I obviously had a lot to learn.
Even in my young years I recognized very quickly that the Smith & Wesson New Model #3 was a lot more sophisticated design than the Colt Single Action. The Colt had to be loaded one cartridge at a time, and conversely unloaded one cartridge at a time. The top-break Smith & Wesson New Model #3 simultaneously ejected all six cartridges at once and then could be loaded very quickly with its totally exposed cylinder and they even had speed loaders back then. I certainly learned something looking at that Smith and did not realize there was an even more sophisticated design than the Smith & Wesson.
The Colt Single Action and Remington 1875 were both solid frame revolvers while the Smith & Wesson broke open in front of the hammer and the barrel and cylinder then tipped down for a automatic ejection of all cartridges and then easy reloading. Both Colt and Smith & Wesson soon entered the double action sixgun scene in 1877 and 1881 respectively. However, there was another sixgun manufactured at this time totally different than either the Colt or the Smith & Wesson and a then even more sophisticated design than the Smith.
Merwin, Hulbert & Co. sixguns were unique among firearms of the 1880s and 1890s in several ways. Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson each manufactured the revolvers that were marked Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson as we might well expect. However, Joseph Merwin along with William and M.H. Hulbert were not manufacturers but rather importers and exporters of firearms and related equipment and investors in other firms such as Hopkins & Allen. Today, we talk of Cimarron and Navy Arms firearms when both Cimarron and Navy Arms are not manufacturers but rather importers. The same situation existed with Merwin, Hulbert (sometimes referred to as Merwin & Hulbert, Merwin-Hulbert, Merwin/Hulbert, and Merwin and Hulbert). They sold many products from other companies such as Ballard, Colt, Ithaca, Marlin, Remington, and Winchester.
What Merwin, Hulbert & Co. did do was to design and receive patents for a single action sixgun different from anything produced by Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson. Now they needed someone to manufacture it. Since they already owned one-half interest in Hopkins & Allen, a manufacturer known for relatively inexpensive firearms, H&A was chosen to produce the new revolver and in short order Joseph Merwin and the Hulbert Brothers now owned all of Hopkins & Allen. Art Phelps, author of The Story of Merwin, Hulbert & Co. Firearms (Graphic Publishers, 1992), asserts if Merwin, Hulbert had refrained from using the Hopkins & Allen name, known mainly for less than high-quality firearms, on their products the Merwin, Hulbert may have taken its place in history alongside Colt and Winchester.
Merwin, Hulbert & Co. had been very prosperous during the 1870s and then everything changed. They were unable to collect payment for three shiploads of revolvers sent to Russia, one of their other companies failed costing them $100,000, and on top of all this one of their associates fled with most of the company’s operating capital. By 1881 Merwin, Hulbert & Co. was in receivership, and would not survive into the 1890s.
Merwin, Hulbert revolvers were offered as Frontier Army Models and Pocket Army Models chambered in .44-40; they were offered in open-top and solid-top versions as well as in single action and double action. The term Pocket Army can be misleading. Although these sixguns have rounded butts they are full-sized, six-shot, .44-40 revolvers.
My treasured .44-40 Merwin, Hulbert & Co. sixgun pictured is a Third Model Pocket Army, one of approximately 2,500 specimens produced in the mid-1880s, nickel-plated as most MHs were, and wearing pearl stocks on its birdhead style grip frame complete with integral lanyard hole at the bottom. It is marked in three places, on the left side of the frame below the cylinder we find “Calibre Winchester 1873” in two lines; on the left side of the barrel is Hopkins & Allen as well as the address and patent dates; and on the right side of the frame below the cylinder is found “Merwin, Hulbert & Co. N.Y. Pocket Army.”
Hopkins & Allen rose significantly above itself in producing these sixguns and they were definitely way ahead of their time. When I showed the Pocket Army to my engineer friend he looked at it over and over and over again and finally said, “How in the world did they ever make all the required metalwork and cuts to produce this revolver with the equipment and technology they possessed?” Several unique engineering features make this Pocket Army a step above other single actions of the time. To load, a button on the right side behind the cylinder is pushed downwards and the loading gate opens to allow cartridges to be inserted. On the bottom of the mainframe in front of the trigger guard is another small button. When this button is pushed towards the front of the trigger guard it releases the barrel and top of the frame allowing them to swing 90 degrees to the right. Then the entire assembly including the cylinder is pulled forward moving only far enough to allow spent cartridges to fall out while unfired cartridges due to their greater length stay in the cylinder. For cleaning, a latch on the left side of the barrel assembly is pressed in and the entire assembly and cylinder may be slid off the center pin. The cylinder then is easily removed from the recess into which the gas ring fits. One now has three easy to clean separate pieces taking about 10 seconds to bring back together. The mechanics involved in this revolver are absolutely fascinating.
The second Merwin, Hulbert & Co. example shown has proven to be quite rare. It is a double action Pocket Model .38. What is rare about it is the fact that side plate has two screws instead of the normal three screws. Phelps wrote the book, "The Story of Merwin, Hulbert & Co. Firearms” My second edition of 1992 is marked #4 of 1000. On page 54 this rare version of the Pocket Model .38 is shown and described thusly, "This is one of only three known MH&Co. Pocket Models with center cap screw and two-screw side plate. Caliber .38 MH & Co.” Unlike the Pocket Army .44, the Pocket Model .38 can be fired double action or single action. For easy pocket use the hammer spur folds forward so it will not catch on clothing, however it is easily folded backwards for easy cocking. It was certainly the most sophisticated easily concealable firearm of the 1880s.
Merwin, Hulbert/ Hopkins & Allen revolvers were not only offered in single action and double action models as well as those with and without a top strap they could also be ordered with extra barrels such as the beautiful Third Model Pocket Army pictured on page 40 of Phelps’ book. This double action version has a folding hammer spur and two barrels, one 3 1/2” in life and the other 7” making it easy to convert from a Pocket Model to a longer barreled belt pistol.
Merwin, Hulbert & Co. .44s actually came in three flavors. First we have the .44MH which is actually .42 and slightly smaller than the .44 Colt. Some of the big bore MHs where also chambered in .44 S&W American, however most .44 MH&Co. are actually .44-40s. Although the .38 MH revolvers are designated as being chambered for .38 MH it is actually the same case as the .38 S&W. When we come to the .32 MH cartridges we find it is slightly shorter than the .32 S&W Long. All Merwin, Hulbert & Co. sixguns are, of course, only to be used with black powder loads.
A further caution concerns the chamber throats. I measured three .44-40 sixguns from the same time area around 1880 and found the Smith & Wesson to have chamber throats measuring .431”, while both the Colt and MH are both very tight at .424 inches. Since I did not want to alter either the Colt or MH I ordered a custom .424” bullet sizing die for loading black powder cartridges to use in both examples.
Some pretty famous people in the old West used MH sixguns. After shooting Billy the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett was presented with two items. One is a properly inscribed silver pocket watch and the other a double action Pocket Model .38 MH like the one pictured except it has a three screw side plate and ivory grips with "Pat Garrett” inscribed on the left panel. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, the man who took Bonnie and Clyde and was no way like the buffoon pictured in the B&C movie, was shot from ambush earlier in his career. When he recovered, he "called upon" his assailant while carrying a MH Pocket Model .32. The .32 was adequate for the occasion and meted out immediate justice. Others who packed Merwin, Hulbert & Co. revolvers at one time or another were such notables as Sam Bass, John Wesley Hardin, Bob Dalton, Calamity Jane, Bass Outlaw, and Pancho Villa.
Today we have replicas of the Colt Single Action and Bisley Model, the Remington 1875 and 1890, and Smith & Wesson Schofield, Model #3 Russian, and New Model #3. We definitely need a replica Merwin, Hulbert & Co. revolver. One thing is certain and that is it won’t come cheaply.