Captain Fraser’s Webley-Fosbery: WWI in Microcosm

Captain Percy Fraser, DSO was born on January 22, 1879 and died in Ypres on the night of February 23, 1915 while attempting to aid men wounded outside their trench. His unit of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders would suffer horrendous casualties at Ypres, and today we will look at his Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver and his service in the British Army.

Thanks to Mike Carrick of Arms Heritage magazine for sharing Captain Fraser’s story and revolver!


  1. Ah yes, the Fosbery pattern Webley. Conceived and manufactured at a time when double action revolvers were well established and magazine fed semi-auto pistols were already a thing. Perhaps the most pointless pistol ever imagined.

    • Hank, let’s try to look at the Webley-Fosbery revolver in the proper light.

      The idea of the semiautomatic revolver is to produce a handgun that is easy to produce with manufacturing techniques that most people know (machining components from solid forgings). Double-action/single-action revolvers (such as the original Webley revolvers) don’t require manual cocking, but the trigger pull is heavy when firing is done in double-action-only mode. Semiautomatic pistols have a light trigger pull and require manual charging only on the very first round (army officers accustomed to revolvers usually have the mindset of “draw, cock, bang,” not “draw, disengage safety catch, rack slide with off hand, and then bang”), but reloading is a pain in the neck if you do not possess spare magazines.

      During the early 20th Century, semiautomatic pistols usually were produced and mated to one magazine each (I do not include charger-loaded pistols in this category). Perhaps you bought a pistol and received a spare magazine in the kit, but most of the time, gun makers did NOT intend to produce huge batches of spare magazines per pistol. Would you like to try making pistol magazines out of solid forgings? I don’t think you’d enjoy that project!

      On the other hand, military grade revolvers of the early 20th Century were easily constructed given that all of their components were made from a technology familiar to most: forging, machining, and hand finishing. It didn’t matter that you hadn’t an “ammunition carrying component” apart from the cylinder, as the cylinder was already matched with the barrel and frame from the get-go. Unless you crafted a revolver for a rimless cartridge, all revolvers could be loaded with individual rounds, from speed-loaders, or from moon clips (or half-moon clips, depending on manufacturer). With a revolver, one did not risk losing an important component of the gun during the reloading process. If you were changing the magazine of a Colt M1911 on the sprint (if such an event happened under stress) and tripped, you likely lost your magazine, which meant you lost your ammunition AND a vital part of the gun without which the gun cannot practically operate. Unless you have plenty of spare magazines or can recover and clean the now-muddy and/or trampled magazine, the pistol will become a very odd blunt instrument and you will likely get killed by rifle shot, machine gun spray, bayonet charge, artillery debris, grenade to the [unmentionables], or by anything more dangerous than an empty pistol.

      With this in mind, the Webley-Fosbery is intended to do the best of both worlds. Most officers were trained to use revolvers. The Webley-Fosbery is a revolver that only needs the frame racked for the first shot (only a slight change of training) and it can be reloaded in several methods without the risk of losing vital operating components should something bad happen during that time. People wanted light, crisp trigger pull? The trigger on the Webley-Fosbery is a single action trigger good for reliable and accurate shooting and it does not need to be barbarically yanked to work in combat. Trench mud made the semi-automatic revolver miserable as the operating system was open to getting dirty, which means the work-around didn’t work as intended. In fact, a Parabellum Luger would be much better for trench fights as it cycles too quickly to allow mud to get into the works. Trust me, Ian tested this!!!

      Did I miss anything or mess up?

      • From all indications, Maj. Fosbery’s “automatic revolver” was mainly intended to win formal target matches in both slow-fire and rapid-fire. And at this, it excelled.

        Since such matches in England were generally run by the Territorials, they were normally shot with the service revolver, or at least one chambering the 0.455in service cartridge. So, in terms of ammunition, the Fosbery and the standard Webley with target adjustable or plain fixed sights started even.

        Where the Fosbery had an advantage over the standard Webley was that;

        1. It had less felt recoil due to its action, and

        2. Even in rapid-fire (which had to be shot double-action with the standard revolver) it had a comparatively light, consistent single-action letoff for each shot.

        Having owned and shot Webleys, I can attest that the DA pull is a distinct handicap to “bull’s-eye” shooting. By comparison, I could always get tighter rapid-fire groups with a 1911, just due to having a less horrid trigger.

        If it “hung up” due to a dud primer (more common than you might think back then), a fast rack of the upper carriage and you were back in the game. On a target range, the worst you’d get would be a penalty. In a real CQC, it might be a different story.

        (NB1: It’s probably not a coincidence that the Mateba automatic revolvers in .38 Spl. MRWC are popular for centerfire competition in Europe today. They have many of the advantages of the Fosbery on a target range.)

        Where the Fosbery fell down in the trenches was exactly the place the Parabellum and 1911 didn’t. Trench mud and dirt clogged the Fosbery badly, while the other two just threw it back out every time they fired.

        But it must be remembered that (1) the Fosbery was designed for a target range, or at worst field duty on the Northwest Frontier, and (2) when it was designed, nobody anticipated trench warfare.

        All wars were to be “wars of movement”, like the colonial campaigns. (Disregarding Murphy’s First Law of War, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”.) All the signs of what was to come had been displayed for half-a-century or more (Sevastopol in the Crimea, Atlanta, Vicksburg, and Richmond in the American Civil War, and Plevna twice in two Russo-Turkish Wars), but those were wrongly judged to be “aberrations”.

        (NB2; In WW2 the opposite mistake was made; see “TOG British tank”- like the Russian T-28 and T-35, a “land battleship” built for trench crossing. he ‘dirty little secret” of the first years of that one was thart both sides started mostly with AFVs deigned for infantry support in trench assaults, like the British Matilda and the German PzKw IVA.”Cruiser” tanks like A-9 and Crusader were faster, but less heavily armored, and all of them had guns that were ill-suited to fast-moving, tank vs. tank warfare. Yes, this was another reason the Sherman and T-34, the true “fast medium” tanks, came to dominate the battlefield by ’45.)

        Fired from horseback or letting off “three rounds rapid” as at Rorke’s Drift, the Fosbery would no doubt perform admirably. But that wasn’t the war it ended up fighting.

        Personally, having seen John Boorman’s movie Zardoz (1974), a Fosbery would be very low on my list of revolvers to take into a fight. Unless the ammunition is first-rate, I’d probably have to rack it by hand for each shot.

        And unlike Sean Connery, I’m not the star of the movie, and I don’t have a contract and script to assure me that I’ll still be around when the credits roll.



        • “.”Cruiser” tanks like A-9 and Crusader were faster, but less heavily armored, and all of them had guns that were ill-suited to fast-moving, tank vs. tank warfare.”
          Wait, if I am not mistaken most of early British Cruiser tanks featured 2-pdf QF gun, for which AP ammunition was considered default, could pierce early tanks armour and have high muzzle velocity.
          So why it was unsuitable for countering enemy tanks?

          • My experience with dealing with virtual version of cruiser tanks in a video game reveal that while the QF 2-pounder gun can penetrate plenty of armor, its projectiles have no explosive payload. So this means that you must aim carefully in order to kill a Panzer. Not only must you smash through the armor, you have to hit something vital (such as the crewmen, engine, fuel reservoir, or even the ammunition rack) to ensure that your intended victim does not live long enough to return fire. In contrast, the Panzer IV Ausf F1, meant for infantry support (its rather thin armor is intended to deflect rifle bullets, not tank cannon shot), has a short-barreled gun with shorter direct-fire range (probably with a lower penetration performance than a gun intended to shoot other tanks) and a longer loading period but its main AP shell packs a much more mass and more importantly, an explosive payload when compared to the solid AP shot of the Crusader. This means the Panzer IV has a higher chance of causing nasty damage per penetrating impact than the Crusader. This is basically a tank version of SMLE No. 4 vs pump-action long-barreled shotgun running around in the deep dark woods.

            Did I mess up?

          • chern;

            Nope. Read Brazen Chariots by Robert Crisp;


            One of the big reasons Crisp and his men preferred the U.S. built M3 Stuart “Honey”, other than its mechanical reliability and thicker frontal armor compared to the Crusader, was that its 37mm gun fire both AP shot and APHE shell at higher velocities than the 40mm 2-pounders on British-built tanks. This was because the U.S. gun, unlike the British 2-pounder and even the German 3.7cm, had a bottlenecked cartridge case with greater capacity, and was loaded with a faster-burning Dupont propellant powder. In fact, the U.S. case was basically a scaled-up .30-30 Winchester cartridge case. (!)

            The British and German cases were straight-waled with a slight taper, and while slightly longer had less powder capacity, using double-based cordite type powders, resulting in lower MVs.

            Also, to do any good, even an AP shot has to actually get inside the target to begin with. According to Tank versus Tank by Kenneth Macksey (another RAC tanker);


            The U.S. 37mm’s AP shot or shell would penetrate the frontal armor of the PzKw III or IV out to 350 yards; the 2-pounder would fail to do so at point-blank.

            The 3.7cm on the III, by comparison, would punch through the front of a Crusader at 500 yards, but had to be within 300 to make an impression on the Honey’s front armor.

            Having fifty yards on your side counts more than you might think in a tank brawl.



          • eon;

            The Panzer III Ausf F through Ausf M carried a 5 cm gun (which got a longer barrel after the Ausf J) which was more than capable of instantly killing the Crusader Mk II in a face-to-face duel at 100 meter distance. The later Crusader Mk III carried a 6-pounder gun which was much better for tank fighting, but the armor was still a bit thin.

            And then we have the strange case of Japanese tanks. It wasn’t until after a “border dispute gone bad” with Mongolia and the USSR that Japanese development teams began designing better guns for tank fighting. I will admit that the Type 1 4.7 cm gun (both on carriage and in a tank turret) was probably the best bet for rapid-fire brawling at point blank, but it was still outperformed by the M4 Sherman’s main gun in every way except firing rate. The Sherman need only pray that it doesn’t get ambushed from the flank or from the rear.

            My virtual experience in a game playing a Type 1 Chi-He against the M4A1 revealed that at a point-blank mutual surprise from around a building corner, the first one to land a penetrating hit generally got the upper hand. If the Sherman charged past the corner first without checking around the corner, the Chi-He would get a free shot at the former’s ammunition rack area. If the Chi-He charged past the corner without checking, the Sherman would have a 95% probability of an instant kill if an APHE shell was in the chamber. But this depends on the crews actually looking for each other in the first place in the middle of a “search and destroy” type scenario.

            If we pitted a group of 8 M4A1’s against 4 Type 97 Shin-Ho-To Chi-Ha and 2 Type 4 Chi-To in the middle of ruined urban environment (no tank sniping) with very little infantry support per party and no artillery/air support for either party (along with both parties somehow lacking long range radio capabilities), what do you think would happen? Would this devolve into a “whomever shoots first wins” brawl?

          • CD;

            You just described most of the tank engagements in the ETO after D-Day. Michael Wittmann notwithstanding, most tank-vs-tank fights took place in villages and towns.

            According to my uncles, it was very difficult for a German Panzer unit to lay an effective ambush outside of one, because tanks are after all pretty hard to hide, especially from aerial recon. (They leave very obvious tracks wherever they go.)

            If a Panzer unit was holed up outside of a town or village, they were generally “engaged” by tactical air power or artillery, not Allied tanks. I’ve noticed that a lot of “games” either overlook this, or don’t accurately depict the anti-armor killing power of tacair or arty. Trust me, in real life, when a 5-inch rocket, 250 pound bomb, or 155mm HE shell arrived on the roof of a Panzer, it was GAME OVER.

            So with rare exceptions, Panzer units tried to ambush Allied tanks and etc. in and around towns and villages, where the Allies would generally refrain from such measures to avoid injuring or killing non-combatants.

            Aerial bombs, rockets, and Long Tom fire were all addressed to “occupant” back then. Most civilians (including wargamers) do not realize just what a change modern Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) have made in the use of arty support or CAS. In 1944-45, arty fired concentrations to ‘suppress’ an entire area in the hope of hitting one or more panzers lying doggo in same. CAS would send in a squadron of fighter-bombers to ‘carpet” an area for the same reason. In a village, this would result in No More Village. even hen, doing so and causing civilian casualties would likely have gotten the OIC hauled up in front of the Hague court on a charge of “war crimes”.

            So Panzers hiding in villages to ambush Allied units were mostly hunted down and destroyed one at a time, by Allied tanks, tank destroyers (not the same thing), and infantry anti-tsnk teams with Bazookas and etc.

            My uncle who commanded a Sherman troop described the result as “an Old West gunfight, except with cannon and machine guns”. If you imagine the climactic gun battle in Pale Rider conducted on a larger scale, with lots of clanking and engine-growling noises, and intermittent explosions and houses being demolished as the opponents go right through them, you get the general idea.

            Interestingly, one of the very few theatrical films ever to portray a real WW2 tank/anti-tank brawl in a town accurately was another Eastwood movie. Kelly’s Heroes, from 1969. And director Brian Hutton admitted that he based the battle sequence, that takes up almost the last third of the movie, mostly on Eastwood’s “spaghetti Westerns”.



    • Dear Hank:

      Mr. Cherndog replied to you in some more detail than I intend but I have to say your comment is both a little unfair and somewhat inaccurate. When Fosbery began inventing this revolver in 1895 the Borchardt had barely been on the market two years (and never sold more than 2,000 or so units), the Mauser self-loader had barely been patented let alone manufactured, Browning’s self-loaders were not yet patented (or even designed?), and even the Maxim gun and its competitors had hardly reached universal acceptance.

      Having undertaken manufacture by 1901, Webley was not competing with “proven technology.” It takes long hard training to shoot any double-action revolver fast and accurately, even today; the Parabellum had barely been adopted by the Swiss, the Mauser C96 was magazine-fed but stripper-clip-loaded, just like a rifle (and was not selling all that well), and Browning’s FN and Colt pistols had been on the market but a year.

      If, as Mr. C notes, the whole point of the Webley-Fosbery was to win timed target-shooting contests, then the gun was not pointless, it just had a very narrow point. If it turned out not to be the best combat weapon (despite some proven features such as accurate barrel and big man-stopping bullet), its failure as an experiment was no more ignoble than the failure of other technological innovations or civilian technology pushed to military use, such as the 9mm Dreyse or the over-locked and underpowered Krinka-Roth-Frommer pistols, or even the Ross rifle.

  2. This is why I love “Forgotten Weapons” and researching Milsurps. Firearms are “long-lived” objects with long histories. Even the most mundane weapon can tell you so many stories, not only about individuals, but also about how nations organised themselves at war.

  3. This type of story-behind-the-gun tremendously enlivens already excellent domain of interest for many. Cpt. Fraser was by all means a hero and servant of his country.

    • Only a few would gladly put their lives on the line to save their friends. Even fewer would do it for nearly complete strangers. Fraser lived and died by noble beliefs. I don’t know how many would do the same today.

      • It is conviction which gets people moving to do great acts. Some may have different view, even opposite but that does not change the substance. Amazing phenomenon and as a you say, probably rare these days.

      • “I don’t know how many would do the same today.”
        Hard to say. Someone can say what he would made in such situation, but reality mights turn out another way.

  4. Small point. He should be referred to as Major Fraser when discussing WW 1.

    Also what was his position in the battalion? battalion 2IC or company commander or by this stage in the campaign was he the battalion commander?

  5. I have a decent pair of 1896 Zeiss binoculars and an ordinary boring Victorian infantry officer’s sword. Some idiot chromed it. But their owner’s crest is on it- 6 bars to his South Africa medal, and a 1914 DSO.

    I followed up, and got hold of 20 years worth of his letters to his mother. I only read a few dozen- but he talks about having a man shot beside him, about the sword tripping him up at a river crossing, and about using it to kill a poisonous snake in India.

    He spoke German, and his DSO was for multiple incidents of leaving the British lines and sneaking up eavesdrop on the Germans. In the wintertime, when he was about 4o years old. At night- and in the daytime.

    History in your hands.

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