Whitney “Beals Patent” Pocket Revolver - First Model
by Ed Buffaloe
This seven-shot pocket revolver was manufactured under Fordyce Beals’ patent number 11,715 of 26 September 1854. Many such guns saw use during the American Civil War. The design is
known as the “walking beam.” The cylinder is rotated by pushing the ring trigger forward and pulling it back, at which
point it contacts the sear and releases the previously cocked hammer. The walking beam engages a cut on the front of
the cylinder, then on the rear. The gun looks distinctly different from most other revolvers because of the cover over the left side of the cylinder, which supports the walking beam mechanism.
photographs by Ed Buffaloe and Jim Stoddard
The Beals Patent revolvers were successful by comparison with Whitney’s previous efforts at pistol making, selling a total
of about 3200 through the end of the Civil War. The Whitney Navy revolver of 1857 (also strongly influenced by Beals,
who would later design revolvers for Remington) was more successful by an order of magnitude, selling approximately 33,000.
The Whitney Beals was offered in .28 and .31 caliber with six- or seven-shot cylinders. The revolver shown here has
been modified to accept cartridges. It is not known whether this modification was performed by Eli Whitney, Jr. or someone else, but Whitney did not retire until 1888 so he could well have done the work.
While researching information on the Whitney Beals revolvers I came across an article on the Eli Whitney Museum’s
website regarding some archeological work done on the site of the original Whitney Armory. From it I learned that the
frames for the Whitney Beals and Whitney Navy revolvers were cast from iron rather than forged from steel. This had
been unknown prior to the archeological research at the Armory--they found crucible fragments all out of proportion to
the known amount of brass used by the Whitney Armory, and eventually discovered they were used to cast iron rather than brass. All other parts (with the exception of butt plates) were made of forged steel.
A person who is more knowledgeable than the author about metallurgy has suggested that what Whitney used was what
is known as malleable iron. After being cast the iron is heat treated, which apparently changes the crystalline structure of the iron and allows it to be bent, stamped, or cold formed without breaking.
Few people today realize how important both of the Eli Whitneys (Senior and Junior) and Sam Colt were in the development of precision manufacture. Eli Whitney Senior and his partner
Simeon North had proven the viability of the concept of interchangeable parts in the manufacture of muskets, achieving complete mechanization of the process by about 1830-1835.
Eli Whitney Junior “introduced improvements in barrel drilling and was the first to use steel for gun barrels.”1 Samuel Colt learned the
techniques of precision manufacture and parts interchangeability from Eli Whitney Junior when he contracted with Whitney’s firm to manufacture the Old Model Army pistols in 1847.
“...Colt had the first of the large government orders made at the Whitney Armory in New Haven, where he followed minutely every detail of their manufacture. ... After the
failure of his first venture at Paterson, Colt had seen the advantage of interchangeable manufacture at the Whitney shop, and determined to carry it even further in his new plant. So
thoroughly was this done that the methods crystallized there, and many of the tools installed have undergone little change to this day. Machine work almost wholly superseded hand
work. Modern machines were developed, and interchangeability and standards of accuracy given an entirely new meaning.”2
Knowledge of the techniques used by Colt were spread through the many able people who worked for him, including Elisha K. Root, F.A. Pratt, Amos Whitney, A.F. Cushman, Charles E. Billings,
C.M. Spencer, George A. Fairfield, William Mason, and William Gleason, among others, and the technology spread quickly into the manufacture of sewing machines, typewriters, bicycles,
automobiles, and machine tools, for which the U.S. was justly famous well into the 20th Century.
- English and American Tool Builders, by Joseph Wickham Roe, Yale University Press, New Haven: 1916. P. 160.
- Ibid. Pp.167-168.