Friday, February 21, 2020

American Firearms -- Merwin, Hulbert, and Co. Firearms

David Bergmann wearing his Merwin & Hulbert pistol
attending the John Coffee Hays Club Annual Fundraiser
February 8, 2020

Photograph by Troy Ellis
As some of you who read my blog on a regular basis already know, I was invited to speak at a fundraising event for the John Coffee Hays Club back on February 8th. In the audience was a man dressed in what I thought was a period correct outfit for the late 1880s to 1890s. He really looked like he could have come out of a photograph of the times. Included on his side was a holstered pistol. During my talk, because of my interest in period firearms and recognizing that the cowboy in attendance looked as authentic as could be, I pointed him out and asked what he had on his hip.

I asked if it was a "Smith & Wesson, an Iver Johnson, a Merwin-Hulbert?" He nodded and acknowledged that it was a Merwin-Hulbert pistol. If it seems strange that I would take the time to ask someone in the audience such a question, I did because he looked the part and it's not everyday that I see a Merwin-Hulbert pistol. Merwin-Hulbert revolvers are rare finds. And since I love old firearms, it was great to see one there.


For you who are unacquainted with Merwin, Hulbert, and Co., or simply Merwin-Hulbert, they were an American firearms marketer that was based out of New York City. The company actually produced revolvers and rifles through a subsidiary company, Hopkins & Allen of Norwich, Connecticut, starting in 1876. Merwin Hulbert designs influenced other gunmakers including Harrington & Richardson and Iver Johnson which were two very popular firearms companies in their day.

Joseph Merwin became involved in firearms sort of the same way that Oliver Winchester did. While both Merwin and Winchester were not gunsmiths like say that of Sam Colt or Daniel B. Wesson and Horace Smith, both Merwin and Winchester were businessmen involved in marketing and the manufacturing of firearms. In the case of Joseph Merwin, his first attempt at marketing and manufacturing revolvers took place before the Civil War when he started a gun company known as Merwin & Bray.

While his first attempt actually folded eighteen years later in 1874, by 1876 he formed a partnership with William and Milan Hulbert. The Hulbert brothers owned 50% interest in the Hopkins & Allen gun company. The new company Merwin, Hulbert, and Co. not only designed firearms, but was a huge importer of firearms. And while that doesn't sound unusual, even for the times, there's more to them. Besides selling firearms, they were a huge retailer in sporting goods. All sorts of sporting goods. That was new. 

It's said they sold a complete line of firearms related goods such as loading tools, gun stocks, sights, and hunting gear including decoys, calls, and outdoor clothing. They did so through Merwin-Hulbert's 150 page sporting goods catalog that was completely illustrated. In it, one could find anything one needed in the way of sporting goods. No, it was not only guns. Through their catalog, besides a number of guns and accessories, anyone was able to order gear for fishing, tennis, boating, bicycling, gymnastics, fencing, boxing, baseball, and much more.

The first Montgomery Ward catalog was produced in 1872. Sears started his catalog sales in 1888. And while many businesses were already publishing mail order catalogs for business, Montgomery Ward is seen as the first to produce a mail order catalog for the general public. Knowing this, just image that the Merwin-Hulbert catalog was considered the most all encompassing sports catalog of its day. Part of the reason why that was the case has to do with their also being sales agents for other firearms companies such as Colt, Remington, Winchester, Ithaca, Marlin, Ballard, and others including some British gunmakers. Merwin-Hulbert did so while representing their own firms. And frankly, that made them ahead of their time.

Merwin-Hulbert manufactured both single-action and double-action revolvers, full size and pocket pistols. Their Frontier Model was created to compete with Colt's Model 1873 Single-Action Army, Remington's Model 1875, and Smith & Wesson's Model 3 as a big bore, large frame, six-shooter. Starting in 1876, the Merwin-Hulbert Frontier was produced in four variations in a nickel finish.

Their Pocket Model was designed for the urban gun owner. While people today have this idea that everyone wore holsters, that's just not true. While folks in the East started sticking their pocket pistols in their overcoat pockets first, out West on the frontier things weren't much different. It was usually the case for someone to carry a pistol in a coat pocket than a holster -- especially while in town, and especially after more and more towns started enacting no carry laws.

Merwin-Hulbert pistols were different than other pistols of the time for a few reasons, but they really were very fine guns. As for innovations, the company was known to have made some of the more innovative designs during that period. As I said before, they were very different than other firearms at the time. For example, they designed folding hammers for their pocket carry revolvers. While there were top breaks and side-loading gates, Merwin-Hulbert came up with a rotating barrel design which allowed the user to rotate the barrel 90 degrees in order to pull the barrel and cylinder forward to remove the fired cartridge cases.


During the twisting motion, the empty cases were extracted while unspent rounds were held in place. It's true, any intact cartridge would remain in the chamber due to the additional length of the bullet. In addition to this unique case extraction system, pressing an additional lever control when the frame was "open" for extraction allowed the owner to completely remove the barrel.

This not only assisted the owner with cleaning their pistols, but it allowed the owner to swap out barrels. Swapping out barrels meant that an owner could use a short barrel for concealed carry and use a longer barrel as a field gun when hunting. The combination of extraction and barrel removal required very precise manufacturing tolerances.


Also, Merwin-Hulbert developed a nickel plating process that many believe was superior to any of their competitors. And strangely, their  nickel plating process was said to less expensive than a bluing process. Because the  nickel plating process acted to protect the metal surfaces of their guns from wear and corrosion, they looked great and were the same price as Merwin-Hulbert pistols without the nickel plating process . As for collectors today, that answers the question why it's so hard to find a Merwin-Hulbert that's been blued. It's very rare to find Merwin-Hulbert revolvers with a blued finish simply because people liked the look and wear resistance of their nickel plated pistols.

So why haven't you ever heard of Merwin-Hulbert firearms? Considering they purchased several firearms manufacturers and kept them going with innovative designs and capital, they really should be better known than they are. But all in all, I believe the reason that they're not as well known as say Colt and Smith & Wesson is because Merwin-Hulbert went under in the mid-1880's just before Joseph Merwin passed away in 1888.

Though they had some very clever designs, that didn't matter because by the mid-1880's the company ran into financial troubles with bad investments and lawsuits dealing with patent infringement. The company simply wasn't able to weather their troubles. And to add to the company's problems, Joseph Merwin passed away in 1888. After that, the company took on a new name -- but that didn't help it. And by 1896, everything was liquidated.

Following the bankruptcy and final liquidation of Merwin-Hulbert in 1896, Hopkins & Allen also went bankrupt in 1898. The company reorganized as Hopkins & Allen Arms Company, but lost its manufacturing facility, it's factory, stock, and machinery, in a horrific fire in 1900. The factory was rebuilt in 1901 and Hopkins & Allen produced 40,000 firearms a year. Their success was short lived because their entire warehouse was robbed in 1905. The thieves stole all of their inventory which included Mauser rifles they built for the Belgian Army

A year before the fire, Hopkins & Allen manufactured Merwin Hubert revolvers and a number of pistols and rifles for other gun companies. So all in all, Hopkins & Allen firearms found investors to keep them afloat and they continued manufacturing "Merwin-Hulbert" marked firearms until 1916 when they too went bankrupt. As for Hopkins & Allen firearms, they were actually bought out by Marlin Firearms in 1917.

So how popular were Merwin-Hulbert revolvers? Well, during the late 1800's, Merwin-Hulbert revolvers were used by most city police departments back East. In fact, more Merwin-Hulbert pistols were used in law enforcement at that time than were Colt, Smith & Wesson, Remington, and others. Besides the police back East, lawmen out West including famed lawman Pat Garret carried a Merwin-Hulbert pistol. And while lawmen loved those revolvers, so did outlaws. Of the most famous outlaws to carry a Merwin-Hulbert revolver was none other than the famous bank robber and killer Jessie James who was known to prefer a .44 caliber Merwin-Hulbert revolver made by Hopkins & Allen.

Why choose a Merwin-Hulbert pistol over say a Colt or a Smith & Wesson, or a Remington 1875, since all were very popular at the time? Why were they carried by lawmen and outlaw alike? The reason that a lot of people liked the Merwin-Hulbert pistol has to do with the strength of those guns.

While Merwin-Hulbert had some very interesting designs, including the whole rotating barrel to self-eject spent rounds, it's said the Merwin-Hulbert revolvers were considered the strongest revolvers made during that time period. They were strong, reliable, and didn't show the wear and tear like others did. Add the fact that those Merwin-Hulbert pistol were very attractive because of their nickel plating process, and they became firearms that people were proud to own.

Tom Correa



1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece on the Merwin-Hulbert company and history. Thanks for bringing this company's story to light!

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