Wesson Revolving Rifle 1879

This photo of the D.B. Wesson revolving rifle graced the August 1955 cover of the American Rifleman magazine (photo by Bluford Muir). The D. B. Wesson revolving rifle bore paten number 217,562, July 15, 1879. It is on display in the Smithsonian Institution. It is chambered in .44 caliber, and it is 48 inches long, with a 30 inch barrel. Both frame and cylinder are made of brass. The rifle uses unusual cartridges in which the bullets are seated inside the cases, with the tips flush with the case rim.

The Wesson revolving rifle, by its use of self-contained cartridges, was a big improvement over the Colt revolving rifle, a .56 caliber 5-shooter, which came on the market in 1855. Before the Tullahoma campaign (24 June to 3 July 1863), Rosecrans had equipped about 1600 of his men with such rifles. The loading procedure was cumbersome for a soldier under fire. The cylinder had to be removed, powder packed into each of the chambers, a bullet packed on top of the powder, the chambers sealed with wax, and finally the whole covered with grease in order to protect against the possibility of loose powder igniting all of the chambers at once, a phenomenon called chain fire. Given the size of the powder charge, this could be lethal to the bearer. The soldiers therefore loaded spare cylinders in advance, and in battle someone normally did the loading for the ones shooting, and this reduced the risk attendant with hurried loading. In addition, the arm which normally supported the weapon was right beside the cylinder and was thus exposed to the powder flash which escapes from the gap between the rear end of the barrel and the forward face of the cylinders of all revolvers. To avoid being burned the soldier had to either hold his elbow very far away from the cylinder or support the weapon on some object.

Smith & Wesson manufactured their revolving rifles between 1879 and 1887. Just a few years ago (2003), such a gun, in like new condition, showing no evidence of being fired, was sold in its original maroon leatherette covered compartmented case for $23,000.