At the turn of the century, designers were trying very hard to come up with ways to increase the rate of fire for small arms, this coupled with the ongoing industrial revolution helped to ensure a wide variety of designs. Some worked and some well... not so much. The Webley-Fosbery actually worked pretty well, but it was eventually simply outclassed by magazine fed semiautomatics.
The first patent for the gun that became known as the Webley-Fosbery was issued in 1895. . The weapon's designer, Lieutenant Colonel George Vincent Fosbery, VC, brought his prototype (which was built on a Colt Single Action Army) to Birmingham and presented it to the firm of P. Webley & Son. As the weapon is pretty clever and was clearly an improvement on the most common handgun of the time, the single action revolver, Webley bought the patent and applied its ideas to their own Webley Break Top Revolver, which at the time was the main sidearm of the British Army and had been pretty successful in the Boer War. Improvements were made for several years and it was finalized for production. By this time, Webley had merged with W.C. Scott & Sons and Richard Ellis & Son in 1897 to form the Webley & Scott Revolver and Arms Co., was became the primary manufacturer of service pistols for the British Army as well as being popular in the civilian market. The refined pistol was introduced in 1900 at the Bisley matches.
The new Webley was chambered in the standard .455 British cartridge, seen above. The cartridge is rather unimpressive by modern standards, firing a heavy 265 grain round nosed soft lead bullet at a rather slow 650 FPS. The original versions were a six shot cylinder, although later versions chambered in .38ACP were eight shot.
The main design feature is recoil operation. The barrel and cylinder are in one section and the lock and hammer in another behind it. These are both mounted in a set of grooves on the frame. Loading the Webley-Fosbery is pretty much the same as other contemporary Webley revolvers or any other break-action for that matter. A lever on the upper receiver is pressed and the barrel and cylinder are released to fall open downwards ("breaks"). At the end of the motion, a star shaped extractor pushes up, simultaneously ejecting the shells from the cylinder chambers.
Once loaded the Webley-Fosbery is cocked by pressing the entire action-cylinder-barrel assembly as far back as it will go. What this does, whether it is done by hand or by the recoil action from firing, is to engage a pivoting lever that cocks the hammer back. At the same time a small stud on the upper portion of the frame rides in the characteristic zig-zag grooves on the cylinder, moving the cylinder into line with the help of an internal spring. Unlike single action or modern SA/DA revolvers, neither cocking the hammer manually or pulling the trigger rotates the gun's cylinder. It must be pulled to the rear to be made ready to fire.
Unlike the weapons that preceded it, the Webley-Fosbery was intended to be carried at full cock, ready to fire. As a result a manual safety catch was added to make the gun safe to carry in this fashion. It is on the left side of the frame at the top of the grip. It can only be set to "safe"when the pistol is cocked, and it is operated by pressing it down from the horizontal position. It functions by disconnecting the hammer from the sear.
Probably no more than 5000 Webley-Fosbery Self-Cocking Automatic Revolvers were ever made, on a fairly short production run from 1901 to 1915.
There is something about the Webley Fosbery that I really like from a design and aesthetics point of view. It has a very nice steampunk look to it. The Webley-Fosbery has gained some fame though, being used in the amazingly horrible Sean Connery epic-sci-fi awful-fest Zardoz (don't even attempt to watch this movie) and a very similar looking weapon appears in the absolutely amazing Xbox 360 game, Bioshock. (It is wicked good, check it out) It is also mentioned in the seminal noir film and book, The Maltese Falcon. (although Bogie gets it wrong and calls it an eight shot .45 automatic)