Webley serial numbers can be puzzling, as models that appear identical may bear numbers many thousands apart. The following conclusions are based upon details of 1300+ The British Bull Dog examples; 1000+ from Army & Navy CSL records and the rest from museum and private collections, catalogs and sales lists, and gun shows:
Webley BBD's with three and four digit serial numbers are obviously not the earliest produced: Examination of examples from all number ranges indicates blocks of numbers were at first used, rather than one unbroken sequence: The oldest pieces occupied a 20000-25000's serial number block, followed by 50000-55000's, with dated examples indicating ca. 1872-1876 and 1877-1880 periods respectively. Then about 1881, smaller numbers became prominent, which dominated but were not limited to the first Army & Navy CSL ledgers: From late 1881 to early 1884, two concurrent series are evident, one ranging 600 to 1600's, the other 4000 to 4600's. In mid-1884, numbers in the 60000's first appear and continue from that point, reaching 100000's by end of sales in 1914.[a]
This chronology is supported by the following marking and design changes:
(1) Earliest 20000's are marked "Webley's Patent" on left frame, with caliber marked on the barrel, engraved St. James's London address, and diamond-shaped grip escutcheons. Examples observed under 20600 also have early ratchet style cylinder stops. Then between #22274 and #22293, the frame marking was changed to "Webley's No. 2" and caliber, with stamped London & Birmingham barrel address. [b]
(2) Numbers 20465 and 20503, the earliest numbers yet noted, have London proofs, but 20682 and higher have Birmingham proofs.
(3) Number 20682 and lower have barrels threaded to frame, but 20845 through lowest 60000's have barrels forged in one piece with frame.
(4) Numbers to at least 21356 have either a spur or hump in upper backstrap, and small trigger guards. The lower front of frame is curved inward on earliest guns, but by 20972 had been squared. By 21549 a 1/8" longer trigger guard and smooth curved backstrap had become standard, and is the type shown in the 1874 article cited in [a] below.
(5) The 20000's and lower 50000's have cylinder axis pins slotted full length with an internal spring that bears upon the ejector rod but axis pins with partial slot and external spring bearing upon the cylinder bore are found on higher 50000's, the 600-4600's, and 60000-on.
ANCSL invoices for November-December 1881 list 30 BBD's; 14 with 600's numbers and 16 with 4000's numbers. This suggests multiple outsources during retooling for the new hinged-frame models, and Webley's THE BRITISH BULL DOG and winged bullet trademarks were registered May 23, 1881 with the Union des Fabricants d'Armes de Liege in Belgium. Most examples from these serial number blocks have the early short grip style, but some have long grips like those found on later, fluted cylinder models. These variances continued into earliest 60000s serials, some of which have the Webley winged bullet trademark but lack the No. 2 and caliber markings. All noted retained old style plain cylinders. Perhaps at this point they were testing customer reaction before making a longer grip standard. [c]
Webley introduced a new model early in the 60000's sequence, with longer grip, fluted cylinder, and barrels threaded to frame instead of forged as an integral part. This also eliminated the reverse barrel taper of most earlier models.
Note: Smaller scaled versions were introduced late 1870s in calibers .320 and .380 which shared above serial number ranges but were not marked The British Bull Dog. Later examples of these also have fluted cylinders and longer grips, but retain the early cylinder axis pin design, and integral barrels.
Birmingham proofed examples with Continental type lockwork and frame style are also found in USA, with standard The British Bull Dog and P. Webley & Son markings, but no serial numbers or Webley trademarks. Examination with comparison microscope indicates the Webley markings are authentic, and these were apparently retailed to compete with the cheaper Belgian examples flooding the export market.[d]
[a] Some sources have listed 1878 as first year of manufacture, but an 1874 article discussed and illustrated the BBD, stating it was "constructed about two years ago" and "has found a great demand in all export markets." (British trade journal IRON, November 7, 1874, page 585)
[b] Probable reason for addition of the No. 2 designation was introduction of The Pug, a short-lived model marked No. 1. It was likely intended as a cheaper option, with simpler lockwork and a removeable ejector rod in butt, and occupied serial number block 26000-29000's.
[c] Two examples with 23000's serials have been observed that Webley updated to later style by cutting off and brazing extensions onto the lower grip frames, with longer mainsprings. One also has the later style fluted cylinder, and is from a group marked for "extra 5% discount" in ANCSL's first ledger.
[d] The 1880 catalog of Homer Fisher, New York, listed Webley's "45 Cal. The British Bull Dog old model" at $13.50, "44 Cal. The British Bull Dog new model" at $9.50, and "Imitations of Webley's Bull Dog" at $7.50. The "new model" and "imitations" were likely identical except for finishing and added Webley address. (99% of U.S. retailed Webley No. 2 BBD's are 45s with early serial numbers, whereas 99% of subsequent Belgian and U.S. copies are 44s, perhaps due to popularity of 44 caliber Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Winchester arms.)
Copies of Webley Bull Dog Webley No. 1 "The Pug"
Warning to Shooters
Book: Webley Solid Frame Revolvers Nos. 1, 1-1/2, 2, Bull Dogs, and Pugs