Those Confusing .455s

by Chris Punnett

I was persuaded to write this short article by a number of people who thought I collected .455s or who got the .455 mixed up with the .450 (which I do collect).


When it comes to .455s, confusion is quite understandable, if not inevitable. Not only was the .455 made in a couple of different case lengths, but some .455 cartridges were made with a bullet diameter of .476 and some .476 caliber cartridges were headstamped .455. In addition, there are .455 cartridges headstamped .450 and at one time the British Government approved the .450 for use in .455 revolvers. Throw in the .455 Webley Automatic and you have a recipe that only a deranged mind could attempt to unravel (and here’s where I come in).


Once upon a time (actually in the late 1860s), in a country called England, the government of the day faced a dilemma. Here they were stuck with a whole bunch of percussion pistols while the rest of the world had discovered self-contained ammunition. Many of these were the Adams revolver in 54 bore and the decision was made to convert these Adams "Cap and Ball" revolvers to fire a metallic self-contained cartridge. As a 54-bore pistol is essentially .450 caliber, the cartridge designed to be used in converted revolvers was the .450 Boxer which became the .450 Adams Mk 1. This cartridge had the dubious distinction of being recognized as underpowered and ineffective before it was approved in late 1868. It used a drawn brass case riveted to a separate disk of iron (Mark I) or brass (Mark II), and a 225-grain lead bullet. There was a Mark III Adams cartridge that used a 1-piece, drawn brass case, and a 225-grain round-nose lead bullet held by a deep cannelure, that was approved in 1909. However, in terms of the evolution of the .455 it is only the first two marks of .450 Adams that really have any bearing.

Fig. 1 .450 Adams Mk 1 (separate iron base disk) introduced 1868, Mk 2 (separate brass base disk) introduced 1877, Mk 3 (solid drawn case) introduced in 1909.

The British Colonial conflicts such as the Afghan and Zulu Wars confirmed the Adams gun/cartridge’s lack of effectiveness where it served more to annoy the natives than to dispatch them. So in the late 1870s, the British Government developed a replacement revolver at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF), Enfield. This appeared in 1879 in .455 caliber. Though there were some experimental .455 cartridges at the time, the tests were ongoing. So, in fact, the .455 Enfield Revolver was accepted before suitable ammunition was available. In the interim, the official response was to use the .450 Adams ammunition in the .455 Enfield Revolver.

I will not dwell on the experimental .455 cartridges of the day since, to my knowledge, no specimens have actually turned up and they are covered extensively in British Small Arms Ammunition, 1864-1938 by Peter Labbett.

The first cartridge for the Enfield revolver that was approved for service was the Mark 1 in 1880. We know this had a bullet diameter of .476 that weighed 265 grains and had a case length of 0.855 ins but other details are not available since these cartridges haven’t shown up either. Later that same year, 1880, a new cartridge was approved which used the same case length, but with a 265 grain bullet of .455 diameter. This was the Enfield Mark II cartridge. In 1881, a third design of cartridge for the Enfield revolver was approved and, you guessed it, it was called the Mark III. This still used the same case but the bullet reverted to the .476 caliber of the Mark I with the same weight, 265 grains. The bullet appearance was different too, as the Mark II had a bullet where the exposed portion was smooth and the Mark III had one with a wide exposed grease groove (Fig. 2). In those days the caliber was not normally mentioned in the title of a cartridge but collectors often refer to this whole series as the .476 caliber ammunition – even though, strictly speaking, one of them had a .455 diameter bullet.

Fig. 2 Enfield cartridges. Left: Mark II-type; center and right: Mark III with bulbous bullet and exposed grease-groove. The one on the left is headstamped ELEY’S .455 though the bullet is .476

All had not gone smoothly for the Enfield revolver either. Since its design was a hodge-podge of various features there were claims of pattern infringement and demands for royalty fees. On top of this there were further field reports that the Enfield revolver was, to put it bluntly, a great paperweight, but didn’t really cut it as a sidearm. In 1887, after due consideration, the Webley Mark I revolver in .455 caliber was introduced into service. This is where the first real confusion starts to appear as there were 6 Marks/Models of Webley pistol approved for service and 6 Marks of .455 ammunition. There is no correlation between the Mark number of the Webley revolver and the Mark number of the ammunition (see chart below).

Chronology: Revolvers vs Cartridges

Revolvers Cartridges
Webley Mark I 1889* .455 Webley Mark I 1891 (Cordite 1894)
Webley Mark II 1894 .455 Webley Mark II 1897 (reintroduced 1900)
Webley Mark III 1897 .455 Webley Mark III 1898
Webley Mark IV 1899 .455 Webley Mark IV 1912
Webley Mark V 1913 .455 Webley Mark V 1914
Webley Mark VI 1915 .455 Webley Mark VI 1939

(Dates from British List of Changes)
* This is the approval date, but P.Labbett in British Small Arms Ammunition 1864-1938 indicates a provisional approval and ordered date of 1887

The .455 rimmed cartridges intended for the Webley service revolvers are the ones that the average cartridge collector is most likely to encounter.

The Mark I cartridge introduced in 1891 for the Webley revolver retained the .855 ins case of the Enfield .476 series and had a conical lead bullet of 265 grains. Officially, the round was also intended for the Enfield Revolver as the title was "Cartridge SA Ball, Pistol, Webley Mark I (Also Enfield)"! Those of you who have been paying attention will notice the gap between the appearance of the .455 Webley revolver (1887) and the appearance of the first official .455 Webley cartridge (1891). Since the old Enfield Mark III (.476) cartridge wouldn’t chamber in Webley revolvers, they must have used the even older .450 Adams cartridges or not actually issued the .455 Webley revolver until ammo was available - who knows?

Fig. 3. .455 Mark I cartridge blackpowder (left, by Kynoch) and cordite loaded.

Up until this point, the cartridges used in the various Enfield and Webley revolvers had used blackpowder as the propellant. Some Webley Mark I .455 cartridges were loaded with cordite and these have a crimping cannelure on the case that corresponds with one of the grooves on the bullet (Fig. 3).

With the switch to smokeless powder (i.e.: cordite), subsequent marks of .455 ammunition used a shorter case.

The Mark II .455 cartridge came out in 1897 with a case length of .760 ins, a 265 grain conical lead bullet and was powered by cordite.

Fig. 4. .455 Mark II cartridge, Royal Laboratory

It was about this time that the British Government became fixated with "stopping power" (remember the .303 Mk III - "Dum Dum" was approved for service in 1897 and it wasn’t until the 1899 Hague Convention that such ammunition was considered, well, unsporting.) This trend extended to the .455 revolver ammunition and, as a result, the Mark III .455 cartridge appeared in 1898. This has the same .760 ins case but the bullet had a deep nose cavity which reduced its weight to around 220 grains – referred to as the "Manstopper" bullet. Cordite was again the propellant of choice. Some Mark III cases were later loaded with Mark II (conical lead) bullets.

Fig. 5. .455 Mark III cartridge, Eley manufacture

Obviously production of the Mark III was overtaken by international events and sentiments. It was removed from service in 1900 and the Mark II cartridge was re-instated as a stop-gap measure. Some lengthy experimentation then took place to come up with a more effective bullet and it wasn’t until 12 years later (1912) that the .455 Mark IV cartridge emerged. This used the same case as the previous marks, with a cordite charge and the bullet was 220 grains but with a completely flat nose – basically a full wadcutter in today’s terms. At this point it should be noted that the collector may encounter .455 cartridges which have a bullet nose that is slightly rounded rather than completely flat. These are not Mark IV rounds but commercial target rounds sometimes loaded on surplus military cases.

Fig. 6. .455 Mark IV cartridge, Eley manufacture

The same fear that had resulted in the Mark III "Manstopper" being removed from service resurfaced with the "wadcutter" Mark IV. As a result, the Mark II, reintroduced when the Mark III was withdrawn, remained the service cartridge until the introduction of the Mark VI (see below).

Despite concerns about the Mark IV, a Mark V .455 cartridge was introduced in 1914. This had the exact same bullet profile as the Mark IV but used a harder lead alloy. It was otherwise identical in construction to the Mark IV and the general consensus amongst military experts is that it was used solely for target practice. It was a very short-lived cartridge and remains quite rare. While headstamps indicating a Mark V case are not uncommon, these are normally found loaded with Mark II bullets.

Fig. 7. .455 Mark V headstamp, Royal Laboratory

While the British Government introduced the .380 service revolver and cartridge in 1930, the .455 Webley revolvers were still out there and needed ammunition. The use of solid lead bullets was becoming socially unacceptable (I almost said "politically incorrect" but that phrase hadn’t been invented yet) so the last mark of .455 ammunition, the Mark VI, appeared in 1939. Again it used the same case as Marks II through V, a jacketed bullet of 265 grain and either cordite or nitro-cellulose propellant. Headstamps on British-made Mark VI cartridge may have a "z" which indicates nitrocellulose rather than cordite as the propellant.

Fig. 8 .455 Mark VI cartridge by Kynoch

In England, the .455 revolver military cartridges were made at the Royal Laboratory - Woolwich Arsenal, Birmingham Small Arms & Metal Company, Eley Brothers, Kynoch Limited, and Grenfell & Accles. In addition, the military cartridges were made in a number of countries – notably those that were part of the British Empire at the time.

In Australia, the Mark II .455 cartridge was loaded at Small Arms Ammunition Factory (SAAF) Footscay, and the Mark VI was loaded at SAAF Rocklea. In Canada, Dominion Arsenals loaded the Mark II and Dominion Cartridge Company (C-I-L) loaded the Mark VI. There was also a special loading of the Mark I for the North West Mounted Police by the Dominion Cartridge Company with a headstamp of D.C.Co 45 ENFIELD. India was one of the few places that loaded the Mark I .455 at both Kirkee and Dum Dum Arsenals. These arsenals also loaded the Mark II and IV.


Fig. 9. British Colonial Military headstamps:
(a) Dum Dum Factory, India. (b) Kirkee Factory, India. (c) SAAF, Footscray, Australia. (d) Government Ammunition Factory No. 5, Rocklea, Australia. (e) Dominion Arsenal, Canada. (f) Dominion Cartridge Company, Canada

 

In addition to the military production of the .455 cartridges, many ammunition manufacturers around the world made the .455 cartridge to be fired in commercially available or military surplus revolvers in that caliber. There is not room here to catalog these variations. Suffice to say that the cartridge was made commercially in Argentina (long case version), Canada (short and long case), France (short case), Germany (short case), Italy (short case), Philippines (short case), United Kingdom (short and long case), USA (short and long case versions), and probably others.

In the USA, the .455 was made by Winchester, UMC and Remington for commercial use. Recently, Hornady have added the .455 (short case) to their product line. While UMC and Remington only made the short case version, Winchester made the .455 in both lengths and one of these is the source of some confusion. It is a short-case version headstamped W.R.A.Co. .450 COLT. According to Dan Shuey in his WRACo Headstamped Cartridges and their Variations, only one lot was loaded for the 1914 Bisley match.

Fig. 10. .450 Colt headstamp on .455 Cartridge.

I mentioned the .455 Auto above and should describe the cartridge briefly to ensure no one has an excuse for confusing it with the .455 Revolver cartridges.

The .455 Webley & Scott Auto is a semi-rimmed cartridge initially intended for the Webley & Scott Self Loading Pistol Mark I. The cartridge first appeared in 1904 with a 0.885 ins case and very thin rim. A second version, thought to be from around 1910, has the same thin rim but the case is about .927 ins long. This was the later production case length. The official production round, the Mark I was approved in 1913 and was produced up to the middle of World War Two. It had what we would consider a normal rim thickness. All versions were semi-rimmed and, except for the 1904 version, all had the typical jacketed blunt projectile.

Fig. 11. .455 Automatic Cartridges - Left to right: 1904, "1910", and true production Mark I.

The intent of the article has been to clarify the relationship between the various .455 caliber cartridges of the period. It was not my intention to cover all variations of the .455 as such a work would take many pages and, more importantly, I’m not qualified to do so. For further reading, I recommend the titles in the bibliography below.

If this brief article has aroused an interest for the .455 cartridge in you, I firstly apologize but offer the following pictures for your further entertainment while you seek professional help.


Fig. 12. Some pretty variations: 
(a) Dummy by Remington-UMC. (b) Drill round by Royal Laboratory. (c) Dummy round from Kynoch. (d) Blank from Dominion Arsenal, Canada. (e) Shot load on a Winchester case with wood sabot. (f) Shot load on a case headstamped K II. (g) Shot load from Kynoch. (h) Snap cap by A.G. Parker.

Fig. 13. Boxes – commercial from Eley (courtesy Jim Buchanan) and typical Canadian military string-wrapped packet of Mark II made in 1922.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that I do not collect .455 cartridges but I do collect the .450 cartridge – you know, the pathetic little Adams cartridge that nobody liked but was used as a stop-gap measure again and again, and was manufactured around the world as the .450 Revolver Short for 80+ years – yes, that one!


Bibliography

Harris, L. H. 1987. Notes on the .455 Webley Revolver Cartridges. Wellington, N.Z.: Lynn H. Harris

Labbett, P. 1993. British Small Arms Ammunition, 1864-1938. London: P. Labbett.

Shuey, Daniel L.. 1999. WRACo Headstamped Cartridges and Their Variations, Vol. 1 (1999). Vol. 2 (2003). WCF Publications

IAA Journal - various issues