Biography: William John Whiting

Today is a continuation of an occasion series on the life stories of notable gun designers. I find it interesting to learn more about the men whose inventiveness and industriousness are responsible for the guns we enjoy owning and shooting today. Some of these men lived long and happy lives, and some died young and destitute – but all left an indelible mark on arms collecting history, whether they were recognized in their own days or not.

William John Whiting, circa 1904
William John Whiting, circa 1904

William John Whiting is not a name known to most gun collectors today, because the guns he spent a lifetime working on were never marked with his name, but rather with the name of Webley & Scott. Whiting was born in the industrial coal country of England, specifically a town called Darlaston located about 8 miles northwest of Birmingham. Of course, anyone loosely familiar with British firearms will recognize that Birmingham was a center of arms production for great many years, thanks to its renowned coal and steel production and concentration of craftsmen. Whiting was born the eldest son of William Flint Whiting and Hannah Wiles, on September 13th, 1864 (naming the first son after the father was something of a tradition). As a child, Whiting attended school at the St. Lawrence church, and form a very early age he became interested in following in his father’s footsteps.

The elder William Flint Whiting (who was in his early twenties when William John was born) was employed as a gun lock filer, and he taught Whiting the basics of the gunsmithing trade. By the time Whiting was 9 years of age, he was relatively proficient with a file, and this interest in gunmaking would stay with him throughout his life. His father provided him with old or broken firearms to repair, allowing him to develop an understanding of how the mechanisms worked and how to manipulate them.

In 1873, Whiting’s father was hired on by the firm of Webley & Son in Birmingham, and the family moved to the northern outskirts of that city (well, that was on the northern outskirts at the time). After a few years in another church school (where he excelled, and the headmaster encouraged pupils to develop an interest in technology), Whiting was offered a job at Webley, working alongside his father and the company’s expert gunsmiths. Whilliam John by this time has three brothers and three sisters, and none of his brothers showed any particular interest in guns the way he did. The Webley firm was quite interested in grooming dedicated young men into becoming loyal and expert workers, and Whiting was formally Indentured as an apprentice on his 16th birthday in 1881 – a commitment that would last 5 years.

By the end of that term – and his 21st birthday – Whiting was an acknowledged Tool Maker at Webley & Son, and applied for his first British patent that very year, in 1886. The patent was for a bushing that would prevent black powder residue from getting into the space between a revolver cylinder and the axis pin it rotated on. Around this same time, Webley perfected their hinge-framed revolver, allowing simultaneous ejection of the whole cylinder full of empty cases, and received the first of many major government contracts. Business was good at Webley, and William John Whiting would have his fortunes tied to the company for many years to come.

In 1888 he began his own family by marrying Harriette May Busst, daughter of another gunsmith. Their first child was born late that year, and (in the family tradition) named William James Whiting. At this time he was experimenting with new pistol designs at Webley, starting with a concealed-hammer revolver which was patented with his co-designer John Carter in 1888.

Whiting’s star continued to rise at Webley, with his promotion to Workshop Foreman at the age of 25 and then Works Manager at age 28, upon the unexpected illness and death of his father, who had previously held the position. By this time Whiting and Harriette had four children, and he was about to really come into his element professionally. In 1896, Colonel George Fosbery approached the Webley firm looking for a manufacturer for his automatic revolver. For the next several years Whiting worked to help refine the design into its 1901 production model. Self-loading pistols were looking like the wave of the future, and Webley thought the Fosbery design would be an ideal way to capitalize on that trend while still exploiting their expertise in revolver manufacture.

In 1903, a number of elements changed in Whiting’s life. The end of the Boer Wars, combined with new British restrictions on civilian pistol ownership left Birmingham in general and Webley in particular in tough financial straits. Sales of Webley-Fosbery automatic revolvers, while certainly profitable, were not a replacement for the military contracts of years past. Whiting was offered (and accepted) a position on Webley’s Board of Directors, and dove into design of a true self-loading pistol for British military use – which required use of the rimmed .455 cartridge. While this work would not bear fruit for more than a decade in it’s original application, Whiting’s adaptation and conversion of his basic design to .32 and .25 cartridges would prove to be the financial thread that kept Webley & Scott alive until WWI caused a resurgence in large military orders. Ironically, the sudden demand for the standard military model revolvers would largely force the abandonment of self-loader development, as the military lost interest in unproven new designs and the company no longer had the excess capacity to spare.

London Metropolitan Police .32ACP Webley automatic
London Metropolitan Police .32ACP Webley automatic

Before the outbreak of the war, though, Whiting found the height of his career. His .32 automatic found widespread acceptance, including being chosen as the standard sidearm for the London Metropolitan Police. Whiting undertook several extended overseas trips to promote his pistols, with destinations in the United States, France, Bulgaria, Russia, Norway and elsewhere. His six children (three girls and three boys) reached adulthood during this time, and two of his sons joined him at Webley & Scott (William James as an Engineering Draftsman and the artistic Thomas as an Engraver).

The years of the Great War took a toll on Whiting, ultimately leading to his retirement. Management of the factory became a huge responsibility with the massive volume of wartime production, and his sons Arthur and Thomas left to join the Army (William James was by that time Works Manager for the plant). Thomas was killed in action in 1915 at the Somme, and Arthur wounded there in July of 1916. After recovering from his wounds, Arthur returned to the lines as a commissioned 2nd Lieutenant and was killed in action himself in 1918. The loss of his two sons had a profound impact on Whiting, and he never really recovered from it. Much of hHis passion and enthusiasm at Webley drained from him, and the postwar economic depression didn’t help things. The 1920 Firearms Act, further restricting commercial sale of Webley’s products, was the last straw, and he retired from his position at Webley & Scott on July 6th, 1920 at the age of 57.

Whiting maintained an interest in the gunmaking industry after his retirement, taking enjoyment in helping and advising other gunsmiths on technical questions. He ultimately held a total of 34 patents and while not wealthy, he was able to live a quite comfortable life. When not staying abreast of developments in the gun industry, he spent his retirement years tending to his terrier Prince and a garden of dahlias. A placid and enjoyable life – although perhaps too much so. After his retirement he gained quite a lot of weight – he had been a strong and fit man at nearly 6 feet and 190 pounds, but after a few years or retirement his weight had grown to more than 250 pounds. He developed diabetes without recognizing it, and dizzy spells culminated in his collapse outside his home in early 1924. He fell into a coma, and died on February 9th, 1924 at the age of 59.

Despite his relatively young passing, Whiting enjoyed a fulfilling and happy life. He was able to follow his passion for gunmaking and design and enjoy a mutually very beneficial 40-year relationship with the Webley company. He never became truly wealthy, but real wealth leads to misery as often as happiness, and Whiting never found himself in financial distress with the income from his position and royalties from his many patents. His children were raised well and became successful themselves, at least until Thomas and Arthur fell victim to the ravages of war. Whiting may not have become a household name, but he never looked for fame, and he will remain known to the cadre of collectors and shooters who will continue to enjoy his pistols for many years to come.

Biorgraphy: Bruce, Gordon. Webley & Scott Automatic Pistols. Verlag Stocker-Schmidt, Zurich, 1992.

16 Comments

  1. His travels to the US must have done some good, H&R made a copy of the .32 automatic for a time.

    It is too bad that Webley did not manage to export more to the US; to come up with designs that appealed more to the US market. In the inter-war years there were a lot of counterfeit S&W revolvers (actually, S&W on the outside, Colt on the inside) that came into the US out of Europe. They had poor metallurgy and were often dangerous. Maybe they sold at prices Webley could not hope to match, but it is too bad that if revolvers were being imported they were not from a quality firm.

    No less a traditionalist than Elmer Keith wrote of the .455 Webley as being a solid revolver and a good fight-stopper. But it just looked…sort of Victorian and overly bulky I suppose. A .44 Special or a .38/44, or even a factory .45 auto-rim would have been interesting.

    • Yep, the licensing deal with H&R was pretty successful.

      As for a .45 Auto-Rim Webley, a lot of the guns available here in the US have had their cylinders shaved down to allow the use of either .45 Auto-Rim or regular .45ACP in moon clips. For someone interested in having a shooter, those are a great solution (and cheaper than unmodified Webleys, too). You can identify a gun modified this way by looking at the cylinder. Webley stamped the serial number around the circumference of the cylinder right at the base, and adapting the gun to .45ACP will take off about half of the stamping.

      • I’ve heard a lot of contradictory claims about whether those .45 ACP conversions are safe, with some claiming that .45 ACP is too much pressure for them to handle. Is there any validity to that claim?

        • Hmm…I hadn’t given it much though – I don’t have one myself. From a quick scan, it looks like it is potentially dangerous to use commercial or milspec .45ACP in a Webley – the SAAMI pressure for .45ACP is 19k+, while .455 is at about 13k. OTOH, with handloads duplicating the .455 ammo would be just fine.

    • Glad you like it, Al – I’ve added a Biography section to the drop-down menu at the left, so the two I’ve done so far (the other being Christopher Spencer) and the future ones will be easily accessible.

      • To second Big Al, Thanks Ian, the personalities and backgrounds of gun designers and developers are essential to understanding their guns.

        From your account, Whiting appears to have been a very competent, sober and well respected manager as well as a technical innovator and family man, only to be broken by the loss of his sons in war.

        He seems to be a complete contrast to the difficult, insecure and binge drinking character of Aimo Lahti, or vodka drinking Hugo Schmieser.

  2. Ian, thanks so much for writing this article and bringing to light the life story of William Whiting — I am so glad that he has not been simply forgotten altogether, at least on FW. One can barely imagine what the tragic deaths of his two sons must have wrought upon him, his wife, and their immediate family.

    The fact that so many of his ideas were not ascribed to his personal name ( in spite of the fact that they stemmed from his mind and not anyone else’s ), but were instead subverted to the claims and patents of the company he worked for are, unfortunately, nothing new. It is typical of companies and corporations to include a clause in their terms of employment that any new innovations and ideas conceived while one is under their employ automatically become the sole intellectual property of said companies or corporations, regardless of circumstances — as if the individual’s mind were somehow only capable of conceiving great ideas of worth simply because they had come under the aegis of a benevolent and inspiring larger entity.

    The sheer delusional aspects of this sort of thinking and the underlying greed and avarice that accompany it are obvious. I am perfectly willing to concede that the company or corporation may have had a role — inadvertantly or otherwise — in providing a social and professional atmosphere that helped in promoting the ideas and designs that came forth — but for that same organization to claim sole intellectual propriety on the same legal grounds or otherwise is obviously ridiculous. One does not live nor conceive of new ideas in a vacuum, and it works both ways.

    • Actually, Earl, it wasn’t not so bad as you say. Whiting never had his name on a pistol, but all his patents were in his own name and Webley paid him royalties for their use. I think the relationship between him and the company really was a symbiotic one – it was a relatively small company, and he know the family owners, as well as sitting on the Board of Directors for many years. In addition, he developed a reputation as the guy to see about technical pistol questions – he was definitely not unrecognized in his niche. It’s just that since he didn’t have his name on the guns, he was quick to become unknown to people outside his place in time and geography.

  3. Great write up Ian, I like the perspective that these biographies offer for the designers of guns that we’re so familiar with today.

    Perhaps you could do a writeup on the Mauser brothers, or perhaps even the Federle brothers who came up with the C96? I can’t find anything about the Federles that’s really satisfactory, so it would definitely be illuminating if you did them.

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