Sidearms of the Force

RCMP Quarterly October 1962

Sidearms of the Force p. 83-87 1873 to 1953 By Cpl. S. J. Kirby

To a peace officer the most familiar weapon is his issue handgun which, as a rule, is a revolver. Today the revolver can primarily be considered a police weapon, while not so long ago it was a military one and played an important role in cavalry tactics. The passing of the horse from the battlefield saw its decline as a military issue in spite of the thinking of some army minds who wanted a pistol issued for hand-to-hand combat to replace the bayonet. However, in this era of atomic arms the role of the handgun in battle is almost defunct and it is interesting to note that a survey conducted by the U.S. Army, shortly after the Second World War, could not elicit a single positive incident of an enemy soldier being killed by their personnel who were issued with and used the .45 Colt government model pistol. Compare this to the occasions, known, when a policeman has had to use his revolver to subdue and capture or to protect life and property.

There has been, to the present, four different makes of revolvers issued to this Force. The first general issue was in 1874 when 330 Adams revolvers arrived from England at Fort Dufferin. These were late in delivery, causing a delay in the march West. The exact origin of these revolvers is not too certain but it is highly unlikely that they came from Imperial War stores in view of the way they were packed. They had all been thrown loosely into crates, resulting in the majority being damaged, some beyond repair. Barrels were bent and frames twisted, screws had worked loose and in many cases the feed hands were broken, with the result the cylinders would not revolve. The armourers had to go to work and by cannibalizing were able to put together a number of serviceable weapons.

The history of the Adams, the first issue sidearm, is to an extent similar to that of the Snider rifle. Many were converted from percussion and others built to take the new Boxer centre-fire cartridge. In 1856, a revolver of 52 gauge (.450 calibre), which was invented by Robert Adams, had been adopted by the British Army; this was a percussion cap revolver which was replaced in 1867, shortly after the introduction of the metallic ammunition, by a breech-loading revolver, the invention of John Adams, a brother of Robert. This was a solid frame centre-fire of .450 calibre having six chambers. It was generally known as the ‘Side Rod Ejector Model.’ This handgun was loaded by inserting the rounds through a gate on the right-hand side of the frame. Ejection of the empties took place by lining up the expended cartridge case with the loading gate and then pushing the ejection rod to the rear. In all, this revolver was very similar in operation to the Colt Single Action Army model, except for the fact that it could be fired double-action. However, unlike the Colt, the ejector rod was unprotected and consequently easily subjected to damage or bending, putting the gun out of commission. To overcome this drawback alterations were made. The ejector rod was slimmed down so that it could be housed in the centre-pin, which was drilled out to receive it. It also passed through an arm which could be swung over to line it up, when it was pulled out, with the expended cartridge case and the loading gate. This second model was generally known as the ‘Improved Ejector Model’ Adams. It was issued to the Force in 1876 replacing the first shipment which proved unsatisfactory.

The Adams revolver saw service with the British Army in numerous wars from the Ashantee expedition (1878) to the Egyptian War of 1882. It was in this latter campaign that the army discovered that the .450 calibre Adams was not


powerful enough to stop the charging dervishes, so they demanded something with more stopping power and as a result the Enfield revolver was born. This gun was of .476 bore and used a 265 grain bullet propelled by 18 grains of black powder as compared to the Adams’ 225 grain bullet and 13 grains of powder. It was designed by Owen Jones, an American, who was employed by the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock in Middlesex, England. The first production model came off the lines in 1882 and shortly afterwards was adopted, officially, by the British Forces. By the autumn of 1886 it had become a general issue to the Force.

The Enfield, the second official issue sidearm of the Force, could, like the Adams, be fired both single and double-action. Its ejection of the spent cartridge cases was unique: a barrel release at the back of the top strap when pushed back allowed the barrel to come forward and down, thus drawing the cylinder ahead on a rigid cylinder-pin. The ejector (plate) remained behind pulling the empties from the chambers, which had then to be shaken loose. To load, the gun was closed and the rounds inserted one by one through a loading gate, like the Adams or Colt. As a military sidearm the Enfield was a poor weapon and a failure. This was admitted by the British when in 1887 they replaced it with the Webley pattern 1883 Mark I revolver, a mere five years after they adopted it.

The Force too had complaints, the first dealing with the heavy recoil and muzzle jump which made for poor target shooting. This of course was a result of the design of the new cartridge, which had a greater muzzle energy than the old .450 calibre Adams. These complaints were not, however, registered until the end of the annual target practices in the summer of 1889, three years after the Enfield was first issued. This is an indication that the .476 ammunition was then used for the first time showing that up to the old stock of .450 Adams was being shot off. Here to clear up the apparent contradiction in the last sentence, it should be mentioned that this revolver was drilled and rifled to the specifications of the Martini-Henry service rifle, giving a wide latitude in the choice of bullet diameters. The first two patterns of ammunition issued for the Enfield were known as .455 and the third was .476 and to further confuse matters the weapon was so constructed that the old .450 could be chambered and fired in it. In fact this was done for some time by both the Force and the Imperial army, before the third or .476 pattern became a general issue.

Another source of complaint was the extraction of fired and unfired rounds. Very often when the revolver was opened the cartridges would not be retained by the extractor but would stay in the chambers and go forward with the cylinder, putting the weapon out of commission. This was mentioned by Supt. S. B. Steele when he made his annual report to the Commissioner in 1895. He said:

“…… with regards to the revolver ammunition I think it could be improved by widening the rim. This rim in some cases is too shallow, the result being that the shell sinks in the chamber and does not catch in the extractor, rendering the weapon useless for the time being. Several cases of this sort were experienced during the annual target practice.”

The condition described by Superintendent Steele was not uncommon with the Enfield revolver, particularly when ammunition manufactured by the Dominion Cartridge Company was used.


Trouble was also experienced with the ammunition of this brand made for the Winchester, on one occasion less than 5 per cent of a shipment would chamber in the carbines, the rest were too large. However, it must be realized that this was just a new factory founded in 1886, not too long after fixed ammunition came into general use. Also it was built in Brownsburg, Quebec, a place without the European or American tradition in arms and munitions manufacturing. The company was founded by Captain “Gat” Howard, an American adventurer, who came to Canada selling machine guns for the Gatling factory of Springfield. He stayed to fight with his guns in the Rebellion of 1885 and made quite a name for himself, both in deed and song. He convinced the Canadian Government of the need in Canada for an ammunition factory and with some friends opened the Dominion Cartridge Company. The first president of this company later became the second Prime Minister of this country.

In his annual report of 1897 to the Federal Government the Commissioner stated that the Enfield was an obsolete arm that weighed too much and in view of the fact that the number of foot patrols were increasing, a lighter and more modern weapon was needed. This was not approved until 1902 when the new Commissioner, A. Bowen-Perry, delayed the choice “to take advantage of any improvements in small arms resulting from the South African War.” At the same time he also made recommendations for the issue of a new holster and waist belt. Up to this time the waist belt supported the holster on the left hip and carried loops for both revolver and carbine ammunition, all of which had to be filled when a member was on duty. This entailed the carrying of a lot of extra weight, especially on patrols made without a horse or carbine.

In the fall of 1905 the third issue and long awaited replacement for the Enfield arrived at Regina. It was distributed during the winter to the various divisions and was in the hands of the members by the early summer of 1906, complete with the new ‘Sam Browne.’ This was the Colt ‘New Service’ model revolver in .455 calibre. It was with this model revolver that a world record was established in November 1907, for the first time in recorded history a handgun shot a possible 100 points. It was also the first of the Colt revolvers having a cylinder revolving to the right. It remained in service with the Force up to 1953, when the .45 calibre, after 80 years’ association with the Mounted Police, gave way to a weapon of smaller bore. This was the year when the present ‘Fourth Issue,’ the Smith and Wesson ‘Military and Police’ model in calibre.38 special was adopted.

Having covered the four general service or issue sidearms it should be mentioned that these were not the only handguns ever issued to members. Smaller and lighter revolvers have from time to time been charged out to personnel on special duties and in plain clothes. In fact Supt. Z. T. Wood in 1900, when commanding the Yukon, requested “at least two dozen Smith and Wesson revolvers for men on special duty, in mufti.” These guns were delivered to divisional headquarters in Dawson in September 1902. The exact model of these revolvers is not known, but it would appear from reports that it most probably was the First Model ‘Military Police’ in .38 calibre revolver having a true bore of .357 inches, the Smith and Wesson factory having abandoned the expanding base bullets some years before.

An interesting suggestion, which was never acted on, was made by Superintendent Steele in the late 1890’s. He asked that consideration be given to issuing the Force with a combination arm, the Mauser. He stated: “…… a Mauser pistol which by means of a stock which forms its case, can be transformed into a carbine at a moment’s


notice has been tried and proved satisfactory. I would recommend that it would be adopted for use of the Force.”

It is most unlikely that the Mauser pistol mentioned by Superintendent Steele was purchased by the Force; it is more probable that it was seized for some infraction of the law and then brought to his attention.

Before closing this article it might be as well to deal with the origins of the .38 special cartridge used by members of the Force today. In the latter part of the 1890s when the American army was fighting in the Philippines, they found themselves pitted against natives of Malayan extraction, professing the Mohammedan religion. In common with all Moslems they believed that if they died in combat great rewards awaited them in the hereafter, more especially if they could kill one or more of the ‘infidels.’ The American troops found that their revolver cartridge, the .38 Long Colt, was not heavy enough to stop the charges of these fanatics or ‘juramentados’ as they were called. This situation was not unlike that which the British found themselves in, with their handgun ammunition, in the Egyptian campaign a few years previously. In an attempt to boost the stopping power of the military .38, Daniel B. Wesson made some improvements in the cartridge. He increased the powder capacity from 18 to 21 grains and the bullet weight from 150 to 158 grains by filling its hollow base. The new cartridge was called the calibre. 38 Smith and Wesson Special and it is the direct ancestor of today’s issue. However, the American army did not adopt it, they returned instead to the .45 calibre. But the .38 Special did not fade away into obscurity, it is presently the cartridge used by the majority of police forces on the North American continent.

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