Beaumont-Adams Double-Action Percussion Revolver

The Beaumont-Adams revolver was a huge success, ticking pretty much every box, and proved so popular that Colt was forced to close its London factory in 1857.

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A Beaumont-Adams revolver, manufactured by the London Armoury Company circa 1856
A Beaumont-Adams revolver, manufactured by the London Armoury Company circa 1856
  • This was the first ever combined single/double-action revolver
  • It put Colt’s English factory out of business
  • Its short service life belies its huge influence on all subsequent revolver design
A Beaumont-Adams revolver, manufactured by the London Armoury Company circa 1856
A Beaumont-Adams revolver, manufactured by the London Armoury Company circa 1856

PRETTY much everyone with a basic knowledge of firearms history knows the revolver in its modern form was invented in America by Samuel Colt in 1836 – although if you’re really into your arms history you might be familiar with Elisha Collier’s flintlock revolver designs from the late 1810s and early 1820s too, or some of the pepperbox designs from the same era.

Most early revolvers were single-action affairs (namely, the hammer had to be cocked by hand before the gun could be fired) , and while the Americans were content to stay with this action until the end of the 19th century, British gunmakers – with a large market of military personnel and civilians in dangerous parts of the Empire – were soon working on a revolver which could be cocked and fired simply by pulling the trigger.

The first double-action revolver was the Deane & Adams, a solid-frame developed in 1851 by British gunmaker Robert Adams while working at gunsmiths Deane and Son – at pretty much exactly the same time as the .36 calibre 1851 Colt Navy was coming on the market.

While the Colt Navy was single-action only, the Deane & Adams was double-action only (described as “Self-cocking” in contemporary writings); pulling the trigger cocked the hammer, rotated the cylinder and fired the gun, but there was no provision to manually cock the hammer for precision shooting. Unlike the Colt, however, the Deane & Adams revolver lacked a loading lever, meaning it was slower to load than the American design.

Both the Adams Self-Cocking Revolver and the Colt 1851 Navy were exhibited at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London in 1851 with the Colt’s interchangeability of parts (Colt reportedly disassembled 10 guns, mixed the parts up, then reassembled 10 guns from those parts – and they all worked perfectly) impressing quite a few influential viewers. However, the Adams self-cocking revolver in particular caused quite a stir; no-one had seen anything quite like it up to that point. 

Just to be confusing (because everything to do with Victorian-era British guns is), a number of gunsmiths who were contemporaries of Adams – notably Robert Kerr, William Tranter and the Deane brothers – were soon making similar revolvers which were broadly similar in appearance, design and function to the Adams.

British revolvers of the era were also designated not by calibre, but by bore, just as shotguns were. Thus a 54-bore revolver was .44 calibre, a 38-bore revolver was .50 calibre and a 90-bore revolver was .36 calibre. Deane & Adams-type revolvers were typically made in 54 bore or 38 bore.

Initially, the British Government stuck to what they knew and ordered about 10,000 .36 calibre 1851 Navy revolvers, but stopped short of adopting it as an official sidearm. Officers could purchase their own guns and many preferred the Adams due to its larger calibre and self-cocking mechanism.

Colt had high hopes the British military would widely adopt his revolvers and had opened a factory in London in 1853 to produce revolvers. 

Both Adams-type and Colt Navy pistols saw service during the Crimean War (1853-1856), where the Adams-type’s larger calibre, solid frame and double-action operation proved themselves advantageous. Indeed, one J.G. Crosse of the 88th Regiment wrote to the London Armoury Company in January 1855, reporting that an Adams Self-Cocking Revolver had saved his life during the Battle of Inkerman (November 5, 1854) in the Crimean War, when he was beset by four Russians at point-blank range and shot them all before they could kill him, due to not needing to cock the revolver before firing it – in stark contrast to the Colt design.

But what if there was a way to combine the accuracy of the Colt’s single-action operation with the combat effectiveness of the Adams’s double-action? 

Major Frederick Beaumont of the Royal Engineers – and a veteran of the Crimean War – was sure it could be done, and set about designing what we recognise today as the double-action revolver mechanism.

Taking an Adams revolver, he added a cocking spur to the hammer as well as redesigning the internal mechanism to allow the gun to work either by cocking the hammer or by simply pulling the trigger, and was awarded a patent for his design in 1855, with production beginning at Deane, Adams and Deane that same year.

An Adams Mk II revolver in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, chambered for .450 Boxer cartridges.
An Adams Mk II revolver in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, chambered for .450 Boxer cartridges.

Following a falling out with the Deane brothers, Adams formed the London Armoury Company in 1856 (along with his cousin James Kerr) and began producing the Beaumont-Adams revolver there.

The Beaumont-Adams revolver was a huge success, ticking pretty much every box, and proved so popular – alongside the reluctance of the military to adopt Colt revolvers in greater quantity – that Colt was forced to close its London factory in 1857. Indeed, Adams started licensing the design to prominent Belgian gunsmiths in Liege, such was the demand for the revolvers, and they were also produced elsewhere in Europe and Russia as well.

The pistol was made in several variants and calibres, but the most commonly encountered are 54-bore (.44 calibre), 90 bore (.36 calibre) and 38 bore (.50 calibre). A number of pocket-sized guns in smaller calibres, including 120-bore (.31 calibre) were also produced, and the 54-bore version was added to the British military’s list of approved arms in 1856; about 20,000 were ordered between 1855 and 1860.

Pretty much the only criticisms of the design were that it lacked a blast shield, meaning the user’s hand (and potentially face, if the percussion caps failed catastrophically) were exposed to the blast from the firing caps when the gun was discharged.

One innovation in the design was a functional safety catch, essentially allowing the Beaumont-Adams to be carried with all five chambers loaded. There were two main types of safety catch – the first was a spring-mounted affair on the left-hand side which served as a hammer block and proved to not work all that well, while the second type was a much more effective design involving a sliding catch on the right hand side of the frame which prevented the cylinder from turning and meant the hammer would stay down while aligned between chambers. 

Beaumont-Adams revolvers first saw military action during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, where its large calibre and rapid rate of fire proved very effective at putting opponents down – as well as being faster to reload than the Colt.

Lt-Col George Fosbery VC – inventor of the Paradox rifling system – fought during the Mutiny and recounted the fate of one fellow officer who had emptied a .36 calibre Colt 1851 Navy into an enemy without much success:

“An officer, who especially prided himself in his pistol-shooting, was attacked by a stalwart mutineer armed with a heavy sword.  The officer, unfortunately for himself, carried a Colt’s Navy pistol of small caliber and fired a sharp-pointed bullet of sixty to the pound and a heavy charge of powder, its range being 600 yards, as I have frequently proved. This he proceeded to empty into the sepoy as soon as he advanced, but, having done so, he waited just one second too long to see the effect of his shooting, and was cloven to the teeth by his antagonist, who then dropped down and died beside him. My informant, who witnessed the affair, told me that five out of the six bullets had struck the sepoy close together in the chest, and all had passed through him and out of the back.”

Beaumont-Adams revolvers saw plenty of service during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858, where their large calibre and double-action operation gave them a notable advantage over the Colt 1851 Navy revolver.
Beaumont-Adams revolvers saw plenty of service during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858, where their large calibre and double-action operation gave them a notable advantage over the Colt 1851 Navy revolver.

Major Beaumont himself also fought in the Indian Mutiny, doubtless armed with one of the revolvers of his own devising, and distinguished himself at the Battle of Lucknow on March 14, 1858, eventually being awarded the Indian Mutiny Medal.

Beaumont-Adams revolvers had a couple of different styles of loading lever; all were mounted on the left-hand side of the frame and barrel; most commonly found is the Kerr patent design (ramrod lever lifts up 90 degrees hinged from the right side adjacent to the cylinder) while the Brazier patent (lifts 90 degrees hinged from the left on the barrel) is also sometimes found. 

The Beaumont-Adams was also used during the American Civil War, both using British and Belgian guns smuggled through blockades and licence-built versions manufactured in the Union by Massachusetts Arms Company in .36 calibre. Imported Beaumont-Adams revolvers are recorded as being purchased by the US government in November 1861 at a cost of USD$19 (about AUD$750 in modern currency) each.

Beaumont-Adams revolvers were extensively used in Australia and New Zealand as well, especially as police and colonial military revolvers. Some also found their way onto the Goldfields and into the bush with more successful or well-heeled prospectors and merchants – a news report in The South Australian Register for May 30, 1861 makes reference to a “Handsome five-chambered Deane and Adams’s revolving pistol, valued at £5.5s” (approximately $500 nowadays) being awarded as a prize at a local shooting competition.

Victoria Police were one of the notable issuers of the Beaumont-Adams in Australia, acquiring a useful number of man-stopping 38-bore (50 calibre) guns from the London Armoury Company around 1856; these revolvers remained in use until 1865 when they had more or less worn out from seeing a lot of use (it was the height of the Gold Rush) and were replaced with Colt 1851 Navy pistols – which the then-Police Commissioner noted were also a lot easier to clean and maintain.

Contemporary Australian newspaper reports typically refer to all Adams and Beaumont-Adams revolvers – as well as similar designs- as being “Dean and Adams” revolvers or pistols, which makes identifying specific models difficult, not helped by the fact the conversion from self-cocking to double action was fairly simple to carry out – and that Tranter and Kerr revolvers of the area looked very similar, making contemporary newspaper reports unreliable sources for information on the handguns’ civilian ownership and use.

Beaumont-Adams revolvers were also used extensively in New Zealand during the various wars with the Maori in the 1860s; the New Zealand Armed Constabulary officially adopted the gun in October of 1867 and they were a popular civilian purchase as well. 

Later models of the Beaumont-Adams chambered six rounds instead of five, and with the development of metallic cartridges in the late 1860s, many Beaumont-Adams revolvers were converted to fire .450 Boxer (also known as .450 Colt and .450 Adams) cartridges; an innovation driven by Robert Adams’ brother, John.

An Adams Mk III .450 calibre cartridge revolver, featuring an improved extractor. (Photo by Wikipedia user Harryvc)
An Adams Mk III .450 calibre cartridge revolver, featuring an improved extractor. (Photo by Wikipedia user Harryvc)

Both converted and newly-made revolvers loaded and unloaded through a gate on the right-hand side of the cylinder, much like the Colt Peacemaker, with the reloading lever repurposed to operate the ejection rod on converted models.

The British military officially adopted the cartridge-firing Adams Mk I in 1868 (with a five-round cylinder), with the Mk II (six-shot cylinder) in 1872 and Mk III (improved ejection rod) approved in 1878. 

These revolvers famously saw use in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and a number of other British colonial campaigns of the late 19th century as well, notably in Egypt.

Officially the Adams Mk III was replaced in serviced in 1882 when the Enfield Mk I pistol was adopted, but there were undoubtedly notable numbers in holsters and armouries in the farther flung parts of the Empire in WWI, and it’s quite likely a number were still being used as late as WWII as reserve and rear-echelon arms.

Adams left the London Armoury Company in 1859 due to a disagreement over a shifting focus to producing infantry rifles; the company itself soon became the major supplier of small arms to the Confederate States of America and went out of business in 1866 following the end of the US Civil War. His designs continued to be produced under licence in the UK and Europe, and he died in 1870.

Frederick Beaumont himself went on to be in charge of railways at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, was elected to parliament as an MP, reached the rank of Colonel in the army and retired in 1877, before dying on August 20, 1899.

Despite the gun’s iconic status, reliable service and appealing design, no-one has or is making reproductions of the Beaumont-Adams revolvers (percussion or cartridge firing), largely because the major demand for reproduction 19th century guns comes from Single Action Shooting competitors whose rules prohibit double-action revolvers in their competitions. 

A cased Beaumont-Adams 54-bore revolver from the Auckland Museum collection, along with its accessories. Beaumont-Adams revolvers were extremely popular in New Zealand and saw extensive use during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. (Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, W1887b)
A cased Beaumont-Adams 54-bore revolver from the Auckland Museum collection, along with its accessories. Beaumont-Adams revolvers were extremely popular in New Zealand and saw extensive use during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. (Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, W1887b)

For collectors, however, the revolvers are plentiful on the second-hand market, often in very good condition and complete with wooden case and accessories. About 250,000 are thought to have been made but it should be noted that “plentiful” does not mean “cheap”; so while it is not difficult to find an Adams-style revolver, your wallet will be considerably lighter after you have purchased it – even “fair” examples typically cost over $1000, and models in better condition which still have their case and accessories are a multiplier more expensive again.

As one of the most technologically significant small arms of the mid-19th century, the Beaumont-Adams had a comparatively short service life, but its legacy lives on today in pretty much every modern double-action revolver. 

Further reading

As enormously influential guns there is a bit of information on the Beaumont-Adams available, notably on the internet, and many “Famous guns of the world”-type books include something on the gun too.

For more specialist readers, George Prescott’s The English Revolver: A collector’s Guide covers the Beaumont-Adams in detail, while the cartridge conversions are discussed in Robert Maze’s Howdah to High-Power. There are also numerous examples pictured in Ron Hayes’ Hayes Handgun Omnibus as well; both percussion and cartridge-firing.

INFOBOX

Beaumont-Adams Double-Action Revolver

Calibre: Typically 54-bore (.44 calibre), also 38-bore (.50 calibre) and 90-bore (.36 calibre)

Cylinder: Five rounds (some later models held six), percussion cap and ball.

Action: Double Action Revolver

Barrel Length: 6in (152mm)

Overall length: 12in (30cm)

Weight: 2.4lb (1.1kg)

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