Mars Automatic Pistols at James D. Julia

The Mars pistol was designed by Sir Hugh Gabbett-Fairfax in England in 1898, and only 81 were produced by the time manufacturing ended in 1907. These pistols were chambered for several different cartridges, all of them tremendously powerful for the day (and really not equaled by another self-loading pistol until the Automag). I have a somewhat lengthy article on the Mars, and I was very excited to have a chance to examine two more example of the guns in person at the Juli auction house.

These two both come from the collection of Dr. Geoffrey Strugess, and they are s/n 41 in .45 Mars Long (with a grip safety) and s/n 54 in 8.5mm Mars. Both excellent examples of the pistol, and both manufactured by Gabbett-Fairfax before he went broke.



  1. Does the phrase “Chinese Fire Drill” ring a bell??? For once there is a weapon that I would not willingly carry into combat due to the cascading problematic possibilities starting with the open action and the almost unavoidable eventuality of contamination caused by battle conditions. But that being said, it appears that the basic design and proprietary cartridges could have been further developed into an outstanding machine pistol or sub-machinegun. First would be a re-design of the feed system to preclude failures to feed. The interrupter system could have be redesigned to fire the weapon from a closed bolt greatly predating this later development and the problems prior to this due to the action remaining open between firings. The twin-spring and locking lugs recoil system would have made the more powerful ammunition practical yielding a more lethal weapon with greater “knock-down” power. The overall weapon would have been short enough for confined-space confrontations but with a shoulder stock should have been more controllable and more accurate at extended ranges. All in all, I personally find the design intriguing and fraught with possibilities not to mention that it was far ahead of its time. Thanks for the video and explanation!

      • First of all, the system is more suitable for a rifle than a pistol. The 8.5mm (.335in) fired a 140 grain @ 1,750 FPS for 950 FPE, which is roughly the ballistics of the WW2 M1 .30 Carbine round, and not far below that of the 7.9 x 33 Kurz round of the German Maschinenkarabiner/Sturmgewehr series weapons. From a pistol-length barrel. Give it a 16″ barrel, selective-fire, a 20-round magazine and a shoulder stock, and it’s basically an assault rifle.

        As to full-auto ROF, that would be lower than most such gas-operated or short-recoil weapons due to the increased dwell time of the long-recoil system. Which is a good thing; most assault rifles on full-auto have too high a ROF for good control anyway unless you keep bursts to three rounds. I would expect about 400 R/M from such a “Gabbett-Fairfax rifle”, and that is just about the optimum for controllability in a weapon weighing under 15 pounds (6.8kg).

        The military trials were interesting. According to Ezell (Handguns Of The World, pp.493-498),the testers pointed out that while the Mars was more complicated than the Mauser automatic (C/96) they had previously tested, it was still less mechanically involved than the Webley service revolver (Mk V, .455in). It was accurate out to 300 yards without the shoulder stock and out to 600 yards with the stock and the 12-inch barrel. The director general compared it to a “very small and compact rifle”. and this was apparently the .45 caliber version. (!)

        The mechanism was found to be “sensitive to dirt”, but name a first-generation auto pistol not designed by John Moses Browning that wasn’t.

        The director-general recommended troop trials but insisted on a .45 caliber round with a MV of not more than 1,150 FPS, which is still pretty emphatic even by today’s standards, slightly above a medium-velocity .44 Magnum load. ME would have been about 650 FPE with the 220-grain bullet, putting it in the same ballpark as the .41 Magnum. The British Army was apparently still thinking in terms of putting down Zulus, Dervishes, and the odd cavalry horse at the time. This would certainly have done it.

        Gabbett-Fairfax apparently did his best to work with them, but was hampered by the fact that his gun’s mechanism pretty much required high-powered rounds to operate properly. In the end, even the .45 Short round was too powerful for the Army’s requirements, and they passed.

        The entire Gabbett-Fairfax affair was a succession of missed opportunities. Afterward, Gabbett-Fairfax went into other businesses, or tried to; in 1913 he was granted a U.S. patent for a “depericarping apparatus”. In plain English, it shelled nuts automatically;

        If he and the British Army and Navy had been able to think “outside the box” just a bit more, the .335 Gabbett-Fairfax Assault Rifle might have been ready for Plan 1919, and been a nasty shock to the German Sturmtruppen of 1918 with their Bergmann Musketes.



        • Maybe a pistol outwardly resembling the Frommer stop, but that is like the Mars only it has a tube magazine running on top of the barrel… That extends behind
          behind the barrel, by say the length of a cartridge. Upon firing the barrel reaches the end of the magazine, at this point the bolt unlocks as per then the barrel returns and the bolt moves rearward the cartridge grabber hits the depressed hammer which tips it up while cocking it during the bolts rearward travel. The grabber has pulled a round out, and when the hammer is fully back it depresses aligning the cartridge with the chamber. At this point the bolt returns and chambers the round – Barrel spring around the outside of the magazine tube via a stop mounting the tube to the frame, and a compression piece from the front of the barrel around the mag. Bolt spring a clockwork Lewis gun type thing in the handle rack and pinion lark, it’s quite along gun probably could hold six rounds at least with there own spring inside. Just thinking a tube magazine might ease the tension on the cartridges with them being pulled rather than pushed in this configuration. It might not work, haven’t drawn it, even then it might not have done. Thinking it might like, hence why I thought of it he he.

          • The grabber sits aside the bolt like, swivels in the middle around it or something so it can go up, centre, down like.

          • A stripper clip, link? A stripper clip, but with the rounds running top to toe like – But it has individual sections per round that snap off sort of like a craft knife, works like a biathlon airgun magazine in that it “passes through” or in this case, back. In order to remove the spring required for the cartridges in the magazine so it can hold more rounds, put the barrel spring round the barrel now. And have a square shaped “tube” mag along the top into which said clip fits into, the movement of the barrel pushes the rounds rearwards via some arrangement.

            Pericarp – Is a term used in fruit anatomy, in relation to Hugh’s nut plucking patent if you didn’t know.

        • Fragility and reliability were major problems. In the October 28, 1902 round of tests at Hythe, the left bolt-retraction “ear” broke off at 410 rounds. The testing continued until the 817th round, when the other one broke off, making it impossible to open the bolt. Frankly, I was cringing every time you opened that bolt, expecting one or the other ear to go “Pinnggg”!

          That’s not even counting the failure of the elevator, the multiple misfires (primer caused except for two broken firing pin tips), and the fact that even when it worked properly the pistol had a nasty habit of throwing its empties straight back into the shooter’s face, which no amount of adjustments seemed to correct.

          Partly it was the metallurgy of the day, but mostly it was the design. The action was made to pretty tight tolerances and as such, things ended up with less web thickness than they really needed. And due to its geometry about the only direction an empty could go was straight up and back.

          That’s another couple of reasons that this sort of action belongs in at least a rifle-sized weapon, if anywhere at all. It obviously needs beefing up for survivability, if nothing else from that bane of all military mechanisms, somebody’s errant combat boot.

          And as for straight up ejection, unless it’s a bullpup, that sort of thing can be lived with on a shoulder-fired arm if the chamber is far enough ahead of your nose. Such as the StG-45 on the titles, for instance. It wouldn’t make much difference if that one launched its empties in the general direction of the stratosphere. Except for somebody on the other side seeing the cases flying and spotting your position, that is.




  2. They would doubtless have been handy at the Battle of Tamai in the Sudan against the Hadendoa Mahdists fearsome fuzzy Wuzzies thrusting at you with their huge heathen spears in a sudden onslaught upon your gap, which has opened in the square.

    Take that Osman! BLAM!!! And that! BLAM!!! AIIIEEEE!

    Like that… Sir Hugh Gabbet Fairfax was a decade late with his hammer of a pistol, they do not like it up them, they just do not like it.

    • The Gabbett-Fairfax automatic pistol was complicated and therefore it was more expensive. I think that high price was main reason of market-fail. Also the proprietary cartridge don’t help – notice that later Webley-Scott was originally chambered for .455 Webley.

      “Take that Osman! BLAM!!! And that! BLAM!!! AIIIEEEE!”
      Personally I think that Gabbet-Fairfax was just too powerful, especially remembering that in 1900s the handguns were always hold in single hand (hence they are called hand-guns not handS-guns). The .455 Webley and .45 Auto can get job done, which was proved several times.

      • “Sir Hugh Gabbet Fairfax was a decade late with his hammer of a pistol”
        Or 50…60 years too early – in 1950s the cartridges like .44 Magnum or .454 Casull was introduced in USA.

      • A thigh holster probably would have helped, given it’s imposing dimensions. Poor old Hugh, what a gun – For the time. Aye a suppose his rather potent medicine was a tad excessive at the time, like you say though years later it became all the rage.

        • Thigh holster? I think this might be limited to saddle holsters. Or maybe it’s something you’d have your gun-bearer bring to you at the proper time.
          “Bring me my Mars! I want to kill some elephants.”
          “How many?”
          “All of them.”

          I’ve loved this silly pistol since I first read about it in one of Ian Hogg’s books. It seems to owe at least a bit of its design to belt-fed MGs – I figure the reverse-feed magazine was inspired by MGs pulling and chambering rimmed cartridges.

          • It was in my Tower of London gun collection book I got when I was a kid, I remember it said some of it’s unpopularity derived from it’s “vicious recoil” great gun!

    • I like Bobergs pistol, and yes it does use this system to a degree doesn’t it John D. It perhaps has certain problems not found on “simpler” designs, but it also has advantages -An extra round & a bit more velocity via the extra barrel length, although said problems might cause one trouble in certain circumstances which may outweigh the benefits. Having the hammer push the cartridge grabber thing up was good on the Mars, I like that idea… I like the whole gun really, it’s something of a behemoth but it’s definitely cool.

  3. Worth noting, the 9mm Mars version was by far the most powerful with a 150 gr bullet at 1600 fps for a staggering 853 ft-lbs of energy. The .45 Long Mars as Ian said, launched a 220 gr bullet at 1200 fps for about 703 ft-lbs.

    (Ref: Dowell)

    And Ian, please tell me that there’s a photo of you dual-wielding Mars pistols. The opportunity to be the ultimate steampunk badass only comes once in a lifetime… 😉

  4. Speaking of unusual designs who’s seen that Russian Arsenal Arms pistol, it has a barrel with two lugs on it and in between there’s a sort of U shaped “to fit around the barrel” falling block that sits between said lugs. And on the underside of this block is a Browning barrel tilt cam thing, but now it lowers the block when the barrel/slide move back together upon firing which unlocks the barrel from the slide. As the falling block thing is stuck between the lugs on the barrel, but now the block has fallen from a recess for it on the underside of the slide. Pretty novel I thought, the barrel just moves straight back a wee bit.

    • As is my understanding of it, Strike one it’s called apparently. It’s modern, but it is still unusual so reasonably topical.

      • As it happens, Karl and I just finished doing a review of one of these pistols, which will be publishing in a week or two. The locking system is similar (ish) to the Bergmann 1910 and Type 94 Nambu – short recoil with a vertically-sliding locking block. Our conclusion, in a nutshell, is that it’s as good a striker-fired service pistol as anything else, with a few quirks. If it were a hundred or two hundred dollar less expensive, I think it would give everything else on the market a lot of strong competition.

          • I thought it was to expensive, mind you I’ve a notion all “plastic” framed guns are to expensive for the materials involved. I know it is a lighter material but you’d imagine it’s cheaper to produce a frame out of it, with it being mouldable or however they make it.

            I’d want a steel framed gun for that much personally out of principle, and it would want to be good steel and have a nice finish.

          • Polymer, yuk… Strong, light… But, if you grab a Gerry by his silly floppy fringe you’ll brain him far more effectively with a Hi-power than a Glock by a smashing it into his face.

          • Everything has come down to level of some “State trooper” in regards firearm design these days, when military use isn’t about “Pistol whipping some unfortunate peasant, ethnic or otherwise” it’s about Passchendaele etc, you put your hand through their head via your pistol and you do it again and again.

            Otherwise the kraut will have dominate the beach at Benidorm.

            Brains, open them up. Merry Christmas from General Melchett, Fröhliche Weihnachten is it merrrrr foreigner we invented time.

        • I just watched the 1910/21 Bergmann video again, and it is similar in function i.e. A falling block, but in a different layout to suit a slide operated pistol. It’s good how they’ve used the barrel tilting thing off say a Cz75 to actuate the block though, simple way to do it like.

        • How about Lahti for that matter? It also had such ‘portal’ (or inverted U-shaped) lock. Not to mention the Polish wz.57 Białostocki prototype, but that’s too obscure to delve into 🙂

  5. Since I learned about the Mars pistols, I have wondered if the fictional “Podbyrin 9.2mm” Soviet pistol in the Schwarzenegger movie “Red Heat” was inspired by the Mars. Apparently the pistol was designed to look like a P38 on steroids and it was actually based on the Desert Eagle in .357 Magnum, but still I wonder if the armorer Tim LaFrance, who built the pistol, had the Mars in mind.

    For pictures of the “Podbyrin 9.2mm”:

    • I had no idea that wasn’t a real pistol until well into the age of the internet, when I remembered it and looked. Prior to that, I went around with the notion Soviet Podbyrin 9.2mm was worlds most powerful handgun until I forgot about it almost entirely.

  6. Given a choice, I would take one of Krnka’s designs. The Mars rounds are overkill for one’s hands. As proposed earlier, this could have been a rifle instead. The charging stroke would have to change to pushing the round into the chamber (perhaps the Heath Robinson complications were to circumvent patent trolls round the corner) and the hammer would not have to act as the safety catch in a simpler arrangement. Or, had this been adapted into a machine gun, would it be a good coaxial “spotting rifle” for an interwar tank’s main gun due to the lack of dirt inside the turret space? The gunner wouldn’t have to put his face anywhere near the reciprocating bolt… though of course one would have to simplify the operating cycle anyway!

    So let’s suppose that a Mars pistol were next to a Desert Eagle, an Automag III, a Smith and Wesson 29, a Mauser M712, and a katana on a table in front of you while aboard a ship. Which would you grab if you were under attack by a bunch of pirates? For some odd reason I also left you a Breda 30 and a bunch of stick grenades.

    • I’d grab the M29 and the sword, but then I’m moderately well trained in the use of both. The sword is largely silent, and this is a place that it wouldn’t pay to advertise. Once the baby’s awake, the 712 would be useful, mainly on single-shot, just because I’d probably run out of targets before having to reload a 20-round magazine. By that time, I should be using the other guy’s weapons, anyway.

      Fun Fact; In a shipboard clearing scenario, most available shots will be head or leg shots. Because those are what people automatically put around a corner in a companionway first without really thinking about it.

      Rifle-length weapons like the Breda are a PITA in a situation like this. Getting in a tug-of-war over the weapon with a wannabee Long John Silver is contraindicated.

      The potato mashers are probably more of a hindrance than a help. Hollywood notwithstanding, that much HE going off inside a ship at sea can have a lot of very undesirable side-effects on the ship.

      Running the pirates off, or just offing them, counts for nothing if you sink the ship in the process. And I can think of a lot of ways to sink a ship with grenades without even trying, or intending, to do so.



    • I’d wield a stick grenade in each hand waving them over my head while shrieking wildly and bearing them down consecutively upon the heads of any assailant before me whilst nude, bar a laptop bag filled with a further bunch of potato mashers that swings around my midriff in an alarming manner. We’ll soon see who’s ireland this is! Dum, diddle, dee, dee, da, diddle, da, dee, dum, dum “River dance there”

    • The Mars cartridges are not powerful enough for tank spotting rifles, since they have to reach up to 3000 meters with a relatively flat trajectory…

      About the pirate scenario; are the pirates already on board the ship or just approaching? The Breda and hand grenades would be useful for fighting off the pirates before they get on board. For fighting them aboard I would probably take the Model 29, if it has a 4-6½” barrel and comes with speedloaders (I wouldn’t trust myself on loading single rounds under stress, though). Otherwise the Mauser, although the poor balance and awful grip really don’t appeal to me. The Desert Eagle is just too damn heavy and I have never even held an Automag, so I don’t know about that.


        It fires the .30 Carbine round, weighs about the same as the M29, has an 8-shot magazine, and would absolutely deafen and blind you in a companionway. And its grip is even less comfortable than the DE’s, if that’s even possible.

        It also has a goofy hammer-drop safety that absolutely scared the kumquats out of me the first time I tried it.

        If I wanted a pistol in .30 USC (Ghu only knows why) it would be a Ruger single-action revolver. Seriously.



      • Oops, I forgot to say that the tank in question would have been produced during the period between the world wars. In which case, the tank would not be required to shoot a moving target 3 km downrange. Let’s just assume that I’ve changed the pistol round to something more along the lines of a “proprietary HMG” round like 8 by 59 Breda. Would the system work then?

        Back to the pirates. Okay, lets assume that some of the pirates have gotten on board and there’s another pirate boat coming along side. I should let you know that I’ve for some odd reason forgotten to mention that I’ve left a few cased Steyr-Solothurn MP-34s and some Beretta MAB 38s in your cabin and plenty of 9mm Parabellum, along with a Sauer M30 Luftwaffe Drilling and a Burgess shotgun. Why I also left a Type 100 SMG and a Villar-Perosa under your bunk I will never know.

  7. Keep the cartridges and scrap the pistol? I don’t know. Since I was a kid, I always thought that the Mars would have been a cool backup for my 4 bore Westley Richards double elephant killer as I prowled the Serengeti back in the old days. I never have been able to get my hands on one, and its probably a good thing because I would be too tempted to shoot it and probably break it. As for big handguns, well, I hunt with a .460 Performance Center Smith and Wesson and have been known to pack a 6-inch .500 magnum when fishing in bear country, so recoil doesn’t bother me much. I also have a .50 Desert Eagle, but find it a bit awkward and prone to limp-wrist jams after a couple of magazines as the arms get worn out. My friend has a pair of original Pasadena .44 AutoMags and they aren’t bad shooters, but the overall quality and lack of ammunition is a problem. Like the Mars, they are worth more as collector’s items than as shooters. The real mistake in ordnance procurement came with the failure to adopt the M 1923 Thompson in .45 Remington Long (similar to the .45 Win Mag) which would have been an excellent combat weapon except that the Army didn’t want to add another cartridge to its inventory at the time, although they would wind up doing so with the .30 Carbine round. The Thompson 1923 would have been similar to a Mars Assault carbine, although arriving a bit late for WW1. This weapon would have bridged the gap between assault rifle and SMG, and been a likely asset to the US forces in WW2. Oh well, so it goes. BTW, eon, you need to get one of those .30 carbine Rugers. Fun…fun…fun…lots of noise and fire, but good shooters overall.

    • I sort of used to want a single-action in .32-20 WCF, but more and more I’m thinking that one in .327 Federal would be better overall than either it or the .30 USC. Ballistically very close to the .357 125-grain with a 100-grain bullet, less blast and flash than the .30 C, a bit more than the Winchester round, and reloading would be a bit simpler due to the straight case.

      Am I correct in assuming that a .327 can also take .32 H&R and/or .32 S&W/S&W Long as well? If so, that would be another point in its favor over the .32-20 or .30 USC.

      One big reason I’ve also wanted a Ruger Single-Six convertible in .357 with the spare 9 x 19mm cylinder is ammunition availability, even worldwide. When you factor in 9mm service loads from here, there and everywhere, in addition to .357 and .38 Special, there are probably a couple of hundred factory loads that will work in that revolver. Which means no matter where you are or what’s going on, you’re bound to find at least something it can use.

      Best of all, no bullet nose shape “feed” issues with the 9 x 19mm. And no qualms about +P+ loads, either.



      • I have a Blackhawk in .327 Federal and it is fantastic. Besides holding 8 shots it can fire five different cartridges. (.32 S&W, .32 S&WL, .32 ACP (which is semi-rimmed and will work in some revolvers), .32 H&R and, of course, .327.)

        All five cartridges are still manufactured and not difficult to work up your own loading for, though hand loading the .32 S&W is what my grandmother would call “Piddlin’ business…” (Tiny cartridge with less muzzle energy than a .22 WRM.)

        .327 Federal is in the same general power range as both the .30 Carbine and the .32-20. It is potent and with the right load in the right gun accurate out past 100 yards. The .32 H&R is milder, and probably shouldn’t be used beyond 50 yards, but some of the loads I have tried have been very accurate in that Blackhawk.

        I’d love to have a lever-action carbine in .327. Bonus points if it could also fire the .32 H&R.

  8. In the afore-mentioned pirate invasion scenario: my tool of choice would be my favorite 870 Rem. Pump with a 4X scope I mounted years ago and a barrel just 1/8” over the minimum limit. For ammo my old WWII M1 cartridge belt that has three segments of 5 pouches each holding 3 rounds per pouch worn as am over-the-shoulder bandoleer for a total of 45 rounds plus the five up the spout for a 50-shot total; a few slugs (can put them through the bottom of a beer can at 50 yards) and the rest 00-Buckshot. In close quarters it would make you deaf (except that it happened years ago sleeping between 105 Howitzers during fire missions) and the flash would be blinding. On the other end it would not matter … they would all be Seriously Dead. (The Redneck definition of “Seriously Dead” is that you are not only no longer dwell in the Land of the Living but that you suffered A LOT getting that way!) In a real-life rendition a friend was on a drill ship off the coast of Africa when they were boarded by a bunch of Islamic pirates. The crew made it to the “safe room,” broke out the M-16s (two with grenade launchers) and waited. The first three through the door after cutting it open with cutting torches got a full dose of American Justice. Then they got chased off the ship by the crew. Guards were posted and they went back to drilling. No more problems. Country Boys know how to take care of business in real life. No crew members were harmed in this event.

    • >In close quarters it would make you deaf (except that it happened years ago sleeping between 105 Howitzers during fire missions) and the flash would be blinding.

      That’s like the joke a friend made about how a .44 Magnum snubby is the perfect defensive weapon if you get mugged in a dark alley. You don’t have to hit; one shot, and the Bad Guy would be deaf, blind and on fire! 🙂

  9. Eon:

    The .327 does indeed take the shorter .32’s…and Lipsey’s does offer a Ruger Single Six therein.

  10. Not sure if anyone had mentioned this yet or asked about it, but there is a very early Mars Pistol (serial number 4) coming up for auction in the Rock Island April Premier auction. If you could get a chance to do a video on it, I’d love to see it, especially in contrast to the two later ones you’ve already presented. Thanks in advance!

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