Union/Reifgraber .32 S&W Autopistol at RIA

The Reifgraber, aka Union Automatic Pistol, is an interesting mechanical design from an inventor with an interesting personal background.

Joseph Joachim Reifgraber was born in Austria in 1856, and emigrated to the United States at some point before the mid 1880s. He was a machinist by trade, and was clearly a political activist as well, in the mid and late 1880s, he published a German-language anarchist newspaper in St Louis, entitled Die Parole. He also served as delegate to at least a couple trade unionist conventions around the same time.

However, his political activism seems to waned as time went by, and he began to take out patents on firearms development. He submitted both rifles and pistols to US military testing (not exactly the actions of a truly devoted anarchist…). His pistol design here is an unusual short recoil, locked breech action which was marketed by the Union Firearms Company of Toledo, Ohio. Interestingly, it was chambered for the rimmed .32 S&W revolver cartridge, and could be supplied with a second barrel for use with .32 ACP cartridges.


  1. Shown here example is described in US Patent 929491A, see here:
    Reifgraber has also other patents related to fire-arms:
    US1418021A “Automatic firearm”
    US729413A “Automatic firearm.”
    He also patented “Printing telegraphy” (US564101A)

    “for the rimmed .32 S&W revolver cartridge”
    Which if I am not mistaken was one of most popular 1890s-1900s pocket revolver cartridge in United States. It might be big selling point back then as a fire-arm without ammunition for it is useless.
    But what will happen if black-powder rounds will be fired? Wouldn’t powder residue clog the whole fire-arm?
    So far I know there were not mass-produced hand-held self-loading fire-arms designed for black-powder cartridges.

    • I suspect that the use of blackpowder ammunition might explain both the structure and the locking system.

      The boltway is open on both sides, much more so than most other automatics even today. This would allow residual gas pressure to blow powder residue outwards, rather than letting it settle in the mechanism.

      The use of nickel-steel alloy for its construction would ted to increase corrosion resistance, both from blackpowder and old-style mercuric (corrosive) priming.

      As for the locking system, black powder has very different burning characteristics than most smokeless powders. And back then, smokeless powders didn’t always have consistent burning characteristics, either.

      As such, a locked-breech or delayed-blowback system would be better able to handle variances in pressures, burning curves, etc. than a straight blowback. Mostly, it would avoid excessive bolt velocity which could cause failures to feed or even actual damage to the pistol.

      BTW, self-loading pistols chambered for .32 S&W, while not common, do exist. The Walther GSP/OSP self-loader, intended for Olympic rapid-fire competition, was made in .22 Short, .22 Long (match only), and for centerfire stages in .32 S&W using Mid-Range Wadcutter ammunition. SiG also made their 240 target auto in .32 S&W MRWC in addition to .38 Special MRWC.

      Also, quite a few types of .32 ACP autos will chamber and fire .32 S&W, if hand-fed into the chamber. The rounds will even work through a standard magazine if the rim diameter is reduced slightly and an extractor groove is impressed into the case (A pocketknife blade can do it). A “field expedient” like this figured in the Petrou murder case in England in 1935.



      • “BTW, self-loading pistols chambered for .32 S&W, while not common, do exist.”
        Some automatic pistol for rimmed (revolver) cartridges existed and exist like .357 Magnum Desert Eagle, however I almost sure that designing new ballistic-wise equal cartridge and automatic pistol for it is easier that messing up with weapon design for rimmed cartridge.

        • The Desert Eagle was designed to handle the .357, .41, and .44 Magnum revolver cartridges to avoid the downfall of the AutoMag; that being that it required proprietary cartridges specifically made for it. The same fate was to do in the Wildey automatics in .45 and 9mm Winchester Magnum, not to mention .475 Wildey.

          The demise of the 9mm WM round was a shame really, as it would have been a nearly-perfect police service round, delivering .357 Magnum ballistics in a round that would easily fit into the double-column magazines of typical modern service-type autopistols of 9mm P and .40 S&W size.

          While the DE’s magazine looks a little strange (rather like an oversized cross between a Colt .38 Super and a .22 RF one), it does feed very reliably. About the only drawback of the DE is that it’s big and heavy, much more so than even a large-frame revolver chambering the same ammunition. (I used to own one.)



          • “The demise of the 9mm WM round was a shame really, as it would have been a nearly-perfect police service round, delivering .357 Magnum ballistics in a round that would easily fit into the double-column magazines of typical modern service-type autopistols of 9mm P and .40 S&W size.”
            .357 SIG give similar performance to 9×23 Win and as a bottleneck cartridge it should work reliable independent from bullet shape. It is based on .40 S&W cartridge, so magazine capacity is equal to .40 S&W variant.

          • The 9mm Winchester Magnum would require a large pistol with either single-stack or double-stack magazines. The Wildey’s frame was originally designed to accept a 9mm Win Mag double-stack magazine. This is why the Wildey’s magazine well was fat enough to allow for the .475 Wildey Magnum, designed and introduced several years later.

      • Target pistols for 25m centerfire in .32 S&W long (Wadcutter only):

        Benelli MP 90
        Hämmerli 280
        Hämmerli SP 20
        Morini CM 32
        Pardini HP (also in .32 ACP for 50 yds)
        Walther GSP

  2. What an interesting and slightly familiar looking pistol. The original Colt Woodsman has a similar layout, which isn’t too surprising. One way of dealing with the feeding of rimmed cartridges is to drastically slant the magazine so the rims don’t over-lap. I think the recoil spring setup is like the Colt too.
    The locking mechanism is interesting too, sort of like a Lahti, but uses a pivoted bar instead of a vertically moving block.
    I had a chance to buy one of these about ten years ago at a local gun shop. The price was under $350 and it looked in pretty good shape, Don’t recall which .32 caliber it was in. I didn’t realize how few were made or the history of it, so I passed it up. my bad!

  3. Dumb question: how would this gun fare against the Langenhan or the Type 94 Nambu? Rimless cartridges generally are better for semi-automatic weapons.

    • “Rimless cartridges generally are better for semi-automatic weapons.”
      Not only semi-automatic but also bolt-action repeaters with staggered column magazine (like in Gewehr 98) – do you know any bolt-action repeaters for rimmed cartridge with staggered column magazine?
      Not only semi-automatic but also belt-fed medium machine gun, rim mean that you can not have push through mechanism, you have to use pull out – push through mechanism (like in SG-43 machine gun).

      In 1900s Remington and Winchester considering that it is better to introduce new rimless cartridges for their self-loading cartridge rather than trying adopting existing one (Remington Model 8 for .25 Remington Autoloading, .30 Remington Autoloading, .32 Remington Autolading, Winchester Model 1905, Model 1907 and Model 1910 for .32 Winchester Self-Loading, .35 Winchester Self-loading, .351 Winchester Self-loading, .401 Winchester Self-loading)

      Most fire-arms firing rimmed cartridge can be converted to fire rimless cartridges with good effect, however revolver will need use of half-moon clips (see S&W Model 1917), unless you want to remove empty cased one-by-one with pencil or something similar; So far I know ShKAS and ShVAK machine gun and ShVAK auto-cannon can’t be adopted to rimless cartridges.

      If I am not mistaken most used in our times rimmed cartridges are revolver cartridges (like .44 Magnum) or relic of old times (like 7.62x54R).
      In Europe popular cartridge often has their rimmed version, for use in break-action (Kipplauf) rifle use, I am not about US cartridge – do you have for example .308 rimmed cartridge?

      • is: “but also bolt-action”
        should be: “but also for bolt-action”

        is: “but also belt-fed”
        should be: “but also for belt-fed”

        is: “Winchester considering”
        should be: “Winchester considered”

        is: “for their self-loading cartridge”
        should be: “for their self-loading rifles”

        is: “am not about”
        should be: “am not sure about”

      • Good points about all of the limitations for rimmed ammunition. Only a few modern repeating weapons cannot be converted to feed rimless rounds, but usually they’re very special in their intended role. The ShKAS and ShVAK were for aircraft and thus their ammunition didn’t need to follow the usual logistics associated with infantry munitions procurement. Nobody’s made an aircraft machine gun chambered for 7.62×39, right?

        However infantry weapons must be user-friendly and generally jam resistant, so rimmed rounds are a no go unless used by snipers or machine gunners today.

        • “The ShKAS and ShVAK were for aircraft and thus their ammunition didn’t need to follow the usual logistics associated with infantry munitions procurement.”

          ShKAS was originally designed for standard 7.62x54R however it ended up using special variant of 7.62x54R (headstamped Ш) which differ slightly, see photos here: http://grigorew.narod.ru/raznoe/patr.htm
          3rd image: cartridge for ShKAS notice crimps
          5th image: comparison between cross-away ShKAS (left) and regular Mosin (right) cartridge: case walls are thicker, deep crimps, quality control is more strict
          6th image: difference between cartridge manufactured in Podolsk (1) and Tula (2)

      • “Not only semi-automatic but also bolt-action repeaters with staggered column magazine (like in Gewehr 98) – do you know any bolt-action repeaters for rimmed cartridge with staggered column magazine?”

        Enfield (Long Lee-Enfield, SMLE, etc.)(0.303in)

        Ross straight-pull (Canada) (0.303in)

        Krag-Jorgenson (8mm Danish Krag and .30-40)

        British Pattern 14 Enfield (Mauser-type) (0.303in)

        On the self-loading side, there are the Soviet Simonov and Tokarev infantry rifles, and the Dragunov SVD sniping rifle, in 7.62 x 54R.

        And as far as machine guns go, there’s the British Bren in 0.303in.

        A double-column magazine for rimmed rifle cartridges isn’t that hard to design. The only caveat is that the end-user has to remember that when loading the magazine, care has to be taken to ensure that the rounds’ rims don’t “overlap” the wrong way, with ones on top having heir rim behind the ones below them. The SMLE magazine does this more or less automatically by the way it’s shaped.



        • “there’s the British Bren in 0.303in.”
          How many work was need to convert 7.92 version to fire .303 cartridge?
          Soviet Air Force has Berezin machine gun firing 12.7×108 cartridge (like DShK).
          Berezin also developed auto-cannon firing 20x99R ShVAK cartridge, however notice how long time it took.
          11th June 1941 decision was made about “Testing 20mm aviation Berezin cannon”, however in reality it was tested in late 1943, officially entered service 11th October 1944

      • “Do you have for example .308 rimmed cartridge?”

        No, when the military went to rimless cartridges there was no rimed equivalents introduced to the civilian market, that went for the 30-06, the 308 (7.62 NATO) and the 223 (5.56 NATO). Break-open rifles (and rifle-shotgun combinations) have never been very popular in the US. Although they have a small market-share, inexpensive break-open rifles are still made today, and current-manufacture break-open rifles do eject rimless cartridges.

        I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there has been a cartridge of any popularity introduced after WWII (or maybe even WWI) in the US that was rimless except for cartridges intended for revolvers (in which case rims are obviously desirable). Revolvers have been made to work (empty shells kicked out upon hitting the ejector rod) with rimless cartridges (even without moon-clips), but, doing so is less desirable from a cost and complexity point of view.

        • The .307 Winchester is basically a rimmed .308;


          It’s popular in countries that prohibit civilian possession/use of military-caliber rifles such as .308 (7.62 x 51mm NATO). It is most often found in lever-action, tubular-magazine rifles, and as such is generally loaded with flat-nosed or semi-flat point bullets for safety reasons.

          Ballistically, it duplicates the older .300 Savage.



          • The .307 is a semi-rimed cartridge (going off the SAAMI drawing in a Speer handloading manual, as opposed to what Wikipedia states). Winchester introduced it when they rolled out an updated lever action rifle, it may have been to make a point that the new and improved Winchester 94 (the 94AE) could handle the equivalent of the new benchmark short-action cartridge. The 307 has a thicker case wall, which would make more sense for being fired in a lever gun. Modern lever guns can fire rimless rounds just fine (e.g., the Remington 35 lives on in Marlin lever guns), I would speculate that Winchester elected to make their gun design such that one would not try to adapt the rifle to .308 Winchester (and risk ruptured cases) and going with a larger rim would have helped in that effort.

            It appears that Winchester alone makes one load for 307 on a limited basis. Midway has none available right now and gives it a status of “limited production”. The cartridge is close to being an orphan from all appearances, in this country at least.

            Regarding the 22 Hornet, according to Ken Waters (Pet Loads) it was an adaptation of the 22 WCF, which dated from 1885. Handloaders had been experimenting with the 22 WCF and, like some wildcats, when a non-standard round becomes popular enough it may become factory standard.

        • “of any popularity introduced after WWII (or maybe even WWI) in the US”
          I am not sure about post-WW2 period but post-WW1 rimmed cartridge which get some popularity exist: 22 Hornet. If I am not mistaken it has some popularity in 1950s when USAF sold surplus M4 Survival Rifles which fire it.

          • You are correct that the 22 Hornet was introduced for sale between the wars, but it existed before that as a wild-cat cartridge and probably the rim had to do with what cases (maybe black powder cases) were used to form the brass by the hand loaders who developed it. One of the things it is known for is being less-loud than other cartridges capable of taking similar game. Not a bad choice for a survival rifle. It probably fit the requirements so why redesign it to be rimless?

            If M4’s were sold as surplus they may not have stayed on the market long, seeing as they had short barrels.

  4. Whats the point buying incomplete firearm??
    Magazine have no follower,no trigger,no grips and price is 2 grands,cmon peoples what is Rock Island thinking about????

    The design is truly amazing but incompleted pistol is a no go,they should make this available for 300-600 bucks instead…..

  5. As a boy I recall using .32 ACP cartridges in .32 S+W revolvers, the .32 ACP has just enough rim to work in a revolver cylinder.

    • Early Browing cartridges: .25 Auto, .32 Auto, 9x20mm*, .38 ACP (and therefore .38 Super which is exactly equal dimension-wise) are semi-rimmed that small rim is needed because these cartridges headspace on it, however later Browning cartridges: .380 Auto, .45 Auto are rimless.
      .38 Super headspace on the case mouth, in this case rim is atavism
      * – used in Sweden, see Husqvarna m/1907 pistol

    • The 9 x 19mm will chamber and fire in a .38 S&W cylinder as well, because the case mouth stops at the chamber’s diameter reduction just ahead of the S&W cartridge’s case mouth. This is true of Webley MK IV and S&W Model 10 “Victory MOdel” revolvers chambered for the British “.38/200” round (.38 S&W with 200-grain lead bullet, or wartime 78-grain FMJ).

      That said; DON’T DO IT.

      Here’s why;

      Chamber pressures (SAAMI) (PSI)

      .38 S&W; 14,500

      9 x 19mm std.; 35,000

      .32 S&W Long; 15,000

      .32 ACP; 20,500

      A .38 S&W revolver loaded with 9 x 19mm is basically a frag grenade ready to go off in your hand. A .32 S&W loaded with .32 ACP isn’t quite that bad, but I wouldn’t want to be the one pulling the trigger.

      BTW, the .38 Super Auto will also chamber and fire in the .38 S&W chamber. And at 36,500 PSI, the only things more likely to send you to the ER sans hand are a 9 x 19mm + P (38,500 PSI), or +P+ (42,000 PSI). The latter is dicey in some 9 x 19mm autopistols; putting it in a revolver chambered for .38 S&W is somewhere about the middle of “potential Darwin Award” territory.

      So, to reiterate, Don’t. Try. It.




      • “.38 S&W revolver loaded with 9 x 19mm is basically a frag grenade”
        Rimmed version of 9x19mm existed: it was called 9mm Federal:
        This ammo also can not be used in .38 S&W revolvers.

        “are a 9 x 19mm + P (38,500 PSI), or +P+ (42,000 PSI)”
        Or 9×23 Win dimension-wise equal to .38 Super but with bigger powder charge giving 55,000 PSI.

        “for .38 S&W is somewhere about the middle of “potential Darwin Award” territory.”
        Exceeding ultimate tensile strength of weapon are most often unintentional, however exist intentionally overcharged cartridges – used to sabotage enemy ammunition supply (see Project Eldest Son), but they are normally looking cartridge, I am not sure what was inside that cartridges (Nobel 808?) but it give much bigger pressure.

        • The only revolver I’m aware of that was made to chamber the 9mm Federal was the Charter Arms Pit Bull, made from 1989 to 1993. Both revolver and cartridge died from lack of interest.

          Barnes states that the 9mm Federal would chamber in most .38 S&W revolvers, and would probably be exceptionally dangerous in the older top-breaks such as the Iver Johnson or H&R models. Also, the .38 S&W would chamber and fire in the Pit Bull, and that wasn’t a good idea, either.

          The S&W 547 DA revolver, with its patented rimless extractor system, was probably the best solution to the problem of using 9 x 19mm in a modern revolver. Although the Ruger Single-Six Convertible (.357 Magnum/.38 Special with an interchangeable 9 x 19mm cylinder) was probably the simplest solution, as its rod-ejector system renders rims academic as long as the chambers are properly cut to headspace the rimless rounds.

          If I could find a 547 and/or Single-Six Convertible I could afford, I’d buy either one or both.



          • What I read (an article in Handloader magazine) was that Federal killed the cartridge once they realized that someone out there would try firing it in an old 38 S&W revolver and there could be liability problems. I once overheard someone in a gun shop asking the owner if a gunsmith could modify his old break-top 38 S&W revolver to fire 357 Mag, so yes, someone out there would try it.

            Ruger makes a 9mm revolver these days, but it uses moon clips.

            If I recall correctly, the S&W 547 was made for the French government back in the 1980’s, wonder what the French did with them when they switched to auto loaders?

  6. It has to be better than the Union Automatic Revolver. I have one and it’s horrible. Interesting to note both pistols were copied in Spain, to similar failure. Ironically they failed in the darkest days of WW1 when virtually everything that worked was sold. Herr Reifgrabber may have had great ideas but he failed miserably in execution.

  7. Had to look this up; it was an anarchist who shot President McKinley in 1901 with a .32 caliber, but it was an Iver Johnson revolver, not an autopistol like this Reifgraber.

    • Some sources (notably the amazingly inaccurate Antique Guns by Hank Wieand Bowman, Arco 1953) state that Czolgosz and Guiteau (Garfield’s murderer) both used Derringers. In fact, as you state, Czolgosz used a .32 IJ revolver, and Guiteau used a Belgian-made Webley “British Bull Dog” copy in .44 S&W.



  8. Re Rimmed cases feeding from box mags.
    Mosin Nagant, with a device in the magazine to ensure that only one round at a time can be fed. With a bit of careful experimentation it could probably be made to cure rim lock as well.

    The Druganov and various 7.62 Soviet and Russian box mag machineguns suggest that the mag cut off was not considered worth while for that purpose.

    • The Type 97 Sniper Rifle doesn’t appear to have a magazine cut-off. Maybe the Japanese simply ordered their soldiers to conserve ammo when possible, given the constantly strained material budget.

  9. So Reifgraber, rather than Tokarev or Petter, was first with the detachable complete hammer/spring unit.

    And Guiteau’s gun was a Belgian fake Webley.

  10. I guess he really was a serious anarchist — his magazine “Die Parole” translates as “The Password” or “Pass-phrase,” with underground or espionage tradecraft connotations.

    You know:
    Passphrase: “Are you Dave from Springfield?”
    Countersign: “No, Dave couldn’t come, he’s training for the Olympics.” (It has to be something an innocent party would not answer by accident).

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